HC Deb 02 April 1963 vol 675 cc411-22

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Rees.]

11.10 p.m.

Mr. Denis Howell (Birmingham, Small Heath)

I seek to raise with the Ministry of Transport the question of the M.5 motorway and certain matters of principle which seems to me to arise from it. I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman the Minister is not here, because I wanted to say one or two things to him. Although I am delighted to see the Parliamentary Secretary here, he will understand that I am casting no personal reflections on him when I say that I would rather the Minister himself answered the debate.

The Minister recently held a Press conference in Birmingham on the subject of the new link motorway which goes through the very congested towns of Old-bury, Smethwick and West Bromwich. It is intended that nine miles of motorway should go through this extremely congested area. In view of the tremendous amount of time that it has taken to get anywhere near building this nine miles of motorway, the House ought to be given an explanation of the delay, and an assurance that delays of this sort will not occur in the building of future motorways.

I suspect that the Minister held his Press conference in order to convince the electorate and the public generally that the Government were aware of the need for motorways, and were getting on with the job. But when we examine the circumstances connected with this small stretch of nine miles the pathetic story that is uncovered seems to be symptomatic of all that is wrong in the planning of our motorways.

The Parliamentary Secretary will be aware that the proposal to build an M.5 motorway from the South-West to Birmingham has existed for many years. There has also been a proposal to build an M.6 motorway from Lancashire to Birmingham, and the nine-mile stretch to which I am referring is the further stretch of the M.5 which is intended to join up with the M.6. Great difficulties are involved in the planning of motorways going through open country, but as soon as a motorway hits a congested area those difficulties are magnified tenfold. That is why the House and the Government ought to be thinking again, and thinking ahead.

In his speech in Birmingham, the Minister went back to 1957, when, he said, consultants were appointed to investigate a new route. My first point is that, whether by accident or design I do not know—I am not making any charges, although I am sure that the Minister was aware of the fact—the Minister ignored a cardinal matter of importance, namely, the fact that the first line of motorway through this congested area was projected as long ago as 1949. Suggestions were made to the Old-bury Council in January of that year in respect of the first line of route for this nine miles of motorway. This line was abandoned in 1951, and nothing happened for six years—or, if anything did happen, we have no knowledge of it. Since this is one of the most congested parts of England—this Black Country area we know so well—it would be interesting to know what the Ministry was doing for those six years between 1951 and 1957.

As I say, consultants were appointed in 1957. They produced a new line in 1960. That line was, roughly speaking, to build four-and-a-half miles—or half of the nine-mile strip—above the existing railway. It was to be done by a sort of two-tier system; on the bottom tier traffic would proceed northwards and along the top tier traffic would proceed in the opposite direction. It was, in some ways, an attractive proposition, but it was discovered after considerable objections from the local authorities concerned— and I must say, in fairness to the Ministry, that it would have been a rather expensive motorway to construct—that the plan could not proceed. Although the question of expense did not appear to be the reason for it being rejected, at the end of the day the Minister of Transport turned the idea down.

It was turned down, it appears, mainly on the ground that it would have been detrimental to the interests of the neighbourhood at large and I agree that it was right for the local objections to have been taken into account. So we come forward to 19th November, when the Minister came to Birmingham, with a great flurry of trumpets, and announced that a new line had been proposed. This, therefore, is the third line of motorway for these nine miles.

We are now in the position of having a third line which has not yet been agreed and which must be subjected to all the objections of the people who, by law, can raise them. For fourteen years, beginning at the time of a Labour Government and going through two Conservative Governments, we have waited, and still we have nothing definite. All this has happened over nine miles of motorway through the industrial heart of the Midlands. It is rather a scandal, even judging by the lethargic speed at which we expect action from the Government.

The timing of this debate—which is purely fortuitous—is made more important by the Beeching proposals announced last week. I will not discuss that matter, or I would be out of order, except to point out that the corollary to the Beeching scheme must mean that there must be a reorganisation of our roadway system. We must have new motorways much faster than we have been getting them hitherto. Indeed, to do the Minister credit, he said more or less this when speaking in the House the other day.

I am entitled to ask, therefore, whether the Government really mean what they say about getting on with the corollary to the Beeching proposals and getting their motorway programme moving with greater momentum. Can we have an assurance that this delay of fourteen years for a nine-mile stretch of motorway will not be repeated when roads are planned for other major industrial centres, especially in the Midlands?

It has been suggested to me that people might object to what I intend to propose, namely, that the whole of the Government's planning system for roadways needs a revolutionary approach, certainly a new look. If we do not have a completely new look now, this Government or the next, or even the one following that, will not tackle the motorway problem with the urgency which the increasing number of vehicles demands.

When it was announced in the Press in the Midlands that I had secured this Adjournment debate arising out of this tremendous delay on the M.5—and when it was known that I intended to raise one or two matters of principle—I received a letter from a Mrs. Dorothy Reed, who is personally concerned with this piece of motorway. I will quote part of her letter, because it provides an excellent example of the way in which people are personally affected by tremendous delays in planning a line of road. This lady, who comes from Quinton, Birmingham, says she was delighted to read that I was to raise this matter and goes on: It is now over three years since we were first informed that our house would need to be demolished to make way for the M.S. My husband, who is a schoolmaster retires in July, and instead of being able to plan ahead for our retirement we have to wait and wonder day in and day out knowing full well we cannot do anything about it. Nobody, of course, would buy our house knowing it has to come down, and until we get the money for this one we cannot think of buying another elsewhere. To the Ministry of Transport five, ten or even twenty years means nothing, but to people near retirement age even one, two or three years mean a great deal. I think that that letter illustrates very aptly and better than I can the effect which these long-winded procedures and delays have upon the day-to-day lives of the people.

My suggestion to the Minister and the House is that we ought to have a new system entirely similar to that which exists in many Continental countries, whereby, when the engineers and surveyors and planners have determined what they think should be the line of route for a motorway, the objections to it ought only to be on those very same grounds of broad matters of principle, broad matters of strategy. When that has been determined, the question whether, for instance, for the sake of argument, the road is to take the high or the low route, as arose in one case with which we are familiar, then is the time for reasonable, logical objections. The present method of objection is protracted, extending over many months, and anybody, a part of whose back garden only is affected, can object.

This seems to me to be wrong, and the main principle of objection ought to be on matters of public importance and public strategy, the same grounds on which the line of the road is determined. Then there should be a sort of subsidiary stage at which people can very properly argue at their leisure the questions of compensation, and without affecting the work and the Ministry getting on with its business. Their right to do so ought to be made very clear to them. Everybody in any way affected should be entitled to market value, and, furthermore, if anyone's land is affected the Ministry ought to acquire all the property, even if only part of it is affected.

I want to give the Parliamentary Secretary adequate time to reply, so I have not time to give him all the figures from various countries in Europe, and also Canada, but from these it is quite clear that our record is pathetic, and it is likely to remain pathetic unless we do something dramatic to streamline the procedures. From a small, limited survey I have been able to make of what happens in Belgium, Holland, Italy, Western Germany and Canada I can say that every one of these countries has for acquiring land and determining the line of motorways procedures far speedier than any so far conceived in this country.

One last word on the lamentable delays over the M.5 and in seeking an assurance that they will not be repeated elsewhere. I am getting rather tired of seeing the Minister of Transport belly-aching on television, and hearing him on the radio, about how he cannot go quicker than Parliament allows him and than his powers allow him. I hope, Mr. Speaker, that "belly-aching" is not on your list of proscribed words and that I may use it. It is a good Army expression which exactly expresses what I mean.

When, on my last holiday in North Wales, the weather was atrocious, and I had to listen to the radio or watch television, I heard the Minister say this on three occasions in four days. Of course, the Minister has to carry out the wishes of Parliament, but the purpose of Ministers is to lead. If the Minister has not adequate powers, he ought to stop bemoaning the fact in public and come here and propose far more effective powers if he feels that he needs them. We are getting rather tired of his constant explanations why the delays occurred and why nothing has happened.

I hope that as a result of my raising the matter tonight we can have a reappraisal of the planning and execution of motorways as required by the needs of the moment and as highlighted in the immediate post-Beeching era.

11.26 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. John Hay)

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Denis Howell) has laid about him with a will. I do not object at all to his drawing attention to the fact that we have taken some time over this section of motorway. Before I come to the explanation which he seeks, perhaps he will allow me just to say a little about some of the things that he has said.

First, when he speaks of comparisons with other countries over the building of motorways and talks of our pathetic record, I think he forgets that those other countries are not faced with the same problem as we are. We have a very small country from the point of view of area, we have a very large population, and most of our country is built up.

It follows if one is trying to build a brand new road—and the motorways are very consuming of space-—one can hardly move a yard in this country without affecting somebody. Therefore, the whole of our procedure has been based upon the necessity of ensuring that individuals have the right to have their case heard, have their objections judged on their merits, and, in short, have their interests protected. I should like to say a little, first, about how that works.

Before I do so, perhaps I might just say, on the point of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport saying, as he has done from time to time, that he can proceed only at the speed at which Parliament allows him, that we have not had any demand from the Opposition until tonight that this process should be changed. I would beg the hon. Member and the right hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss), whom I am very glad to see here at this late hour—he leads for the Opposition on transport matters—to ponder a little on the consequences that might result if that policy were adopted by their party.

I can imagine little that would make them more highly unpopular than to say that a Government Department could proceed as the hon. Gentleman has suggested, along the lines of producing a scheme on the best engineering line, getting it adopted in principle, clearing away all the objections, not worrying for a moment about anybody, and then, having said "That is the line. That is our diktat. That is what we are going to do ", subsequently arguing about questions of compensation.

The hon. Gentleman just does not know what he is talking about if I may say so. I have had three and a half years of this, and I know perfectly well that there are dozens and dozens of perfectly legitimate objections that people have to a motorway line being drawn affecting their property directly or indirectly. Where we can we try to meet those objections. We have altered the law in a number of respects to provide for better compensation.

We have, where necessary, altered the line to try to avoid affecting people. Where necessary, we try to meet them by means of accommodation works; by putting the road either in cutting or, perhaps, on an embankment to try to minimise the effect on amenities. I have had a case before me today where my right hon. Friend is asked to decide on a particularly difficult stretch of motorway, not in the Birmingham area but elsewhere, where we have had to have a lengthy public inquiry. The problem is whether or not, even at this late stage, we should not draw a further line to avoid creating a lot of hardship and inconvenience to many people.

If it were possible to move more quickly we would, of course, like to do it, but the plain truth is that in a country like ours, which is based on the democratic system, we just cannot go ahead blindfolded, as it were, and with out paying attention to the rights of the individual. If that is what hon. Members opposite believe in, I hope that they will say so more plainly than in an Adjourn ment debate at this hour—

Mr. Denis Howell

Will the right hon. Gentleman therefore stop complaining about this system if it is one that he accepts, and will he tell us whether, in those circumstances, he intends to supple- ment the policy in the Beeching Report and get on more quickly with the roads?

Mr. Hay

I do not remember my right hon. Friend complaining. He has drawn the attention of the public to the facts of life, as I am trying to do with the hon. Gentleman now. The hon. Gentleman used the somewhat inelegant phrase that my right hon Friend bellyached, and I will treat that expression as it should be treated, bearing in mind the source from which it comes.

Perhaps I had now better take up the route of the M.5. The fact is that the establishment of this particular route for these few miles of motorway across the Black Country, which, I admit, has taken a long time, is not indicative of progress on motorways generally. Nothing could be further from the truth than to say that it is. These few miles are, in fact, the only connecting link of the national motorways system that remains to be fixed, and even though the section of the line to which the hon. Gentleman refers is such an unrepresentative part of the route, I must ask the House to bear with me while I try to explain briefly what happened here.

This route lies across the close urban development of Smethwick, Oldbury and West Bromwich. Opposition to a motorway in this area has been so strong that for many years it was not thought worth while, until we had very much larger funds at our disposal, to expend the great effort of time and money required on examining in detail the possibilities of a route. It was not until 1957, the date the hon. Gentleman mentioned, that it became possible to visualise the construction of this road, and at that time the order was given to develop that possibility. It was in 1962 that a route was published which we thought at that time would be acceptable.

The paramount consideration in the planning of this road was the avoidance of the demolition of property, and the avoidance, as far as possible, of disturbances to the communities through which it must pass. It was for this reason that the first proposal we examined in detail was one that involved carrying the road on a viaduct over a railway. It was one that appeared to offer the only satisfactory route which avoided severance, kept down property demolition and offered a line in the general direction which the motorway must take. This proposal gave rise to a great weight of objection, and as design work proceeded and it became clear that the viaduct would overshadow property on both sides of the railway more than we had at first thought, it was decided that the possibility of an alternative must be considered if the interests of the local communities were to be preserved.

There were two possible alternatives. One was to build the road over the railway in the two tiers to which the hon. Gentleman has referred—one carriageway above the other. As that would reduce the width, we hoped that it might reduce the damage to the amenities of surrounding properties. The other was to seek a longer and more devious route running on an entirely different alignment much closer to the town centre of Oldbury itself. Both these alternatives obviously presented great problems, and required a close and detailed assessment of their engineering practicability and the impact they would have on the district.

That took a great deal of time and effort, I may say, on the part of those who serve my right hon. Friend. But as soon as we were ready we took steps to consult the local authorities most closely concerned. Then there followed a period when the merits of the two schemes were examined and in the end we reached agreement on the line away from the railway and nearer to the centre of Oldbury.

In close collaboration with the local interests concerned we have now achieved a line which makes the maximum use of land which does not affect property or industry, for example, areas occupied by industrial tips, the line of canals, and so on. The alternative of a two-tier road over an already high railway embankment would have had considerable effects on the amenities of the area and would, incidentally, have required quite a lot of demolition because of the long slip roads connecting the surrounding area to the motorway itself for local traffic.

I hope that it will be clear from what I have said that the reason why this particularly difficult but, as it happens, quite short length of motorway has taken a long time to prepare is that a very great deal of study has had to be made of several possibilities. The reason why this study has been made and the reason why several possibilities have had to be considered is that we think it vitally important to meet the needs and wishes of the communities in the areas through which our motorways pass.

If ever there was a case which justified the existence of these "statutory processes", about which complaint is sometimes made, and to which my right hon. Friend and myself have on occasion had to refer, then this is that case. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman's constituents concerned directly with it would altogether have approved the suggestion which he made, that we should have blinded ahead with this thing without worrying about their amenities and property.

The objection period which followed the publication of the route agreed with the local authorities expired only in February and we are now engaged in the process of trying to meet or resolve the objections which we have received to this new line. I hope that it will be possible for my right hon. Friend to confirm this line fairly soon and thus establish the last link in the main motorway system of the country. It remains our intention to build this road as part of, and at the same time as, the rest of the Midland link motorways on which work will begin later this year.

One more thing before the time at my disposal expires. The hon. Gentleman quoted a letter from a constituent, a lady I think it was. The complaint in that letter, as I understood it, was that the lady and her husband had for a long time had their property sterilised and un-saleable because of our inability to make up our minds. The hon. Gentleman does not know, perhaps, that legislation already exists which enables property blighted in this way to be acquired in advance of our actual requirements.

I would suggest to him, therefore, that if he would be kind enough to let me have the letter from the lady I will ask my advisers to look into the matter at once to see whether there is anything we can do to set her mind at rest, or, if the property is blighted, to see whether the statutory procedure relating to the purchase of blighted property can be brought into effect earlier.

I hope that with this assurance and with the explanation that this is a difficult job, the hon. Gentleman will be satisfied in having raised the matter tonight.

Mr. Denis Howell

The hon. Gentleman has told us a great deal for which we are grateful, but what happened between the first proposal in 1951 and the second in 1957—what about the six lost years?

Mr. Hay

The hon. Gentleman talks about the six lost years, ignoring altogether the period of the Labour Government, which were also lost years. We had to have a firm economic basis to start the programme going. When it got under way we began to move, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the process is going on very fast now. We shall have motorways throughout the country on a scale which will meet not only the original plan made by the Labour Government, and which they never carried out, but which will be beyond anything that (he people of this country expect.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes to Twelve o'clock.