HC Deb 09 July 1963 vol 680 cc1201-12

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

11.19 p.m.

Mr. Stephen Swingler (Newcastle-under-Lyme)

I am raising tonight an issue concerning the use of the nation's scientific manpower. I want to draw attention to some particular illustrations of this theme in connection with the construction of motorways. I believe that we all want to have an efficient motorway network constructed as quickly as possible. That is generally supported. Indeed, it is probably long overdue. I think it is generally agreed that this is bound lo cost millions. I am not jibbing at that. Certainly it is bound to create a great deal of disturbance. Some of my constituents have very good evidence of that. The driving of these huge projects, ruthlessly in some cases, through farmland and houses and across different parts of the country is bound to upset the normal tenor of the lives of very many citizens. These things are inevitable.

What is important is that the design of the motorways, the construction of motorways, should be most efficient, and, because a large cost is inevitably involved, that the job should be done as economically as it can be. Therefore, I think that in order to get the greatest efficiency of advance planning by the Ministry of Transport in the construction of these new roads the Ministry must ensure that the best scientific brains and expert advice available are being used. It is my opinion that at the moment this is unfortunately not being done.

I take as an illustration the story of the M.6, in particular the story of the construction of the M.6 through certain parts of my constituency. I am concerned with the 78-mile stretch of the M.6 Motorway which runs from Dunston in central Staffordshire to Preston in Lancashire. The original estimate in 1960 for this section of the M.6 was £50¼ million. The latest estimate, in 1963, is already £57 million, an increase of £6¾million for that 78-mile section of road. Why has this occurred? First of all, because tenders have been much higher than the Ministry expected—that is admitted by the Minister himself—to the tune of more than £2 million. Land costs have risen by more than £500,000. That is something which would bear investigation, but I am not going into that tonight.

What I am concerned with is that on this section of the motorway those carrying out the work have had to use extra sub-base materials at an extra cost of nearly £1 million—over £900,000, and to carry out remedial works at more than £500,000—to be exact, about £600,000; most of it spent on the borders of my constituency; about £1½ million additional expense on top of the enormous sum of £50 million which was estimated for this motorway in 1960.

Why has this occurred? It is admitted that there have been three kinds of difficulty. First of all, there was interference with water supplies to farms. Secondly, there have been difficulties from unstable ground which were not foreseen. Thirdly, there was the disastrous occurrence of a landslip on the Staffordshire—Cheshire border. The question is, could or should these difficulties have been foreseen and avoided? The Minister of Transport says,"No." He says they could not have been foreseen and could not have been avoided; therefore the extra cost is inevitable.

Let me take the actual cases themselves in detail. The Minister, writing to me on 18th June, in reply to an expert memorandum from Dr. C. S. Exley, of the Geology Department of the University of Keele, said If is true that excavation in the cutting"— that is, to a farm— had the effect of cutting off the supply of water from a spring, but a quite disproportionate amount would have had to be spent on preliminary investigations on a scale sufficient to reveal the exact course of such supplies. Secondly, regarding the bridge over the Keele-Madeley Road, the Minister said: It was fully recognised that a soft, marshy area containing dumped refuse would have to be traversed, and the removal of this material was provided for in the contract. The amount which had to be removed proved to be greater than our borehole investigation had indicated. Thirdly, regarding Waltons Wood, where the land slip occurred and which involved the Ministry in costs exceeding £600,000 in addition to its original estimate, the Minister said: In the design of the motorway at this point, special provision was made for benching of the slopes and for some support at the foot of the embankment. There was generous provision for counter fort drains on the slopes and pipe drains under the embankment In the event these proportions proved inadequate and when slipping occurred despite them, we arranged for a more detailed investigation to be carried out by a specialist firm, who recommended the remedial measures now in hand. In all of these cases unforeseen difficulties are said to have occurred; cutting off water supplies to farms, causing land slips with deposits seeping away—with the unfortunate extra cost to the Ministry of at least £1½ million. However, at the end of his letter the Minister stated: I am satisfied that proper preliminary investigations were undertaken in these cases…. These were geological problems which, the Minister admitted in his letter, were extremely important in the context of the preliminary survey for the construction of a large project such as a motorway.

Were the geologists consulted before the trouble started? I am advised by expert geologists that these difficulties could have been foreseen. I am advised, for example, that the difficulties of pressure on the sandstone cutting off water supplies could have been forecast before that happened by any qualified geologist. Any expert geologist could have told the Ministry that such difficulties would occur.

My attention has been drawn to the six-inch geological survey map that has been in existence for a long time. This map shows many of the conditions which caused the difficulties. I have been particularly interested in a special geological survey which was carried out by Dr. E. M. Yates of King's College, London, and Dr. F. Moseley of Birmingham University into the Staffordshire-Cheshire border in 1958. I have with me—and, no doubt, the Ministry has got a copy of it by now—a map published in the 1958 edition of the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Geological Society. It gives details of the deposits in the area where the land slip, involving expenditure of £600,000, occurred. Writing in the Guardian on 4th June, 1963, Dr. Moseley said: About ten years ago Dr. E. M. Yates of Kings College, London, and I geologically surveyed part of this area and at the time I recorded cm my field maps extensive landslips on both sides of the Checkley Valley (Waltons Wood, etc.). At the end of his letter to the Guardian Dr. Moseley wrote: In any case I can see no excuse for not recognising the valley side for what it is, with the realisation that a road built across landslip would itself be subject to landslip. There are four geologists in the Road Research Laboratory. There are more than 200 concerned with the Geological Survey and Museum. There are a number of geologists at the University of Birmingham, not far from the site of the M.6. I believe that there are some good geologists at the University of Keele.

How many of these geologists were consulted in the preliminary planning of the M.6? How many were asked about the depth of the boreholes necessary to get all the information? To what extent did the road engineers see the maps that were in existence in the geological libraries? Was the Minister for Science at any point brought in to the planning of this project? Is he brought in at the planning of any of these other projects?

I do not criticise the road engineers—they did the best job they could in the circumstances—but what seems to be absolutely clear, and what is admitted in the Minister's letter, is that the preliminary planning and surveying were inadequate. What seems to be absolutely clear is that all the geological information about these roads was not available to the engineers who were actually planning the route, so that, eventually, a whole piece of the road slid down in the places in which geologists had many years before diagnosed the danger of landslips.

We certainly need more scientific research, but we also need to use much more effectively the scientific research that is undertaken. This is an illustration of research having been done, yet lying unused in the museums and libraries, and experts who were available to the Government not being consulted. I believe that it is an example of the urgent need to modernise the machinery of planning these projects, and to bring the scientific brains that exist on to the ground floor before undertaking vast expenditure, in order to ensure that the expertise is fully utilised.

11.32 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. T. G. D. Galbraith)

This has been an interesting Adjournment debate, because the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Swingler) has not confined himself merely to a catalogue of local woes but has used the apparent weaknesses of road construction which he thinks he has observed in his own constituency as the occasion for querying the general adequacy of the preparatory measures that are taken before a road is built. The hon. Gentleman has been very persistent. He has written a number of letters, he has sent an account from one of his constituents who is very knowledgeable in the matter, he has asked Questions, and has now, finally, initiated this debate.

I gather from what he has said tonight that, as a result of his investigations, he thinks that we ought to make more effective use of the geologists in the planning of roads. He believes that during the construction of the M.6 there have been incidents that support this view, and that a failure to make full use of the geological knowledge has led to increased costs. That is the charge he is directing against the Ministry, and I hope to be able to show the House that his interpretation is not entirely correct. I believe that it is due to a misunderstanding of what is involved in road construction.

Before I deal with the incidents that appear to give some substance to the hon. Gentleman's contention, it might be helpful if I first briefly described the investigations carried out before a motorway route is fixed or the construction starts because, in spite of what the hon. Gentleman seemed to think, we do not just follow our noses. A great deal of preliminary work is done first of all. To begin with, the Minister appoints agents to carry out a survey for the design and construction of new trunk roads. The agent may be a county council or a consulting engineer, according to their commitments, and for the section of the M.6 in which the hon. Gentleman is interested the agent is the Staffordshire County Council—as he probably knows.

Once appointed, the agent begins by carrying out preliminary investigations, including ground surveys, to assist in determining the most suitable route. In appropriate cases, air surveys are also used to supplement the ground survey. After the preliminary surveys to discover whether soil conditions are likely to be a determining factor in locating the route, a more detailed survey is undertaken for design purposes. Here geological maps are always studied carefully. As an example of this, the hon. Member will be interested to know that during investigations of the motorway in Staffordshire six-inch geological survey maps of the whole route were examined thoroughly—both the solid and the drift maps; but maps are obviously not enough. Much more detailed information is required to provide a basis for designing bridge foundations, for selecting materials for embankments, for determining suitable slopes, and for similar purposes inseparable from building a road.

This additional information can be obtained only as a result of borings on the site. A great deal of money is spent on these preliminary investigations which are carried out by specialist firms. It may surprise the hon. Member to know that the soil survey for the 78 miles of the M.6 between Stafford and Preston cost over £1,300 per mile, and on the stretch from Preston to Lancaster the cost was about twice as high. At some points along the route it may be obvious from the outset that difficulties are to be expected. This is one of the advantages which come from the practice of studying the six-inch geological maps to which the hon. Member and I have referred.

Mr. Swingler

Were geologists employed in the preliminary survey? If so, from what Departments did they come?

Mr. Galbraith

If the hon. Member will allow me to make my speech in my own way, I will come to that point.

At these points more detailed investigations are made where there seem to be difficulties. It is, of course, a matter of judgment in each case how detailed these investigations should be. As I am sure the House will realise, it would be prohibitively costly to carry out a soil survey so detailed as to eliminate every single unknown factor. Boreholes can be and are placed more closely together where difficulties are expected but this obviously will not reveal exactly what conditions exist under the ground for every inch of the route.

What the engineer has to do therefore is to weigh the extra cost of more detailed surveys against the benefits which are likely to arise from eliminating possible dangers. It must be accepted, however, that in large projects such as this there is always the chance of encountering unexpected conditions. I do not see how, in practice, this risk can be avoided altogether.

I think that the County Surveyor of Staffordshire did this. He realised from the start that the Waltons Wood area was a potentially troublesome area because of soil conditions. Particular attention was given to the location of the motorway in the area and the line through Waltons Wood was selected only after several other alternatives had been considered. These alternatives were rejected because of old mine workings and especially because satisfactory gradients could not be obtained on the other routes without costly viaducts and long lengths of excessively deep cuttings.

As the hon. Member knows, at Waltons Wood the motorway runs for a quarter of a mile on an embankment on one slope of a valley about sixty feet above a small stream. During the soil survey by a specialist firm, which I am informed has a geologist on its staff, boreholes were sunk at intervals of 70 yards. This is double the frequency adopted elsewhere on the route through Staffordshire and this is an indication of the attention which was paid to geological conditions on this site.

In the light of the geological information so obtained, special provisions were made, as the hon. Gentleman said, in the design of the motorway for terracing the slopes, for support at the foot of the embankment, and extra provision for drains on the slopes and under the embankment also was made. Unfortunately, as we both know, these precautions proved inadequate, and during constructiona serious earth slip occurred. Because of this, it was necessary to carry out an even more intensive survey, and, in the light of the report following this further survey, remedial measures were put in hand. These will provide stronger buttresses, even more drainage, and the replacement of the swampy substance on the valley floor by free draining material.

I fully recognise that this is an expensive operation costing about £600,000. What we want to know, however, is whether a fuller and more accurate survey, if it had been carried out earlier, would have avoided this expenditure. This is the important question, and the answer, broadly speaking, is"No". It would not have avoided the bulk of this expenditure.

This is something which is not, I think, properly understood. It certainly is not understood by the hon. Gentleman because, on 28th May, in a supplementary question to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary for Science, he referred to wastage and inefficiency on M.6. The assumption seems to be that, if we had been aware at the start of the true condition of the soil, the bulk of this additional expenditure could have been avoided. This is simply not true. As I have explained, the route through Waltons Wood was the only one which could be chosen and, as this could not be changed, the remedial work was, therefore, inevitable from the beginning.

I fully admit that there has been some abortive work, but it is absolutely an illusion to imagine that, if we had had a full survey at the beginning, we should have saved about £600,000.

Mr. R. H. S. Crossman (Coventry, East)

I think that the question we are interested in is this. Are we using the quite considerable geological resources and expertise which we have? Are we using the geologists we have available at Birmingham, Keele and elsewhere? Is the hon. Gentleman saying that, looking back after the event, it would not have been wiser to obtain the information and local knowledge from these people which was there for us rather than rely on a firm which may or may not have used the one geologist available to it?

Mr. Galbraith

The hon. Gentleman really must allow me to continue. I think that I shall cover all these points, and the more I am interrupted the less chance I have of dealing with the various points made by his hon. Friend. I shall, I hope, deal with those points in due course.

I was saying that it is an illusion to imagine that the bulk of this sum would have been saved. It was necessary to do this work if the road was to be in that position. It is impossible to get away from that.

The other problems which have arisen elsewhere in Staffordshire have been no more than the kind of minor contingency which is to be expected on a large project like this. Unfortunately, I cannot refer to all of them, but, in the time available, I wish to say something, first, about the Keele service area to which the hon. Member referred.

Here, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the grading and earthwork balance made it necessary to excavate through the sandstone, and this had the temporary effect of interrupting a farm's water supply from a spring. In one of the letters which the hon. Member was kind enough to send to my right hon. Friend, it was remarked—and I assume that the hon. Gentleman supports this—that as a matter of elementary geology it should have been obvious that excavation below a given depth would cut off the water supply. But, of course, it was obvious. I hope the hon. Gentleman will not mind my saying that it ought to be equally obvious to him and to his constituent, as a matter of elementary engineering and economics, that there could be no question of altering the motor grading and earthwork balance in order to avoid the comparatively minor task of providing a new water supply for a single farm. Yet that seems to be the suggestion. We have got to keep a sense of proportion in these matters. Just as one cannot fry an egg without breaking the shell, one cannot build a road without being prepared to make some adjustments in the course of construction.

Mr. Swingler

Well, really. The hon. Gentleman should—

Mr. Galbraith

I intend to carry on and make my speech. If the hon. Gentleman does not like it, he will just have to put up with it. I have been interrupted three times and I am not being interrupted again.

The hon. Member raised another point about the material which was being added to the roads. In North Cheshire, gritstone originally—the hon. Member referred to nearly £1 million—used in the sub-base proved to be unsuitable for construction in damp conditions because it had a high content of fine material and it broke under the roller and it was necessary to substitute slag for it. That is not a question of geology.

As to the rest of the £900,000—the £693,000—it was discovered as a result of experience on the slow lanes in M.1 that in future the base on motorways should be of greater strength. It was because of this that these additions were made. It was nothing to do with geology but was merely the result of this change arising from experience on other roads. That is the sort of thing which cannot be avoided and in which a geologist will not be able to help.

I do not think that the hon. Member quite understands what is involved in the type of survey for which he and his hon. Friend are asking. Had a survey on the intensive scale of the one eventually carried out at Waltons Wood been applied to the whole of the M.6 between Dunston and Preston, it might well have cost between £5 million and £6 million. To buy security and certainty at this price would be a gross monetary extravagance and would be an unworthy use of the highly-skilled men of whose help the hon. Member is anxious that we should make more use.

I agree, of course, that engineers designing a road need information about soil conditions. Existing geological knowledge and surface surveys are helpful in the early stages. I hope I have shown the hon. Member that engineers are well aware of this and that they generally—and in this case certainly did—make use of geological material These preliminary investigations, as in the case of Waltons Wood, give warning of the areas where difficulties can be expected. The engineer, however, needs much more precise information about the actual conditions underground along the route. He cannot rely on maps or geological theory or even on geologists. He must put down boreholes. In the light of the information obtained from the boreholes, it is not the geologist, but the civil engineer, who is qualified to assess what loads the soil can be expected to carry and what action is necessary to improve and maintain its bearing capacity.

As the hon. Member probably knows, some engineers specialise in geology. Problems of structure and their relationship with the underlying soil are particularly their province. They combine a knowledge of engineering and soil mechanics with those aspects of geology which are relevant to construction problems. Specialists of this kind are employed by county councils and by consulting engineers.

The County Surveyor of Staffordshire has one such specialist trained in soil mechanics on his staff and it is interesting to note that both the County Surveyor and the Assistant County Surveyor have specialised in geology in diploma and degree courses. This does not mean that they are geologists, but it does mean that they have been specially trained in that aspect of geology which has practical application to engineering.

Because of that, I do not believe that it is ignorance of geology or an unwillingness to use geological techniques which is the root cause of such difficulties as from time to time occur. The trouble, as I see it, is that very occasionally boreholes do not reveal the full extent of the conditions underground, with the result that modifications to the design have to be made during construction. That is exactly what happened at Waltons Wood and I do not see that there is any sure and simple way of avoiding it.

In the last—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Deputy-Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at eleven minutes to Twelve o'clock.