HC Deb 23 July 1963 vol 681 cc1418-28

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

11.50 p.m.

Mr. John M. Temple (City of Chester)

There are very few people in the whole of the Western world who have not heard of the ancient and historic City of Chester. For some 2,000 years it has been a garrison town and administrative centre and the focus of roads coming from the towns of North-West of England and moving into Wales. Originally, Chester was the site of the ford across the River Dee and now that river is crossed by the old Dee Bridge, which is an historic monument, and by the Grosvenor Bridge completed in 1830. Perhaps one might say that the answer to the traffic problem in Chester would be another bridge across the River Dee at Chester, but I submit that the very charm of Chester is that it should be available to the tourists and inhabitants of the city and that the object of any new traffic arrangements in the area should be to diminish the amount of traffic going through the city and to move that traffic round the outside.

The City of Chester has quite rightly embarked upon the construction of an inner ring road which will facilitate the traffic moving within the city, but it will not lessen the traffic in our city. Quite clearly, the objective must be another crossing of the River Dee combined with a by-pass road which will take a great deal of the traffic outside the city.

This problem was recognised quite clearly some 40 years ago. Plans were made for an outer ring road and the northern section was completed in the 1930s. The southern section, of which I am speaking tonight, was commenced. My desire tonight is to impress upon the Parliamentary Secretary the urgency for the completion of this outer ring road plus the bridge, and I submit that the responsibility lies clearly with the Minister of Transport, because it is the Minister of Transport who provides funds for the construction of trunk roads.

The southern section of this road would be some seven miles long and it has recently been estimated by the Minister that the cost of building this road would be about £3,500,000.

Since 1957, I have been pressing successive Ministers of Transport, in Parliamentary Questions and in correspondence, to bring this matter forward. My file on this matter is almost six inches thick!

The position today is that the line of this road was statutorily laid down some two years ago and, recognising the very big local feeling on this matter, I was instrumental in organising a conference of local authorities and other interested parties which took place on 4th October, last year, under the chairmanship of the Chairman of the Roads and Bridges Committee of the Cheshire County Council in Chester. Subsequent to that meeting, the Clerk of the Cheshire County Council wrote to the secretary of the Minister of Transport on 13th December, 1962, saying: Whilst fully conscious of certain high priority road schemes to be carried out in Cheshire and Flint shire and Chester, the Authorities are of the opinion that the need for the completion of the Southern Section of the Chester outer ring road is such as to warrant consideration of the allocation of additional funds. The need was clearly recognised by the authorities in the area.

Additionally, the Chester and District Chamber of Trade, in a very powerful memorandum, stressed the importance to Chester of the completion of this ring road. The Chamber of Trade mentioned that Chester was an important administrative centre. It is the headquarters of Western Command, the seat of the county government and the seat of the government of the city and of two rural district councils.

Chester has the area offices for the electricity and gas undertakings, the Post Office, National Insurance, and the Inland Revenue, covering a wide area. It is also a cathedral city and the seat of the diocesan offices for the diocese of Chester. Chester is a shopping centre with a shopping population of 250,000, almost five times the population of the city itself. It is a professional centre, with its own law courts, and many professional bodies are based upon it. It is a tourist centre almost without equal in the country and possibly only second in importance, to tourists coming from abroad, to Stratford-on-Avon.

Representations in this matter have been made to me by industrial companies such as the de Havilland Aircraft Company and the Shell Oil Company, with big factories and installations close to Chester, and public service companies, one of which is the Crosville Motor Services. I should like to quote an extract from a letter, dated 27th November of last year, in which the secretary of this company, which operates a wide network of motor services in the area, says: We now look upon Chester as the blackest spot in the whole of our operating area which, as you know, extends over seven counties…the result of this traffic congestion is catastrophic. This speaks volumes for the case that I am putting forward tonight. The case on general grounds is strong and extraordinarily well supported by all the local interests.

Now I turn to the purely technical position. The present northern section is, I understand, carrying 14,000 vehicles per day, and the Ministry estimates, on the basis of a 1962 traffic survey, that the southern section would carry about 8,000 vehicles a day. No one will claim that 8,000 vehicles a day is a high figure for a by-pass road, but it is a high figure to pass through the centre of an historic city.

A large proportion of that traffic comprises vehicles which are carrying sand and gravel from North Wales and passing through to the industrial centres to the cast of the city. Oil tankers, chemical tankers, and the like use the streets of Chester, which are quite unsuited today for heavy traffic, and residents have told me that at a week-end the fire brigade is frequently unable to cross from one side of the city to the other because the bridges are so congested by the traffic. Only last Saturday I was in conversation with a local doctor who told me that only in cases of extreme urgency could he go outside the city, or contemplate doing so, on a Saturday morning, the traffic congestion in the city being so great.

I have had a lot of correspondence and help from our county surveyor, and he has sent me a message of encouragement for tonight. He tells me that on the technical side the centre line order has been made; that surveys and cross-sections have been done; that no properties need to be demolished, and that work could be commenced within 12 months. He states further that there is public works capacity in the Chester area which would readily get on with the work on this by-pass.

I now turn to the question when the work is likely to start. On 23rd August, 1958, the Liverpool Post—and here I pay tribute to the great interest that that newspaper has always shown in the traffic problems of the North-West of England—contained a very informative article, entitled "Faster Routes for North-West in Sight. Chester By-Pass the Link." I communicated with the then Parliamentary Secretary—now my right hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Sir R. Nugent)—who, replying on 10th September, 1958, said: The article forecasts the possibility of the scheme starting in two years' time but this of course is pure speculation and in present circumstances may be optimistic. It certainly was extremely optimistic. Nothing has happened since that time. I was in touch with the Parliamentary Secretary again on 4th December, 1961, when he wrote to me: I still cannot say precisely when it will be possible to make funds available for the construction of this road. The Parliamentary Secretary could not be precise about the matter, but at least we were extraordinarily hopeful.

On 11th February this year my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport himself wrote to me. After saying that he could see no possibility of a meeting achieving anything—I had asked him to receive a deputation from all the interests concerned—he said that a meeting such as I proposed would be of no avail and went on: I cannot offer any hope of my being able to carry out the construction within the next few years. I regarded this as a very great set-back and this is one of the reasons why I have asked you, Mr. Speaker, if it would be possible for me to raise the matter tonight.

This then is the present position. All the interested parties are agreed on the need for this road. Cheshire County Council is ready and willing to carry out the work. Traffic congestion is throttling the economic life of our city. Chester streets and river crossings are quite unfitted for the heavy traffic at present using them.

In the autumn of last year I had the privilege of visiting Canada, a country with a small population, but a very large land area. I travelled across many of the stretches of the Trans-Canada Highway. That country has completed this highway of 5,000 miles in the last few years. I was privileged to visit the Rogers Pass Section of the highway, an immensely impressive feat of traffic engineering through the Rocky Mountains. I am not asking my right hon. Friend tonight to constructed a Rogers Pass Section in the County of Cheshire. I am not asking for anything difficult to be constructed through difficult terrain. All I am asking for is seven miles of by-pass road, a simple engineering operation. All the details of construction are ready and to hand. The job could easily be carried out.

I believe we want an imaginative approach to this matter. I call upon my hon. and gallant Friend the Parliamentary Secretary tonight to announce the starting date for the completion of this ring read which is so vitally needed in the interests of the population of the North-West and of the City of Chester in particular.

12.3 a.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport(Vice-Admiral John Hughes Hallett)

My hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Mr. Temple) has quite rightly drawn attention tonight to the state of traffic congestion which exists in that city. No one would dispute that the traffic situation there is bad and must be remedied. My hon. Friend has suggested that the remedy we should adopt is to build the southern section of the ring road, the eastern part of which was begun before the war. He has said, in effect, that a whole generation has gone by since the building of this road was first considered and that it is about time we got on with it.

I do not think I need explain to any hon. Member that there are many worthwhile schemes all over the country which have had to wait their turn for inclusion in the road programme. There is an inevitable and sometimes long delay between recognition that a new road is necessary and its inclusion in the road programme. We also have to watch carefully whether changing conditions and traffic patterns affect or alter the priority of a scheme in this intervening period. It does not follow that a scheme which was the best solution to a problem when it was first suggested will necessarily continue to be the best solution for the future.

When one studies the problem of traffic congestion in a city like Chester, one must first consider whether the congestion is caused mainly by through traffic or mainly by local traffic to and from the city. In the case of Chester we know from recent traffic surveys that the major part of the traffic using the city centre has business there. The first point I make, therefore, is that to divert the through traffic would not of itself solve the problem, although it would of course afford some measure of relief.

It is, therefore, clear that the first necessity is to cater for the traffic in the centre of the city itself. To this end, as my hon. Friend pointed out, the city council proposes to construct an internal relief road encircling the city centre, partly within the ancient city walls. This is a bold scheme and one which we support. The southern link from Grosvenor Street to Bought on has already been much improved by the widening of Pepper Street. The council is now preparing a £1 million scheme for the dual carriageway section linking Grosvenor Street with Upper Northgate and hopes to start work on it next January. As my hon. Friend is no doubt aware, it is the view of the city council that these schemes should have higher priority than the proposed southern section of the ring road. We agree with this.

This still leaves the problem of the river crossings, to which my hon. Friend referred. The main crossing at Grosvenor Bridge carries only one line of traffic in each direction. The Dee Bridge is narrower still. I agree with my hon. Friend that these are inadequate to cope with the peak demand. But I should point out that very often in these cases it is not so much the narrowness of the bridge which causes difficulty as congestion on the approaches. The city council has therefore put in hand a scheme for improving the southern approach to the Grosvenor Bridge, which has nearly been completed. It involves the reconstruction of the roundabout at Overleigh and the widening of the Grosvenor Road to provide four traffic lanes between the new roundabout and Grosvenor Bridge. I will not pretend that this will solve the problem completely. Nevertheless, by clearing traffic to and from the bridge more quickly, it should increase its capacity by 10 to 15 per cent. Although work has not been finally completed, the improved approach is already open to traffic. First reports on the operation of the scheme are most encouraging.

In saying so much about what is being done for traffic in Chester, I do not, of course, want to belittle the problem which is created by through traffic. That, too, must be dealt with. The southern section of the ring road would run in an arc about 1½ miles from the city. It would undoubtedly provide a good route from the North Wales—Manchester traffic. Nevertheless, its value would be limited and local. We estimate that about 8,000 vehicles per day would use it. This is not a large number, especially in relation to the cost of the scheme, which would be about £4 million. There are many schemes all over the country for which there is a more urgent need. We have already this year, and last, earmarked £1 million of our limited funds for grants for roads within the city. I must therefore tell my hon. Friend quite frankly that we cannot agree with him that the southern section of the ring road warrants a high priority in the national programme.

Fortunately, the southern ring road is not the only way of relieving Chester of some of its through traffic. It is not always necessary to build a road physically round a city to provide an effective by-pass. It is often possible that a road at some distance from the point of congestion will provide a more convenient and quicker route for through traffic. Such a road may well be of benefit over a wide area and give relief to a number of congested points.

When the southern section of the ring road was first planned, it seemed to be the right answer for Chester's east-west traffic. Since then, traffic studies have shown that it is only one possible answer. There are others which may be as good or even better.

One possibility is the replacement of the A.56 trunk road by a new high-capacity dual-carriageway road linking Manchester with the M.6, which will be opened later this year, carrying on to A.5117 across the southern part of the Wirral and on into North Wales across the new Queensferry Bridge. This would benefit the whole of North Cheshire and, not least, Chester itself. It would free the A.56, which is an industrial route, of traffic congestion and provide a good link with the Runcorn—Widnes bridge. It would by-pass places like Helsby and Frodsham which, while not having the same historic interest as Chester, suffer as much traffic congestion and are accident blackspots. We estimate that some 17,500 vehicles per day would use this route, by-passing Helsby and Frodsham—just over twice as many as would use the southern section of the Chester ring road.

My right hon. Friend has decided that this proposed new road should be given a high priority in the programme. The first two major stages will together cost some £10 million, and will provide eight miles of new road from Hapsford to Preston-on-the-Hill, and six miles from Manchester to the junction of the A.56 with the A.556. Preparatory work on the scheme has already begun, and construction is due to start in about five years' time—

Mr. Temple

Before my hon. and gallant Friend leaves that point, can he say whether that will give another crossing over the River Dee?

Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett

No. I think that if my hon. Friend looks at the map he will see that that would not arise in this case.

This new route across North Cheshire is of regional rather than local significance. In national terms it is a good investment. But I do not wish my hon. Friend to be left with the impression that we under-estimate the value of the southern ring road, or that we intend to abandon it. On the contrary, it has a definite place in our ultimate road pattern. But there is a question of priorities. We simply do not have the funds to build it and the regional route at the same time, and since the ring road will be of less value to traffic it will have to take second place.

The crux of this problem, like so many of our highway problems, is that the funds available for road development are limited. We simply cannot undertake at once all the schemes that both we and others would like to see carried out. There are many desirable schemes which have to wait their turn, and the Chester southern ring road is one of these.

I hope that I have said enough, however, to show that we are far from being indifferent to the traffic problem in Chester. We have worked, and are working, in close co-operation with the city and county councils. But we must be clear what it is they are asking of us. They are not asking that the southern ring road should have preference over the other schemes I have mentioned; what they ask is that additional funds should be made available, and that the ring road should be added to the existing programme. The hard fact is that all our available funds are committed for four or five years ahead. To grant this request would be to exclude from the programme other schemes which are more urgent for reasons alike of safety, economy and traffic.

We are confident that the city council is right in expecting that the schemes now in hand for improving roads in the city will go far towards relieving the traffic problem in Chester. We are satisfied that the new road to be built across North Cheshire will go further in improving conditions there. The question is whether, on top of all this, we should build the southern section of the ring road as well. I am sure that hon. Members representing other cities and other parts of the country would be rightly upset if we were to do so at the expense of attending to their urgent needs. I must, therefore, ask my hon. Friend to be patient and wait a little longer. The road will be built, but it must await its proper turn in the future programme.

Nevertheless, my hon. Friend has put forward a powerful and persuasive case, and I can at least assure him that we shall study most carefully what he has said.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at thirteen minutes past Twelve o'clock.