HC Deb 23 December 1964 vol 704 cc1260-71

1.12 p.m.

Mr. Ernest Armstrong (Durham, North-West)

I should like to say how grateful I am for this opportunity to raise a vital issue in my constituency and neighbouring constituencies in the western part of County Durham. I believe that the provision of improved roads and communications in that area is fundamental to the redevelopment and revitalisation of West Durham which is so important in these post-war days.

One of the great problems of those villages and towns which were involved in the forefront of the Industrial Revolution has been the closing of the pits, particularly the uneconomic, old-fashioned pits that we have in abundance in West Durham. They were the basic supply of employment. Over 90 per cent. of the boys in the colliery village where I was brought up went straight to the pit. Now that those pits have closed, we find ourselves faced with the great need to change our outlook, to change our attitude and, indeed, to achieve a great change in our environment. The provision of improved roads and communications is obviously where we must begin.

Most of my constituency consists of pit villages and rather larger towns. In the extreme west of the county, there are beautiful dales which are served by roads that were constructed for the horse and buggy age. Very little has been done to bring them up to a standard to meet the requirements of modern traffic.

Redevelopment in West Durham has, unfortunately, always been piecemeal, short-term and more concerned with social welfare and social relief than changing the pattern of life in that area so that the undoubted resources which we have and the untapped potential may be used for the general well-being and prosperity of the whole nation. We have, frankly, reached the stage where major changes must take place.

We realise that work cannot be provided in every colliery village that once encircled the local pit. There are some places where people must be, and are, prepared to travel. Once we talk about bringing in new industries and men and women having to travel to work, we are again confronted with the problem of old-fashioned roads, obsolete communications and the need for massive public investment. Obviously, people in my area and in the whole of the west of Durham will do much more travelling to and from their daily work. That travel must be made much more convenient than it is today.

The whole area of West Durham—and this is, perhaps, why I am stressing the problem today—has been much influenced and greatly depressed by the Report, published in November, 1963, The North East, A programme for regional development and growth, Presented to Parliament by the Secretary of State for Industry, Trade and Regional Development by Command of Her Majesty, November 1963. Whilst that Report brought new hope to certain parts of the North-East, it laid down, whether deliberately or not, a cruel distinction between that part of Durham County which lies east of the Great North Road, A1, and that part which I am talking about today, the west of Durham, lying west of the Great North Road.

To give a pertinent example from the Report, it acknowledges after a detailed inquiry of the needs of the North-East that there must be an improved—indeed, the Report states "a massive"—road programme. It goes on to indicate that between 1964 and 1969 expenditure on roads in the North-East would rise from £54 million to £85 million. This is a considerable amount of money and is rather more than the share to which we are entitled on a population basis. The terrible fact concerning West Durham is that although the Report lists 11 major schemes, not one of them is west of the Great North Road. They are all either on the Great North Road or to the east, between the Great North Road and the coast.

It is natural that local authorities, trade unions, employers and prospective employers and industrialists whom we are anxious to attract, when they look at the Plan for the North-East and when they look at the prospects, regard the area, as many people now living in West Durham regard it, as being almost written-off by the people in Whitehall.

The Darlington by-pass motorway is nearing the final stages of construction. We in West Durham, no less than those in the Darlington area and to the east, welcome this innovation. There is direct communication between the new motorway and the A.68, which is a Class 1 road running right through West Durham. It leaves the A.1 and then goes through West Auckland, Witton-le-Wear, Tow Law and on through Castleside to Corbridge.

In the opinion of the surveyor to the Durham County Council, Mr. Cotton—I want to acknowledge the great help he has been to me in considering West Durham's roads and communications needs—there is no doubt that when the by-pass motorway is completed it will lead to a great increase in the amount of traffic using the A.68. I commend it to the House. It is a very beautiful road and a very favourable alternative to the route to bonnie Scotland. Rather than go through Darlington and up through Neville's Cross and Newcastle, those from the South should take this good road through this wonderful country which leads to Tow Law and on to Scotland.

Over a period of several years the Durham County Council has been progressively widening and improving the straight stretches of the A.68, using maintenance and minor improvement funds. Anybody who travels in this area, as I do frequently, knows that there are bottlenecks which involve major projects and the expenditure of a great deal of money. They are bottlenecks which can be removed only by special major improvement procedure, requiring Ministry grants. The Durham County Council is a good authority as far as roads are concerned. It is most anxious to get on with this major work. The difficulty is that because of the Plan, or the Report, or the White Paper—call it what you will; it is known locally as "The Hailsham Plan"—this involves the County Council in expenditure for the great part east of the North Road. We feel that West Durham is being neglected.

I want to mention one of the most dangerous bottlenecks that I know in the whole country. It is on the A.68 at the entrance to a very lovely village called Witton-le-Wear. It is a beautiful village, but the access to it is a nightmare. A motorist leaving West Auckland and coming to Witton-le-Wear has to cross the river by means of a hump back bridge where it is impossible from either side to see the traffic approaching from the opposite direction. Many times in my own journeys I have got on to the bridge. It is not wide enough for two vehicles to pass, so one vehicle has to give way. Being a very modest man, it has usually been me who has given way. I have had to reverse my car so that the other car could come on. Hon. Members can imagine the confusion, and indeed the danger to pedestrians crossing the bridge, which occurs when buses meet there.

One hundred yards further on there is a very steep hill known locally as Clemmy Bank. At the top of this hill, which is one in seven, there is a T-junction which is one of the most dangerous junctions that I know. It is a beautiful village. It is very popular at weekends for private motorists. Now, because of something which I will mention later, it is very much used by heavy lorries. I think my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will agree that the only answer is a major project involving a by-pass which will enable the River Wear to be traversed by a new bridge, then over the Weardale Railway to join the road north of Witton-le-Wear. This is a tremendous project. I know that negotiations have been going on. The Durham County Council is well aware of the need and is anxious to proceed, but it is a very costly matter.

Leaving Witton-le-Wear the motorist comes to Fir Tree, where there is another T-junction which is dangerous. Then the motorist comes to Harperley Crossroads where the main road from Crook to Wolsingham, which is being increasingly used in these days, crosses the A.68. Again a major project is required here. Alterations have taken place further up at Helm Park. Then the motorist comes to Tow Law. There is no doubt that considerable expense will be involved, because this is a vital link for the whole of West Durham with that major motorway which runs from the North-East to London. Urgent action is required if we are to redevelop and revitalise our life in West Durham.

I have mentioned Weardale. I think, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that you are well aware of the very great attractions in Weardale. It is a very lovely place. I went to the grammar school there. I always visit Wolsingham and Stanhope with great pleasure. Unfortunately, it is now becoming very popular, and the roads are completely inadequate for the traffic, even at present. At Eastgate, which is just west of Stanhope, a new cement works has just been constructed. This is a £3 million project. It is a remarkable development which to a large extent has solved the unemployment problem in the dales. I am glad that men who have been unemployed, having been made redundant in the pits in the west part of Durham—Crook, Willington and Stanley—are now travelling to their daily work at the cement works. This involves more traffic because the passenger services have been withdrawn in the area.

I am told that, if the finished product when the works become fully operational were to be channeled by road on to the Great North Road via A.68, a lorry would be leaving those works every six minutes. I am led to believe—I stress the importance of this, in case my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary can do anything about this—that most of the freight will go by rail. If ever there was a clear economic and social case for traffic going by rail, it is this. These roads are inadequate for ordinary private cars, let alone the big lorries that would be involved in carrying the loads of cement.

Even if all the freight goes by rail, it is obvious that the presence of this big cement works will bring more traffic to and from that site. The 10 miles which separate Harperley Gate where the A.68 comes across from the cement works is a country road. It is a second-class road, the B.6293. At no place in those 10 miles is it safe for one vehicle to overtake another. If one overtakes through frustration, impatience or urgency, one takes one's life in one's hands. There is no doubt at all that a complete major upheaval is required in the area. New roads are required if they are to be adequate for the traffic which is likely to need them in the next few years.

I think that I have made the case on roads for massive public investment in that area of West Durham if we are to provide the sort of environment which makes for a vigorous community so that men and women can make their full contribution to society.

The White Paper proposals have naturally guided the county council in its policy for the next five years. This is a forward looking council and it has made its plans on the basis of the Report. So the east of the county will naturally take up the bulk of additional road expenditure. In West Durham during the last six weeks we have had a new lift of spirit. My right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade by a single act reversed the policy which had been pursued because of this Report and gave the area new hope. When I went there the weekend following, there was obviously a lift of spirit. The Guardian reported: N-E plan starts new phase. The inclusion of the west Durham towns of Crook and Consett in the list of places to receive advance factories marks the start of a new phase in development policy in the North-east. I am sorry to say that the last paragraph of that article is relevant to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary. It says: What is not understood is the Minister of Transport s consent to the closing of the Bishop Auckland to Crook line for passenger services just over a month before the factory project was announced by Mr. Jay. I understood it, and most of my constituents understand it, because that decision was made by the previous Administration 10 or 12 days before my right hon. Friend and the Parliamentary Secretary took up their positions—and that was the reason.

The area from Crook to Bishop Auckland has been served by passenger lines, and, of course, there have been also regular bus services from Crook to Bishop Auckland. Last Saturday, I took the opportunity again—I have done it thousands of times but I did it purposely on Saturday so that I could speak with more authority today—to go by car from Crook to Bishop Auckland. It was a nightmare. One goes to Howden-le-Wear and then to High Grange—roads which are completely inadequate—and then there is the biggest bottleneck of all. We have, just entering Bishop Auckland, something which we all know as Newton Cap, a very steep descent at one side from the Toronto end of one-in-seven to one-in-eight with dangerous bends in the descent, and then we come after 60 or 70 yards to a bridge where there must be single line traffic—it is impossible for two vehicles to pass. Immediately on the other side of the bridge entering Bishop Auckland there is again a steep hill of one-in-seven to one-in-eight. If the rail services are to be discontinued and the passenger services are to be withdrawn then a completely new road must be constructed. It would be the biggest viaduct, certainly in the north of England and one of the biggest in the country. It would be a very expensive project indeed.

Two years ago Newton Cap was out of commission altogether during the frost and snow and that happens quite frequently. The journey of 18 miles from Darlington to Crook by rail lasts 38 minutes. To do that journey by bus services, going through the various villages and so on, takes twice as long—and I am reinforced by the evidence of the T.U.C.C. scheme.

The T.U.C.C. says: The Committee gave very careful consideration to the representation put forward and after taking into account the exising and proposed alternative services, they reached the conclusion that the withdrawal of the train service would result in serious hardship to the large body of passengers who use the train to travel to and from their daily work. The operation of additional bus services would not eradicate the hardship. No wonder the T.U.C.C. came to that conclusion. Anyone who has travelled on that road from Crook to Bishop Auckland is bound to reinforce it. If the conditions for closure—because I know that the Minister approved this just before the election—could be varied in any way and if he could keep this line open until a review has taken place, because the alternative bus services proposed are not adequate, we should be happy to await the result of a regional review. To put extra traffic on the Crook-Bishop Auckland road as it is now constituted would, indeed, be madness in the extreme.

I do not represent a depressed and dying area by any means. This is a vital and vigorous community in West Durham anxious to play its part—we played an honourable part in the provision of coal, the basic necessity, for the great Industrial Revolution which took place in our country—and we believe that the area has a future. We have been greatly reinforced in this belief and heartened by the actions of the Government; first, by the President of the Board of Trade in regard to the new advance factory. That will not solve all our problems, but it is an indication that we are on the map again.

There was a notable broadcast by my right hon. Friend last Friday night, in which again he drew attention to the needs of West Durham. Now I am asking the Parliamentary Secretary to lend his weight and influence to providing improved roads and communications in this area, because I believe that this is a fundamental provision which will enable us to go from strength to strength and play our part in the national prosperity.

1.38 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. Stephen Swingler)

I listened to my hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North-West (Mr. Armstrong) with the utmost sympathy. I know that since he has been elected he has been very active and energetic on behalf of his constituents on these matters. I have some personal knowledge and experience of mining districts which in the past have suffered decline, depression and neglect. I lived in the days before the Second World War in just such an area. Therefore, I feel real sympathy with the matters to which my hon. Friend has referred, and I am inspired by the fact that he is able to say in the very early days of the Government's administration that sparks of new hope have already been created as the result of the plans that are emanating from the Government.

I have had the benefit, not only of listening to my hon. Friend, but also of reading correspondence between him and one of my colleagues and my right hon. Friend the Minister. I should like to set out, although my hon. Friend will be well acquainted with all these facts, the situation that we have inherited. First, may I refer to the railway position, in particular the Crook-Bishop Auckland line. My hon. Friend said quite rightly, and I want to make this crystal clear, that the consent to the closure of the passenger services on the Crook-Bishop Auckland line was given on 11th September. Unfortunately, we had no power to rescind this decision. The matter was covered, of course, by the statement of my right hon. Friend on 4th November about our attitude towards rail closures, and the British Railways Board has the power now to withdraw the passenger services on this line. It also has the duty of making alternative arrangements. I would say to my hon. Friend that, as the Minister said on 4th November, although he has no power to revoke a consent given by his predecessor, he has the power to vary the conditions which have been attached.

If concrete evidence is produced to show the inadequacy of the alternative arrangements, whether they have been brought into force or whether they are proposed, we shall certainly examine this evidence sympathetically. If my hon. Friend or the local authorities and bodies of citizens whom he represents have concrete proposals to put before us to try to make more adequate the transport arrangements following the closure of passenger services, I can assure my hon. Friend that these will be given very serious and immediate consideration.

At the same time, I should make clear that the track will be retained under the terms explained by my right hon. Friend on 4th November and, therefore, when the regional planning boards and councils have done their job—to which I shall make some further reference in a moment—if they consider that passenger services should be restored in relation to the future economic development of the area, that will be made possible by the fact that my right hon. Friend has asked the Railways Board to retain the track.

I turn to the road situation, which was the main burden of my hon. Friend's speech. The main towns in West Durham are Consett, Stanley, Bishop Auckland, Crook and Willington, each with a population of between 25,000 and 45,000. The road system linking these towns with the A.1 north-south trunk road through the country is a network of classified roads for which the Durham County Council is the highway authority. It is quite a complicated network. Some of the more important routes with which, of course, my hon. Friend will be well acquainted are the A.692 linking Consett with Tyneside, the A.693 linking Consett and Stanley with Chester-le-Street, the A.691 linking Consett with Durham City, the A.690 linking Crook and Willington with Chester-le-Street, the A.6074 linking Bishop Auckland with Durham City, and the A.68 and the A.6072 roads which link all these towns with Darlington and the South.

Most of these roads carry 3,000 to 5,000 vehicles a day, though the Bishop Auckland-Durham City route carries nearly 9,000 vehicles a day, according to our latest information. But it is perfectly true that traffic is increasing here on this network, as it is everywhere else. In fact, the improvements now being carried out to the A.1, especially the new Darlington bypass, will undoubtedly give an added stimulus to the traffic flow in these areas.

Although quite rightly my hon. Friend is not satisfied, these classified roads in West Durham have not been neglected. Some work has been done on them. In fact, in the last six years, according to my researches, more than £500,000 have been spent on improvement schemes on the main classified roads in West Durham.

But we admit straight away that we have inherited some black spots, some very bad places to which my hon. Friend alluded. He referred to the bottleneck on the A.68 at Witton-le-Wear about which he asked a Question on 25th November. We understand that the Durham County Council has under consideration a major improvement here involving a new bridge over the River Wear and over the Weardale Railway. This scheme, as he implied, would be an ambitious scheme; we reckon it would cost in the region of £500,000. But this is something which we shall undoubtedly have to consider as we shall also have to consider improvement schemes at another spot which he mentioned, the Harperley crossroads, a bad spot on the A.68, and at Fir Tree. We understand that the county council has under consideration two improvement schemes costing about £50,000 each, although these are not yet programmed.

My hon. Friend also referred to the road at Weardale and the new cement factory at Eastgate, 10 miles to the west of Crook. This road, we admit, is seriously sub-standard although the county council which, as he said, has been an energetic authority in this respect has done something to get rid of the worst difficulties here. For example, it has recently completed an improvement at Bradley Bridge and a number of other improvements are planned at Stanhope and the bridge to the west of Stanhope, schemes which together will cost well over £100,000. But it is quite clear that further modernisation will be required.

My hon. Friend also referred to the use for freight of the Weardale Railway. We certainly hope that something will be done in this respect because we want the under-used railways to be used to a greater extent to relieve congestion on the roads. This is a matter between the cement company and the Railways Board, but if there is anything we can possibly do to facilitate agreement to get better use of the freight service on the railway we shall certainly endeavour to do so.

That is the situation that we have inherited and we agree that many new schemes will be required to bring the West Durham road network up to standard. The fact is that at the moment we have already inherited a considerable road programme which pre-empts the money available. I am afraid that at the moment I have to make the same sort of reply to my hon. Friend that I had to make the other night to some hon. Members who pleaded the case for the roads in the South-West—namely, that we have more claims for expenditure on highways programmes than we can possibly handle or meet at the moment, and the extension of the roads programme and an increase in expenditure on the roads will depend on the success of our economic plans in creating a higher rate of economic growth in the country and, therefore, providing more resources.

As my hon. Friend said, because of the agitation in the North-East and the serious situation that had developed there, a large additional programme amounting to £50 million worth of schemes was introduced by the last Government, in addition to the new Darlington bypass and the Durham motorway, and we shall certainly continue with that programme. But my hon. Friend quite rightly pointed out that to a large extent this is east of the A.1; this is brought out very clearly on the map in the last publication of "Roads in England and Wales". Therefore, the programme is only of indirect benefit to his constituents.

At the moment 14 per cent. of total public service investment is going on the national road programme, compared with about 3 per cent. nine years ago, and we are already committed to public investment on the main roads of England and Wales over the next five years to the tune of £1,000 million. The inclusion of the sort of additional items about which my hon. Friend is concerned will depend very largely on the achievement of a higher rate of economic growth.

Finally, to answer the last part of what my hon. Friend said, the Government are establishing regional planning boards and regional planning councils. One of the jobs of these regional organisations will be to survey the situation which we have inherited in relation to future economic and population trends and to the need to revive and stimulate development in certain areas. Among other things, they will have a responsibility for advising my right hon. Friend and myself on transport planning in relation to the Government's other plans to bring about a better distribution of industry and population and a better community life for the people.

We therefore do not take it that this factual situation which I have described is somethinig absolutely hard and fast. It is the Government's intention that the regional planning machinery shall work, and as rapidly as possible, and that it should enable us to be advised both on the future of the railways and on the future road programme. It will give us advice which will enable us to have a clearer sight of the priorities and to bring about the best possible balance of investment in the roads and in the transport network generally for the benefit of the people.