HC Deb 04 March 1965 vol 707 cc1691-700

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

11.30 p.m.

Mr. Peter Walker (Worcester)

I should like, first, to express my appreciation to the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport for being here to reply to this debate. No Minister in the present Government has a greater burden of adjournment debates. His Ministry is concerned with policies that result in many hon. Members wanting to raise the subject of the great traffic problems in their constituencies. I would hesitate to ask for an Adjournment debate on this subject but for the fact that I feel that this is probably one of the worst cases in the country in connection with the possibility of jeopardising a great deal of fine work done by the Ministry.

The A.449 road between Kidderminster and Worcester is used by a great volume of traffic, including a lot of heavy traffic coming from the Black Country and Lancashire and going through to the West Country. Even in the 1930s it required major improvements and 2½ miles of the 12½ miles between Kidderminster and Worcester were turned into dual carriageway.

But, as is the case with other major roads, the traffic congestion and the density of traffic has shown a tremendous increase since the war. In the late 1950s and early 1960s it was carrying a volume of about 13,000 vehicles a day and two-thirds of the 12½ mile stretch had either single or double white lines giving warnings of danger spots.

This was considered by various expert authorities upon road conditions as one of the worst stretches of road in the country. I am pleased to say that my right hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Mr. Marples), as Minister of Transport, in the early 1960s started to agree to a substantial number of improvements that are being made today. Over the last few years we have seen the stretch of road from Ombersley to Crossway Green, more recently the stretch of road to the south of Ombersley going from Hawford Bridge to Hawford Inn, and still more recently the northern link which is soon to be opened, I believe, by the Joint Parliamentary Secretary.

Whatever he says tonight, the hon. Gentleman will receive a warm welcome there, but it will be very much warmer if he says something about the by-pass at Ombersley. All these major improvements have cost many million of pounds, but while they have brought about an improvement of the road out of Ombersley, they have resulted in a deterioration of conditions of traffic in the village itself.

When the Northern Link and the Hartlebury by-pass, now under construction, are completed, there will be a stretch of dual carriageway from Torton to the M.5 at Warndon, with the one exception of this mile stretch through Ombersley. Both to the north and to the south there will be several miles of fine dual carriageway road, leading into this one small village—leading in, I might say, to a stretch of road that is incredibly narrow and will result in the most apalling traffic conditions.

The width of the road through parts of Ombersley is only 20 feet—three times the length of the hon. Gentleman himself—and this carries 17,000 vehicles a day. Therefore, one can imagine the appalling traffic conditions that will result in the village. Added to this, in the middle of the village there is a roundabout at the crossroads between the road coming from Droitwich to Holt Fleet and the A.449 itself.

The road from Droitwich to Holt Fleet is carrying an increasing density of traffic, primarily due to the fact that this is the first bridge across the river above the bridge at Worcester. The crossing at Worcester is subjected to considerable traffic jams and thus much of the traffic to Droitwich, to get from the other side of the river, is no longer going through Worcester, but is using this road which has to cross the A.449 at Ombersley.

During the summer months, and particularly during Wakes Weeks in Lancashire, we get this colossal congestion in Ombersley with traffic trying to get to the bridge at Holt Fleet and traffic coming down the A.449. If we are not careful we shall have spent a great deal of money in making major improvements to this important road, only to find that all the time saved by the motorists on the many miles of very good dual carriageway is wasted in Ombersley due to the great congestion and very bad traffic conditions that there will be in this village.

The justification for the Ombersley bypass is twofold. First, it will mean that full benefit and use will be made of the considerable improvements that have taken place, and, secondly, there is the factor of road safety and the danger to the citizens of the village itself.

I stated that the width of the road through Ombersley is 20 ft. Indeed, the distance between buildings on either side of the road is only 27 ft., and this is for a road taking 750 vehicles an hour, many of them bringing industrial goods from the Black Country and Lancashire. There is this constant build-up of traffic on the A.449. In 1938, the volume of traffic was 4,437 vehicles a day. By the late 1950s it had built up to 10,000 a day. Currently, on the latest count, nearly 18,000 vehicles a day are using this road and going through Ombersley—three times the volume of vehicles that theoretically is the capacity of this width of road.

Thus, unless there is an improvement, and unless a by-pass is made, one can expect a serious deterioration in the accident record in this area. Indeed, during the last three years an average of one person has been killed or seriously injured in Ombersley every seven weeks. It is interesting to note that whereas, throughout Worcestershire, the ratio of serious injuries to slight injuries is two to five, in Ombersley the ratio is almost the reverse. The majority of personal injuries to people in Ombersley are of a serious nature. This is due to the very small amount of room available for any vehicle to manoeuvre in the case of an impending accident.

The village has particular problems arising from this road. I should like to read from a letter which I have received from the Chairman of the Ombersley Parish Council, who is also the local village doctor. He states: I can assure you that this matter is of the utmost urgency, and the removal of this dangerous section of the busy main road is something that concerns us all. It is as though our village were cleft in two, and I know elderly persons who have not dared to visit the opposite side for years on their own. It is worse than a river with no bridge. On the west side of the village there have recently been several important developments. A substantial block of buildings has been built, in the form of small self-contained flats for elderly people throughout Worcestershire. If those people wish to go to some of the shops in the village they have to cross this main road, and this the chairman of the parish council has described as a very real problem.

There is a new estate of owner-occupied houses which has recently been completed in the village, houses provided by the Droitwich Rural District Council on a very low deposit basis for young people to own a home of their own. Naturally, there are many children on this estate, which is on the west side of the village while the village school is on the east side, so that the children have to cross this very dangerous stretch of road daily.

There are several shops in the village, a famous butcher's shop and grocer's shop, which attract customers from throughout the county and these are in the very middle of the village near the roundabout and they add further to the congestion. There are several quite famous hotels and public houses in the village which attract a large trade from passing motorists and have substantial car parks emptying on to this very narrow stretch of road which is used by this great number of vehicles each day.

From the village's point of view, this is a serious accident and safety factor. Although I recognise that there are limits to the amount that Ministry of Transport can spend on the improvement of safety for one small section of the community, an expanding village such as Ombersley has a right to have recognised by the Ministry the serious dangers involved in a fast dual carriageway entering a village from north and south. It is interesting to note that the Ombersley Parish Council, the Droitwich Rural District Council and the Worcestershire County Council have all passed resolutions and written to me to say that they are concerned with this traffic problem.

In 1955, authorisation was given for the route of the by-pass to be agreed and the appropriate orders were made. Since then, substantial improvements have been made to the A.449 itself. I recognise that Worcestershire has done exceedingly well with major road improvements, with the M.5 and the many improvements on the A.449, and now, with the opening of the northern link between the A.449 and the M.5, this network is almost completed; but, alas the creation of this very fine network of roads is put in jeopardy by this one remaining stretch.

I appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Transport has said that it is not his intention at present to increase the roads programme laid down by the previous Government and I do not question or criticise that decision. I therefore appreciate the difficulties of including a scheme of this type. But I hope that this evening the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to say some encouraging words and to say that this improvement will be given priority in future programmes and that some of the preparatory work, in terms of detailed design and so on, can be immediately commenced. The anxieties of the villagers are genuine and the anxieties of the motorists who have to go to and from Kidderminster to Worcester each day are also genuine.

It would be a tragedy if the Ministry of Transport, after having spent so much money on improving the A.449 and the M.5 and the northern link between them, should allow all the good which has been done to be put into jeopardy by failing to provide this one remaining link of the Ombersley by-pass.

11.36 p.m.

Sir Tatton Brinton (Kidderminster)

My interest in this proposed by-pass arises from the fact that the A.449 runs almost along the boundary between my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Peter Walker). It serves to link the rest of Worcestershire with the main centre of population, Kidderminster, and so affects my constituents. I know the road extremely well, because I live only four miles from the roundabout which my hon. Friend has mentioned. I pass it every time I come to London. I can confirm from personal observation all that my hon. Friend has said about the enormous increase in traffic over the last few years, notably since 1950.

It would seem, to the layman at least, that it is almost more important to bypass bottlenecks on major roads than to improve stretches of road through open countryside. This sounds ungrateful after all that the Ministry has recently done in improving the A.449, but I again emphasise, as my hon. Friend has said, that it is useless to improve the roads in the open country on either side of Ombersley if a far worse bottleneck is created in the middle, with great danger to the local inhabitants and to the traffic which passes through.

The question of by-passing bottlenecks on major roads obviously can be one of great difficulty, depending upon the layout, but it seems to those who know the area well that this is a particularly good case for a by-pass to be built. The village is small and compact and could easily be by-passed, which is not always the case with similar bottlenecks.

I add my plea to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester for the Ministry to give this matter urgent consideration within what, we realise, are the stringent limits of available finance.

11.41 p.m.

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

The hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Peter Walker) spoke with some solicitude about my presence tonight. This is only my twelfth appearance at the Box in an Adjournment debate, and I shall be appearing for the thirteenth time tomorrow. I welcome, however, this widespread interest in the House in the transport network of the country. I trust that it represents public opinion and will lead continuously to the improvement of our arrangements.

Both the hon. Member for Worcester and his hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster (Sir T. Brinton) have clearly spoken from close personal knowledge of the situation at Ombersley on the A.449. Looking at the files, I recognise the hon. Member for Worcester as a persistent agitator about the A.449. Quite recently, he followed up a series of Questions about the Ombersley by-pass with a more recent one to my right hon. Friend on 23rd December, when my right hon. Friend had to tell him that he could not sanction, at present, the preparation of detailed plans for the Ombersley by-pass.

I come immediately to the crux of the question. In answer to the hon. Member's supplementary question on 23rd December, my right hon. Friend said: 'The hon. Member will recognise my difficulty. The trunk road programme was published in June this year"— that is, in June, 1964— by my predecessor and this scheme was not included. Our economic and financial resources are very heavily committed and if I were now to bring forward this scheme it would have to be at the expense of some other scheme. I do not want to hold out any hope that I will be able to do that."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd December. 1964; Vol. 704, c. 1228.] That was the position as stated then by my right hon. Friend, and I have to say immediately to the hon. Member that that is the position now.

What I can do this evening is to give the House an account of what has been done, in addition to what the two hon. Members have already mentioned, and what it is proposed to do on the roads in the area and come, further, to the question which they have raised about what promise we can give concerning the proposed Ombersley by-pass. I recognise, with the hon. Member for Worcester, that this stretch of road carries a very heavy volume of traffic, and both hon. Members who have spoken have given figures to support this. We know that this volume of traffic justifies the provision of dual carriageways right along the road. It is our firm intention in the Ministry of Transport to improve the whole of the road to this high dual-carriageway standard.

As the hon. Member for Worcester has mentioned, several sections of the road have already been completed to dual-carriageway standard and some are in process of being built. For example, the 2½mile stretch just north of Ombersley to Crossway Green has been rebuilt to dual-carriageway standard at a cost of £570,000.

Schemes at Hawford Bridge and Hartlebury for which the hon. Gentleman has pressed in the past are now in progress at a cost of about £300,000 each. The overall position, therefore, is that by the summer of next year there will be continuous dual carriageway south of Ombersley to the Worcester northern link, to which I shall refer in a moment, and north of Ombersley to a point just south of Torton, apart from a short section near Waresley. I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Gentleman that when we have reached this point the proposed Ombersley by-pass will stand out as an absolutely urgent scheme.

Of course, we recognise that there has to be a system of priorities. Unfortunately, we are not able to do all desirable schemes at the same time, and there must, therefore, always be some which are last in the queue. We recognise that this road must be dual-carriageway all the way along, and I therefore give the hon. Gentleman the assurance tonight that the most sympathetic and closest consideration will be given to the inclusion of this scheme in the next extension of the trunk road programme.

But, as I have said before during this kind of Adjournment debate, when the claims of this road are being put forward, there are, unfortunately, many other places in the country like Ombersley, and the problem of deciding on the time-scale of priorities is one which we find very difficult. The road programme is a national one, and it is our responsibility to see that our limited funds are used to the best advantage. We have to consider the cost of each scheme competing for a place in the programme in relation to our reckoning of the benefit which it will bring.

We have to recognise that the Ombersley by-pass will be a relatively expensive scheme. We estimate that it will cost at least £600,000 to relieve a stretch of road less than 1 mile long. That is why in the past other sections of this road have been given a higher priority in the programme. But, as I have said, and I emphasise again, when we consider the programme beyond 1970, the Ombersley by-pass scheme will fall for very serious consideration.

The hon. Gentleman drew attention to the imminent completion of the Worcester northern link. I hope that nothing that I shall say tonight will spread any thorns in my path towards the northern link, because I am looking forward very much to opening this link road officially at the beginning of next month. I am sure that this road will give a lot of help to traffic both on the A.449 and M.5 motorway approaching Worcester.

There are some people who have expressed the fear that the new link road may exacerbate the situation on the A.449, and in particular make the situation in Ombersley worse than it is now, but in our view this is not necessarily so. It is true that the new link road will improve the A.449 as a route for long-distance traffic from the Black Country wishing to by-pass Worcester, but at the same time it will make the M.5 motorway a better route for traffic going to Worcester itself, especially to the northern suburbs, and therefore we hope that with the lengthening of the M.5 motorway traffic coming from the north will prefer to use the M.5 instead of the A.449 to get to the northern part of Worcester.

As the M.5 is extended northwards into Birmingham to meet the M.6, it will become increasingly attractive to the long-distance traffic from the Midlands and the North-West. Even now the M.5 is acting to some extent as a by-pass for the Worcester-Kidderminster road and attracting traffic from the A.449 north of Kidderminster. This effect will become more pronounced as the Midlands motorway links are pushed forward.

Lastly, I can assure the hon. Member that nothing could be gained at the moment by proceeding with the remaining statutory processes in advance of programming the proposed Ombersley by-pass scheme itself. The whole point of planning a five-year forward programme is to give us adequate time in which to do all the necessary detailed engineering design, statutory processes and acquisition of land before the date when money and resources are available to start the actual construction. We in the Ministry are extremely anxious not to tie up money and resources, in the form of land, too far ahead of the time when the scheme for which they are needed will be put into the programme.

I can give the hon. Member the further assurance that we will not allow these necessary preparations for the proposed Ombersley by-pass to delay things at all; we will ensure that all the necessary preparations—the designing of the road, the statutory processes and the acquisition of land—are completed well in time for the start of the work, which we hope will be included in the next extension of the trunk road programme.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eight minutes to Twelve o'clock.