HC Deb 01 July 1966 vol 730 cc2451-62

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

4.8 p.m.

Mr. Julian Ridsdale (Harwich)

I welcome the opportunity that this Motion gives me of raising the important question of road facilities to Harwich. Harwich is now the second largest passenger port in the United Kingdom and the seventh largest port in the handling of merchandise.

Since 1963, the build-up has been considerable. We have had a £1 million investment in a new Navy yard, which has literally been built out into the sea. We have had the promised investment in the port by the Minister of Transport of £8 million in new facilities, which were announced in May this year and which, by 1968, will increase the number of vehicles handled by British Railways at Parkeston by five times what it is today, so that instead of handling only 33,000 vehicle units as it did in 1965 Parkeston will handle over 150,000 vehicle units by 1970, 20 per cent. of which will be commercial vehicles and trailer or container road vehicles.

This takes no account of the increase in traffic likely to come from the development of a new industrial site on Bath Side or the further expansion of the Navy yard. A new car ferry service was opened this Whitsun between Harwich and Bremerhaven. Expanded services between Scandinavia and Harwich are forecast. New Customs sheds have been built at Parkeston Dock to handle the increased car ferry traffic, not to mention the increase in container traffic which must be expected by 1968.

Because of the Docks and Harbours Bill, we must expect new inland clearance depots and new roads to those depôts. The Navy yard at Harwich handles a large proportion of the country's car exports, but does the hon. Gentleman not realise the kind of transport revolution which will come from the new £8 million investment in a modernised port, which will give facilities to speed the flow of traffic to the Continent just as much as the building of a Channel tunnel? A complete counterpart of the facilities at Parkeston will be built on the Continent so as to speed the flow of containerised merchandise.

Even now, the existing road facilities are beginning to show the strain. There has, of course, been a vast increase in traffic and a considerable build-up can now be expected. On 28th July, 1965, I asked the Minister what accidents had occurred in the last three years on the Harwich-Colchester road and what the percentage increase in those accidents was likely to be, to be told that 66 accidents had occurred in 1962, 74 in 1963 and 100 in 1964, and that, in the first four months, of 1965, 70 per cent. more accidents were recorded than in the comparable period of 1964.

I should be grateful if the Parliamentary Secretary could give me the latest accident figures and also say how many of them were fatal, as I know that there has been a considerable number of fatal accidents recently on this road.

On 3rd December, 1965, I asked the Minister how much the traffic density through Harwich to Ramsey had increased in each of the last five years, only to be told that the only answer which he could give was 4,550 passenger units in 1965, but that there were no figures for the preceding years. On 23rd February of this year, I asked the Minister why she did not include in her recent announcement about road building programmes a provision for East Anglia or North-East Essex, to be told that there were many schemes elsewhere of relatively greater importance.

I should like to know which of these schemes is more important than the improvement of the road to one of the major ports of this country. Does the right hon. Lady realise what the road is like? Has she or the Parliamentary Secretary ever travelled on it? If he had, I do not believe that he would be so complacent in some of the answers which he has given me about the road. It is still one of the best antique roads in the country and a disgrace to show to continentals as their first impression of an English road.

On 3rd December, 1965, I asked the Minister what action he would take to provide an alternative route to Harwich town to avoid Dovercourt town, especially the heavy traffic approaching from Ramsey, and when such an alternative route was likely to be completed. I was told that it is for the Essex County Council, as the highway authority concerned, to consider such a route and that no formal proposal had been put forward.

I was most concerned about this news, as several years before, in 1963, I had had a meeting with the Chairman of the Essex County Council, then Sir George Chaplin, to urge upon him the necessity for doing something to help, because of the traffic which would come on this road, particularly because of the development of the Navy yard at Harwich. Yet in December, 1965, no proposals had yet been put forward for the Dovercourt bypass. Again, on 4th May this year, I asked the Minister what was the increase in traffic over the last five years and how much traffic was likely to expand in the next five years.

The reply I got was that the information was not available, but that the expected natural growth rate was about 30 per cent. Naturally, with the knowledge that I then had of the new £8 million bridge project at Parkeston and the increased investment at Navy yard, to say nothing of the industrial expansion I expect from Harwich over the next five years, I challenged the Minister's figures. I was told, "The 30 per cent. is a carefully calculated figure, and we have no reason to suppose that East Anglia is different in this respect."

What a complacent answer. I can only conclude that the Minister has no appreciation of the great expansion which is taking place in Harwich and Parkeston, and has no imagination or drive to realise how desperate we are to get something done quickly to road facilities, not only to cut down road accidents, but also to help exports.

On 4th May, I again asked the Minister for a statement about the proposed works on the A604 between Colchester and Harwich, including the bypass of Dovercourt. I was told that the four future schemes that Essex County Council, the highway authority, had in mind were the Poplar Hall diversion, the Wix bypass, an improvement between Poplar Hall and Wix, and the Elmstead bypass. There was a grant for the Poplar Hall diversion, but the remaining schemes had not yet been programmed. The Clinghoe Hill diversion had been programmed, but the county council had made no firm proposals for the bypass of Dovercourt.

Because I was desperate over this reply, and because there was strong feeling about this not only from British Railways and Navy yard, but from many others, I asked the Minister to receive a deputation. As this was refused, I had no recourse but to ask for an Adjournment debate.

When will the improvements which the Minister announced in May be completed, particularly that at Poplar Hall Corner, which I call murder corner, because it is such an absolute black spot and is badly signposted? I can only conclude that the Minister has not appreciated the problem that now faces us, and the changes that are likely to take place. Does he not realise that the £8 million investment at Parkeston is likely to initiate almost as much traffic as would go through a Channel tunnel, such is the revolution in speed and turn-around that can take place because of containerised traffic? Will he re-examine the traffic plans in this light?

In a Committee in which I once sat to consider the Dartford Tunnel, Sir Winston Churchill advised making it three-lane either way. Unfortunately, his advice was not taken and we had one traffic lane either way. As Harwich, in a very short time, will be one of our most important ports will the Minister use his imagination and at once take over complete responsibility for the roads from Harwich and not only to Colchester, as he has at the moment on the A12. Between Colchester and Harwich we want a double track similar to those approaching the ports on the Continent.

Should we not expect motorways from the chief industrial areas, not only from London, but also from the Midlands? What progress is being made on this? Such a road from the Midlands would avoid all the congestion of the London area. Will the Parliamentary Secretary stop hiding under the skirts of the Essex County Council? I hope that he will not reply that this is a matter for the county council. How would his Minister like it if she met one of the daddy-long-legged transporters on this narrow road on a dark or foggy night?

Having made an investment of £8 million in the port of Parkeston, she must accept responsibility for the build-up of traffic that is occurring and is likely to occur. Something must be done at once. There has been far too much complacency over this. I hope that the Minister will accept responsibility for the road approaches to Harwich. Has he no appreciation of the expansion that is taking place? Does he not realise that once we are in the European Economic Community, Harwich will be our most important port for Continental traffic? 4.20 p.m.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

I am grateful to the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Ridsdale) for permitting me to intervene briefly. My hon. Friend has raised an extremely important matter, and I support him for reasons.

First, frequently, when returning to England from the Continent, I come by way of the Port of Harwich and drive to Colchester. The impression formed by foreign visitors to the country when they drive over that stretch of road is very bad indeed. It compares extremely badly with roads from the ports to the industrial areas on the Continent.

Secondly, I support my hon. Friend because of what he said at the end about the need for a drastic improvement in communications between the industrial Midlands and the East Coast ports. East Anglia is growing very rapidly. As the gas supplies from the North Sea become available, as more and more of our trade goes to the Common Market and as our population increases, it is essential for east-west communications to be improved. An obvious route is along the A45, which the Minister knows because he and I have discussed it on a previous occasion. That road is the spine of East Anglia. It is carrying more and more traffic from Europe and valuable exports and important imports.

I hope that the Minister will recognise that if this mid-Anglian highway, as I like to call it, could be turned into a dual carriage motorway it would materially assist our export trade and relieve traffic congestion in Newmarket and Bury St. Edmunds, both of which have a strong case for bypasses on their merits. I should like those bypasses taken into the larger picture of a good east-west highway along the A45.

4.22 p.m.

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

The hon. Member for Harwich (Mr. Ridsdale) has been extremely assiduous in pressing for greater highway expenditure in Essex. In that he is similar to other hon. Members who press for greater highway expenditure. I sometimes find it hard to reconcile this with votes to reduce revenue. But I do not complain of that. In fact, I welcome the hon. Member's concern about this matter, and I hope to be able to assure him that we are taking fully into account the important features that he has mentioned.

I say at once to him that I never refuse to see a deputation. My right hon. Friend has a tremendous demand to meet deputations, and it is physically impossible for her to see them all. In case there has been any misunderstanding in communications between my office and the hon. Gentleman, I would point out that we must have specific details on which it is desired that a deputation should visit the Department if we are to gain any benefit from it. If hon. Gentlemen wish to bring deputations to the Ministry, I can assure them that the Department will never refuse to see them.

To put the matter in the wider context of traffic to Harwich, the fact is that a large part of the traffic destined for Harwich originates, as the hon. Member implied, in the London area, and is therefore, now carried on the A12 trunk road as far as Colchester. I would, first, draw the hon. Members attention to the fact that a considerable volume of expensive works on this road has been programmed, at a cost of many millions of pounds, as part of the overall plan to provide dual carriageways all the way from London as far as Colchester and beyond.

Recently constructed bypasses have enabled traffic to avoid congested lengths of the previous trunk road running through Brentwood, Witham and Hatfield Peverel, and a bypass at Kelvedon is now under construction. An entirely new road to bypass the length of the A12 between Ilford and Gallows Corner, known as Radial Route 7, is now programmed at a cost of £8 million. Considering the heavy volume of traffic on the A12 we have earmarked very considerable funds for the improvement of this part of the present route between the metropolis and Harwich.

The road to Harwich from its junction with the trunk road at Colchester is about 18 miles long. This route is a Class I road, for which Essex County Council is the responsible highway authority. For a considerable time we have developed in this country a system whereby those roads designated as national roads are the responsibility of the Minister of Transport, while the locally elected councils accept, and wish to have, responsibility for the other part of the network of road.

It would be irresponsible on my part not to recognise that the initiation of proposals affecting these roads lies with the appropriate county highway authority. However, we pay out of national funds 75 per cent. of the cost of improvements and the county council finds the remainder.

On the present position, the allocation of responsibility for the highways of the country means that Essex County Council is responsible for initiating proposals for the improvement of these roads.

The two main sections of the Harwich Road are the A133 and the A604, the A133 being much the more heavily trafficked section. I will give some figures. The most typical recent traffic census figures show that on the A133 there are 21,000 passenger car units a day, and about 5,000 passenger car units a day on the A604. The reason for this difference is that the A133 carries a heavy volume of traffic to the East coast resorts of Clacton, Walton, Frinton and Jaywick, and in the vicinity of Colchester there is an increasing volume of traffic to the new and expanding University of Essex at Wivenhoe Park.

Mr. Ridsdale

The hon. Gentleman is, I am sure, aware that a lot of the passenger car units on the A604 are industrial traffic units and not passenger traffic units.

Mr. Swingler

I am aware of that and I will deal with that point. It is an important one and must be taken into account, but I will first refer to the A133. For a distance of about 1½ miles, the A133 between Elmstead Market and Wivenhoe Park has been provided with dual carriageways and the finishing touches to the latest of these schemes are now being made. Because of the dangerous nature of the A133 at Clinghoe Hill, which will be increasingly used by university traffic, we have programmed a diversion of the route at a cost of £500,000. A bypass of Elmstead Market itself is contemplated and its timing would be considered in the light of the study of roads in the Colchester area which is now being carried out on our behalf by consulting engineers. The first formal step which the county council will have to take is to arrange for the inclusion of the route in the county development plan.

The road to Harwich leaves the A133 at Elmstead Market and, from here on, it becomes the A604. Traffic is considerably less on this section of the route, for reasons which I have already mentioned. We know, and I admit straight away, that this road possesses a number of unsatisfactory characteristics and that many parts of it are substandard in width and alignment.

Unfortunately, because of the enormous pressures on the funds available for highway improvements, the necessary improvements on such roads cannot be tackled all at once. We have to adopt a policy of priorities, of progressive improvements, dealing with the worst sections of road first and allocating the funds according to strict priorities based on analyses of traffic, and so on.

It must be remembered, therefore, that the volume of traffic on this section of the road is not particularly high. It is about equal to the design capacity of a normal, two-lane carriageway and other parts of the country, details of which I will be happy to supply to him, are faced with the problem of roads which carry many times their designed capacity in terms of traffic volume.

The hon. Gentleman has raised many times the question of a road designed to motorway standards to connect with Harwich. I must say frankly and clearly that, on the evidence of traffic volume, the construction of a dual carriageway road to Harwich would not be justified for many years to come. The design capacity of a dual two-lane carriageway is 25,000 passenger car units a day. At present, the A604 carries 5,000 passenger car units per day. Construction at the moment of such a road would mean that it would be very much under-used for a considerable period. Therefore we think that the county's policy of carrying out improvements on the existing road according to local conditions is the right policy.

Again, I grant to the hon. Gentleman that the growth rate of traffic in Essex generally is high compared with the national average and we take that into account. But even assuming a high rate of growth of traffic on the A604, a road improved to the standard that the county council envisages at the moment should be adequate to cope with the development of traffic for a number of years.

Significant advances are being made in the improvement of the A604. Works on either side of the Ramsey bypass, costing about £70,000, have recently been completed and now preparatory work on the Poplar Hall diversion, costing about £40,000, is well advanced. Other schemes which the Essex County Council has in mind are the improvement of the road between the Poplar Hall diversion and Wix and a bypass of Wix itself at a total cost of £250,000. We shall consider urgently the allocation of funds for these projects, which we recognise as necessary for the development of traffic according to the roll forward of the national programme for highway expenditure.

Mr. Ridsdale

What about the Dover-court bypass?

Mr. Swingler

It is the responsibility of the county council to work out details and submit a proposal to us. That has not yet been done, but I understand that a considerable examination of the route and design has been carried out by the county council. However, we still await a definite proposal. As soon as we have one for this bypass, which will be substantial and may be expensive scheme, it will receive urgent consideration in the classified roads programme.

In assessing the priority which should be attached to any particular scheme, my right hon. Friend takes into account all the relevant factors, including the volume of traffic and also its characteristics and the prospects of industrial improvements and developments. Just over a year ago arrangements were made for a close liaison to exist between all local authorities concerned with access roads to ports and the port authorities themselves to ensure that highway authorities, as well as ourselves at the Ministry, were fully aware of future developments in the ports. We are aware that there has been big development in Harwich with the roll-on, roll-off scheme and things of that kind.

This is a matter being urgently discussed between the Railways Board, which is responsible, the local highway authorities, and ourselves. As soon as we receive from the liaison committee any projects or proposals which it has to make about the road network necessary in order to cope and accord with the development of the port itself, they will receive priority consideration, because of our concern with the export trade.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

Can the hon. Gentleman give an assurance that the ports of Harwich, Felixstowe and Ipswich are together making representations? Here is a complex of ports which needs to be linked with the Midlands and whose views ought not just to be considered separately.

Mr. Swingler

The whole purpose of establishing these liaison committees between the ports authorities and the local highway authorities is to ensure that there is an overall view of the necessary access to ports. The hon. Gentleman will probably know that this arises out of certain studies which were put in train by the Economic Development Committee because of our urgent concern with speeding the import-export trade. The liaison committee is therefore looking at an overall picture. We shall be receiving recommendations arising out of that, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that they will receive very early consideration.

The hon. Member for Harwich mentioned the accident record. We regret very much that there has been a serious accident record on this road. I am not in a position this afternoon to give any new figures, although I am informed on preliminary investigation that there has been some improvement, that is to say, some diminution of accidents, this year. This is a serious matter, especially at Poplar Hall, and again is a factor which we certainly take into account in relation to traffic volumes, access to ports and all the other economic considerations in our assessment of these schemes.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will rest assured that we are aware of the importance of Essex in general and Harwich in particular, that we take fully into account its developing significance as a port and the need for a full programme of road improvements, that several schemes are in hand for the purpose of making improvements by ourselves and as initiated by the Essex County Council. The hon. Gentleman can be assured that in the roll forward of the road programme many more improvement schemes are to come.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-two minutes to Five o'clock.