HC Deb 09 March 1966 vol 725 cc2309-19

1.43 a.m.

Mr. Geoffrey Howe (Bebington)

The matter with which I wish to deal concerns the position that arises on that section of the A41 trunk road which runs through my constituency in the Wirral peninsula. It is known at the Ministry, I understand, as the Birmingham to Birkenhead trunk road, but it serves other purposes which give rise to the problems to which I want to refer tonight.

In the first place it is the only effective north-south road in that part of the Wirrall peninsula. It connects the northern and southern parts of the Borough of Bebington and connects both with the County Borough of Birkenhead. There is a great deal of access on to and off the road. Bus routes come to and go off the road at many points, and apart from acting as a connecting link between north and south it acts in a different sense to sever the borough, east from west.

The essential details of the make-up of the road are as follows. Apart from the New Ferry bypass, which is dual- carriageway at the northern end, it is throughout its length a single carriageway four-lane road. The traffic is checked as it comes along at only one set of traffic lights at the Eastham end, and in a distance of about four miles there are eight different speed limits set for the traffic using the road.

I have said that the road divides the borough and the community east from west, and it does so in a very real sense. On the east side of it, there is the large industrial estate where almost 8,000 people work. There are residential areas in Eastham Village and Bromborough Pool, and, in addition, to the industrial estate there are several major employers on the same side. There is the Cheshire County Council ambulance and fire brigade depot and what has been known until recently as the Carlett Park College of Further Education.

On the western side of the road, there is the main residential area of the borough. There is the Unilever complex of factories, where about 7,000 people work. There are several shopping centres, all the secondary schools, many of the civic and other amenities, and the whole of the residential half of the Wirral peninsula.

All this means that this north-south road necessarily has crossing it a large volume of motor traffic. For instance, I understand that there are about 1,000 cars a day entering the road at some point to travel southwards and leave it in order to enter the Vauxhall factory at Ellesmere Port. Apart from the motor traffic, there is considerable pedestrian traffic across the road.

The difficulty arises because this road, with its volume of cross-traffic both motorised and pedestrian, is carrying a traffic load along its length far in excess of that which it was designed to carry. In August last year, it was carrying 33,500 vehicles a day, that is, rather more than 50 per cent. in excess of its designed capacity of 20,000 vehicles a day, rather more than 50 per cent. in excess of the total traffic flowing up and down the M6 motorway, and 8,000 vehicles a day more than the total traffic along the A56 Frodsham-Helsby road which is shortly to be replaced by a motorway.

The state of affairs on the road has occasioned great concern to my constituents in recent months and years. I have had a growing volume of protest, with many letters from employers, individuals and organisations such as the Townswomen's Guild, the Trades Council and the Chamber of Trade. I have had representations from the borough council, which has taken vigorous action through its chairman and vice-chairman of the highways committee and through its officials. I have had representations from the police authorities, and, very recently, a petition was presented to me which had been gathered together by Mr. R. D. Jones, of 57 Heather Dene, Bromborough and Mr. and Mrs. Colquhoun, of 608 New Chester Road. This petition, signed by almost 1,000 people, drew attention to the mounting difficulties experienced on the road.

At the end of this mounting volume of protest, only a very few days ago, as many people had foreseen, a tragedy occurred at the Eastham end of the road, when two young students at the Carlett Park College of Further Education were fatally injured when trying to cross from the bus stop on the west side to go to the college on the east. They lived in the constituency of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Wirral (Mr. Selwyn Lloyd). I know that the whole House will extend to their families very deep sympathy in their tragic loss.

Following that, there has been further protest and mounting anxiety, and no fewer than 600 students from the college formed a very orderly procession last week and marched more than three miles to the town hall and presented yet another petition with 1,000 signatures demanding early action to deal with the particularly dangerous circumstances at the college end of the road. That procession and that band of students were described by all who saw them as having behaved with the utmost restraint, dignity and understanding and with the utmost willingness to do what they could to improve safety conditions.

In consequence of that protest, the borough council and the police authorities have acted vigorously. There is now an arrangement whereby a police officer is on regular duty at the pedestrian cross- ing nearest to the college at all peak pedestrian hours. I think it right to say that, bearing in mind that the students are not children, but young people, and bearing also in mind the arrangements that have been made by the police authorities and the wise willingness of the students to assure the authorities that they will co-operate in road safety measures, there is now no need for panic about safety because immediate measures have been taken to deal with the difficulties at the Carlett Park College end.

I should like to contemplate for a moment the long-term prospects for the roadway. I understand that it is not to be made into a dual carriageway road this side, at least, to 1970. I understand that the relief which will come to it from the construction of the mid-Wirral motorway cannot materialise this side of 1970. In short, there is no early prospect, and probably no late prospect, of any substantial relief.

Figures I have been given show that even when the northern tunnel, the Wallasey tunnel, is constructed, and when the mid-Wirral motorway is constructed and if a third river crossing, the southern crossing, is constructed, by 1982 the A.41 at the place about which I am speaking will be carrying almost 50,000 vehicles a day, which is well up on its present figure. If the southern river crossing, the third one, is not constructed, the A.41 will be carrying 75,000 vehicles a day by 1982, well over twice its present load. So the long-term prospect seems to be that the community of Bebington, which is already cut in half by this river of hurtling motor traffic running through the middle of it, will be severed even more decisively and the immediate danger will continue to grow.

I suggest to the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, and, through him, to his officials in the Ministry, that consideration could be given for the long term to the following possibilities. They may or may not have merit, but they have been suggested to me, and they certainly deserve to be studied. First, there is the possibility of taking some of the traffic that at present uses the A41 away on a completely new road to a point nearer to the banks of the Mersey. Would it not perhaps be possible and desirable to think in terms of forcing an entirely new relief road from the southern end of the New Ferry bypass across to what is known locally as Stork Road down to the Eastham Ferry Road and then further south towards Ellesmere Port?

Secondly, and as an alternative, would it not be possible perhaps to think in terms of improving the local roads north and south to the west of the New Chester Road, the A41, and to the east of the line proposed for the mid-Wirral motorway? Thirdly, would it perhaps be possible to think in terms in the end, when we face this enormous prospective traffic increase, of putting a road on stilts above part of the A41 New Chester Road along its present course? So much for the long-term prospects.

I now ask the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to consider some short-term matters. First, the speed limit along the stretch of the road with which we are concerned. I have said that it varies no fewer than eight times throughout its length. Because of this, it is exceedingly difficult to enforce it. The number of prosecutions for exceeding the speed limit last year was fewer than in the year before, but one understands the difficulties that the police have, and will continue to have, as long as the limit does not remain uniform.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary's colleague told me not long ago that the Minister has now given notice of intention to make an order imposing a 40 m.p.h. limit along the whole length of the road throughout the Borough of Bebington. When does the hon. Gentleman expect that order to be made effective? When shall we see a uniform speed limit throughout the borough limited to 40 m.p.h. along the length of the road? When we have such a uniform speed limit, can we expect more use to be made of radar or, perhaps, of plain clothes policemen in appropriate cars, or even the road to be more regularly patrolled by motor-cycle patrols, the mere presence of which would persuade motorists to drive with greater care?

The second short-term factor is in terms of traffic lights and traffic engineering. Recently, as a result of representations made by the borough council, the Joint Parliamentary Secretary's colleague was able to tell me that agreement has now been given to the construction of at least four traffic light or traffic control points during the next two years at a substantial cost. Is further consideration being given, however, to the possibility of additional central islands to provide some cover for turning traffic? I have particularly in mind the difficulty arising at Bromborough Village Road South, where buses enter and leave the main A41.

Is consideration being given—it may not be an easy solution—to the possibility at some of these major junctions of putting in roundabouts? Finally, is consideration being given, particularly at the Port Causeway junction, to the possibility of a flyover or underpass at that particularly busy junction?

The last short-term matter about which I want to ask the Joint Parliamentary Secretary is pedestrian crossings and the provision of means for pedestrians to cross the A41. Does the Minister have in mind the possibility of putting a pedestrian underpass along the line of the present railway cutting near Magazine Road, which is shortly to be taken out of railway use and could then, perhaps, become available for use as a pedestrian underpass? Apart from that site, is consideration being given to the possibility of constructing bridges or underpasses for pedestrians at any other points along the road?

I should like to deal particularly with the position at Carlett Park College of Further Education. I understand that in the light of last week's tragedy, a further meeting about this was held yesterday between the county council and borough council officials, borough council elected members, the divisional road engineer and the staff and governing body of the college. It appears now to have been agreed that the best immediate solution for access by the students from the bus stop to the college should take the form of a bridge across the road, with access to the bridge by means of ramps rather than by steps.

How quickly does the Minister visualise that bridge being constructed? To some extent, the answer to that question depends upon the next one: by whom is the bridge to be paid for? Will it be paid for, as one has been led to expect, by the county education authority, or is there a prospect that the Ministry of Transport will pay part of it? It is a bridge that would be used not merely by people having access to the college, but by other pedestrians. The necessity for the bridge arises from the growing volume of traffic along the trunk road, for which the Ministry of Transport has responsibility.

Perhaps I may draw these isolated points together by saying a few words about the major problem which a road of this kind represents in a community of this nature. How is the community—the nation—to survive the growth of this kind of motorised monstrosity? How is the community such as the Borough of Bebington to do it? Should we not as a nation, as a community, be preparing some imaginative emergency measures for dealing with this terrific growth of traffic along roads which bisect communities in this way? Is study being given to methods of producing low-cost pedestrian bridges at high speed in many places up and down the country where this problem arises and is likely to grow in the years immediately ahead? Should we not study this problem in depth at one or two places? Would it not be worth while the Road Research Laboratory or some comparable organisation actually making a study of the implications of the A41 road where it runs through communities such as the one I have described?

I end by bringing the Joint Parliamentary Secretary back to the two specific questions with which he may be able to deal immediately. Would he see there is a uniform 40 miles an hour speed limit along this section of the A41, and could he see there is at least one pedestrian bridge across near the Carlett Park College of Further Education? Could we have an assurance that it will be forthcoming as quickly as physically it can be made available?

2.1 a.m.

Mr. Edmund Dell (Birkenhead)

I should like to say a word on this subject, because although this stretch of the road is not in my constituency, nevertheless the constituency of the hon. and learned Member for Bebington (Mr. Howe) neighbours mine and many of my constituents work in this area and are, therefore, deeply concerned with the problem which the hon. and learned Member has raised. Indeed some of them approached me on this matter, and as a result I approached the Ministry of Transport to see what action might be taken to reduce the very considerable dangers which exist along this stretch of the road.

I was very pleased to hear the Ministry has taken very rapid action over the proposal to introduce a 40 mp.h. limit. It is very commendable that it should have taken action in that respect as rapidly as it has. Nevertheless, it is quite clear that a great deal more needs to be done to secure the safety of pedestrians, and, indeed, of motorists, along this road, and nothing could indicate that more plainly than the very tragic accident which recently took place there.

I would, therefore, like to join with the hon. and learned Member in making a very strenuous plea to the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to give very favourable consideration to this proposal which has been made for a footbridge across the road. It seems to me that this is really the only reasonable method of dealing with the situation. This is not, I think, a situation in which a pedestrian crossing would be any good, because of the speed of the traffic on the road. It is not the sort of situation in which pedestrian-controlled traffic lights are the likely answer. I think that the answer on this type of road, with traffic travelling at this speed along a road of this width, can only be a footbridge, and I would be very grateful if I could hear today from my hon. Friend that this proposal is being considered by the Ministry both at the point at which the college is, and, indeed, elsewhere on the road, because otherwise I am very much afraid that further accidents are only too likely to take place.

2.4 a.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. John Morris)

May I, first, join with the hon. and learned Member for Bebington (Mr. Howe) in expressing sympathy with the families of the two students who were so tragically killed recently on this road, and in expressing sympathy, too, to their fellow students.

Death and injury on the roads are one of the greatest problems which we have to face today. The number of accidents continues to rise, and the Government have had to take drastic action on the various aspects of road safety. It would be wrong for me to canvass the need for legislation. The House will know that recently we have had a Road Safety Bill which has been considered and which will again be introduced in the next Parliament to deal with a small part of the problems arising from road safety.

I am grateful to the hon. and learned Member for raising this subject, because it gives me an opportunity to answer some of his questions and to tell the House about the speedy and prompt action which the Government have taken on the various suggestions that have been made from time to time about road safety in this area.

If I do not deal completely with all the suggestions of the hon. and learned Member tonight, I am sure that he will forgive me. Some additional points were put forward of which I did not have notice, and I will write to him about them.

If I may go back quickly over the history of this part of the road, the hon. and learned Member wrote to the Ministry last autumn, enclosing a letter from the town clerk of Bebington. His suggestion was that we should instal a comprehensive scheme of traffic control, or, failing that, install traffic lights at certain junctions, together with a uniform 40 m.p.h. speed limit through the length in question. Both of those points were canvassed by the hon. and learned Member tonight.

As a result of that, a meeting was held in Bebington on 13th November, 1965. It was attended by various local representatives, a representative of the divisional road engineer, and the hon. and learned Gentleman. During the discussion, it was established that a long-term road scheme was being considered by the D.R.E., and, bearing in mind the estimated future traffic flows, it seemed likely that dual three-lane carriageways would be necessary.

It would be wrong for me at this juncture to dwell further on the long-term needs of the area. Certainly, the D.R.E., as the Ministry's representative, is seized of the important traffic problems arising in the area and the need for long-term drastic action.

As the scheme was unlikely to be included in any programme until after 1969–70, it was decided that interim measures should be carried out. The borough engineer and the local police agreed to carry out an investigation, taking into account traffic movements, and prepare a programme. The Ministry agreed to look again into the suggestion of a 40 m.p.h. limit.

Subsequently, the borough engineer's proposals for interim measures were submitted to the D.R.E., and approval was given to most of them. In most cases, the D.R.E. has been able to include them in his under-£100,000 programme, the majority of them in the year 1966–67. These proposals provide, in the main, for the installation of traffic signals at certain junctions, and I think that that meets the bulk of the first part of the town clerk's suggestion.

We also agreed that a uniform speed limit would be appropriate on this stretch of the A41, and, as the hon. and learned Gentleman said, the Minister's intention to have an Order for this length of road was announced by my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary in a letter to the hon. and learned Gentleman of 24th February of this year.

The hon. and learned Gentleman asked when that would come into operation. The Order having been advertised in the usual way, it will come into operation on 7th April next. I am sure that the hon. and learned Gentleman will agree that we have acted with great expedition on the suggestions canvassed by the town clerk in his letter and the subsequent meetings which have gone very fully into all these matters.

The hon. and learned Member referred to the recent tragic accident on this road, to which I, too, referred early in my speech. In a letter dated 21st February, 1966, from the borough engineer of Bebington we were informed that the college authorities and the police had suggested the provision of pedestrian-controlled traffic signals at a point near the entrance to the college. The D.R.E. considered that this would not provide a satisfactory solution to the problem because the crossing would be little used during long periods of the day, and he therefore did not agree to the suggestion. This is a problem which arises all over the country, and certain standards have to be adhered to to ensure that this kind of crossing, if it is installed on a particular road, is respected and observed. These are the usual considerations which D.R.E.s have to take into account in tendering advice.

Following the accident on 28th February, a meeting was held on the 8th of this month. It was attended by officers of the county council, the police, representatives of the college governors, and the D.R.E., and it was decided to recommend the provision of a footbridge. Details of this are now being examined, and I am sure that the hon. and learned Gentleman, with his usual courtesy, will not expect me tonight to be able to give his an immediate decision, as it were "off the cuff", as this suggestion emanated from a meeting which was held only a couple of days ago.

I am very much aware of the traffic problems in this area, to which the hon. and learned Gentleman referred to so graphically, and the D.R.E. informs me that there is a great problem there. I think that the House can be satisfied that we have acted promptly on the suggestions which have been put to us from time to time, and I have indicated what action we have taken about them. I shall bear in mind the suggestions which have been made tonight. I am sure that they are valuable, and we shall act as speedily on them as we have on others.