HC Deb 16 May 1966 vol 728 cc1082-92

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

11.18 p.m.

Mr. J. B. Godber (Grantham)

It is many years since I initiated a debate on the Adjournment Motion. I do so tonight to call attention to the problem of the village of Long Bennington in my constituency and to the need for a bypass for the A1 road which passes through it.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary will agree that there have been many improvements on the A1, but as these improvements take place so they concentrate the dangers and difficulties in the areas where improvements have not taken place. This clearly appears in the recent accident rate on this stretch of road at Long Bennington.

I have ascertained the accident rate over the last three-and-a-half years and have found that during the year from 1st November, 1962, to 31st October, 1963, one person was killed and 26 seriously injured. In the following year, four people were killed and eight seriously injured. In the third year, only one person was killed but 23 were seriously injured. That takes us up to 31st October last and in the six months following that date the position became very much worse, as the hon. Gentleman must be aware.

In those six months, in a total of 42 accidents recorded by the police, seven people were killed in five major accidents and 17 people were seriously injured. I ascertained these figures last week. At the weekend, however, the Grantham Journal's front-page headline was, Yet another fatality on the North Road at Long Bennington. It goes on to say that a television director, Mr. David Matthews was seriously injured and later died at Newark Hospital. This makes a total of eight people who have been killed during the six months, a deplorable increase. The local people are rightly concerned about this constantly developing threat on the road as it passes through their village.

This is so much the case that many of them have been in touch with me about it, which is why I have requested this debate. Since doing so, I have been inundated with petitions signed by local residents supporting the need for an immediate start to be made on this bypass. I have one from the village of Long Bennington itself which is sent by the chairman of the parish council and saying that the petition is signed by 90 per cent. of the electors of Long Bennington, so that it is virtually unanimous. Another comes from a county councillor, Mrs. McCallum, who sends objections from the villages of Claypole, Stubton, Dry Doddington, Westborough and Foston.

These are villages which are not on the North Road but adjoining it. The people of these villages have to use the road and they are extremely concerned about the present situation. Another local councillor, Mr. Pacey, sent a further petition and finally there is one from people describing themselves as being from the Newark district and being concerned about this matter. There is a whole list of names which I will send to the Parliamentary Secretary at the end of the debate. That is an indication of the widespread concern.

I imagine that there is complete agreement not only among local people but by the hon. Gentleman himself about the need for the bypass to be completed. The question, therefore, is what is holding it up. Why has it not been started at this stage? I have pressed successive Ministers about this matter and I have had a long correspondence with the Parliamentary Secretary and the present Minister of Transport herself in recent months in an effort to get something done.

As I understand it, the proposal to bypass the village was agreed by the Ministry's district engineer as long ago as June, 1960. In 1961, it was programmed for 1964–65 and it was planned to get the contract documents in October, 1964.

It has been held up by various measures and was among the projects delayed by the announcement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer on 27th July. But that was only one of the reasons for the delay. The right hon. Lady in her letter to me dated 14th March, this year emphasised that the present delay—the present delay—was not a result of the financial restrictions. That indicates that although a delay had been caused by the financial restrictions, something else was now responsible. The latest position was stated by the Parliamentary Secretary in his letter of 4th May when he said: The chief obstacle to speedy progress in this case has been the need for the Minister to consider the objection Mr. Dring made to the draft side roads order. The Highway Act places an obligation on the Minister to consider objections to a proposed order and the Minister has taken great care to fulfil this obligation. I emphasise the words "great care", because great care must have been taken if it has taken as long as this.

It was only in the letter which I received from the Parliamentary Secretary dated 7th January that I was told that one objection was still outstanding. Until then I had assumed that the delay was caused by the announcement of 27th July, but on 7th January the Parliamentary Secretary made it clear that there was some other difficulty when he wrote: An unexpected difficulty arose out of one of the objections, but we have now arrived at what we hope is the final stage of our consideration. That was what he said in January. But in March, when the Minister wrote to me, she said that the matter was still not settled. This was two months later. The whole problem apparently revolves around the land owned by Mr. Dring, a local farmer, which will be cut in two by the proposed road and the arguments with regard to his access, from one side of the road to the other. Naturally I consulted Mr. Dring, and his agents, Messrs. Escritt and Barrell, to get their side of the story. It appears that, although there was correspondence between the National Farmers' Union and the Minister of Transport earlier, the first approach to Mr. Dring came from the divisional road engineer on 27th January, 1965. The date is very important. In a letter to the agents the engineer said: … It would seem that subject to a standard cattle creep being provided beneath the bypass, Mr. Dring would not wish to pursue his objection to the Order. I should be glad if you would confirm this at an early date, so that the Order may be made … My understanding of this letter would be that the divisional road engineer was definitely offering a cattle creep in order to secure the withdrawal of the objection. This was replied to and there was a further letter of 1st March from the divisional road engineer, in which he regrets that in his previous letter, owing to a drafting error, the cattle creep was shown in the wrong position, in someone else's land'. He said: I am sending, herewith, a revised plan and should be glad if you would destroy sent previously. The proposed creep will be concreted with a rough surfaced finish. Please let me know that I may now count the objection to the Order as being withdrawn. The very next day a letter was sent from the agents for Mr. Dring to the engineer saying: I confirm that the objection to the Order may be taken as withdrawn. That was on 2nd March, 1965, when the understanding of Mr. Dring and his agents was that the matter had been settled and that Mr. Dring had co-operated to the full and withdrawn his objection, and that a cattle creep was to be provided.

On 25th May the district valuer came into this. He sent a note to the agents in which it was clear that the question of the cattle creep was not settled. They wrote back to the district valuer pointing out that a plan of the proposal had been sent to them by the divisional road engineer and that: … at his request we advised Mr. Dring to withdraw his objection to the scheme on the undertaking that a cattle creep would be put in. Before we continue will you kindly confirm that there is no question of any alternative being considered. That letter was sent on 8th June, 1965. No reply was received and nothing more was heard until 15th October, 1965, when the district valuer wrote to the agents saying: Further to my letter dated 25th May, 1965, to which I have referred, I wish to inform you that the Ministry will not require entry until the Autumn of 1966. That was a blow if ever there was one. There was still no mention of what was happening about the cattle creep, but a clear indication of the Government's intentions to delay the scheme. The only construction one can put upon this is that, since the Chancellor made his announcement on 27th July, all these matters were pushed back into the bottom of the "pending" file. So, it is said that the Government would not require entry until the autumn of 1966, but there was still nothing about the cattle creep. One is left to understand from that that the cattle creep matter was going ahead; otherwise, surely something would have been said to my constituent.

That is the position which obtained at 15th October of last year. Yet, in January, the Parliamentary Secretary referred to "an unexpected difficulty". When it was unexpected, I do not know, but it had arisen, apparently, as long ago as March 1965, when the offer of the cattle creep was made and accepted, and nothing had been done to resolve the matter with Mr. Dring or his agents.

Again, in the Parliamentary Secretary's letter in January, it was referred to as a final stage, but in March the Minister herself had to say that consultations were still in progress. I should like to ask, with whom were they still in progress?

I can only say to the Parliamentary Secretary that this is an extraordinary story of muddle somewhere along the line. Whether it is with the divisional road engineer or the district valuer, I do not know, but someone has been holding up the matter unnecessarily, and that is the reason why work has not been able to proceed.

The importance of it now is that, under the new scheme for allocating funds for these jobs, once the amount of money allocated his been used up, no project can start. It was very important that this scheme should be cleared, so that, immediately the funds were made available, work could proceed. That is what has not happened in this case, and that is what is such a serious matter here.

I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will be able not only to give an explanation, but to give a clear assurance that these matters have now been cleared out of the way. Whatever may have happened in the past, the important thing now is that the scheme should be cleared and that work should start at the earliest possible moment. The main purpose of my raising the matter on the Adjournment is to enable the Parliamentary Secretary to give some comfort to the local people who are so deeply concerned at this risk to travel in their area.

In passing, I must refer to a Written Answer which appeared in HANSARD on Friday last giving details of the extent of delays on motorway and trunk road schemes which were deferred in the Chancellor's original statement on 27th July. There are 38 motorway and trunk road schemes listed in that Answer, one of which is the A1, Long Bennington bypass. According to the dates supplied in that Answer, that scheme is being delayed by a longer period than any other. I have shown by the accident rate that the scheme is desperately urgent; yet it has the longest deferment period of all.

The original target starting date is given as December 1965. The revised starting date is said to be late 1966 or early 1967. Even looking at it in the best possible light, it means a 12 months' deferment and not, as we were originally led to believe, six months.

I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to find some way of expediting the matter so that it can be resolved. If he is able only to announce to those concerned that the work will be starting earlier than the date given in the Written Answer to which I have referred, it will be something for them to get hold of and will help allay the feelings of distress which they have.

I want to give the hon. Gentleman time to reply, and I apologise for speaking at length, but there is great concern in the area, and it is that which has caused me to raise the matter.

11.35 p.m.

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

I well understand the impatience of the right hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Godber) and his constituents about this matter. There is also present my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Mr. Bishop) who, together with his constituents, has an interest in this, but the fact is that in all these matters somebody has to be at the end of the queue.

Long Bennington has the misfortune, historically, to be on one of the few remaining stretches of the A1 between London and Newcastle-upon-Tyne which have not yet been modernised. Its bypass is one of a number of major schemes which we in the Ministry of Transport have in the pipeline for completion in the next few years, and it may be of interest to the House to learn that when all the various schemes now in the current phase of the trunk road programme have been completed only about six miles of single carriageway will be left on the entire length of the A1 between London and Newcastle.

Plans for a new trunk road have to be made several years before the expected date for work to begin. The right hon. Gentleman will understand that very well. In some cases, five years of preparatory work is not out of the ordinary in such schemes. This time is taken up with the application to duties which are imposed on us by Parliament, the statutory procedures for land acquisition, the preparation of engineering designs, the drawing up contracts, and so on.

The preparatory work for the Long Bennington bypass began in 1962, which was the time when the scheme was included in the trunk road programme. After the initial survey had been carried out, the first statutory hurdle to be surmounted was the publication of the proposed route in the form of a draft Order under Section 7 of the Highways Act, 1959. After publication, objectors were given the statutory three months' period in which to lodge objections, and the objections had then to be considered. We in the Ministry have a very important duty to consider these objections conscientiously.

The Order was eventually made in the summer of 1963. This enabled further detailed design work on the associated road pattern to be carried out, and in August 1964 a further draft Order under Section 9 was published setting out the Minister's proposals for the side road alterations. A second Section 7 Order was also necessary to provide for a new slip road to connect the main bypass with local roads near Long Bennington village.

As a result of an objection to the draft Orders—and here I come to the nub of the matter with which the right hon. Gentleman has been dealing—we had to consider the severance which the new roads would cause to farming in the area, and how this severance could best be mitigated. After negotiations, the farmer concerned, who has been mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman, agreed to withdraw his objection if a cattle creep were constructed to provide access between the severed parts of his farm.

The provision of cattle creeps is not a cheap matter. The one in question is estimated to cost £8,500, and we in the Ministry had to consider very carefully whether the expenditure of this public money in this way would be justified. We have just been paying tribute to the Comptroller and Auditor General. We have to be extremely scrupulous about the devotion of public funds to these matters.

Since the provision of such a facility is closely bound up with the payment of compensation to the landowner for the loss of land, and for injurious affection caused by severance, we were in duty bound to consult the Valuation Office, and we also had to obtain advice on the question of whether farming could be carried on efficiently without a cattle creep. We had to find out whether the objection would be withdrawn if a cattle creep were provided, but we also had an obligation to find out whether it was justified as a matter of public policy.

From his interest in agriculture, the right hon. Gentleman will know that the Advisory Service of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food plays an important part in this matter, and in this case we as a Department availed ourselves of its excellent service through the Land Commissioners.

Mr. Godber

Can the hon. Gentleman say whether these consultations took place before or after the letter of 27th January, 1965, in which the divisional road engineer appeared to be offering the cattle creep as a solution?

Mr. Swingler

He was not offering it as a solution. He was finding out whether, under these circumstances, the objection would be withdrawn, but, simultaneously, consultations were taking place between my right hon. Friend's Department and the Ministry of Agriculture on the question whether, in the public interest, it was justified to devote funds to this purpose.

There was some doubt whether the proposed cattle creep would be the best solution to the problem. It has taken some time. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, there can be a conflict of technical views on matters of this kind, and on whether the money devoted gives the value that it should give. Only recently has the Regional Land Commissioner been able to certify that it would not be in the national interest to sever the farm by the construction of the road without providing a cattle creep, because of the prolonged consultations and because of the consideration that has been given to this matter.

I can tell the right hon. Gentleman and the House that now that we have this information and certificate my right hon. Friend has decided to make the draft Orders, and today the two objectors have been so notified. Although the question of severance of the farm has taken much longer to resolve than we originally expected, progress on other preparatory work has not been delayed while discussions were going on. Concurrently with the discussions the district valuer has been negotiating with owners of other plots of land affected, and where possible has entered into informal agreements for acquisition. Therefore, my right hon. Friend hopes to publish a compulsory purchase order soon, and dependent on the outcome of this—and again we are bound by certain statutory obligations—and on obtaining satisfactory assurance on land entry, we should be in a position to invite tenders for the work later on this year. If a satisfactory tender is received, work should begin within a few months.

The right hon. Gentleman has gone to considerable lengths in correspondence to ensure that we are aware of his views on the urgency of constructing the bypass. As both my right hon. Friend and I have assured him, we are keenly aware of the need to get this scheme started at the earliest opportunity. Quite apart from the economic benefit resulting from the removal of congestion, we know that the present road has a bad accident record. The existing road has a single 30 ft. carriageway, and in August last year it was carrying 16,000 vehicles a day. In the last three years 53 personal injury accidents occurred on the section which will be bypassed.

Unfortunately, there are many other stretches of road in the country which have as bad a record as, or a worse record than, this one. Nevertheless, we recognise the anxieties of the right hon. Gentleman's constituents, and the constituents of neighbouring areas, and we are only too anxious to do something. Therefore, in the meantime we are improving safety on the existing road by marking the carriageway with offset double white lines. This will be a useful safety measure to regulate overtaking and prevent head-on collisions between approaching vehicles attempting to overtake on the same section of road.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to the financial deferment measures. It is true that the scheme was included in the list of schemes announced last July whose starting dates were subject to the 6 months' postponement announced by the Chancellor, but as it has turned out it has been the objections and the discussions and consultations which have been necessary to resolve the objections which have caused the delay in fixing the starting date for the scheme, and not the financial measures of the Chancellor. In fact, the preparatory work has proceeded normally, in spite of any of these financial measures, and we therefore hope to be in a position to give the "go ahead" in the very near future.

I have tried to show how the course of preparatory work on a major bypass scheme of this kind is often beset by pitfalls—sometimes by the immense number of statutory steps we have to take in the Ministry, including consultations and prolonged negotiations with objectors, and sometimes many months of expensive public inquiries and things of that kind which are forced upon us before we are able to take action to enforce a scheme which the local citizens regard as a matter of great urgency. But we know that if the Minister of Transport were to ride roughshod over the rights of one of the right hon. Gentleman's constituents, he would probably be one of the first to complain and to raise the matter on the Adjournment on account of ruthless and arbitrary action by the Minister.

In fact, in this case, we have been at great pains to ensure that objections made by two of his constituents were given proper, fair and, as it turned out, prolonged consideration. My right hon. Friend in this respect has performed her statutory duties in a seriously conscientious way, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will recognise that scrupulous observance of the statutory requirements is not always compatible, I am afraid, with speedy progress.

Nevertheless, I am happy to be able to say in reply to the debate that we now appear, after a long period, to have reached a solution of the problems in answer to the objections. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that there will be no delay by us now in taking the further necessary statutory and other steps to get the construction of this by-pass going as soon as we can.

Mr. Godber

Does that mean that construction will actually start before the end of this year?

Mr. Swingler

First of all, we have to make the compulsory purchase order. As the right hon. Gentleman will know, there are certain statutory obligations which we have if, for example, objections are made. But if we manage to overcome the objections and are therefore able to get the speediest possible progress which we are permitted to get under the Statute we hope soon to be able to invite tenders and therefore to have the hope of starting construction before the end of the year.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at thirteen minutes to Twelve o'clock.