HC Deb 23 November 1966 vol 736 cc1395-400

The following Question stood upon the Order Paper:

118. Mr. STRAUSS

To ask the Minister of Transport what progress she has made in her discussions for the establishment of road construction units; and whether she will make a statement.

The Minister of Transport (Mrs. Barbara Castle)

With permission, I will now answer Question No. 118.

I am glad to say that as a result of my discussions with the County Councils Association on my proposal for the establishment of road construction units to strengthen the organisation for the design and construction of major trunk road and motorway schemes, I have agreed with the Association the broad lines on which these units will be set up. I am grateful for the constructive way they have approached the discussions. The respective staff Associations have also been consulted and have indicated that they accept the broad principles of what we are proposing. There will, of course, be further discussions with them on the detailed arrangements affecting their members.

At present, trunk road and motorway schemes are carried out either by local authorities acting as my agents or by consulting engineers. This system has been able to handle the road programme so far, but its size and rate of growth are now such that it has become essential to make a better use of the scarce engineer resources available, and to streamline the administrative processes involved. At the same time, I am sure that it is important to preserve, although in a new form, the fruitful partnership between my Department and the county councils that has existed for nearly 30 years.

Under the new arrangements now agreed I hope eventually to set up six large-scale units to cover between them the whole of England. Within its area each unit will be responsible to me for the preparation, design and supervision of construction on the bulk of the larger trunk road and motorway schemes; questions of planning in the wider sense—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. It is very difficult for hon. Members who wish to hear this statement if other hon. Members will talk.

Mrs. Castle

Questions of planning in the wider sense, and programming, will remain the responsibility of Ministry headquarters and on these issues county councils as such will continue to participate as appropriate. The units will be jointly manned by Ministry and county council officers.

Staff allocated by the county councils to the units will work in or from their county offices and will remain for purposes of pay and career prospects members of the county council's staff. They will be under the supervision of the county surveyor, who in this respect, will himself be a part time member of the unit acting under the direction of the head of the unit. I do not expect there to be more than about three participating counties in each unit area.

The head of each unit, whether he is appointed from the Ministry or county fields, will become an officer of my Department and will be responsible to me for all the work undertaken by the unit. He will be in full overall control of this work and be the engineer for all contracts: the staff allocated by the county councils will, therefore, work under his direction on all the unit schemes. Ministry engineers will serve within the units both at the working level and in the unit headquarters.

Because the powers of county councils to allocate staff in this way were open to doubt, the necessary provision is being made in the Local Government Bill, at present in another place.

All county councils, whether or not they participate in these arrangements, will continue to act as my agents for the smaller trunk road schemes, as well as dealing with their own county roads. Non-participating counties will also be able to keep in close touch with the operation of the units through the membership of an advisory committee—

Sir S. McAdden

On a point of order. Is it in order, Mr. Speaker, for the House to be subjected to this recitation, which could quite easily be circulated in the OFFICIAL REPORT?

Mr. Speaker

That is not a point or order, but a long Answer like this might be summarised by a Minister and a fuller account published in the OFFICIAL REPORT.

Mrs. Castle

As this new arrangement alters profoundly the present structure in the construction of major road schemes Mr. Speaker, I thought that hon. Members would like to have the details and to have an opportunity of putting questions on them.

If the maximum benefit is to be derived from the new system it will be essential to place on the head of the unit prime responsibility for progressing schemes quickly and efficiently and to this end I intend that he should be given a high degree of delegated authority. I intend, also, that there shall be a streamlining of existing procedures and, consequently, a saving both in staff and time.

The system now proposed represents a major change both for my Department and for the county councils. I shall very shortly enter into discussions with the county councils concerned on the setting up of a first unit which, I hope, will be in operation in the early part of next year. As the new system may well need modification in the light of the experience that we gain, I have agreed with the County Councils Association that we will keep its operation under close review.

Mr. Gresham Cooke

On a point of order. In answer to a Question, is it in order for a Minister to make a statement which is five or six times longer than the usual Answer to a Question?

Mr. Speaker

I have already dealt with that point of order. No point of order arises on that.

Mr. Strauss

In congratulating my right hon. Friend on bringing the discussions on this most important subject to a successful conclusion, and giving us the details of the results of these discussions, may I ask whether she is aware that the changes she has suggested should bring about quite revolutionary improvements in the methods of road construction compared with what have existed in the past?

May I also ask—[HON. MEMBERS: "Too long."]—whether the salaries of the staff of county councils who will be working with these units in county council offices will be entirely paid by county councils, or whether any of the cost will fall on the Ministry of Transport?

Mrs. Castle

I thank my right hon. Friend for those remarks. I believe that this will lead to a more economical and rapid construction of major trunk roads and motorways. The question of salary details will be for further negotiation.

Mr. Peter Walker

If, in future, the right hon. Lady has a detailed and complicated statement to make, may I ask her to do it as a statement, so that we shall have the details, or, alternatively, that she should issue a White Paper?

Mrs. Castle

I will certainly bear the hon. Member's point in mind. There was no intention to keep him in the dark about this.

Mr. Dance

On a point of order. I seek your guidance, Mr. Speaker. As there were about 120 Questions to the Minister of Transport today which have been interfered with by Questions to the Lord President of the Council and to the Attorney-General, in what way can we see that the Minister of Transport answers these vitally important Questions?

Mr. Speaker

Order. The question whether one set of Questions interferes with another set is a matter of opinion. Hon. Members who put down Questions to Ministers other than the Minister of Transport regard them as important too. The question of allocation of space in the Question timetable is not a matter for the Chair.

Mr. Lubbock

May I ask the right hon. Lady two questions? Do these new road construction units cover the same areas as the economic planning regions? Secondly, can she say that administrative machinery additional to that announced will be established for Scotland?

Mrs. Castle

The answer to the first question is, "No". The six units will cover the south-eastern area, the south-western area, the eastern area, the Midland area, the north-eastern area and the northwestern area. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland has been kept informed of the progress of my discussions with the County Councils Association and is now considering whether a similar change would be appropriate in his area.

Mr. Ron Lewis

Can my right hon. Friend say on what basis the county councils will be allowed to allocate staff?

Mrs. Castle

It is one of the purposes of the scheme that the county councils should allocate staff which they have been employing on these major motorway and trunk road schemes to the units so that we can have a greater rationalisation and concentration of essential manpower.

Sir Harmar Nicholls

In a word, how fundamentally does the new system vary from the old system?

Mrs. Castle

It varies in the sense that in the past either the county councils or the consulting engineers acted as my agents. Some of them had only small stretches of a scheme to deal with. Now, by concentrating the county councils into these six major regional units and pooling their staff and the staff of my Ministry into the units, we can get a saving of scarce engineers and a better follow-through of schemes.

Mr. English

Referring back to the answer given to the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock), is my right hon. Friend aware that there are many objections to these regions being different from the standard regions and that, in particular, the East Midlands has a strong objection to being lumped in with the West Midlands?

Mrs. Castle

My anxiety was to get units of a sufficient size to enable delegation to take place, procedures to be speeded up, and manpower savings to be made. I think that after consideration with the County Councils Association we have chosen areas for these units which will give us those results.

Mr. Costain

Does the right hon. Lady appreciate that it is very difficult to digest such a complicated statement at short notice? As she has not stated many advantages for this proposal, will she tell the House in more detail what criteria she has adopted in assessing the area for the regions?

Mrs. Castle

This matter has been discussed with great care with the County Councils Association. We are satisfied that this particular grouping will give us the best continuity of work. It can always be reviewed in the light of experience.

Mr. Leadbitter

In view of the special interests of the staffs who are to work in these construction units, will my right hon. Friend say whether those allocated to a unit will be allowed to take work in unit schemes outside their county areas?

Mrs. Castle

I should think that the staff allocated to a unit will be allocated simply because that unit needs their services in that particular area.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. We have a lot to do.

Forward to