HC Deb 14 April 1967 vol 744 cc1618-28

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

4.3 p.m.

Mr. Edwin Brooks (Bebington)

On 11th June, 1965, Messrs. G. Maunsell and Partners were appointed consulting engineers to the Ministry of Transport and charged with an investigation to determine the line of the proposed Mid-Wirral Road … in Cheshire. A preliminary memorandum was submitted to the Minister in May, 1966, which detailed those proposals of immediate relevance to the completion of plans for the proposed new two-lane tunnel beneath the Mersey estuary. Three months later the full report was presented. It would be difficult to exaggerate the immense importance of this scheme to my constituency, and indeed, to the Wirral peninsula as a whole.

The consultants are recommending a road with dual three-lane carriageways from the end of the new Mersey tunnel approach road to an interchange with the New Chester Road and the Hooton Industrial Road at Hooton. It is also recommended that the road should be extended further southward, across the A5117 trunk road to a connection with the A41 trunk road near Backford. Further recommendations include a spur road to be built in a location between Moreton and Upton, with no connection of the existing roads through these places to the Mid-Wirral Road. The Brimstage Road would be diverted to connect to the Mid-Wirral Road at an interchange just to the south of its present alignment, with the diversion including a by-pass to the village of Brimsgate.

More generally, it is urged that the Mid-Wirral Road should be classified as a motorway, and that the spur road near Moreton should be included in this classification. It is stressed that this Mid-Wirral Motorway must meet the traffic requirements of a twin-tube northern tunnel, and that the second tube of this tunnel must be completed and opened to traffic by 1973. The consultants' calculations of traffic density and capacity have been related also, but necessarily tentatively, to a possible third Mersey crossing and to a possible Dee Estuary crossing on which further information is, I understand, soon to be published.

Assuming that the whole project is completed as far as Backford in 30 months from the commencement of contract, it will cost £11,200,000. Since the first two-lane tube between Wallasey and Liverpool will be open to traffic by 1970, the completion of this ambitious motorway spine down Wirral is going to be a race against Time's Winged Chariot, and Ministerial decisions are presumably imminent.

But if the heat is on in that sense, so, too, is much heat being generated in my constituency over the line of the new road. Here I come to my main purpose in raising this matter on the Adjournment. I am referring to the dispute over the easterly and westerly alternatives examined by the consultants for that section of the Mid-Wirral Road which crosses the Borough of Bebington. The Minister will, of course, be familiar with the alternatives, and the correspondence which I have recently forwarded to his Department will indicate the widespread concern and anxiety felt locally over this choice and its far-ranging implications.

Put briefly, the alternative alignments diverge immediately south of the Birkenhead County Borough boundary, the one running east of Storeton village along the flanks of Storeton Hill, and passing within 150 yards of Clatterbridge Hospital. The western route, by contrast, is 400 yards from the hospital at its nearest point. It appears that the consultants, for reasons unspecified at first favoured the eastern route.

However, in their report of last August, they stated that so many disadvantages were found when the eastern route was being detailed that eventualy it was abandoned in favour of the western alignment. They went on to specify in great detail, in eight paragraphs, the reasons which had led to this firm preference for the western route. The implications for the hospital loomed large, in terms of noise, access and visual obtrusion. The disadvantages of the easterly route in terms of a connection to a future third Mersey crossing near Bromborough were touched upon.

The eastern route as then envisaged would have been 700 ft. longer and would have affected 10 side roads compared to seven on the western alignment. It entailed the acquisition of 143 acres and would have severed 89 acres of farmland from the main holdings. The western route would require acquisition of 116 acres and would sever 22 acres. The consultants felt that encroachment of development was neither necessary nor inevitable to the line of the Western route, but—and this is crucial to the argument over the effects upon the Wirral Green Belt—they stated If the motorway had followed the eastern route, cutting through the farms on the eastern fringe of the agricultural area, expansion of development to the line of the motorway would have been much more probable. Their final paragraph concerned cost and it was estimated that the eastern route would cost some £450,000 more than the other. It was also claimed: the future costs of east-west links to the Rivers Dee and Mersey may be substantially curtailed, probably by a further £250,000, if the western route is adopted. It is not my intention to support or criticise these arguments, which I trust I have fairly summarised. I am simply indicating that the consultants, the experts appointed to make recommendations, were in no doubt whatsoever last August that the western route had a decisive balance of advantage.

In January, 1967, Bebington, as one of the local authorities affected by the Mid-Wirral Road—none is more crucially affected—was able to consider the report of its borough engineer and surveyor, Mr. T. H. McGrath. He expressed a personal view endorsing the consultants' preference for the western route, and in addition to listing their reasons he gave additional reasons of his own.

He dwelt upon the green belt argument which I sketched a moment ago.

With the westerly line, he said, both sides of open country are viable as agricultural land, but the areas left between the easterly line and the limits of development in Bebington are very restricted in parts and being non-viable agriculturally would really be subject to pressure. He went on to argue that the easterly line would seriously affect those areas of the green belt, such as the slopes of Storeton Hill and Raby Mere, must used by Bebington residents for recreation. For these and other reasons, he urged the council to support the westerly alignment.

He did, however, indicate that contrary views were circulating, and, as I know from my own soundings in the constituency, a large body of farmers is opposed strongly to the westerly route, as is the Wirral Green Belt Council, which has confirmed its opposition in a letter I received yesterday, and, indeed, the Wirral Society, in a letter which I received only a few moments ago. The borough surveyor added however: It is difficult to comment on the eastern line in detail, because there is no section of the road on this line included in the Report. Consequently its impact on the neighbourhood cannot be adequately assessed. Having seen the full report, in my capacity as deputy-chairman of the Birkenhead Planning Committee, I can confirm this lacuna, and I interpret it to mean that the consultants had by then ceased to give serious consideration to the possibility of the easterly route. Indeed, the lengthy exposition by the consultants of their reasons for choosing the westerly route, seems to have been included only to meet the objections which, they said, had been made—"so far informally"—by the Ministry of Agriculture against the western route.

So far, however, everything had been above board. The consultants' final report was in the hands of the Minister, and the technical officers of the various planning authorities were also considering its implications, Early this year, however, all sorts of peculiar rumours began to circulate, not least in the Merseyside Press, that the Minister had decided to support the easterly route.

Of course, I do not suggest for one moment that the Minister—and I stress the Minister, not the Ministry—has not the right to exercise final responsibility. I would, however, expect that the Minister would announce her decision personally, and, particularly where that decision conflicted with the weight of published expert opinion, give details of the fresh evidence which tipped the scales the other way.

On the first of those two points, it was a little disconcerting for the Bebington Council to be informed, in a letter dated 14th February, from the Cheshire County Surveyor to Mr. MacGrath, that in the light of a further study of the costs of the two lines, the Ministry had come to prefer the easterly route.

At that stage the views of Bebington had not been obtained and the town clerk, Mr. Gerald Chappell, was thereupon instructed to find out from the divisional road engineer whether his council would be given the opportunity of making representations generally, and whether it would be given the fullest possible information to allow it to do so. At that stage, in the middle of February, the details of the additional information which was supposed to have tipped the scales were so scanty as to be frankly derisory. The letter of 14th February stated baldly that the consultants were "now" indicating a difference of £200,000 only between the eastern and western routes, the former being still more expensive. This reduction was based on a shortening of the easterly route by 500 feet.

Against this, went on the letter, the cost benefit was in the region of £100,000 per year. It was natural that Bebington's curiosity should be aroused by this tantalisingly brief reference to the sophisticated concept of cost-benefit. Did it mean that elaborate calculations had been made, in collaboration with the vast Merseyside transportation and land-use study, about the cost-benefit implications of future Dee and Mersey crossings? No, as I was myself to discover in reply to a Parliamentary Question on 20th March. The study, it was said, was at too early a stage for an analysis of that kind. I am tempted to digress and suggest that the study, expensive and elaborate as it is, will only appear long after the crucial decisions have been taken, piecemeal, on transport in the conurbation.

But to return to Mid-Wirral, the cost benefit mystery had been solved when Mr. MacGrath explained, in a supplementary report considered by the Bebington Council on 7th March, that the Minister had asked the consultants to assess the excess vehicle miles produced in a particular year in respect of one line in comparison with another, and to value this difference at a cost of 13d. per vehicle mile.

As a result of certain calculations for the Brimstage interchange in 1973, a net extra cost for the westerly line was calculated at £95,000 in that year. This, however, would need to be reduced by the annual charge equivalent to the difference in capital cost between the two routes, and Mr. McGrath has calculated a reduction of about £18,000 a year on this basis.

But any such hidden saving to the community could well be distorted by many variables and I am bound to remain suspicious of this last-minute, primitive and simplified calculation which ignores the possible future Dee crossing, yet which the Ministry appears to regard as adequate to counter-balance all the evidence of the consultants hitherto.

Even accepting that this cost-benefit analysis is accurate and relevant, we are at best left with the conclusion that the overall cost advantages of the western route are only marginal. But the essential arguments, in such a finely poised cost comparison, are those detailed in the first seven paragraphs of the consultants' advocacy of the western route. For the Minister to appear to dismiss these so abruptly as was implied to Bebington Council is surely odd. Assurances about the scope for Bebington to put its views at a public inquiry following the Minister's decision is like offering a postmortem to someone denied a precautionary check-up."

I have no doubt that the Minister will indicate, as was indicated to Bebington Council in a letter from the divisional road engineer dated 22nd February, that it was never intended that the views of Bebington would be ignored. I am also aware that on 5th April last, lengthy discussions took place between Bebington, Cheshire and the D.R.E. and the consultants, and that further talks are planned.

But I suggest that the Ministry seems to have been careless, even peremptory at one stage, in the way it has handled this matter with the people most intimately concerned in the decision.

I stress that I am not trying to advocate one route rather than the other. There are, I know, weighty arguments on both sides, and I do not envy the Minister in reaching a decision. My right hon. Friend has gone out of her way, since her recent visit to Merseyside, to acquaint herself with the views—on both sides—of my constituents, and I pay tribute to the interest she has shown throughout these weeks of controversy. I know that my constituents would be equally interested to have a clarification of the Ministry's approach to this vital and urgent problem for Wirral.

4.17 p.m.

Mr. Selwyn Lloyd (Wirral)

Part of this new road goes through my constituency and I am, therefore, grateful for this chance to intervene briefly to comment on it. I promise to be brief and, therefore, my remarks are bound to be rather staccato.

Strong objections have been voiced to me, particularly about the general merits of having such a road at all. It is felt that it is nonsense to have a dual three-lane 70 m.p.h. road leading to a dual one-lane 30 m.p.h. tunnel. It is felt that the existing roads should have been improved first, that the Ministry's priorities are wrong and that substantial improvement should have taken place on the Chester-Whitchurch-Newport-road to the Midlands rather than indulging in this expensive scheme first of all. It is also considered wrong to take good agricultural land for this purpose.

I will not go into the merits of these arguments. Time does not allow me to do so. It is certain, as the hon. Member for Bebington (Mr. Brooks) pointed out, that this road through the green belt will completely change the character of much of the peninsula. There will indeed be a very heavy price to pay in terms of amenity for the new road.

What disturbs me mainly about the project is that there will need to be at least one more Mersey crossing—tunnel, bridge or, perhaps, both. The idea of a Dee crossing is very much under consideration and we expect to receive a report soon. It seems wrong that the Government should commit themselves to one or other version of this road, or even to the road itself, pending some decisions being taken about those crossings. It may well be, whatever course they take, that it will be proved wrong by subsequent decisions. It would be more logical to speed up the decision about the crossings, difficult and complicated though that is, before coming to a decision on this new road.

4.19 p.m.

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

I welcome this opportunity to make a statement about the Mid-Wirral road. The anxieties expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Bebington (Mr. Brooks) have been expressed both persistently and energetically. He has been making continual representations on the subject and I hope that this afternoon I can clear up some of the outstanding points.

I do not have time to go into the general case for the Mid-Wirral road, but I will be delighted to write to the right hon. and learned Member for Wirral (Mr. Selwyn Lloyd) about the general case, making available to him such traffic figures and calculations as we have. I propose this afternoon to deal only briefly with the general case and to come straight away to the controversy with which my hon. Friend is concerned.

I assure the House that my right hon. Friend has been paying great attention to the points that have been raised. The proposed Mid-Wirral Road is, in our view, an important scheme. It forms part of an overall plan for improving communications between the Merseyside conurbation and the rest of the country.

In February, my right hon. Friend announced the inclusion of the South Lancashire motorway in the trunk road preparation pool. This will connect the Merseyside conurbation with the M6, Manchester and beyond. The new Liverpool-Wallasey tunnel under the Mersey, now under construction, and the Mid-Wirral Road, which is included in the forward programme, will provide similar access to the Wirral peninsula, West Cheshire and Wales. We aim to have the Mid-Wirral Road built, at least as far south as Hooton, by the time the new tunnel is completed, as the effectiveness of the tunnel will certainly depend on adequate connections through the northern part of the Wirral.

The line of the road from the Liverpool—Wallasey tunnel down to the southern boundary of Wallasey was fixed under the Mersey Tunnel Act, 1965, but the line of the road south of the Wallasey boundary is not yet settled, and I can well understand why this alignment is the subject of much local concern and controversy, and, as my hon. Friend has explained so clearly, in Bebington the choice between two alternative routes is a highly controversial issue. He has already described the very strong feeling aroused by the proposed eastern and western alignments.

We were aware of this problem when we asked consultants to examine the two alternative lines, and, as my hon. Friend has said, the consultants came down in favour of the western alignment. But our own examinations of this question showed that there was much to be said for the eastern alternative as well. The eastern route would be about 90 yards longer than the western route, but its extra cost could be more than justified because of savings in traffic costs and because more people would use it.

From the A41 trunk road in Bebington it is a smaller distance to the eastern alignment of the Mid-Wirral Road than to the western alignment. So people going to and from Bebington who at present use the A41 would have a greater incentive to use the eastern alignment rather than the western. Both their travelling time and overall traffic costs would be less. We want, of course, to remove traffic from A41 wherever possible. The more we can transfer to the new road, the more we ease congestion on the existing trunk road and make it safer. So, on analysis, from the traffic point of view, the eastern line appears more effective than the western one. Planning arguments have been advanced as well, and we have heard claims that the effect on agriculture favours the eastern line.

On the other side, we have received vigorous representations against the eastern route, especially on the question, mentioned by my hon. Friend, of the Clatterbridge Hospital. It should be possible to avoid any adverse effect on the hospital, but nevertheless this is a problem.

As I said before, this new Mid-Wirral road has aroused a deal of local discussion, the results of which have been so admirably presented to the House today by my hon. Friend. Much of the local reaction has been in favour of the western alternative, but there has been support for the eastern one as well, notably from those concerned with the future of agriculture in the Wirral.

It is, of course, unusual for alternative routes to be canvassed publicly at a stage like this, so I want to summarise the statutory procedures for fixing the line on new roads. This will reassure the hon. Member that my right hon. Friend will take no decision until all those affected have made their views known.

The Highways Act of 1959 lays down a procedure for publication in draft form of any order which the Minister proposes to make fixing the line of a new road, or the consequential effects of a new road on the roads it would cross by way of junctions, diversions, stopping up, etc. Such draft orders are open to objection for a period of three months. Any objections which are not withdrawn before the end of the objection period are considered by my right hon. Friend before she decides whether or not to make the order, either as advertised or with modification. The Minister may, and in some cases, must, have a public inquiry before she decides whether to make the order. The cases where a public inquiry must be held include those where there is an un-withdrawn objection from the council of any county district in which any part of the proposed road is situated.

It will be seen, therefore, that the statutory provisions offer a full opportunity for all views affecting new road proposals to be expressed and examined, in particular views put forward by local authorities of any kind. We are now in the course of preparing our Mid-Wirral road proposals for publication in accordance with the law. I do not propose—it would be quite wrong this afternoon—to attempt to express an opinion on the merits of the argument for and against each of the two alternative suggested routes, but I can assure my hon. Friend that we shall consider them very carefully in deciding what line through Bebington to include in our published proposals.

I must emphasise one crucial point. Publication of a draft line does not imply that my right hon. Friend the Minister has made up her mind. Indeed, as a general rule, which I certainly would expect to be followed in this case, the Minister is not even asked to approve the choice of alternatives for publication, since her personal involvement at that stage could be held to prejudice her ultimate decision. But within the Ministry a choice between alternatives must be made prior to publication, even in a case like this where the arguments are so finely balanced.

This choice has to be made or else the statutory procedures cannot be carried out and no progress could be made at all. But the publication of one particular alternative, whichever it may be, is entirely without prejudice to the most careful consideration by the Minister of all views expressed and of the outcome of any public inquiry should one be necessary. Only then do we reach the stage of final decision when my right hon. Friend draws her conclusion on the basis of the proposition put forward. I hope that I have set the minds of hon. Members who represent the area at rest. We are very anxious to get the right decision in this case and also to have the views of all those affected, whether they favour or oppose the line originally suggested and wish to put forward any argument about the character of the road, its design, size, line of route and so on.

As my right hon. Friend's mind will be open to those representations, the draft order will be made precisely so that we may get the comments of all those concerned and consider the views of local authorities. If objections by local authorities are sustained, the public inquiry for which the law provides will be held.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes past Four o'clock.