HC Deb 27 November 1967 vol 755 cc197-206

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

11.19 p.m.

Captain Walter Elliot (Carshalton)

This short debate which I am about to initiate concerns the Banstead District only, which is in my constituency, but in fact the considerations do apply, I think, to the whole of the London green belt. There is no doubt that unless constant vigilance is exercised the green belt will be destroyed.

A short time ago we debated the Second Reading of the Countryside Bill, the object of which is to provide recreation and enjoyment of the countryside, and access to the countryside. But, as the Minister then said, we have to be careful that by our actions we do not destroy what we seek to preserve. Nowhere is this more important than in the green belt, in the Banstead area and round the whole of London.

It is important not only for the local residents; indeed, perhaps it is least important for them. It is most important for Londoners. Greater London is not Britain, but it contains about 10 million people—nearly a fifth of the population of Britain. The Banstead district is about 12,000 acres, and 75 per cent. of that is in the green belt. It contains common land and National Trust land. Although the area enjoys statutory protection it is a constant battle to preserve it. Much pressure comes from private developers. Although extreme vigilance is always necessary this pressure, so far, has been successfully resisted. But the resistance is expensive, and much money has to be raised locally to pay for it. Great credit is due to the various local organisations for their vigilance and energy in fighting to save the green belt.

Sometimes people are inclined to take the view that the local people in a certain area fight to save something for themselves. Naturally those people are the first to take up the fight, and I am sure that if they do not nobdy else will. But I think that they fight for the green belt on behalf of Londoners as well as themselves. The erosion of our countryside is a national problem, and the battle to preserve it is, or should be, a national one. This is recognised in the Countryside Bill.

In this battle the people living in the green belt, and especially in the Banstead area, have been greatly helped by successive Ministers of Housing and Local Government, who have always rejected appeals to develop areas in the green belt for housing. On occasion it has needed considerable courage to resist the great pressures to get this land. We know how urgent the need is for it, yet the demand has rightly been resisted, and as a result of this concerted action, although there has been threat and pressure there has so far been no destruction.

This is not to say that the whole area is sterilised for development. I will give some brief figures for housing. In the Banstead area over the ten years to the end of 1966 just under 2,000 houses were built. In the present year 186 houses are being built. All that has been done without taking any of the green belt. That is a very considerable figure. I estimate that it amounts to about 8 per cent. of the 12,000 acres. It has been done by filling in unwanted bits of land, gardens and so on. It shows that in preserving the green belt it is not necessary to sterilise the whole area. But when the Government—any Government—attack it is a very different proposition and very difficult to resist.

Banstead is now threatened by two great concrete motorways that will slash through the area. The inquiry into the objections has just been completed. No doubt the Minister will study the results carefully. I am certainly not tonight going to repeat the evidence, but I want to bring out one or two salient points.

The M23 motorway slices off a strip of great natural beauty in the Chipstead area. The original line proposed took the route exactly over a school in the Chipstead Valley. It still sliced off a bit of the green belt and it went over the school, and I think it was generally agreed that that was not acceptable. One of the supporting pillars of the motorway was plumb in the middle of the school playground. So the question arose of moving the school or changing the route.

The Ministry of Transport has proposed moving the route 450 ft. to the west and further into the green belt, thus increasing the area which is sliced off. Four hundred and fifty feet does not sound very much unless one knows the area, but I assure the Minister that it is very important, and I hope that the Ministry will reconsider this. There is another site available for the school, and in any case the new route interferes with the school playground. Nor, I believe, will much, if any, more money be needed if the route is moved. But if we are serious about preserving the green belt a conscious effort must be made to pre serve it. The school, I assure the Minister, will be better for being moved. The green belt cannot be moved it can only be preserved or sacrificed.

The damage caused by the M23 will be small compared with that which will be caused by the M25, the South Orbital Road, if the proposed route for this motorway is adhered to. It goes right across the southern part of the district through land designated in the development plan review as of outstanding natural beauty, and it is exactly that. What does statutory protection mean, people ask, if that can happen? It is this sort of thing, I believe, that makes them cynical and apathetic under a democratic government. Countless thousands of Londoners come to this area every year for peace and quiet. Indeed, among the means of transport to get there is a bus which runs direct from crowded Tooting out to this beautiful stretch of country. The whole area, I emphasise, is only two square miles.

I shall give only two quotations from the many hundreds of letters and representations that have reached me. The first is from Sir Charles Wheeler, and I think it describes the country well. At the inquiry he expressed the view that the North Downs were of great historic and scenic value which should remain as a natural heritage and be preserved for ever. He thought the Ministry route would result in a great loss of public amenity, and thought the area of the North Downs was one of the last of the natural reserves where Londoners can enjoy the amenities of the countryside. My other quotation is from a letter from three people in the Banstead area, living about three or four miles from this route and quite unaffected by it, but they describe the situation very well. The letter states: The most valuable characteristic of these places is that they are virtually unspoilt, being largely free of main roads and buildings and unusually tranquil for a district so close to London. The intrusion of a Motorway anywhere in the area would completely destroy this peace and seclusion and the Planners' promise to landscape the Motorway is quite derisory, for by then the essential quality of the district will have been irreparably destroyed. The beauty of our country is being so rapidly eroded at an ever increasing pace that we cannot afford the destruction of natural landscape as beautiful as this and the necessity of preserving it intact for the delight and recreation of future generations must override all other considerations. The Motorway, therefore, ought to be re-routed to the south of the escarpment. The Joint Parliamentary Secretary is a Scot and, with all the open spaces of his country, he may well think that two square miles is not very much. But if he can come to this district I should be delighted to take him and show him the area, which my constituents and I wish to defend.

The route to the south of the North Downs, which is the one proposed by my local council in objecting to the present route, would only be 2.7 miles longer. That is nothing for a motor vehicle in terms of time. The council says that it may be slightly more expensive, but I doubt this because, in going over the heath in my constituency, the motorway would have to climb to nearly 700 feet. In any case, how can we measure expense against the preservation of this area for future generations?

We all want roads and when they come near to the particular area in which we live we are all inclined to say, "I know we want it but please put it somewhere else". That is a natural reaction. But in this case I am asking for the preservation of the green belt. It is protected by Statute for reasons of supreme importance to millions of people, for future generations as well as the present.

I appeal to the hon. Gentleman to act in order to preserve the green belt in the same robust, uncompromising and farsighted manner as it has been preserved by successive Ministers of Housing and Local Government. If he does this, he will receive the gratitude of millions of Londoners and the nation.

11.33 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. Neil Carmichael)

The hon. and gallant Member for Carshalton (Captain Elliot) spoke of the fact that eternal vigilance is required to protect the green belt. Both his constituents and the country as a whole will be grateful to him for having spoken tonight in the vein he did, because it is vital that the heritage of the green belt should not be given up lightly.

The subject of the debate is the destruction of the green belt, National Trust and common land in Banstead. What chiefly concerns the hon. and gallant Gentleman is the effect of the M23 and the M25 on the urban district. I fully appreciate this concern and should like first to deal in general terms with our procedures when planning motorway projects and the steps taken to safeguard the public interest.

An orbital trunk road through the green belt at Banstead is not a new concept. A line broadly following the present draft route for the M25 has been under consideration for between 25 and 30 years and the hon. and gallant Gentleman, who is probably more directly acquainted with the history of the area than I am, will perhaps be aware that in the Bressey Plan of 1937 and the Abercrombie Plan of 1944 such schemes were put forward. The general line of the M25 was considered at a public planning inquiry in 1954, and it has been included in the Surrey County Development Plan since as far back as 1958.

The Minister's published scheme for the M25 motorway proposed some deviation from the development plan line within the green belt following more detailed survey and design work and to meet higher standards of alignment now that the road was to be constructed as a motorway, but this deviation did not materially affect the impact on the green belt. I do not need to go into detail about the immense amount of work—

Captain W. Elliot

I know of these earlier plans, but there is an important difference: these earlier plans were not for a motorway. The present motorway which the Minister has in mind is designed to take a large amount of the traffic which will come as a result of the Channel Tunnel, when that comes, which is rather a different proposition.

Mr. Carmichael

Speaking without notice, I would think that the very fact that it has now been designated a motorway will itself greatly increase the changes necessary in the route, because, as the hon. and gallant Gentleman knows, a motorway must be built to considerably different standards—the curvatures are different and the elevations are different and, therefore, greater space than otherwise is required.

It is also true that, no matter how much forecasting has been done in the past, the rate of increase of motor car traffic has always been difficult to forecast and it seems to catch up with any forecasts. Therefore, to suggest or plan a motorway or roadway in 1944, or even as late as 1958, is not necessarily to build a roadway able to take the traffic which we now realise is almost certain to come in the next few years.

It is important for the record that we should give the details of the amount of work required before a motorway is laid out. There are surveys into topography, geology, land use, public utility services, traffic, the existing road network and so on. Even after these exhaustive investigations, it is to be expected that a number of possible routes will emerge, and before any decision is taken about the route to be preferred, there are consultations with all the local authorities concerned, with other Government Departments, including of course the Ministries of Housing and Local Government and Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, statutory undertakings and the Minister's Advisory Committee on the Landscape Treatment of Trunk Roads, who inspect the feasible alternatives on the ground. I have evidence that this Committee takes its work extremely seriously and goes to immense trouble on the ground looking at the possible alternatives.

When all these consultations have been undertaken, we have to consider all the views put to us and weigh factors such as engineering requirements, standards, estimated cost, the effect on planning, agriculture, amenities and existing residential and industrial development before we arrive at what we consider to be the most acceptable route. The Minister is then required by the Highways Act, 1959, to publish a draft scheme which is then open to objections for three months.

During this period, the formal views of the local authorities, Government Departments, all the bodies we have previously consulted, and the representations from such organisations as amenity societies, residents' associations and individual members of the public are heard. All these objections and representations are taken into account before the Minister decides whether the line should be confirmed as published or whether a public inquiry should be held.

As the hon. Member knows, the public inquiries into the draft scheme for both M23 and M25 have just been concluded after hearing objectors, and, I should say, a considerable number of supporters, for a period of almost seven weeks. For some days the inspector at the inquiry will be touring the routes of the published line, and various alternatives which have been put to him, and will in due course report to the Minister who will decide, in the light of the inspector's recommendations, and of the representations made, whether the draft scheme should be confirmed.

In the circumstances it will be appreciated that while we are awaiting these reports it is not possible to discuss the relevant merits of one scheme as against any others. The Minister's decision on the routes of these motorways is not the end of the story. When the line is established, detailed design can be started and there are again consultations about the treatment of side roads and accesses and proposals for interchanges with the existing road system.

These proposals will be published as draft schemes or Orders and be open to objections as before. Then we have to acquire land needed for roadworks, and again the compulsory purchase order will be open to objection. If, in either of these two secondary stages, a public inquiry is necessary, and proposals emerge which will entail alterations to the line, there would be further consultations with local authorities and Government Departments. The Landscape Advisory Committee would inspect the alterations on the ground and possibly, modified proposals would be published.

If finally the compulsory purchase order includes common land or open space, it will be subject to special Parliamentary procedure unless my right on. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government certifies that suitable exchange land has been or will be given in exchange for the land to be taken for roadworks. Before such a certificate could be issued public notice must be given, and if there are objections from persons interested then a public inquiry may be held before a decision is taken.

If it is not possible to provide suitable exchange land then the compulsory purchase order must be laid before Parliament and either House may resolve that the order be annulled. Petitions against the order may be presented to either House of Parliament and in default of a resolution to annul, such petitions would be referred to a joint committee of both Houses. The position with regard to National Trust land is broadly similar. Much of the land held by the Trust is inalienable, and where detriment is considerable the Trust would object to the order. If nothing emerged as a result of a public inquiry or otherwise to cause the Trust to retract, the objections would be sustained. Special Parliamentary procedure would be necessary and the Trust could then petition against the order in Parliament.

I hope that I have, in this rather detailed way set out for the record the very complicated procedures necessary before a decision such as this is taken. A decision to make a scheme fixing the line of a motorway is not taken lightly. and even after this decision is taken, there are subsequent procedures giving ample scope for safeguarding the rights of public and private interests, even to the extent of the amendment of the motorway scheme line, should this be shown to be necessary.

We all regret the impact of new roads on communities in urban areas, and the damage to amenity in the countryside, but it is one of the prices that we must pay to achieve the modern roadworks so vital to our whole economic progress. We try to ensure that all relevant factors are taken into consideration, and by the fullest possible consultations we achieve a solution which is the least damaging to the overall public interest. Our task is to do everything we can to make the new road visually acceptable. It would be pointless to pretend that a new motorway can be instantly assimilated into the landscape, but a well-designed road can be an attractive feature. Today, the task of our landscape advisers and our own professional landscape architects is not to make the best of things after the road has been built, but to participate in the entire process of design. The result of this closer partnership will, I am sure, do much in the future to make these new roads as aesthetically acceptable a feature of our countryside as is possible.

Captain W. Elliot

Will the Minister bear in mind that the Countryside Bill contains a special Clause which places additional responsibilities on Government Departments in matters of this sort to consider amenity values? Will he undertake that he will adhere strictly to that Clause and ensure that special consideration is given?

Mr. Carmichael

I can give the hon. and gallant Member the undertaking that the Government as a whole, and particularly my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport—I have had evidence of this in a number of instances—are passionately devoted to the idea of preserving amenity and that everything possible will be done by my Minister to see that any infringement of the countryside is minimal and that any necessary infringement is done in the best possible taste.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at thirteen minutes to Twelve o'clock.