HC Deb 21 May 1968 vol 765 cc493-500

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

1.33 a.m.

Mr. W. E. Garrett (Wallsend)

I must apologise for keeping the House, when the business yesterday and a long sitting today have made it necessary for you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and Mr. Speaker, to spend many weary hours in the Chamber. I hope that this debate will go on record as being one of the shortest ever.

The subject before us tonight is that of the A.1 road through Gosforth, which runs through the major part of the Wallsend constituency. The problem has been of paramount importance since the end of the last war. The proposed diversion of this route has had a major effect upon the planning and future policies of the Gosforth Urban District Council.

During this period, the Northumberland County Council, which is the principal planning authority for the area, has also been closely involved in the matter and there are apparent signs that there has been no co-ordination of thinking between the two local authorities and the Ministry of Transport. This is due principally to the difficulty of ascertaining precisely what has been the Ministry's policy over the past few years. I believe that we are entitled to ask tonight what priority has been given to this important section of the A.1 highway.

I appreciate the vast amount of road works which have been carried out in South-East Northumberland, and there is no doubt that these road works have played an important part in the revitalisation of the North-East Region. Nevertheless, there are many people who think that the Ministry has its priorities mixed up, seeing the Morpeth and Alnwick by-passes as desirable projects in themselves but bearing no relation to the problems created in the highly developed area of Gosforth.

It is true that, after intensive efforts by the local authorities, a draft plan for the new trunk road and connecting side roads has been available for inspection by the public during the past three years, but this information and the knowledge arising from it has created many problems, the principal one being the difficulty people have in selling dwelling-houses and properties affected by what is generally known as planning blight.

I accept that the Ministry made a draft Order in January, 1967, under Section 7 of the Highways Act, 1959, in relation to the route of the proposed diversion, but I regret that no draft Order under Section 9 of the same Act has been made for the side roads. Once again, the lack of evidence of further intended action is causing great concern and anxiety to Gosforth council and local business interests, but above all it is causing concern to the residents of Gosforth. It is essential that the proposed diversion be constructed as soon as possible, and that there be no delay in announcing a clear policy decision.

Such a decision is necessary if the future of the old A.1 route is to be decided within a foreseeable time, possibly within the next three to five years. I know that discussions have taken place on whether it should be used as a shopping precinct. A decision about that should be made as early as possible in order to cause the minimum inconvenience to existing property owners and at the same time allow future owners to plan ahead. My comment here applies also to Gosforth Urban District Council and the Northumberland County Council, for they, too, have a major part to play in approving such plans.

I have no wish to exaggerate the problems, but I wish the House to know that over 200 properties are involved, most of them residential. However, one-third are used for business and other purposes, including civic, religious, educational and recreational interests. The wide variety of interests involved demonstrates how wide is the concern about the apparent lack of initiative on the part of the Ministry of Transport in coming to a definite decision. People's difficulties will grow as the delay in announcing the construction plans for the highway continues.

The Ministry has just given notice of its intention to prohibit parking through the section of the A.1 and the High Street, which is the main shopping centre. Anyone knowing the area—I am sure that my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary knows it extremely well—will realise that it is virtually impossible to find sufficient alternative parking facilities for traffic. This is yet another reason for announcing a clear-cut decision as soon as possible.

I hope that in this short debate I have demonstrated the urgency of the traffic problems in this part of my constituency. I trust that my hon. Friend will be able to announce a clear and unequivocal decision. Such an announcement would allay the fears of residents and owners of property affected by the new route and would, at the same time, allow the planning authorities to proceed with clear and precise thinking about the role which Gosforth has in the future of the Tyne-side conurbation.

1.39 a.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. Bob Brown)

As a constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Wallsend (Mr. Garrett) and as a resident in the Gosforth urban district, I should, in the first place, declare my interest, and say how much I personally appreciate the keen concern which my hon. Friend has shown for the interests of the Gosforth urban district generally, an important part of his constituency, and, in particular the energy and zeal that he has shown on the issue before us.

The A.1 to the north of Newcastle, certainly at this time, does not justify the comprehensive improvement which has now largely been completed between London and Newcastle, but where traffic demands have proved the need improvements have been either programmed or included in the trunk road preparation pool. In addition to the Gosforth bypass, by-passes are to be provided at Wideopen, Seaton Burn, both of which are in my hon. Friend's constituency, Morpeth and Alnwick, all to the north of Newcastle.

My hon. Friend has suggested that we have got our priorities wrong on the question of the Morpeth and Alnwick by-passes and the Gosforth by-pass. My hon. Friend knows that this is my stamping ground as much as it is his. He knows, too, that the situation in these towns is very different from the situation at Gosforth. Very serious congestion occurs at all times in Alnwick and Mor- peth. We all see this at Morpeth, particularly at holiday weekends when we are on the way home from a day out in the country north of Newcastle. The problem is different in Gosforth High Street, where the same physical obstacles to traffic flow do not exist. It is basically a fairly straight stretch of highway, and the problems there relate to the conflict of through and local traffic, rather than to the severe congestion which exists in Morpeth and Alnwick.

The Gosforth by-pass was included in the trunk road preparation pool announcement on 21st February, 1967. This meant that the design work and statutory procedures could be taken to the point at which a firm decision could be made; work on the schemes in the pool is expected to begin in the early 'seventies. The precise timing depends on the progress made with the preparation, and, more important, on the funds available at the time.

Plans for an alternative road to relieve Gosforth High Street of heavy through traffic have been under consideration for many years. Towards the end of 1962 the Northumberland County Council, of which my hon. Friend was then a member, gave wide publicity to its development plans which included a new line for the A.1. At that time we received a great number of representations from the public, from Members of the House, including the late John McKay, and from the Gosforth Urban District Council. All were told that the proposals made public were purely tentative, and that while publication of the redevelopment plans might have an unsettling effect, this would enable the planning authority to have maximum time in which to take full account of public opinion.

The Minister at the time agreed that publicity rather than secrecy was the right course to follow. Publicity has continued, and so has the correspondence with my hon. Friend, with the Gosforth Council, and with many other interested parties. This is not a bad thing, because ultimately Gosforth will get the improved A.1 on the best possible line. The line ultimately proposed to be adopted, which is to the east of the High Street, was advertised in a draft Section 7 Order, to which my hon. Friend referred, on 7th February 1967, and following the three months' statutory objection period, which ended on 7th May, 1967, 52 objections to the draft Order had been received. Of those, 26 have been withdrawn, and those outstanding will be taken into account by the Minister in deciding whether a public inquiry is necessary.

My hon. Friend mentioned the progress, or lack of progress, on this scheme, but I emphasise that work is in hand on the preparation of an Order under Section 9 of the Highways Act which will make provision for the necessary alteration to side roads consequent on the diversion, but I regret that at this stage it has not reached the position where a draft Order can be published. We shall, however, press ahead with this as quickly as possible. It would, naturally, be desirable, if there is to be a public inquiry, for it to cover side road proposals at the same time as those for the main road line. Otherwise the inquiry would be a half measure and would be proceeding without the full facts.

My hon. Friend has referred to the factor that must cause the greatest concern to his constituents, namely, the difficulty of selling property affected by the proposals. I want to make it clear that when the statutory Orders have been made, any owner-occupier of a dwelling-house which is affected who fulfils the conditions laid down in Sections 138 to 151 of the Town and Country Planning Act, 1962 will be able to serve notice on the Minister of Transport requiring him to purchase the property in question. Before that time, no statutory rights to require the Minister to purchase actually exist.

Nevertheless, we are prepared to consider acquisition on a discretionary basis in cases where genuine hardship can be demonstrated. In fact, we have already on this basis purchased no fewer than seven properties affected by the proposed diversion, so that it should be clear to my hon. Friend that the good will of the Ministry is there already.

In passing, I want to assure my hon. Friend that the representations that he has made to my Department about the South Northumberland Cricket Club and his anxiety to preserve this ground will be given due consideration at the appropriate time.

As to the suggestions of uncertainty and delays in town planning decisions, we are fully alive to the situation and to the extent to which local planning decisions hinge upon the decisions we have to make about the road. This reinforces our desire to reach our decisions as quickly as possible. But the most important thing is to ensure that our decisions are the right ones, and this inevitably takes time for a major scheme of this kind, affecting as it does much property—my hon. Friend referred to over 200 properties—and, not least, the consideration of cost.

This scheme will cost somewhere about £2 million, and I am certain that my hon. Friend and, equally, all his constituents, the ratepayers of Gosforth who, as taxpayers, will be called upon to pay the bill for this scheme, would not want a precipitate decision, which was not the long-term right decision, to be arrived at.

My hon. Friend has referred to difficulties arising from the proposed prohibition order. I think that I should set out the facts. The unilateral waiting restrictions have been in force since 1956, but no one knows better than my hon. Friend that since that time traffic has increased enormously along the path of Gosforth High Street. Parked vehicles have become a serious hindrance to traffic and an extreme danger to pedestrians. The High Street is essentially a shopping centre, and our first consideration should be the comfort of the people who go there on legitimate business, including their daily or weekly shopping.

Since some years more must inevitably elapse before through traffic can be diverted, we have advertised an amendment to the present "no waiting" order. The objection period to this amendment does not expire until the 28th of this month. We will, of course, receive objections, and all the objections we receive will have to be given valid consideration, but I feel that the complete removal of parking from Gosforth High Street can only result in the improvement of shopping facilities where the shoppers will not be prone to the hazards of crossing the road between parked vehicles.

I know my hon. Friend could say there is a zebra crossing there which is often controlled by a traffic warden, but, unfortunately, we have not yet reached the stage where the pedestrians freely accept that they ought to cross at the pedestrian crossing. I am quite certain that so long as this parking does exist on Gosforth High Street they are running a risk to life and limb which could be avoided.

To conclude, although we cannot at this stage give the firm decision for which my hon. Friend is pressing, we are fully seized both of the need for providing a diversion and of the problems caused by the present uncertainty. It is clearly as much in the interests of the Ministry as of any other interests affected to resolve the uncertainty as soon as we can. We shall make every endeavour to bring the statutory process to a conclusion in the shortest possible time.

I am sorry that at this stage I am not able to go as far as my hon. Friend would wish, but I can assure him that as a resident of the area—one might say with a vested interest and with a full knowledge of the problem—I certainly will not tolerate any dragging of feet in my Department on this scheme.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes to Two o'clock.