HC Deb 12 May 1969 vol 783 cc1179-90

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

1.50 a.m.

Mr. Edward du Cann (Taunton)

As one might say, though I appreciate that one cannot speak too long in a foreign language, enfin, M. Godot, est arrivé. The only snag is that I cannot speak of the fertiliser subsidy or ploughing grant in French because I do not know the French for either of those terms.

I suppose that one can very often feel impatient indeed with the procedures of this House, until at last one reaches the moment when one can deploy the cause one has very much at heart.

I say at once that I am not here to make any criticism of the Minister or those responsible for the present parking restrictions in the town of Wellington in Somerset in my constituency; nor of the Ministry, nor of the county surveyor, for whom in particular I have a very high regard; nor of the local police; nor of the D.R.E.; all of whom have been concerned to a greater or lesser degree in this matter. Nor, in particular, am I here to make any criticism of the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, to whom I am extremely grateful for waiting until this late hour, nearly 2 o'clock in the morning, and who, I fancy, with his experience of the North-East, will probably have some sympathy with what I have to say this evening. I know he understands that part of the world, and I hope he will allow me to say that I know my own. I shall ask for his sympathy and help in ways I shall shortly particularise.

The town of Wellington, the second largest in my constituency, with a population of about 8,000, is not the greatest town in the South-West, but from my point of view, and from the point of view of those who live there, it also is not the least important. It is, as I dare say others beside myself here know, the town from which the great Duke of Wellington took his name after Waterloo. We erected a memorial column to him on Blackdown Hills, in the beneficent shadow of which this small pleasant town has its being, and my own house stands. Therefore, I can surely claim familiarity with Wellington. I drive through the town, I suppose, about five times every weekend during the times when the House of Commons is sitting, and more often when it is not, and when, obviously, one can be at home. My wife and my family shop there. It is the centre of a wide area, including some of the most beautiful country in England. I speak, therefore, of what I know.

That section of the Exeter to Leeds trunk road, the A.38, which passes through Wellington, is now subject to a very severe parking order, of which the Minister, in his own words written in 1968, said that it would be bound to "cause some inconvenience". With no disrespect to him that, I suppose, was the understatement of that year. Its introduction provoked shock, dismay, and profound concern to the traders and the public alike. These feelings were inevitable, in my opinion.

The history of the matter, put shortly, is this. There have previously been parking restrictions in Wellington, as, indeed, there are bound to be. That is reasonable. The only question is what the scope of these restrictions should be.

When it was known that these restrictions were impending I was, as the hon. Gentleman will know, in some correspondence with the Minister, and I suggested to him that he might perhaps be good enough to receive me as the local M.P. with a deputation. He wrote to me on 11th September and told me that there would be a public inquiry, for he recognised that it was proper to look into the matter with some care. I think, with respect to him, he made a mistake in suggesting, in the circumstances, that I need not go to see him and take a deputation. I think that, similarly, I made a mistake in not pressing the matter. I thought, as he thought, that the inquiry would indeed settle the matter, and settle it reasonably.

The inquiry took place on 31st October-1st November last year, and the draft Order was made almost immediately thereafter. As a matter of fact, there was deep local resentment at the making of the order and the way it was done, though I acquit the Minister of any intentional discourtesy. The facts, however, should be recorded, and they are not unimportant in the context of this debate. He made his decision on 16th December, and he instructed as his agent Somerset County Council on the 20th. Wellington Urban District Council did not hear, however, from the Minister—no doubt, due to Christmas delays in the post, and so on—until 22nd December. They considered the matter on the 23rd and sent their views to the Minister on the 24th. They heard nothing more than a postcard which was received on 3rd January. The chamber of trade, which had been prominent in giving evidence at the inquiry, was not able even to get a copy of the report of the inquiry until 2nd January.

The first intimation I had of the matter, although the Minister wrote to me on 16th December, was when I saw lines actually being painted on the roads in Wellington. I repeat that I acquit the Minister of intentional discourtesy, but there was a feeling in Wellington among those people who were most concerned, among official bodies and the public that the inquiry was entirely irrelevant. I do not say that that was the fact; it was the feeling.

Having said that, I am glad to have the opportunity to say something particularly polite about one unit of the Ministry. There is now a Road Construction Unit for the whole of the South-West based in Taunton, and I want to say how much I have admired the way in which the director and the local county surveyor have been going about their business and holding public meetings to explain what is happening about the new M5 motorway, to which I will refer in a moment. I do not believe that one should say behind people's backs the nice things one rarely gets the opportunity to say to their faces, and I am glad in the presence of the Parliamentary Secretary to pay that tribute to his officials.

To resume my main theme, if it were felt that the result of the inquiry was reasonable, that all the evidence given was accurate, or that what was proposed was on the whole fair, I should not be raising this subject tonight, but that is not so. For instance, to take the question of accuracy during the proceedings, I will give one example of what I believe to be a substantial inaccuracy. The Minister's evidence at the inquiry stated that the car parks in Wellington would be adequate to take all the vehicles that would be forced off the streets if the order went through. That is demonstrably not so.

To take the question of omissions, again I give a single example. There was almost scant reference during the hearing to the potential demolition of the town hall, which is urgently necessary to improve the traffic flow, as I believe Mr. Murray Price on the council has been pointing out at a meeting held tonight.

Thirdly, it is felt that the position in Wellington is unfair in its result, and that the present parking restrictions are unprecedented in their severity. They are far more severe than in Taunton, and much more severe than in Cullompton, to take the two nearest towns, one to the east and one to the west of Wellington. I have looked at every town on the A38 and they are more severe than in any other town along the whole length of the A38. They are more severe than anything locally and more severe than anything generally.

I could catalogue various matters of this kind, but I do not think it would be sensible to do so.

The first point I would put to the Parliamentary Secretary is whether he would be good enough, as the Minister has indicated to me that he might, to consider a memorandum on all these points from me, and to receive a deputation on these matters, as I originally suggested, not because I, the people of Wellington, their elected representatives or the traders wish to propose sweeping changes in the order—restrictions on parking there must be—but because we think that we could put forward one or two ideas which would not hinder the main flow of traffic through Wellington but which would be a great improvement from the point of view of traders and those living and working in the town. In other words, we are seeking to be both practical and helpful.

I can introduce my second point in this way. There are two projects to bypass the town of Wellington. There is a comparison with the town of Honiton, a town which I know very well and with which my family has been connected for generations. The hazards and dangers do not come from the local traffic, but from the through traffic, although from the point of view of commerce and the tourist trade we welcome it in the West Country.

The most important project is the M5, which is due to be built in the mid '70's. One cannot be more precise than that. It must depend on the one hand on the physical progress further north, and on the other on the alacrity with which we get through the statutory procedures for the project.

There are mixed feelings about the M5. Some will regret the splitting up of land holdings; others will regret the noise. I have some sympathy with those views for I live nearby, and I do not live in Somerset in order to live in a noisy area on top of a motorway. I have sympathy with those views, but what is for the general good will obviously have everybody's support.

Could not something be done to expedite the building of the motorway? It is well known in the House that I have pressed for this motorway for many years, and I understand that the strategy for the M5 is that it is thought to be important to proceed stage by stage, in logical sequence. However, there are exceptions to the rule. Cullompton has been bypassed before Bridgwater, Highbridge or Taunton or Wellington. I am not sure—and this is a point for the Parliamentary Secretary to consider—that it is not more important to bypass towns than to build great stretches of motorway across open country.

Third, when the motorway is built—and I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to spell out what the Minister has already said to me in the past—could the parking regulations, which are so very severe, be rescinded, or at any rate reviewed with a view to their being substantially mitigated?

Fourthly, there have been improvements in the South-West in terms of roads. I remember, as a Minister at the Board of Trade as deputy to the present Leader of the Opposition, being associated with some of the improvements. We managed to bring about the Beam Bridge scheme, the Taunton inner relief road, and similar schemes. The West Country depends on good communications. It is ironical to hear distinguished committees, such as the Hunt Committee, still arguing for these things. One can argue that in absolute terms we are not doing too badly. In relative terms I am not so sure.

There is now a proposal for a relief road on the south side of Wellington, quite separate from the motorway. It is to be a 20 ft. wide road, some 2¾ miles long, on the back lanes, as we call them. It is a widening of the country lanes between Chelston and Perry Elm. The Minister will know the places, though I do not suppose they will mean very much to anybody else. The cost is to be £200,000, of which the Government will, I understand, contribute about £180,000, on condition that the road is opened by the summer of 1970.

The inhabitants of Wellington, the town council, the chamber of trade and others are 100 per cent. in favour of this excellent proposal by the Ministry of Transport, which has been backed by the Road Haulage Association, the Western National Bus Company, coach operators and others.

Those who argue against it say that 10 or 20 years ago it would have been a good scheme, but now, with the building of the motorway, it is unnecessary and a waste of money. Some say that it is designed to facilitate transport to and from the motorway. There is a simple answer to these critics. It is that this improved road must benefit the town of Wellington and the locality, particularly in the long term; and I warmly support this proposal.

However, included among those who argue against the scheme are people who live in Wellington—many of them my friends—and particularly farmers. To name a few; Mr. Webber of Blackboy, Mr. Brooks of Middle Elm, and Mr. Lindley, of Norman's. I mention these farmers because across this road twice a day will go herds totalling 150 to 200 cows, if not more. Fifthly, therefore, I urge the Minister to consider this proposal again. While I do not expect an answer tonight, will he consider the problem of cattle "creeps" on to this road and other problems that will arise locally?

My immediate neighbour, Mr. Sparks, of Perry Elm, has already had a three-lane highway built across his farm. Now his property will be cut into five parts. The Minister must appreciate the enormous problems that are involved in running a farm when faced with encroaching railways and main roads.

There has been a curious happening in this area. The county council has referred this proposal back to its works committee. Thus, sixthly, if the road about which I am speaking is slightly delayed, I hope that the funds will still be made available. I appreciate that I am asking for a lot in this regard, but I believe that money spent in this way would be sensible.

While I appreciate the difficulties that he faces and the enormous demands that are made on the limited resources available, I hope that the Minister will make these funds available, even if the project is slightly delayed. There was a meeting of the Wellington Urban District Council tonight and the council has asked for a meeting with the county council to press it to give its approval rapidly.

My seventh point is a reiteration of my earlier comments. If this road goes through, as I hope it will, I hope that it will be possible at that time for the parking regulations to be further examined and, if possible, modified.

2.8 a.m.

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

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) for putting his case so cogently. I thank him for the kind references he made to members of the staff of my Ministry.

Three separate, but connecting, issues have been raised and I will deal with them in turn. The first is the question of waiting restrictions on the A.38 trunk road through Wellington. I am glad of this opportunity to explain fully how the current order came to be made.

As the right hon. Gentleman is aware, considerable concern had been expressed about the congestion on this length of road and the consequent delays to through traffic using it. Under orders made in 1948 and 1958, parts of the road were subject to waiting restrictions between the hours of 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., and there were also two short lengths in the centre of the High Street where limited waiting was permitted for 20 minutes in any hour.

In February, 1968, the Ministry's divisional road engineer, after prolonged consultations with the county surveyor, the police and the Wellington Urban District Council, put forward proposals for revised waiting restrictions. These restricted parking along the whole length of the trunk road through the main part of the town in order to facilitate the flow of traffic. At the same time the opportunity was taken to reduce the hours of restriction to the more standard time of 8.30 a.m. to 6 p.m., and a small amount of limited waiting was allowed where the width of the road permitted cars to be left without hampering the flow of traffic.

The proposals were advertised in the usual way on 5th June, 1968, and objections were subsequently received from the Wellington Urban District Council, the Wellington and District Chamber of Trade and Commerce and two private individuals. A public inquiry was held at the end of October and after hearing the evidence and inspecting the site the inspector recommended that the order should be made, with one minor modification. This recommendation was accepted, and the order was made on 8th January, 1969, and became effective the next day.

The right hon. Gentleman has expressed his disagreement with the inspector's recommendations, and has offered to submit a memorandum expressing the local views on these restrictions. I shall be pleased to study this memorandum and to review the present restrictions in the light of this. I must, however, point out that in deciding on the merits and extent of the restrictions in Wellington, I must have regard not only to the local views but to the needs of through traffic using this road.

Perhaps I might quote the leading article from the Western Daily Press of 8th May: Hell is in the centre of Wellington, whose main street is both a shopping centre and a fume-polluted start-stop highway to Devon and Cornwall. That is a fairly apt description, with which I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will agree, and something which has to be taken into consideration.

Perhaps I may now pass on to the question of the extension of the M5 to bypass Wellington. A further 50-mile section of the motorway, from Edithmead in Somerset to Exeter, was included in the second instalment of our trunk road preparation pool announced last year.

This has enabled detailed preparation to be initiated. The stage has been reached where possible routes are being investigated by our engineers. An aerial survey has been made, together with a preliminary soil survey and trial borings. It is the section of this motorway running roughly parallel to the A38 south-west of Taunton to which we in the Ministry look to meet the need to bypass Wellington and to remove the main weight of through traffic from the town. If all goes smoothly, it may prove possible later this year to publish details of a proposed route for M5 between the Cullompton bypass, which is now under construction, and Huntworth. We would hope to have the M5 extension from Edithmead to Exeter open to traffic by the mid-1970s. At this early stage in the scheme's development I regret that it is not possible to be more precise about its completion date, nor can I hold out any hope of this date being significantly advanced.

Finally, the right hon. Gentleman has raised the question of short-term measures to mitigate the present weight of traffic through Wellington until the M5 is built. A great deal of thought has been given to the possibility of improving traffic conditions in Wellington during this interim period.

A proposal to improve the crossroads in the town centre had been examined, but we think that such a scheme would have been costly and would not have provided any real solution to the traffic problems in the town. It would also have entailed the demolition of the old town hall, which is a listed building.

It was recently agreed in principle between our divisional road engineer and officials of the Somerset County and Wellington Urban District Councils that an interim traffic management measure should be examined for the purpose of providing some relief from congestion on the A38 in Wellington, pending the opening of the M5. This scheme was referred to in the Press as a Wellington Bypass but is in fact part of the proposed traffic management scheme, for which the county council and the urban district council are the authorities chiefly concerned.

The present scheme would involve the improvement of the Chelston-Bagley Green Road to provide a 20 ft. carriageway, by widening the existing road and constructing short diversions where appropriate. My Ministry is prepared to consider meeting the cost, estimated to be £182,000, for this work as a traffic management scheme for the relief of congestion on trunk road A38, by means of a 100 per cent. grant. The scheme would also necessitate the construction of a new length of road from Bagley Green to connect with the A38 to the west of Wellington. The £18,000 estimated cost of this short length would be borne entirely by the Somerset County Council as a classified road project, and therefore not ranking for any specific grant from my right hon. Friend. The assessed economic rate of return on the overall scheme is about 42 per cent., which is a fair indication of the high value for money it would provide in the period between its intended completion in June, 1970, and the opening of the adjacent section of the M5.

However, at a meeting on 6th May the Somerset County Council decided not to approve the proposed traffic management scheme and called upon its Highways Committee to reconsider it and report its views again at the next full council meeting, which is expected at the end of July. I understand that there were objections on the grounds that the expenditure of £200,000 was not justified in view of the anticipated early construction of the motorway, that the scheme would necessitate the acquisition of agricultural land, and that to meet the volume and nature of traffic which could be expected to use it a higher standard of road was necessary. The higher standards required to meet the wishes of the county council would substantially increase the cost of the scheme, and it might not now be possible to complete it by June, 1970, and this would naturally reduce its rate of economic return.

As the right hon. Gentleman will be aware, the residual value of the relief road after the extension of the M5 to Exeter will be limited and there are many other schemes competing for funds. Our divisional road engineer would, however, be prepared to consider the county council's proposals further and to discuss with its officials the effects of the county council's recent decision.

I must stress that if this relief scheme is not completed by the time we expect, because of the drop in the economic rate of return, and because of competing schemes, it might be in difficulties.

Mr. du Cann

If the county council, which had a most unrepresentative meeting with very few people present, and I think without fully understanding the facts, changes its mind, may I take it that the Ministry will approve this and also that it will consider the question of cattle creeps?

Mr. Brown

That is a matter which the D.R.E. will have to discuss with officers of the county council, but, as I have said, he will be prepared to consider the council's proposals and to discuss this matter with its officers.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes past Two o'clock.