HC Deb 20 March 1970 vol 798 cc933-44

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

4.5 p.m.

Mr. Paul Dean (Somerset, North)

I am grateful for this opportunity to draw attention to danger and disturbance to people in North Somerset, particularly in the village of Tickenham, owing to work on the building of the M5. I am grateful to the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport for the attention which I know he is giving to this problem and for his presence today. I am also glad to see in their places my hon. Friends the Members for Westonsuper-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) and Bridgwater (Mr. Tom King), whom we warmly welcome, who I know are also concerned, or will later be concerned, with similar problems. My intention is not to apportion blame but to try to get some action.

There are two main reasons why I raise this matter. First, I am not satisfied that my constituents are receiving the consideration which they should receive or that their problems have had the prompt and effective attention which they justifiably require. To be fair, I must say that there has been a change of attitude recently which appears to have coincided with the time that I announced I would raise this matter in the House. Secondly, the terms of the Ministry contracts do not appear to provide adequate safeguards to individuals who are disturbed by the building of motorways.

My constituents who are involved are very reasonable people. They realise that the motorway must be built and that it will cause disturbance; they do not want to hold the work up. But they also realise that the work will be going on for anything up to 18 months. Meantime they are entitled to proper con- sideration and they must not be subjected to intolerable living conditions.

The problem arises because the route of the M5 is very close to the village of Tickenham. One house is less than 100 ft. from the boundary fence of the motorway. At this point, rock must be blasted away to make a cutting for the motorway, and substantial additional quantities of rock are to be removed for use on the motorway nearby.

There are four main points which I should like to make: first, danger from blasting; secondly, noise; thirdly, hours of working; and, finally, the possible use of polluted waste material in building the motorway.

I deal first with danger from blasting. On Saturday, 7th March, following blasting, pieces of rock weighing up to 3 lbs. rained down on the village of Tickenham. Some of the pieces were carried over about 400 yards. Some of them narrowly missed a number of people in the village, including children, and caused some minor damage to property. Fortunately, there were no casualties, but there could easily have been in an accident of this kind. I got in touch with the Minister and with the sub-contractors. The Minister promised an immediate inquiry, and the contractors have assured me that they have taken precautions to try to ensure that an accident of his sort does not happen again. I understand that it was caused by a pocket of clay.

Is the Minister satisfied that every precaution has been taken to ensure that this type of incident, this hazard to life in this area, is not likely to happen again?

I deal now with my second heading, noise? There is no doubt in the minds of myself and of the people most concerned that at present the noise is at an unacceptably high level. It has reached as much as 90 to 91 decibels in the area by the houses which are nearest to the work. The Wilson Committee, which reported on this subject some time ago, stated that 85 decibels for a prolonged period is likely to cause damage to ears and therefore to health.

It appears to me from the letter which the Parliamentary Secretary was good enough to write to me on 10th March in reply to my letter of some Months earlier that the Ministry does not have adequate control over noise levels and over safeguards against noise in the regulations which exist.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary told me that unless a person is affected through compulsory purchase of part of his property, nothing can be done to assist an aggrieved person. It depends entirely on negotiations which may have taken place with the contractor concerning the soundproofing of houses or whatever other feature may be desirable.

I understand from the contractor that he has now offered to help the individuals most concerned in this respect and that he has also called in accoustic experts to advise on the silencing of equipment and the working of plant to reduce noise to the minimum. I am grateful for this, and so are my constituents, but it is not satisfactory. In my view, the Minister should have power to protect individuals who are inconvenienced by contracts which the Ministry awards. I hope that the Minister will be able to assure the House that if there is a gap in the law in this respect, speedy steps will be taken to see that this weakness is remedied.

My third point is hours of working. At present, there is no working on the site after 8 o'clock in the evening. The contractor, understandably, wants to resume night working, with, he tells me, one machine but with no drilling or blasting. The Minister assured me, again in his letter of 10th March, that there would be no resumption of night working until the contract engineer is satisfied that the noise will be kept to an acceptable level". I must tell the Joint Parliamentary Secretary that I am not at all satisfied with that assurance. In the first place, the contract engineer, with all respect to him, is an interested party in the working. It certainly begs the question of what is an acceptable level of noise. It is not defined in the Minister's letter to me. In my view, the Minister should be satisfied, after consultation with the Tickenham Parish Council and the Long Ashton Rural District Council and with me, before any extension of working beyond 8 p.m. is allowed. On behalf of my constituents, I shall most strongly oppose any extension of working beyond the existing hours unless we can have adequate assurances, after full consultation, that noise levels will be brought down to an acceptable level.

My fourth and final point concerns the use of polluted waste material in the building of the motorway. Substantial cattle losses have already been sustained in the Gordano Valley, particularly by one farmer, owing to fluorine pollution, which has resulted in fluorosis in cattle. This is a problem which has not yet been resolved, nor has the matter of compensation for the people concerned.

The point for this debate is the fear that if that polluted waste is used in the building of the motorway, it might cause more trouble through dust or through the material being washed into the surrounding streams in the event of heavy rain. The Minister, again in his letter of 10th March, has told me that he is satisfied that no danger exists, but I am bound to tell him that those concerned locally are not satisfied and I ask him to look again at this problem.

Those are the main points which I wish to raise. I summarise them by saying that I am not satisfied that my constituents are getting due consideration. They have been quite right to protest. They are eminently reasonable people. They do not wish to hold up the work on this motorway, which we shall welcome when built. But in the meantime—it will be quite a long meantime—they are entitled to consideration and to expect that work taking place close to their homes should not unduly interfere with their livelihoods and their enjoyment of the delightful part of the country in which they live.

4.5 p.m.

Mr. Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Somerset, North (Mr. Dean) and to the Parliamentary Secretary for allowing me a few minutes of their valuable time to comment on the construction of this motorway which comes from my hon. Friend's constituency, right through my division, and will be going on to the area represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Tom King), whom I should like to welcome today.

I wish to raise three matters. The first concerns the general issue of the responsibility of the Ministry for contractors and sub-contractors on this and, indeed, any similar contract. I had experience of motorway construction near my old home in Worcestershire where the M5 came through in the early 1960s. Time and again, when a complaint is raised, the Ministry claims as its excuse, "We are not responsible for what the contractor or the sub-contractor does. It is their responsibility." The frustration felt by complainants is the difficulty of pinning anyone down to answer their queries.

I raised this point with the county surveyor when discussing the motorway many months ago. I gained the impression that on this contract the consulting engineers would be answerable. Yet both my hon. Friend and I, in the cases that we have raised with the Minister, find that the situation is much as I have described, for the answer is, "We are not responsible".

I have raised the matter at Question Time, and I am glad to have this opportunity of referring again to the supply of stone. Each week 30,000 tons of stone are carried from Dulcote Quarry through the city of Wells in my neighbouring constituency and through the village of Cheddar, which is my responsibility, to the motorway. The Minister will be aware that this heavy traffic has already meant that the bridge in Cheddar has had to be closed for 24 hours, specially strengthened, and is now operating only one-way traffic. The expense of putting the bridge right and putting right the damage caused to the country lanes and small roads must in some degree be balanced against the advantage of getting the contract for the stone. In considering whether this contract was suitable, the Minister seems once again to have washed his hands of the problem and said, "This is nothing to do with me. It is up to the contractors".

I join my hon. Friend in saying that my constituents, too, in no way want to hold up the construction of this important motorway. It will be of great advantage to the area when completed. However, it seems unnecessary that the people should have to suffer this inconvenience.

Temporary traffic lights are blossoming like the blossom in spring around my district. This is inevitable with temporary crossing places, moving lorries, hold-ups, and so on. But does anybody—the county surveyor, the consulting engineers, the Minister's representative or possibly the police—have the power to see that those temporary traffic lights are properly sited and, above all, properly timed? I need not elaborate on the inconvenience that can be caused to traveler when temporary traffic lights are erected and mis-phased.

I hope that the Minister will be able to answer these three queries.

4.20 p.m.

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

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Somerset, North (Mr. Dean) and to the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) for giving me this opportunity to explain these events which have taken place in connection with the construction of the M5 motorway in North Somerset, and to offer them and their constituents who have been affected my sincerest apologies for any concern they may have been caused.

Work is at present proceeding on three major motorway contracts in North Somerset. The first is in the Gordano Valley section, on which preliminary work has just started. On this section the motorway rises from the valley of the Bristol Avon to climb the northern face of the Clevedon Hills, with separated carriageways on the sloping ground. This contract calls for the excavation of some 1 million cubic yards of rock.

The second contract is the Clevedon Hills section, on which work started early in December last year. At the northern end of this section, excavation of 2 million cubic yards of rock has to be carried out where the motorway crosses the saddle in the Clevedon Hills. The remainder of this section passes over alluvial flats.

The third contract, the Mendip Hill section, also started in December last year. The northern part of this section will run through the Mendip Hills, and the remainder over the Somerset Levels, a large fen land. Approximately 11 million cubic yards of excavation will take place in the Mendip Hills.

The incidents which the hon. Member for Somerset, North has described arise from operations on the second of these contracts, the Clevedon Hills section of the motorway, and particularly from the difficulties arising from the excavation of masses of rock, much of which is of a complex folded and faulted structure.

Approximately 2 million cubic yards of rock in the Clevedon Hills at Tickenham have to be excavated. This rock consists mainly of limestone, but also includes some conglomerate and some sandstone. Initially, ripping of the conglomerate has been possible but it is necessary to use blasting to excavate the bulk of the limestone and sandstone.

We were fully aware of the difficulties which could arise as a result of the unavoidable use of explosives for excavating the vast quantities of rock arising on this contract. Very exacting provisions were included in the contract in an endeavour to safeguard against any injury or damage to persons or property, and to reduce disturbance to the minimum possible on a project of this size.

The background to the incidents described by the hon. Member is as follows. On the first occasion, at 5.30 p.m. on 16th January, an owner of property reported that fine fragments of material had landed on his front lawn. Fortunately, no damage or injury resulted, and no formal complaint was received. A month later, at 1 p.m. on 18th February, a complaint was received alleging that a single rock fragment had landed in another garden. No other rock fly was reported or observed, although the incident was thoroughly investigated at the time.

On Wednesday, 25th February, at about 1.30 p.m., further rock fragments landed on Hill Lane and an adjoining property, Camp Lane Bungalow, breaking two p.v.c. sheets on the roof of the property and a p.v.c. canopy in the garden. On this occasion, the contractor had removed all the loose material from the previous blast and the alignment of the shot holes was such that it resulted in a blast facing towards the bungalow concerned. The contractor was immediately instructed by the resident engineeer to maintain a cushion of previously blasted material in front of future blasting, and to turn the face of his blasting upwards and away from property.

The last, and, I think, the most serious incident, to which the hon. Gentleman referred occurred on Saturday, 7th March, at 1 p.m., when the blast again caused a scatter of material. Immediately, full and detailed investigations were carried out by the consulting engineers on our behalf, assisted by the main contractor, the sub-contractor concerned and an explosives expert.

In simple terms, their findings, were that the scattered material had come from just one of 11 shot holes which was restrained by solid rock at the side and where, unbeknown to the contractor, as the hon. Gentleman said, there was a clay pocket. This previously undetected geological fault was, apparently, the main cause of the incident.

To prevent any repetition, the contractor has been instructed to produce for the approval of the consulting engineer proposals for an alternative method of working based on the report from the experts who investigated all the incidents. In the meantime, in addition to redoubling our efforts on site supervision and control, we have laid down the following requirements: the permitted charge per hole has been reduced and holes will be fired only in single sequence; loosened material must not be removed until the next row of charges has been fired. This should provide a cushion against rock flying forwards if in future an undetected plane of weakness or clay pocket exists; in the vicinity of property, and wherever possible, the face of the blasting will be directed upwards, and blasting mats and all other precautions which can be employed for the protection of the public will be used. Arrangements have been made for an Inspector of Mines and Quarries to visit the site, and he will continue to make periodic visits.

The maximum depth of cutting at this point will be approximately 100 feet, and although the cutting will be in sloping ground, the motorway level will generally be below the level of the ground on the downhill side of the cutting in the vicinity of the properties in this area. This will afford some protection as excavation progresses. In the period since January this year, approximately ¼ million cubic yards of rock have been removed and it is expected that it will be another three months before the excavation level in the motorway cutting reaches the level of the ground on the downhill side in the vicinity of these properties. Excavation in the cutting is then expected to continue for a further nine months, but during this period it is expected that the noise level and any disurbance caused by these operations will be reduced by the slope of the cutting on the downhill side.

If hon. Members will bear with me, I will say something briefly about the general question of noise, which I know is of some concern to Members with major road works which are near to houses. First, I would like to emphasise that, with the co-operation of our consulting engineers, our contractors and sub-contractors, we are doing and will continue to do all we reasonably can to minimise any disturbance or inconvenience. I assure the House that any complaint about roadworks which are our responsibility brought to the notice of my Department will be investigated immediately to see whether anything can be done to improve the situation. On the particular contracts which we have been discussing this afternoon we have held public meetings in the area before the start of main works to explain the engineering works involved and to advise residents of the difficulties of excavating some 2 million cubic yards of rock in the area without some disturbance and inconvenience.

Another matter which has caused some local disquiet is the possibility that some waste material used in the works could cause pollution. The material in question, industrial waste slag, is being used by the contractor concerned to build a temporary rail siding near the St. Georges interchange. Before its use was authorised, samples were analysed by the Soil Science Section of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and an independent consultant. This established that the only possible danger was from dust due to the fluorine content, and the slag is, therefore, being used only in circumstances where it can promptly be covered with other filling material if conditions make the creation of dust at all likely. The analyst's reports confirmed that there was no danger of water pollution from this source.

May I also make it quite clear that importation of this waste material is confined to one approved source of supply and no fresh source will be authorised without the fullest chemical analysis.

The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare has raised the question—which he has raised with me before—of construction traffic carrying rock fill from quarries south-east of Wells to the contract length between St. Georges and Edith-mead. Because of difficult soil conditions over the Somerset flats, some 1 million tons of material for drainage, layer and surcharge will have to be imported for this contract.

As I explained to the hon. Gentleman in reply to the Question which he put on this very point, in common with all contracts carried out under the Institution of Civil Engineers' Conditions of Contract, it is the contractor's sole responsibility to find and supply all the materials he requires for the works and to transport them to the site. If, contrary to the provisions of his contract, we were now to dictate to the contractor concerned where he should obtain his materials, the taxpayer would immediately be at risk financially—for example, in respect of cancellation charges on the contractor's existing contracts with quarries, and for any difference in cost between the contractor's own sources of supply and the ones we were seeking to impose on him.

The hon. Gentleman has also complained about traffic lights, traffic signals, and the delays arising. He has asked what consultations there have been with the police and the local council on phasing. Where these hugh 35-ton vehicles are using the motorway route as a haul route, of necessity they must cross local roads, and I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would have been grateful for the positive type of control by traffic signals, rather than by flag men, that the contractors have instituted.

Nevertheless, I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's concern for his constituents in this matter of construction traffic. It has been fully discussed with all the local authorities concerned, the police, and other interested parties, and everything possible to reduce nuisance has been, and will continue to be done so long as the contract continues.

The construction of the M5 motorway constitutes the biggest civil engineering project of its type undertaken in the south-west, and on the contracts we have been discussing today the route has to be taken across two major ranges, the Clevedon Hills and the Mendips. When it is built it will bring tremendous benefits to the south-west. As I have said, however, when construction work of this magnitude is in progress unfortunately, but inevitably, some disturbance is unavoidable.

Once again, I would like to repeat my sincerest apologies for the incidents which have occurred on these contracts. I hope that what I have said today will assure hon. Members that we are very mindful of all our responsibilities and that we are taking, and will continue to take, all possible measures to prevent them from recurring and to mitigate any other effects, albeit temporary, which projects of this size must entail.

Mr. Dean

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the answers he has given. However, he has not dealt with my point about hours of working. Will he give me a positive assurance that there will be no extension of the present hours of working, which go up to 8 p.m., until there have been full consultations, including consultations with me, and until he and the Ministry are absolutely satisfied that there will not be any unreasonable disturbances to residents?

Mr. Brown

I thought that I indicated earlier, when I mentioned the fact that other hon. Members were concerned about this problem, that the question of night working is one on which local discussions with the responsible local councils, and the police take place before any extension of hours is made. I am sorry that I cannot give the hon. Gentleman any firm assurance because, when the long summer days come, clearly, if we are to get our motorway finished as expeditiously as possible, we must, wherever possible, extend the hours of working.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes to Five o'clock.