HC Deb 27 May 1970 vol 801 cc1791-9
The Minister of Transport (Mr. Frederick Mulley)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the White Paper published today on the new inter-urban road strategy for England. Copies are available in the Vote Office.

The House will recall that tentative proposals for a new approach to interurban road planning were put forward for discussion last year in a Green Paper " Roads for the Future ". Public response showed general support for the concept of the comprhensive development of a national network of trunk routes.

I have also received many detailed comments, mainly suggesting additions to the proposed network, from right hon. and hon. Members, from all the regional economic planning councils, and many other organisations and individuals. I should like to thank all those who gave us their views and suggestions.

I has taken rather longer than originally envisaged to consider all the comments and proposals, but this was because I wanted to be sure that we finished up with the right strategy. We have tested a number of alternatives, and examined every route in the proposed network. Particular attention has been paid to the support that new and improved roads give to the major measures that the Government are taking to ensure a better balance in economic development.

These studies have reinforced the Government's belief in the concept of a network of comprehensively improved trunk roads. But they have also shown the need for a larger network than that proposed in the Green Paper, supported by a complementary programme of improvements on other roads about twice as large as that proposed in the Green Paper.

The White Paper, therefore, now puts forward an extended network of about 2,200 miles of motorways or other dual-carriageway roads which is estimated to cost about £2,000 million at 1970 prices and provides for a further £1,400 million to be spent on improving other trunk roads to the standard necessary to cater for future traffic demands—about another 1,800 miles. This, added to the 2,000 miles of the present programme, will give a total of about 6,000 miles of new and improved roads.

The cost of the new strategy will, therefore, be about £3,400 million—about 40 per cent. higher than the estimated cost of the Green Paper proposals.

The strategy proposed in the Green Paper was to have been completed between 1982 and 1987. The much more extensive strategy now put forward is to be completed in 15 to 20 years from now as future economic circumstances allow. This programme will enable us to plan and provide a primary network serving all main centres of population and industry and, by the end of the period, to eliminate serious congestion on all interurban roads, despite the continuing rapid growth of traffic.

This is a plan for inter-urban road improvement. But the White Paper fully recognises the need to deal with the pressing problem of congestion in our towns and cities, the environmental problems to which it gives rise, and the need to knit together the inter-urban and urban networks. We are, therefore, making provision for the proportion of the total road programme devoted to urban roads to rise progressively from rather less than 40 per cent. as at present to well over half the total by the 1980s.

The new strategy will provide the blueprint for road planning for many years to come. Within this total plan, the priorities of individual schemes need to be reviewed from time to time to take account of major new developments. Individual routes will need to be investigated and determined after taking full account of environment and amenity and regional and local development plans.

About £1,000 million worth of motorway and trunk road schemes are under construction or in the firm programme, and already a further £900 million worth of major schemes are being prepared for transfer to the firm programme to ensure continuity in the present record level of road construction. Other schemes will be added progressively as the new strategy proceeds.

On the basis of this programme, we can look forward by the end of the 1980s to an inter-urban trunk road system where capacity has doubled—compared with a 70 per cent. increase in traffic—and on which traffic can travel freely, safely and without frustration and congestion.

Mr. Michael Heseltine

The whole House must welcome the last minute repentance of the Government about road building, so conveniently situated two days before the House rises for a General Election.

Does not the Minister find it strange to be announcing this programme as a member of a Government who have three times cut the programme and who have now been revealed as incapable of maintaining existing roads, let alone building new ones?

Mr. Ellis

Whiz kid.

Mr. Heseltine

May I ask the Minister whether he will give the House the cost of the programme which he has just announced calculated at the rate of price increases running at 9 per cent. per annum into the future?

May I also ask what the Minister will do about the substantial problems which will arise from planning blight as a result of his announcement today?

Mr. Mulley

I am not surprised that I can never satisfy the hon. Member for Tavistock (Mr. Michael Heseltine). On 28th April, in answer to a Question from the hon. Gentleman, I gave the House an assurance that I would publish the White Paper as soon as possible after Whitsun. I think that I have fully carried out that undertaking.

The White Paper is the result of very hard work over a long period since the Green Paper was published, in conjunction with local authorities, the regional economic planning councils, and so on. So the hon. Gentleman's sly remark about it being on the eve of a General Election is completely misplaced. In making this statement today I am fully accepting responsibility that my colleagues and I will have to carry out this programme when we come back.

I do not know from where the hon. Gentleman gets the idea of 9 per cent. The fact is that over the last few years the increased cost of road construction has been rather less than the annual construction overage increase of about 4 per cent. I do not know how he projects this into the future. But, as is customary in all planning, we work on the basis of constant prices and I have given the House the full figures.

I do not know of any substantial complaints about maintenance. As the hon. Gentleman knows, a lot of maintenance is outside the trunk road system and is the responsibility of the local authorities concerned. The hon. Gentleman will also know that my predecessor set up the Marshall Committee on maintenance, which will be reporting shortly.

Mr. Bagier

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it makes sense to plan road building for a long period ahead in accordance with the time which he has given? Does he also agree that it denotes a note of confidence that he will be here to carry out that programme? Does my right hon. Friend also agree that the development areas particularly, which have been part and parcel of a vast road building programme over the last five years under this Government, are a significant factor in opening out those areas to the same kind of prosperity that other regions have?

Mr. Mulley

I am obliged to my hon. Friend. I am sure that he is right in saying how important road developments in the development areas have been and in pointing out the importance of long-term planning. It is ironical that the hon. Member for Tavistock—

Hon. Members

Where is the hon. Gentleman?

Mr. Mulley

— has on previous occasions tried to claim the credit for all our road building because it was planned under a Conservative Government. But everybody knows that a road cannot be built in under seven years. It has to be planned ahead, and that is what we are doing.

Mr. Bessell

May I ask the Minister whether he is aware that, while we shall obviously need to study the White Paper, his statement today will be broadly welcomed by road users throughout the country?

Secondly, may I ask whether it is possible to speed up the programme as 1990 seems a long way ahead?

Finally, has the Minister considered propositions for raising funds by public loans for building roads similar to those operated in Italy and other countries?

Mr. Mulley

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his blessing to the project.

We would like to bring the date forward, but it depends on economic developments over the next few years. I should be happy if it could be completed in 15 years at the earliest rather than 20 years.

Raising funds by public loans was discussed by the Estimates Committee, and we have, naturally, paid attention to its views. But, frankly, I do not know that this will raise a large amount of money, unless it is accompanied by tolls and the rest, which nobody would favour.

Mr. Brooks

Is my right hon. Friend aware that while many of us welcome this long-term strategy planning which has been announced, nevertheless, some on Merseyside have been concerned at the apparent lack of priority given to improving road access to what, after all, is Britain's largest exporting port? Will my right hon. Friend tell us broadly what kind of priorities will be indicated in the next three or four years?

Mr. Mulley

I think that my hon. Friend, when he looks at the planned strategy, will find that we have taken fully into account the importance of Liverpool as a port, and that the routes are designed to recognise that. Priority of one route over another is a difficult problem. We have to be guided by special factors, such as the third London airport, regional development and so on. We also have to pay particular attention to trying to deal with the heaviest congestion first. I know that practically everyone thinks that his particular bit of road is the most heavily congested in the country, but we have to deal with it by counting traffic flows and working on a scientific rather than a subjective basis.

Mr. Costain

In assessing the format of the proposals, what account has the Minister taken of the possibility or otherwise of the Channel Tunnel being built? If he has assumed that it is to be built, may we know what year he has assessed for this?

Mr. Mulley

I have not worked on the basis that the Channel Tunnel will or will not be built—[HON. MEMBERS: " Oh."] But, clearly, we have provided for that, because —and I was told this when I was in Dover—there will be need for an improved road in that direction in any event. As the hon. Gentleman knows, there is a South-East Development Study. One reason for reserving a sum of £1,400 million not committed to the main strategy is precisely to deal with the kind of situations which will develop in the years ahead that we cannot reasonably foresee at the moment.

Mr. Peter Walker

Have the Government any proposals to deal with the planning blight which will be created by such a programme?

Mr. Mulley

I am sorry that I did not deal with that in reply to the Member for Tavistock. No immediate planning blight will be created, because we are not proposing to draw the lines or announce the routes until we reach the point—[Laughter] The hon. Gentleman laughs, but this is a serious matter. There are probably three or four different routes between one city and another. The property affected will not be known until the final detailed and technical discussions take place. As one of my right hon. Friends has said on behalf of the Government, we are examining the general quesion of blight, and new legislation will be needed.

Mr. Ellis

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is scarcely a constituency in which the evidence of the Labour Government's activities in road building and improving roads is not there for the general electorate to see? Will he therefore accept our congratulations, particularly on behalf of the South-West, where all the complaints are coming from —I see the hon. Member for Somerset, North (Mr. Dean) in his place—that the Labour Government are doing too much and too speedily, making up for years of neglect?

Mr. Mulley

I am obliged to my hon. Friend. I am constantly amazed at how some hon. Gentlemen opposite disregard the evidence of their eyes for some propaganda that is pushed out in a party document.

Sir E. Boyle

Will the right hon. Gentleman undertake not to neglect the problems here and now of a considerable number of shopkeepers in those city areas where a major linking scheme is under construction? I sent a case to him the other day.

Mr. Mulley

I understand the problem, but this is a programme for inter-urban roads. One of the problems about urban roads is that the initiative for the schemes come from the local authorities concerned.

Mr. Ogden

Will my right hon. Friend use this opportunity to ensure that road tunnels are fully integrated into the road programme, and remove the anomaly whereby it is possible for a motorist to go over the Mersey at Widnes without a charge, and yet have to pay to go under the Mersey at Liverpool?

Mr. Mulley

I do not think that that question arises from my statement. The Government's policy on tunnel and bridge tolls is well known.

Mr. Longden

Can the right hon. Gentleman say whether we shall have to wait until the late 'eighties for a decision from him about the route of the north orbital road through my constituency, which has been on the plans for upwards of 40 years?

Mr. Mulley

I cannot off the cuff give an answer about when a particular route will or will not be started, but I shall write to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Nott

As the right hon. Gentleman imposed a vehicle tax for the first time, without notice, would he like to say how much work the Government have done on roads in the Isles of Scilly? He could accompany his right hon. Friend there.

Mr. Mulley

The prospects of accompanying my right hon. Friend and of visiting the Scillies are very agreeable, but I understand that I am likely to be otherwise occupied during the next three weeks.

Sir H. Legge-Bourke

Can the right hon. Gentleman give us some idea of the share of the total visualised expenditure which will be devoted to the improvement of roads in East Anglia, bearing in mind that the Regional Planning Council for East Anglia and the Conservative Party's report on the subject stress the need for better roads in East Anglia?

Mr. Mulley

I assure the hon. Gentleman that there is no regional economic council, or other regional body, which would not endorse that sentiment for its own region. One of the problems is to assess priorities. I have to be guided by the factual situation, the state of congestion, and so on. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the figures broken down as between one region and another. We have to look at this as a national problem, because people are trying to move about in all parts of the country. If we tried to divide the road programme on a percentage basis per region, that would not be the right kind of planning.

Mr. J. H. Osborn

What will be the density of passenger vehicles and heavy vehicles in 1980 and 1990? What will be the additional cost of repairs, and what consideration has been taken of that? Secondly, what will be the priority of the route from Sheffield, where the right hon. Gentleman's constituency is, to Liverpool, across the Pennines?

Mr. Mulley

The hon. Gentleman knows that we have had feasibility studies carried out on a route from Sheffield to Manchester, which would be extended across the Pennines. The hon. Gentleman would need to put his other questions to a soothsayer, not to a Minister.

Mr. R. C. Mitchell

Paragraph 14 of the White Paper refers to five proposed routes, one from Bristol to Southampton, in respect of which further and detailed investigation and study is to be made. Can my right hon. Friend say how long he expects this further investigation and study to take?

Mr. Mulley

I cannot give an exact time, but I do not think that the study of the route will be unduly long, and then a decision will be taken whether it should or should not be put in the general strategy. But that does not mean that it will necessarily be built immediately the study is concluded.

Mr. Woodnutt

Will the right hon. Gentleman give a little thought to the offshore islands, bearing in mind that the Isle of Wight is the only county which has no roads which are 100 per cent. at the cost of the Government? Will he consider extending the A3 trunk road through Ryde to Yarmouth at the other end so that roads on the Isle of Wight are as good as those on the mainland?

Mr. Mulley

I am prepared to look at all proposals but trunk roads are designed for through traffic. It is customary for the principal roads in each local authority area to be the joint responsibility of the Government and the local authority concerned, but the Government's share of such expenditure is 75 per cent.

Several Hon. Membersrose

Mr. Speaker

Order. I must protect the business of the House. We have a lot of work ahead of us.