HC Deb 29 July 1971 vol 822 cc959-68

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

12 midnight.

Mr. Gwynoro Jones (Carmarthen)

The question of the two by-passes of Carmarthen has been a problem which has confronted our area, especially Carmarthenshire and West Wales, for many years. It is a problem which has occupied the minds of many people, the county council in particular. I should like to pay tribute to the work of the roads and bridges committee of the county council for their efforts over the years in stating the case for the two bypasses.

The problem at present is obviously a result of the fact that the A45 trunk road together with the A40 trunk road link form a combined east-west route, westwards to St. Clears and into Pembrokeshire at the point in Carmarthen. Not only do we have these two main trunk roads, but we also have the further aggravation that roads from Llanelly, Lampeter and Cardigan have a focal point in Carmarthen. Therefore, Carmarthen is the gateway to West Wales. There is a severe bottleneck in the town of Carmarthen causing the tourist a great deal of inconvenience, and when we talk of inconvenience we are talking in terms of hours every Saturday. It is not some- thing which happens once in a while. It happens Saturday after Saturday. Carmarthen is also an administrative centre and a market town. This further helps to aggravate the situation.

Tourism in West Wales is developing despite this hazard. I am sure that the hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Nicholas Edwards) will agree with me. Tourism is now becoming a major industry. In Carmarthen it brings in over £2 million a year to the economy. In Pembroke it is probably in the region of £8 million to £10 million a year. Over the years the position has been worsening. It was beginning to make itself felt in the middle of the 1960s. I should like to quote what Mr. Tew, the engineer, and Mr. Randles, the planning officer, stated in their report. It will exemplifiy what has been happening in Carmarthen and how the great increase in the flow of traffic has contributed to the situation which exists today.

Their report states: On a Saturday in the first week of August, 1952, 10,700 passenger car units entered Carmarthen by the three main routes. On 22nd Auaust, 1964, the number had increased threefold to 32,700. The by-passable traffic"— the traffic which was not stopping in Carmarthen but which had to go through the other areas, especially Pembroke, mainly tourist— increased from 5,400 to 23,700 over the same period. … The impact of this traffic can only be appreciated if it is realised that in general each of these existing routes has a practicable capacity well below 6,000 passenger car units per day, and in addition to this through traffic, had to carry over 9,000 local vehicles. The trend started in the 1950s and began to make itself felt in the middle 1960s. The experience of the last few years was not with us in the early 1960s or the 1950s. But in the middle 1960s the increase in traffic flow was at a far greater rate than in the earlier period. I estimate that there is a general increase now of 10 per cent. per year, and the vehicle licensing figures show an increase of between 4 per cent. and 5 per cent. per year in local traffic. In other words, both local and through traffic are increasing at a considerable rate.

During the period of the Labour Government—I do not wish to be controversial and I am not making a political point—we had introduced, in 1965, the concept of the preparation pool, and although we must do more to tackle the problem, it will be generally agreed that that concept was of benefit. In October 1968, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. George Thomas) announced, as Secretary of State for Wales, that the southern by-pass had been put into the pool. Since then announcements have been made about the eastern by-pass and the dual carriageway and by-pass from Carmarthen to St. Clears. These are urgent and necessary projects.

I understand that when projects are placed in the preparation pool, it is then up to the Secretary of State and the Welsh Office to set the priorities. As I have explained, in 1968 the southern by-pass was placed in the pool, as was the Pontardulais project. While I look forward to the day when the motorway runs from London to Cardiff, through Carmarthenshire and into Pembrokeshire, the Minister has a problem to face now. If the motorway is completed to Pontardulais by 1976, as planned, and the situation in Carmarthen continues as at present, the position will become intolerable because the traffic that is now coming across South Wales on the A.48 is being held up en route at Pontardulais and Morriston. If these two towns are by-passed, the traffic will arrive that much faster in Carmarthen and become even more compacted.

What priority is the Welsh Office prepared to give to solving this problem? The situation is becoming impossible. For example, last Saturday was the worst for many years. I am told that the traffic congestion throughout the weekend was so bad that queues of vehicles extended eastwards from Carmarthen to St. Clears and beyond. I am informed that the queues were some of the longest in the history of the area and that the problem is reaching emergency proportions.

What priority is the Welsh Office prepared to give, not to the southern but to the eastern by-pass and the dual carriageway between Carmarthen and St. Clears, including the by-pass of St. Clears? If we construct only the southern by-pass, the problem will not be eased. On the other hand, if we merely by-pass Carmarthen the problem will not be eased either. Indeed, it will be made worse because the congestion will simply be removed from Carmarthen to St. Clears, which is only nine miles away. Welcome though the motorway is, will the Minister give an assurance that by 1976, when it is opened, the two by-passes of Carmarthen will be built and ready for use?

The future prosperity of Carmarthen and of West Wales depends on this infrastructure improvement. Tourism depends on it. Industrial development depends on it.

I am glad to see two hon. Members opposite have come to listen, as has my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West, who was actively concerned in the preparation pool schemes, and especially with the southern by-pass of Carmarthen. [Interruption.] I am reminded of the Bailey bridge. This helped the situation for a while, but the experience then was similar to what will happen when the Carmarthen traffic is moved to St. Clears. That moved the problem from one part of the river further downstream. I accept what the former Secretary of State said— that he foresaw the problem.

This problem is so urgent that it merits serious consideration and priority action by the Welsh Office.

12.11 a.m.

Mr. Nicholas Edwards (Pembroke)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Gwynoro Jones) for giving me the opportunity to intervene, and for once I found myself in almost entire agreement with him. For Carmarthen this road is important; for Pembrokeshire it is vital because it is literally our lifeline. The whole of our industrial development, our tourist industry, and all our communication with the rest of the British Isles depend on this road and at the moment it is obstructed by this bottleneck, and not only that, but it affects many vital local facilities.

At present, this is the way to our hospital. If Government plans are carried through, it may be the way to the centre of local government. This is vital for Pembrokeshire. There are few higher priorities in the road building programme anywhere in the Principality. The Government have set aside £14 million extra for infrastructure improvement in the near future in Wales, and I hope that some of it can be allocated to this high priority.

12.13 a.m.

The Minister of State, Welsh Office (Mr. David Gibson-Watt)

May I first congratulate the hon. Member for Carmarthen on raising this matter of such interest and for the excellent way in which he did it, and also my hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke (Mr. Nicholas Edwards), who made a short intervention, since this also affects his constituency. May I say to them and to the right hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. George Thomas) and to my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (Mr. John Stradling Thomas), that Wales is pretty well represented tonight.

The problem of serious traffic congestion in and on the approaches to Carmarthen, particularly during summer weekends, has been with us for far too long. An improvement is essential, not only for Carmarthen itself, where traffic is badly congested, but also for South Wales as a whole. For Carmarthen stands at the crossroads to South West Wales; it is the gateway to Carmarthenshire, Pembrokeshire and South Cardiganshire, as the hon. Gentleman said. It is an area of great natural beauty, visited by many holidaymakers.

It is particularly unfortunate from the traffic point of view that Carmarthen stands at the junction of the two main east-west trunk routes, the A.40 and the A.48. It is bounded on the south by the River Towy, which is crossed by only one bridge. It is this bridge, combined with the road junction immediately to the north and the urban area to the west, which lies at the heart of the problem.

With the greater level of resources available lately for roads, it has become possible to tackle congestion in places such as Carmarthen on a more comprehensive basis than was thought possible some years ago. In the early 1950s, it was decided to build an internal relief road, known as the Carmarthen diversion, west of the bridge. Perhaps I may pass to the right hon. Member for Cardiff, West, to pass to his hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen, a map of the area which will make clearer what I am about to say.

That project involved improved roads in the town and the dualling of the length of the A.40 road on its western outskirts. The improvement was in three stages. The first was completed in 1959 and the second in 1965. A third stage, now under construction, is expected to be completed early in 1972. The cost of these three schemes is well over £1 million.

Those improvements did not, however, deal with what has become the major cause of congestion, which is the single bridge over the River Towy. Accordingly, in October 1968, a scheme to provide a southern by pass, the second river crossing, at an estimated cost of £2 million, was added to the trunk road preparation pool. Since then, first the previous Administration and now the present Government have been pressing ahead with the preparation of this scheme. Inclusion in the preparation pool, therefore, means that it is a worth-while scheme which will be brought into the firm programme.

When the statutory processes have advanced to a stage where we know exactly what the scheme will cost and, secondly, we know how the expenditure is likely to be spread over the construction period, we shall then be able to consider this scheme alongside others which have reached a similar stage of preparation and decide the final priority in the light of the funds available.

I would expect this Carmarthen bypass scheme to be among the first to qualify for a place in the firm programme, but in fairness to the other schemes in the preparation pool it would not be right for me at this stage to make a firm commitment. The preparation of a scheme of this size, partly within an urban area and involving land partly in industrial use and a new bridge, is a complicated exercise. The choice of route to put forward for public comment raises difficult technical planning and environmental problems.

All these processes take about five years to complete, which would mean starting at the end of 1973. We expect to meet this date, although, of course, one can never predict what objections will be received when the formal statutory procedures begin. It was realised in 1969 that unless further steps were taken, the situation at the bridge at peak week-ends would, as the hon. Member has said, become extremely critical before the southern by-pass could be in use.

Accordingly, in 1969 a further interim scheme was prepared to provide some immediate relief by means of a temporary Bailey bridge a short distance away from the present bridge, combined with the operation of a one-way traffic system. It was always accepted that the degree of relief afforded by the Bailey bridge would be limited until the final stage of Carmarthen diversion scheme had been completed. We regard the Bailey bridge as a useful interim measure but it will certainly not stop us pressing ahead as quickly as we can with the completion of the southern by-pass.

Further plans to relieve congestion were announced in May 1970, when an eastern by-pass was added to the trunk road preparation pool. The purpose of that scheme is to improve the approach along the A.40. It will provide a new road from Abergwili to link with the southern by-pass at the south-eastern corner of the town, at an estimated cost of £1.6 million.

There was a certain price to be paid as a result of the decision to bring forward the construction of the eastern bypass because the design of the southern by-pass had immediately to take account of the need for another junction where the two by-passes join. This involved a certain amount of redesign, although this has been completed and the basis on which proposals can be published has now been settled.

There have, however, been other difficulties to which I must refer. The hon. Member will recall that, in reply to two Parliamentary Questions on 3rd March and 3rd May last, he was told that it was hoped to publish proposals for the southern by-pass this summer and for the eastern by-pass later in the year. I now have to tell the hon. Member that some of the design details have taken longer to settle than had been expected and our latest estimate is that we should be able to publish draft Orders under Sections 7 and 20 of the Highways Act, that is to say Orders fixing the centre line of the by-pass and seeking powers to build the new bridge over the River Towy, in the spring of next year.

The date for publishing Orders for the eastern by-pass is rather more tentative at present but is likely to be later in 1972.

The hon. Member has asked that the M.4 east of Carmarthen should not be completed until the by-passes of Carmarthen has been built.

Mr. Gwynoro Jones

With respect, I did not suggest that. Of course, I want to see the motorway coming into Carmarthenshire—God forbid that anyone should try to stop that proposal. I was asking about the situation of the motorway just beyond Pontardulais. Will the hon. Gentleman confirm whether the delay of six or more months will mean that the completion of the scheme will also be delayed?

Mr. Gibson-Watt

What I was about to say was that, much as I regret it, I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the assurance for which he asks.

We want to complete the whole road as soon as we can. It would not be right to delay work on any section. Part of the M4, the Morriston by-pass, is already under construction and will certainly be ready before the Carmarthen by-pass. But I expect the Carmarthen by-pass to be in use before the whole of the Welsh length of the M4 is completed.

The present programme for the bypasses, despite our desire to complete preparation quickly, is disappointing. The main problem with the southern by-pass has been the effect of the new road on railway Land and on adjacent Land occupied by industrial and commercial concerns and by British Railways. It is intended that the road should be elevated here and several combinations of bridge, embankment and alignment have had to be considered, each affecting the constructional cost of the scheme, and the effect on neighbouring property.

We had provisionally come to the conclusion earlier this year that we had reached a solution which could be incorporated in a draft Order for public comment. This has, however, had to be verified by further studies, particularly on issues affecting Land use and the effect on industrial premises. We have now completed these studies and can proceed with the draft Orders. The position on the eastern by-pass is that its alignment is affected by a possible change in 1973 in railway operations which could enable certain railway Land to be used for the road.

Planning difficulties are not unusual in a scheme in or close to an urban area. Whatever route is chosen is likely to have an adverse effect on some people and, in fairness to everyone who might be affected, we must examine every possibility carefully. While my right hon. and learned Friend is always prepared to modify a line in the light of objections after it has been published this requires further lengthy procedures and we like to try as far as possible to get the best line in the first place. Time spent on details now may well prove worth-while in the end.

It is well known that the by-passing of Carmarthen is part of the Government's main highway strategy in South Wales. This is designed to provide a dual carriageway road, most of it motorway, from the Severn Bridge to the point in St. Clears where traffic divides along the A.40 to the north side of Milford Haven and the A.477 to the south side of the Haven. The whole of this length is now covered by schemes under construction, schemes in the firm programme, schemes in the preparation pool, or feasibility studies. All will be pursued with the utmost vigour, consistent with not riding roughshod over the wishes of people affected.

In the Welsh Office we are as keen as the hon. Member to see this strategy become a reality as soon as possible.

Mr. George Thomas (Cardiff, West)

I deeply appreciate the difficulties of the Welsh Office in this matter and I am well aware of the grievous problem facing Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire. In support of the powerful representations which have been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Gwynoro Jones), I should like to ask two questions. Would the Minister give a firm date for when he expects and aims for the southern by-pass to be included in the firm programme and could he say when he expects and aims to get the eastern by-pass in the firm programme?

Mr. Gibson-Watt

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for putting those questions to me. As soon as a firm date can be given for both, I shall get in touch with the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friend. It would be wrong for me tonight to give what might seem to be a firm date but what would not be so firm tomorrow.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes past Twelve o'clock-