HC Deb 11 November 1971 vol 825 cc1383-94

10.35 p.m.

Mr. Alan Fitch (Wigan)

I much appreciate this opportunity to raise the important subject of road congestion. It is necessary to do so since figures recently issued by the Department of the Environment show that after a period in the doldrums the motor trade is picking up. This is good news. It means more employment; it means increased exports; it means that more people are able to afford a car and enjoy its use. It does, however, also mean that realistic action should now be taken to modernise our road system, since our interurban roads are heavily overloaded while the situation in our towns and cities has reached crisis point.

For the last seven years, I have taken part in the activities of our all-party roads study group, and I have the honour now to serve as joint-chairman with the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. J. H. Osborn). We have been able to study conditions at home and abroad. Experts have given us the benefit of their knowledge—county surveyors, borough engineers, town planners, professors, economists. I myself have attended meetings when experts have addressed us, and I have visited Sheffield, Manchester, Stuttgart, Vienna, Brussels, Liege and and Antwerp. However, throughout these seven years, I have also been a Whip and therefore subject to the monastic discipline of virtual silence which is expected of that office. Now that I am free of that discipline, I should like to take this early opportunity to speak on the difficult problem of road congestion and to suggest, humbly, how it could be dealt with.

I start with some truisms. Roads begin and end at every front door, office, factory gate, shop, school and place of entertainment. All our family lives therefore depend upon them. So does all industry and commerce. Furthermore, all roads begin and end at every railway station and goods yard, at every dockside and at every airport. So all other forms of transport depend upon them too. Roads are things of paramount importance.

But regrettably they are not always considered to be so. From reading the newspapers and sometimes watching television and listening to the radio, one gains the impression that roads and the vehicles that run on them—our cars and lorries—are inventions of the devil. It is the anti-roads, the anti-car and the anti-lorry lobbies which make the headlines. Their propaganda is effective too.

It is true that at national and local government elections lip service is paid to roads. We say that we will do this and that we will do that. But we have our reservations. Roads are all right in theory but in practice all too often, it would seem, only over our dead bodies are we willing to see such and such a new road or road improvement go through our country, borough or parish. Through someone else's—yes; through ours—no.

As a result of this attitude of mind, our road network is grossly inadequate. As I have said, most of our trunk roads are heavily overloaded, whilst in the great conurbations in this most urbanised of countries the average speed of traffic is 11 miles an hour—very little faster than it was 100 years ago in the age of the stage coach. This is throttling our national economy and making our personal lives miserable when we go on our business or, indeed, on our pleasure.

The reason our road network is grossly inadequate is because we grossly underinvest in its modernisation. Let us look for a moment at a comparison between Great Britain and Japan, another island nation. It is of interest to note that Japan's capital expenditure on new roads and major improvements is running at over £700 million a year, whilst ours is well below half that figure. Comparisons are odious, but I make no bones about it that I consider that this is worse than odious; I find it tragic. It points straight to economic decline. The situation is grim because it happens that the Japanese figure is about the right figure for Great Britain if we are to conquer congestion. We will probably need to double the money for the roads programme if the wealth and prosperity of this nation are to be assured.

Let us for a moment look at a few more figures. Take the inter-urban problem, which now, happily, is in hand. The Parliamentary Secretary will agree that a great deal of credit should go to his right hon. Friend's predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Park (Mr. Mulley), who was in the hot seat that the right hon. Gentleman is now in, for the preparation of plans by which it is intended to provide the country by about 1981 with a primary network of 3,500 miles of high quality strategic trunk routes, of which about 2,000 miles will be motorways. The cost is estimated at £2,300 million and will therefore require an expenditure at the rate of about £230 million a year. Unfortunately, that is not even half the problem. In financial terms, it is only one-third of it.

It is absurd to build a spanking new inter-urban network which will simply pour traffic into the conurbations where congestion is already at crisis point. Urban roads need to be modernised at the same pace as inter-urban roads, for roads are virtually indivisible. In other words, it is time to take the long overdue action to implement at least some of the recommendations of Professor Buchanan and Lord Crowther in their work, "Traffic in Towns". We need to build the urban primary distributor networks, and we need to make the once-and-for-all financial effort required to pay for them.

Here again the experts have worked out the figures. Mr. Christopher Foster estimated the cost at between £5,000 and £6,000 million; but that was for complete modernisation. Professor E. V. Morgan, aiming at a target date of about 1980, roughly that of the present interurban plans, estimated the cost of a modified urban network at £4,100 million for the roads and off-street parking spaces. However, not much has been done in the five years since these estimates were made, and inflation will obviously in- crease them. It would probably be close to the mark if we said that an expenditure of about £5,000 million was necessary to meet the 1981 target. Breaking down the annual rate, this would mean £500 million for urban roads, plus £230 million for the inter-urban, making a total requirement of £730 million a year.

The winds of change are, however, blowing through the corridors of financial power. Our former colleague Richard Marsh is playing some interesting financial gambits to get money for British Rail's rolling stock and to develop its land and property. In connection with roads, I think the Secretary of State might well take a look at how the building of the Manchester Ship Canal was financed nearly 100 years ago. It was done by a combination of private and municipal investment. A similar system is used in Belgium to raise the money to build motorways, and there seems no reason why it should not be considered here. If the terms are right, new capital sources could be tapped in our regions to provide the new urban and inter-urban roads they need. It is a scheme which needs to be considered.

I turn to my constituency of Wigan. The county borough council, as would be expected from its go-ahead policies in all matters affecting the well-being of its people, has been quick off the mark in dealing with traffic congestion in the town. The inner ring road, or town centre ring road as it is aptly named, is going well. I am pleased that the Minister has given permission for the reconstruction of the Chapel Lane Bridge which, with Riverway, Powell Street and Dicconson Street, is an essential part of the town's centre ring road. Unfortunately, the construction of the dual carriageway in Wallgate has had to be put back because the Minister has asked the corporation to undertake a study in land use transportation which will take at least two years to complete. I am all in favour of having a good look at any project before it is embarked upon. I hope that when the study is complete it will not be tucked away in a Ministry pigeon hole for months after that but will be acted upon immediately.

I now turn to the intermediate link road which is being paid for by the ratepayers of Wigan without any Government help. Already Robin Park Road, completed a few years ago, has cost over £108,000, and the Spencer Road Bridge, just completed, cost £157,596, and the estimate for the extension of Scot Lane, which will include three bridges, is roughly £500,000. Is it not possible for the Minister to be more flexible in financing essential road systems such as those I have mentioned, and make a grant for these projects? I know they are not regarded, in the language of the Ministry, as principal road networks, but still they are essential to the relief of congestion in many of our towns.

My last local point concerns the proposed route 255 which, I understand, at the moment consists of a bypass from Skelmersdale to the M.6. Are there any plans to continue this route east of the M.6 to Bolton, thus diverting traffic which at the moment passes through Wigan? The Minister for Local Government and Development, replying to a Question on 27th October, said: Early next year I intend to add to the principal road preparation list a large additional instalment of schemes to a total value in the region of £500 million-£600 million." —[OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th October, 1971; Vol. 823, c. 1706.] This is the sum which, in my view, should be spent not only next year but for many years to come. I am wondering whether this upgrading of expenditure as outlined by the Minister is the Government's policy or intention for the future. There is understandable concern that urban roadways could spoil the environment, but with modern methods of planning there is no reason why they should not improve it. We want an economically prosperous country. We are more likely to get it was a good roads network.

10.48 p.m.

Mr. Charles R. Morris (Manchester, Openshaw)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Mr. Fitch) for giving the House this evening an opportunity to examine the basis of financing the road improvements in this country. I followed his speech very closely. He referred to inter-urban road networks and motorways, but I should like to focus the attention of the Minister on the financial provisions for nonprincipal roads.

The Minister and his Department ought to examine what has happened since the introduction of the rate support grant, which brought into effect global financing provisions for local government services. Prior to the introduction of the rate support grant, Government financial provision was made for specific local government services. Since the introduction of the rate support grant we have had what I can perhaps best describe as global financial provision, and, as a consequence, local authorities have been spending less each year on non-principal roads.

I can best illustrate this point by referring to the situation in my own local authority, Manchester County Borough. In that area I have been informed, as a consequence of the introduction of the rate support grant, expenditure in the city on non-principal roads has remained pretty much as it was in the year 1967–68. At that time the local city council was obliged to impose a major cut of about £240,000 in revenue expenditure on highways. Even to this day the council has not been able to restore the expenditure on non-principal roads to the presupport grant level, and the necessary highway improvements and other road safety measures which the council has sought to introduce, and the expenditure on service road, footpath and carriageway repairs for 1971–72, is little more than half what it was in 1967–68.

I give general support to many of the views expressed by my hon. Friend and I should like the Minister and his Department to look at the expenditure of major provincial local authorities on nonprincipal roads.

10.51 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment(Mr. Michael Heseltine)

I am sure the hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Fitch), who has at last broken his self-imposed silence of many years, will have earned our gratitude for raising this massive subject, which, if time were available, would merit a much longer period of time and the contributions of many more hon. Members than are able to be present at this essentially late-night exercise.

I was interested to hear what the hon. Gentleman said, particularly since I have been involved in the problems to which he drew our attention almost ever since I was elected to the House. The complexity of the decisions and the opportunities that flow from them following the massive investment of public money that is now available for the roads programme and the associated transport investment programmes is such as to excite the imagination of anyone who has responsibility for directing the flow of that money.

The hon. Gentleman drew attention to the amount of money involved. If we had a magic wand and were able to increase expenditure I should be the first to press the case of the road programme. But it is a question of priorities, and, in the context of the likely outturn of Government expenditure over the years ahead, the road programme is attracting an increasing proportion of public expenditure.

Total public expenditure this year on the new construction of motorways, trunk and principal roads in England—and the hon. Gentleman will be aware that my right hon. Friend is not responsible for roads in Scotland—is expected to reach £330 million. Of this, over £200 million will be spent on motorways and all-purpose trunk roads.

Both hon. Gentlemen have referred to the two programmes which the Government have announced in detail, the inter-urban road programme and the principal road programme, and the scale of those announcements. I should like to amplify what the hon. Member for Wigan said and to refer to the considerations which the Government had in mind when they made the decisions in June about the inter-urban road programme, and the considerations which they will have in mind in the spring of next year when they make their decision about the preparation and approval of principal roads.

The House will recall that the Labour Government put out a road programme stretching well towards the end of the century. The present Government felt that the Labour programme lacked immediacy and urgency, and we felt it necessary to give credibility in the eyes of local people to the plans at that time put forward by the Labour Government. Therefore, although we were not prepared to go as far ahead as the previous Government, bearing in mind the lack of credibility that flowed from this long-term outlook, and also because the programme did not indicate sufficiently clearly between one road and another which was like to come into being earlier rather than later, we wanted a more precise approach to the programme over the next decade. We also wanted to associate the road programme with the environmental factors which everybody now associates with the opportunities that flow from road building.

We did not simply want to put lines on maps and say, "The traffic flow from these roads will mean such-and-such an immediate economic return to society", though that is very important. We wanted to show that our proposals for road building involved not only moving bulldozers up and down the countryside, but also meant real environmental benefits flowing from the opportunities available to us.

There are three factors flowing from our concern to give new impetus to the programme we published. Obviously we wanted to get the largest number of miles we could for the value of money expended. But that is not the end of the story. First, we wanted to ensure that there was a through network joining all the principal centres of population so that anybody who wanted to go from one place of size to another would find it possible to do so without leaving the main network; there would be no necessity to find one's way through urban areas.

Secondly, we wanted to show that roads could be used to remove traffic positively from areas, particularly historic areas, in which congestion was particularly damaging to the heritage of this country. At this time we published plans showing how effective our proposals would be in relieving congestion in these historic towns.

The third aspect we took carefully into account was the feeling of frustration on the part of many members of the public when they saw a heavy container lorry heading to the ports along good inter-urban roads but which then had to go through residential and industrial streets of a city before reaching the dock gates. We took great care, where powers were available to do so or by making direct approaches to local authorities, to ensure that roads went direct to the dock gates. In this way we thought that the environmental damage to people living in the areas would be greatly lessened. This was the approach we adopted in June of this year, and it was widely welcomed and commented upon. As the hon. Member for Wigan said, we are now involved in the preparation of the other side of the coin—the road network for the principal road scheme which largely involves local authority roads in cities and large urban areas. We have said that we intend in the early part of next year to select from the candidates put forward by the local authorities something in the region of £500 to £600 million-worth of schemes on which work can begin. This is a particularly exciting facet of the work of the Department of the Environment.

As the House will know, I have been responsible for a committee which for over a year has been looking into the whole problem of urban transportation. It is a difficult subject and this matter has been referred to in Adjournment debates and on many other occasions to show our awareness of the problem. We in the Department are very concerned about this matter. One of the indications of our concern is shown in the announcement by my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Development that he will be selecting certain schemes.

He said it will not be enough to put before us schemes which had an efficiency rating higher than some other schemes and which could attract or move cars from A to B at a higher average speed than would now be possible on existing roads. If that is done, it has the effect of encouraging more cars, and they may come along that piece of road at a higher average speed. Where do they go? They go into a part of the network which has not been improved. They look for car parking facilities. They need to be coped with by traffic management schemes and, given better public transport facilities, larger numbers might prefer that form of travel.

We have made it clear in the announcements that we have made that when we come to select those schemes in the spring of next year we shall bring the same sort of cohesive and comprehensive approach to bear on that selection of candidates as we tried to do when we announced our strategic network in June of this year.

The hon. Member for Manchester, Openshaw (Mr. Charles R. Morris) dealt with another area of concern which flows from one aspect of the problem to which I have referred to generally. It is the financing of non-principal road schemes in local authority areas. I make two points about that. The first is that perhaps the concept of one's ability to cope with urban transport will be helped greatly by the reorganised local government structure for which we shall be legislating shortly. That will bring into being much larger authorities able to take a more comprehensive view of their problems. The studies which are going on in the areas which both hon. Members represent will be helped greatly by the eixstence of a smaller number of more geographically comprehensive authorities than exists at the moment.

There is a strong mood which we in the Department share and encourage that local authorities should have a greater degree of individual choice in the way in which they spend their money. We have tried to give greater local autonomy in the allocation of expenditure. We have not cut expenditure. Indeed, it has risen to record levels, and all the forecasts are that it will continue to be one of the most rapidly rising forms of public expenditure. The total sums have risen, but if local authorities are to use their freedom, it follows that they must be free to decide whether the money should be spent on non-principal roads. There is a balance here between the degree to which the central Government should intervene and the extent of the freedom of local government.

We have raised the options open to the central Government in any changes that we want to make in the financing of local authorities in the Green Paper that we have published as a consultative document on the possibilities of changing the financial structure. That is now on the table for discussion with the local authority associations. It may mean that there are greater opportunities for local authorities to exercise their responsibility independently. If they exercise it, it follows that they must answer to their electors for the consequences.

I share the views of both hon. Members on the schemes in their constituencies. Many are going on, and others have been completed recently. There are the transportation studies. My Department is aware of them and maintains a close relationship.

In trying to answer this debate, the tone of which was set at a high level by the hon. Member for Wigan, I have attempted to indicate how we are approaching these matters in the Department. I want to express the Department's gratitude for the interest that both hon. Members have shown in the work that it is doing.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at four minutes past Eleven o'clock.