HC Deb 02 August 1972 vol 842 cc776-801

2.37 a.m.

Mr. Michael Cocks (Bristol, South)

I appreciate the opportunity to raise the problem of holiday traffic congestion in Bristol, South. The Under-Secretary is making his second appearance in debates at a late hour about West Country roads and he will be only too well aware that the West Country as a whole has serious road problems. He will also appreciate that, compared with his appearance in the former debate, this is a comparatively early night for him.

I shall address myself to a rather narrow problem, specifically related to my constituency and Bristol as a whole. During the previous debate, the right hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) stressed the importance of the tourist and holiday industry for the West Country, and I made much the same points on the Committee and Report stages of the Industry Bill. Everybody in the West Country is anxious to see that industry thriving.

But there is a heavy price to be paid. As the Government are quite specific in their pledges of more help for this industry, I hope that they will give more help to overcoming the appalling traffic congestion that is developed by people travelling to the West Country for holidays. In the Bristol area the price of that traffic congestion is paid by my constituents more than by anybody else.

My constituents often say that they feel great sympathy for the motorist delayed for anything up to three or four hours while travelling through Bristol, but they point out that his frustrations are only twice a year—on the outward and homeward journey—whereas they have to put up with tremendous frustration from Friday to Sunday throughout the summer months. This nightmare is brought about and is being greatly worsened by motorway developments, because we now have not only the M4 feeding traffic from Wales, but 120 miles of the M4 from the London area and, above all, 286 miles of the M5 and M6 system forming a great arterial way pouring in holiday traffic which comes to an abrupt halt when it reaches the end of the motorway at Port-way, Avonmouth.

The traffic is absolutely solid at the weekends. With the assistance of the Bristol police, I recently toured the traffic when it was at its most congested and, apart from the houses which immediately abut on to the roads where this congestion occurs, where there is very obvious inconvenience caused, this congestion interferes with the daily life of many thousands of my constituents. North of the River Avon, the Portway for several miles forms a reservoir where traffic can accumulate. It does not cause any great distress, to residents nearby until it reaches the Shirehampton area. Once Cumberland Basin has been crossed and the traffic reaches Winterstoke Road on the south side of the river the real problem for my constituents begins. The Ashton Drive area is completely isolated by this mass of traffic along Winterstoke Road forming a moat or even a sort of Berlin Wall, and preventing the normal passage of my constituents about their daily affairs.

There is a small roundabout at the junction of Winterstoke Road and Ashton Drive, but when the traffic is solid the people are virtually trapped, and at this roundabout there is a great need for better signs to be erected because visiting motorists passing through Bristol do not understand the need to give way, and extremely dangerous conditions arise.

If we pass further along the road we come to the junction of Winterstoke Road with Luckwell Road and South Liberty Lane on the other side. There is a serious need here for a box junction because otherwise new traffic waiting to go through the traffic lights and enter the one-way system completely blocks the normal flow across.

Incidentally, at the traffic lights there is a great deal of noise and resultant distress. I should like to refer to a letter from one of my constituents about the problem. She mentions the great increase in traffic day and night, and she says that with the holiday traffic the noise is becoming intolerable. Heavy lorries also use the route and the noise they make as they pull away from the traffic lights makes sleep impossible. This is just one constituent among very many who have complained not only to myself but to the local councillors who have to cope with the problem.

Traffic going round Parson Street up on to Bedminster Down is in four streams and there is no real warning for motorists coming down Highcliffe Way, having been diverted, that if they turn left and go into the stream of traffic they will be bogged down for a long time. Here there should be some direction that they ought to turn right rather than left.

The climb up to the Cross Hands public house at the top of the hill is very difficult for heavy lorries and cars towing caravans, and again some thought should be given to diverting these types of vehicles to improve the traffic flow for the remainder.

Corning down from Bishopsworth, Withywood and Bedminster Down there is a main route which is blocked up for some hours each day and at the week ends, and many of my constituents are diverted, having to go by by-ways and tedious diversions because the route is so completely overloaded with holiday traffic.

There is the further complication that on the Winsterstoke Road there is the Bristol City Football Club ground. On 19th August, the first major home fixture takes places against Millwall, and, whatever the vicissitudes of the team during the season, since hope springs external, if it is at all a reasonable day about 16,000 or 17,000 people will be likely to converge on Ashton Gate. The effect of that on the already dense holiday traffic can be readily imagined.

I ask the Minister to ask his officials to examine urgently any proposals which may come from the city council to try to cope with the problem, and to go out themselves into the field, if they will, and see whether they can generate their own proposals. I want the Minister to slash through any red tape which may stand in the way of some immediate measures to try to reduce the problem.

Now, the question of holiday routes. I wrote to the Department of the Environment on 24th July about this matter. It seems to me that the holiday route which leaves the M5 just after the Almondbury interchange at Cribbs Causeway is not sufficiently used at the moment. This road passes through the north of Bristol, mainly through the constituency of the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Robert Cooke), and I am sure that he will agree that it would be a good idea if we struck some sort of balance between traffic going along the motorway to Portway and the holiday route. Obviously, if either becomes saturated, it is a failure in the system.

At present, where the holiday route turns off the motorway, there is an extremely large motorway sign indicating that the M5 goes on towards the South-West. There is no indication to the motorist that within a few miles the motorway finishes. If some sort of indication could be given to motorists of whether at any given time it is more advantageous to go along either the motorway or the holiday route, both these routes could be used to the maximum advantage. At present, there is no incentive for the motorist to turn off the motorway and use the holiday route because he has no indication that within a few miles he will leave the motorway and run into the appalling congestion building up along the Portway. I urge the Department to think seriously about introducing flexibility into the holiday route signs so that the motorist has some idea of whether it will be useful to use such a route.

The city council proposed earlier in the year that there be a feed-off from the motorway at Tormarton on the M4, but this was opposed by both Bath and the Somerset County Council. There is always the difficulty that, when suggestions are made to channel traffic through alternative routes, the local people express strong opposition, but we must try to generate some sort of communal spirit about this problem, with everyone pegging in to try to solve it. We ought not to countenance the "Pull up the ladder" attitude which some people seem to adopt whenever anyone suggests that their area might play a small part in relieving the congestion.

I have at short notice received some useful information from the AA, for which I am grateful. The AA says that it has made various suggestions about holiday routes, being fully aware of the problem in Bristol. After each weekend of chaos and heavy traffic, its advice would be, "If the holiday route signs are uncovered, use them". The AA also makes special holiday route leaflets available, and it broadcasts information on Radio Bristol. Radio Bristol is on VHF. If we could have broadcasts on the more widely listened to programmes such as the Light Programme, the Music Programme and Radio One, it might be more useful. If motorists knew that this information was coming through and they had car radios, we could build some sort of system by which they were told. But if the motorist is to take holiday routes seriously there must be some flexibility in directing people on to them, and there must be some reliability that it will pay the motorist to turn off and accept the invitation the holiday route offers. I ask the Department to think seriously about this.

Everybody appreciates that the real answer to the problem in Bristol, and particularly in my constituency, is the motorway bridge across the River Avon. I hope that the Minister will be able to receive the deputation which has been requested by the British City Council to press this matter on him, and also that the Government will feel able to give special help to deal with the problems which the completion of the bridge presents. Just as they are prepared to help the tourist industry with the Industry Bill, so I hope the Government will do the reverse and try to assist in dealing with the problems generated by this traffic.

If this were a wartime situation, the problem of the bridge would be solved rapidly. The hon. Member for Westonsuper-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) has suggested a Bailey bridge across the river. This is a tempting solution, but there are serious engineering problems connected with it, and possibly the Minister may touch on this. Although it seems an attractive proposition, my information from people on the city council is that difficult problems are involved.

In the summer season Bristol is saturated, and my constituents in particular suffer greatly from the movement of traffic through the city. On the long-term solution of the motorway bridge, I ask the Minister for an assurance that my constituents will not have to suffer another summer of misery and disruption from this traffic. I ask for this assurance particularly for the elderly and for those with young children who have a real fear that, even going about their daily lives with the utmost care, there will be serious and possibly fatal accidents.

With some hope that the Minister can give us at least some good news tonight and that he will look into some of the points that I have raised, I conclude by thanking him for his attendance at this debate.

2.53 a.m.

Mr. Jerry Wiggin (Weston-superMare)

It is clear that at least on our side of the Bristol Channel we shall be able to make our case a little more briefly than the Welsh Members did.

I find myself in a slight difficulty because, having put my name down for seven weeks for an Adjournment to deal with the subject that we are discussing tonight, I was finally fortunate in the ballot for next Monday However, I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Michael Cocks) on having taken this opportunity of bringing the matter forward a few days, since it is of vital urgency to our part of the world.

One is a little anxious about painting too black a picture at the height of the tourist season for fear of discouraging those who wish to come and patronise the most important industry of the South-West, but it is the very popularity of our region for holiday making that substantially contributes to the problem that we face.

Bristol is the gateway to the West, and the more so since the completion of the M5, the M4 and the Gravelly Hill interchange at Birmingham enables most of the country to get to Bristol very much more quickly than it did before. But once they get to Bristol they go on to the miserable A38, a terrible road with an appalling accident record. I have the figures, and in each of the last five years, with the exception of the last they show an unhappy increase. The number of deaths rose from two in 1967, to eight in 1968, seven in 1969, seven in 1970 and nine in 1971 on the short stretch between the boundary of Bristol City and Highbridge. The solution to the problem is clearly the completion of the Avonmouth M5 bridge. I am not certain whether the M5 motorway is quite on schedule, but it can only be a little bit behind. I hope that the stretch between the Avonmouth bridge and Edithmead will be completed by Christmas this year, but it will be a motorway without access, a motorway that may yet not be opened. The reason is the bridge.

When the tragic disaster took place at Milford Haven during the election campaign of 1970 and then later the Yarra bridge in Melbourne collapsed, it was clear that another look would have to be taken at the design of box girder bridges. As a precautionary measure, the Government placed certain restrictions on the Cumberland Basin bridge and on both the approaches to the Severn bridge, and all the plans for the Avonmouth bridge were postponed. Subsequently, Dr. Merrison of Bristol University was asked by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to report on the design of box girder bridges. With commendable speed and competence he produced the first part of that report, and it was clear that the M5 Avonmouth bridge was one of the most serious problems faced by the Department at that time.

The difficulty of redesigning and strengthening the bridge was magnified when work started by difficulties with lead fumes in the welding and other problems. We were told originally that the delay on the bridge would be about six months, that the original completion date of October or November this year would be pushed back to next April. We all appreciated the reasons for that delay.

But this summer the traffic situation has become an even worse shambles. The thought of having to tolerate any further delay beyond next April is very frightening for the whole of our part of the country. On Saturday, 22nd July, this year, the Bristol Evening Post reported a 50-mile traffic jam on this main trunk road. The same day the Western Daily Press reported a traffic jam in the hon. Gentleman's constituency at 2 o'clock in the morning. That is the sort of situation we have to put up with weekend after weekend, not just on Friday nights and Saturdays and Sundays.

I travelled on the A38 on Monday morning. The traffic jam into Highbridge had already started at the Brent Knoll junction. To talk of misery and disruption—the hon. Gentleman's words—is scarcely to sum up our feelings and the problems we have to face. People refuse to cross the A38 on a Saturday. I spent nine minutes last Saturday trying to get into the stream of traffic.

The inconvenience and discomfort to the local people is nothing to the cost to local business, local tradesmen and those who, in anticipation of the motorway network being set up and based on Bristol, have moved warehouses to Avonmouth for distribution networks in South Wales and the West Country. The cost of the delay must be enormous.

What should be done? The first thing I must suggest is that 24-hour working should be instituted at once on the bridge. At present no work is going on. The contractors are on holiday. They must have their holidays, but it seems a pity that extra men cannot be taken on to try to get work going on a wartime basis. If it is not possible to work at night—and I have no doubt that when the span goes across the river conditions will be dangerous—at least let us have working during all daylight hours, with double shift working in the summer particularly.

I suggested that investigations should be made into the erection of a temporary bridge. I am not an engineer and I can well imagine that at first glance the technical problems of erecting any sort of bridge on this site would be enormous. But the cost of the delays are enormous too. It is important that this alternative should be investigated. Of course the money would be better spent on speeding up the original bridge but I make this suggestion if there were technical reasons making this impossible.

The access to the part of the M5 between Avonmouth and Edithmead could be helped by the improvement of the B3128 and the B3130 which is the road running from Ashton Court to Clevedon, a road that will be improved in the long term programme, no doubt, but there is nothing firm as yet. About eight miles of that road could be improved in an emergency and if the Minister really applied himself to it I am certain that it would be an enormous assistance in getting traffic from the outskirts of Bristol back to the motorway. The extension of the Long Ashton bypass is a much discussed matter. That runs through the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Somerset, North (Mr. Dean) and there have been certain difficulties over its route and so on.

It is again a road which must be built in the not too distant future, for the sake of my constituents and those travelling further west and for those who have business on that side of Bristol. I hope that it will receive priority treatment. Mention has been made of traffic coming from London and the South down the M4, which at the moment goes all the way down the motorway to Bristol and turns left into the traffic jam. Surely some of this traffic could be diverted at Chippenham or some such place and encouraged to go across country to try to disperse the traffic blockages at weekends?

What is the cost of these delays to the country? Perhaps the Minister could, with the economic assessments that he is so keen on making when we try to get little by-passes and such things, assess the cost of these enormous jams and terrible delays. It must be possible to make an equation to see what extra money could and should be spent by the nation to get rid of this appalling disaster. I am reluctant to promote the holiday routes strongly since many of them finish down the very inadequate lanes in Somerset which I will be debating with my hon. Friend on Monday evening.

One point many people in my constituency have made to me is that the policing of the junctions on the A38 particularly on Friday nights and Saturdays could substantially assist the flow of traffic on to the main road from the locality. I was sorry to see on television when the "Points West" programme tried the holiday route through Bristol and found that there was a substantial saving in time to be made, that there was no policeman on point duty on the A38 although an assurance had been given to me that there always would be a policeman there.

I know that the Minister has in the past taken his holidays in or near Weston-super-Mare and he is very welcome to come again. I hope he will and that he will take a personal look at our problems. I do not think that so far we have yet managed to impress on the Department the extreme difficulties with which we have to put up. The situation has undoubtedly deteriorated rapidly in the last few months and the thought of having to put up with it again for another summer is more than many of my constituents can bear, to say nothing of the appalling cost in inconvenience, misery and danger.

3.4 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Keith Speed)

The hon. Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Michael Cocks) has raised a matter of substance, reinforced by my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin). I know from personal experience that this has caused not only a great deal of hardship, not least to my constituents who spend their holidays down there—because the Midlands traditionally spends a lot of time in my hon. Friend's constituency, passing through the constituency of the hon. Gentleman—but also to the people living in Bristol and Somerset.

The situation this year has been at times well-nigh intolerable. My hon. Friend invited me to go to Westonsuper-Mare. I can tell him that last year on 14th August I attended the wedding of a relative in Weston, on a Saturday. It was a day when we had a cloud burst on the way down and along the Portway in Bristol I experienced in full the delights of Bristol traffic on a Saturday at the height of the season and I only just made the wedding. Therefore, I have had personal experience of the problem and I know that if anything it has become worse.

I wish to deal first with some of the points which the hon. Member for Bristol, South made about roads in his constituency. Most of them are the responsibility of the highway authority, which is the City of Bristol, and I will draw its attention to the hon. Gentleman's remarks. No doubt it will study closely, as will the local authority in Somerset, what has been said in this debate because a number of interesting comments have been made and I hope to make one or two more.

As I said in the Adjournment debate a few weeks ago, there are a number of massive road schemes under way and in the pipeline for the South-West amounting to several hundred millions of pounds. In Bristol, £8¾ million worth of road schemes are in the firm programme and £18½ million worth are in the preparation list. I accept the important point which the hon. Gentleman made that not only spending money on road improvements but the question of traffic management and signposting is extremely important. The hon. Gentleman will also know—and this is perhaps slightly in the longer term—that a land use and transportation survey is going on in the city which will obviously have a major impact on the future development of the road pattern in Bristol. The points which the hon. Member made were valid, and I will draw them to the attention of the local highway authority.

I turn to outlining what we think will be a suitable traffic pattern. Because of the difficulties caused by the lack of the Avon bridge, this will help the hon. Gentleman and his constituents in the short term. But the real answer must be the completion of the Avon bridge. It is the lack of the bridge which is causing the problems about which the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend have spoken.

The Avonmouth bridge contract was awarded to Fairfield Mabey in July, 1969, in the sum of £4,204,000 following receipt of competitive tenders from seven major civil engineering firms. The prescribed time for completion was 36 months, to terminate on 1st September, 1972.

Freeman Fox and Partners were appointed to design and supervise construction of the bridge. This firm was similarly responsible for the 48 miles of the motorway northward from Bristol to the Ross Spur interchange on the M50, and this length is now completely open to traffic. It is also responsible for the 23 miles of the motorway southwards from Bristol to Edithmead in Somerset. The bridge is the only M5 contract to fall substantially behind the scheduled programme, but its completion is vital to the whole network.

The main contractor appointed Messrs. Tarmac Construction Limited as subcontractors for the road works section of the contract. These works have been largely completed except for the carriageways over the bridge itself.

The Avonmouth bridge will be the longest bridge on the M5. It will be located across the Bristol Avon 4½ miles north-west of Bristol. Its overall length will be 4,550 feet. In addition to the carriageways, it will have a footway and a cycle track. The overall deck width is 132 feet. Its clear height above high water—100 feet—provides adequate clearance for shipping. The superstructure of the three main spans consists of twin welded steel box girders of variable depth inter-connected at 12 feet centres by cross girders. Cantilevers outside the box sections support the footway and cycle track. The deck, of stiffened steel plates, acts integrally with the box girders. The approach spans are twin steel box girders of constant depth with cross girders and cantilevers at 10 feet centres. The reinforced concrete deck slab acts compositely with the steel work. The total weight of steel in the structure in the original design is about 11,500 tons, which is a lot of steel.

My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare outlined very accu- rately the events following the Milford Haven and Yarra Bridge disasters which led to the Merrison rules and the reappraisal of the designs not only of this bridge but many others in different parts of the country. Although work on the bridge started in September, 1969, only site work had commenced on the superstructure when the suspension orders were issued in May, 1971, following those disasters. The contractor was several months behind the programme at this time and the delay had nothing to do with the box girder problems. The suspension orders were in respect of fabrication and assembly of certain highly stressed sections of the bridge and all erection, but in fact practically all work on site and in the fabrication yards came to a standstill, although where possible fabrication and assembly work were continued on materials not affected by Merrison.

As the Merrison checks were completed work on site and in the workshops recommenced and the Department had every reason to believe at the turn of the year that a maximum effort would be mounted by the contractor and his employees to speed up erection of the superstructure and complete the job in the spring of 1973, some five months behind the original contract date. This would have confined the delay to the winter of 1972 and early spring of 1973. This was not to be. There was a whole series of factors. A number of labour disputes on the site had virtually led to a complete stoppage of erection work in December, 1971. To make matters worse, on 8th March this year a court injunction was taken out by the Factory Inspector on the grounds of atmospheric pollution within erected and partially completed boxes on the ground which precluded welding or cutting inside the boxes without the use of air masks. The original tests were conducted under the auspices of the Factory Inspector with only union representatives and workmen present. The contractor was not satisfied with these tests and arranged for independent ones to be carried out, because he believed that conditions in the boxes did not warrant the use of air masks, which would have a serious, adverse effect on the rate and quality of work done. This difficulty had not arisen on any other box girder site.

There were various other difficulties of an industrial relations nature which arose. One way and another, the situation seemed to deteriorate in the early months of this year. Welders employed in the boxes at Avonmouth had to be retested wearing masks. I understand that some failed the test. The welds were tested because the quality of the work was suspect where the welders wore masks. The wearing of masks was a considerable inconvenience to them.

The injunction was finally lifted on 15th May, 1972. It is clear that all these various problems had delayed the bridge very considerably indeed. Industrial relations got even worse in April and May, but finally agreement was reached between the employers, the unions and the men concerned, and since then there has been good co-operation, I understand, and good work on the site.

Nevertheless, it became clear that matters were getting very far behind in progress on construction of the bridge, and therefore a draft report about trying to accelerate progress was received on 13th April. It was our intention after studying the report and discussing matters of difficulty with the consultants, Freeman Fox, to put a case to accelerate the work. The object was to endeavour to open the entire section of the motorway, including the bridge, before the high density traffic flows started in the summer of 1973.

Unfortunately, the report received reflected the rather pessimistic view taken by the consultants and the contractor about achieving early completion, and, notwithstanding the fact that substantial sums of money might be involved, no guarantee could be given that the target date could be met. That, clearly, was not satisfactory for the Department.

The consultants have confirmed that the greater part of the delay stemmed directly from the problems associated with the box girder checks and that over a considerable time a contributory factor in the delay was the injunction forbiding welding without masks in boxes.

A further contributory factor arising from the delays associated with the box girder checks has been the labour problems on site. This has meant that we are far behind schedule.

Furthermore, meetings attended by representatives of the Department, consulting engineers and the contractor have taken place to determine how best to speed up contruction of the bridge. Since the lifting of the injunction every effort has been made to improve working conditions and improved bonus incentives have been agreed by the men on the site. There will be a further meeting, which I hope will resolve matters, in a very few days' time when officers of my Department will be receiving a report from consultants on proposals to speed up completion. There are still many difficulties of a technical nature to be overcome.

My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare suggested that there could be 24-hour working, and I do not know what proposals will be contained in the report which we shall receive in the near future. He mentioned double shift working, extra manpower and so on. These matters will be seriously considered.

The question of 24-hour working is at the end of the day the responsibility of the contractor and there are real technical problems, particularly safety problems, to be considered. I am sure my hon. Friend would agree that we cannot take unacceptable risks with people's lives, and I understand that that would be the situation if there were round-the-clock working on such a major enterprise over a long period of time, bearing in mind that extremely skilled men are employed on the contract and are undertaking a difficult job. This is not the normal sort of contract job and the supply of skilled men is very limited. If round-the-clock working were to take place for only two or three weeks, that might be feasible, but this would mean that such work would have to take place over many months.

I am sure my hon. Friend's suggestions will be considered in the next few days when we get the report from the consultants. But I have to say—and it is right that I should be honest with the House and with the public—that, having taken a deep personal interest in this problem, even to the extent the other day of paying a visit to the site to have a quick look, I regret to inform the House that there is no prospect of this bridge being opened by next summer. I hope very shortly to be in a position to announce the opening date and I will have something to say on that matter a little later in my remarks. It is right that the situation should be known so that everyone realises the full scale and size of the problem.

Having said that, this raises immediately the question of a Bailey bridge, about which I have been asked. I am not an engineer, but I have been advised by extremely competent engineers for the purpose of this exercise that a Bailey bridge or some other form of emergency bridge is not feasible. There was a report in the local Press that a gentleman from a firm called Acrow said that a bridge could be put up in eight weeks at a cost of £1 million and that this would do the job. I investigated that report and was told by the firm that it had been misreported and that its chief engineer had not made that statement; the firm could not meet the span or loading figures required.

There is a possibility of building a bridge to the east of the present bridge. Unfortunately, the cost of this is likely to be more than the actual bridge itself, and the bridge itself will cost over £4 million. That bridge could not be completed in time for next summer, so it would not make a contribution to solving the traffic problems which have been so graphically described. I regret to inform the House that there does not seem to be a solution of the Bailey bridge type. We must, of course, bear in mind that the river is essential to the port of Bristol and that there are rules and regulations to be observed; we cannot stop the port of Bristol operating for a year or 18 months.

In regard to the remaining section of the M5, it has been agreed by all the local authorities, the police and my Department that as soon as these sections are completed they should be opened, and I am sure that this is the right decision.

The House may be interested to know that the first section, from Gordano to Edithmead, will be open in December this year. The section from Edithmead to Dunball will be open for August next year; the section from Dunball to Hunt-worth will be open in June, 1974; the section from Blackbrook to Chelston in March, 1974; from Huntworth to Black- brook in May, 1975; and from Birmingham to Chelston in May, 1975.

That means that the whole section—leaving the bridge as a separate issue—will be open by May, 1975. But the important major stretch to Edithmead will be open in five months' time. Obviously this raises a very difficult problem.

Mr. Wiggin

All my constituents and the local authorities will be very grateful for the wise decision my hon. Friend has made to open the short section of the M5 when it is completed.

Mr. Speed

I am grateful for those remarks. I should like now—I hope that they will welcome this as well—to outline the proposals we have in mind to try to cope with the local situation to get traffic from one side of the Avon to the other until the bridge can be opened. These are proposals. They have yet to be agreed formally with the police and with Somerset and Bristol, and discussions are continuing. But as I have related the rather sad news about the bridge for next summer, the House would like an indication of the way our mind is moving. This obviously must be flexible. This has had its advantage that the major section of motorway to Edith-mead will be opening at Christmas, so we have the winter and early spring months to see whether the arrangements we make for the traffic are sensible. We are not making the arrangements at the height of the traffic season, so we have flexibility and can watch how the traffic is flowing and operating. This will be very much in our minds. It may well be that further alterations will have to be made in the light of experience. But on the basis that we are opening the section of motorway now, the position will be as follows.

Traffic from the M4 and the M5—and traffic problems are much greater from the M4 than from the M5; that is our experience, and I am sure that the AA would confirm that—making for the M5 south and the northernmost interchange at Portbury will travel from Cribbs Causeway interchange on the M5 via the Clifton suspension bridge and the A369—traffic using that route will be low weight traffic, cars. The flexibility or otherwise of that particular route has been mentioned. The alternative to that is staying on the M5 to Avonmouth and then taking the Portway to Cumberland Basin. From there the shortest way to the Portbury interchange is via the A369.

We have to have maximum flexibility. On occasions the Clifton suspension bridge route is running at near capacity. In fact, this is already happening. There has been some comment that vehicles have not been using this route. But I asked for the traffic figures, for example, on Saturday, 15th July. The traffic flow on the Clifton suspension bridge was 14,00 vehicles. On Saturday, 22nd July, it was 14,500 vehicles. That is very near the capacity of the bridge. This means jams back into my hon. Friend's constituency. If this sort of situation arises it is probably better to put traffic on to the Portway rather than having the great clogs and jams we get on the approaches to the Clifton bridge.

As a matter of urgency, we are looking at the question of flexible signs that can be tightly controlled. It is important that when these signs are in operation the motorist has considence to either turn off to use the Clifton bridge knowing that he will not be completely bogged down, or, alternatively, if he is advised to go the other way, he can guarantee that, even though it may take a longer route, it will be quicker.

This will depend very much on the co-operation of the police, and I am sure that we shall get that. My officials are working closely with the City of Bristol police to try to improve this particular situation, which is one which needs improving. The hon. Member for Bristol, South was quite right to write to my hon. Friend as he did The Clifton route takes care of itself, as it were; but the traffic going via the Cumberland Basin, if it goes up the A369, climbs Rownham Hill, which has a gradient of one in eight, poor alignment and narrow carriageway, can get stuck. Heavy lorries frequently stick on the hill and can be moved only by heavy breakdown equipment. The descent of this hill is also dangerous for heavy vehicles.

It is obvious that, in the traffic conditions we are talking about, that situation would not be acceptable as it will be one of the main alternative routes to get traffic from one side of the M5 to the other. So we are considering, in conjunction with the local authorities, a ban on heavy lorries on Rownham Hill and alternative routes for them from Cumberland Basin, for example, via A370, B3128 and B3129 and then A369 to the Portbury interchange to avoid Rownham Hill. We have yet to reach agreement with the police and Somerset County Council, but this, on the evidence I have seen, seems to be the right sort of solution. This would mean that Rownham Hill should be subject to weight restriction in both directions.

My hon. Friend mentioned improvements to the A3128 and A3130. This would require improvements to three junctions involving traffic signals for the B3128/B3129 diversion. This would cost a considerable sum. We are looking at this as a matter of urgency and hope to carry out those improvements if the new route is agreed.

There is the possibility of improving other roads. Clearly within the time-scale they can only be minor improvements. We cannot build great new roads. We are looking at the whole network to see what can be done to eliminate bottlenecks and to improve junctions, and so on. This is being discussed with the Somerset County Council as the highway authority.

The basis of the signing on both the Somerset and Bristol side of the Avon has to be flexibility. We must ensure if we appear to be getting bogged down on one road that the signs are flexible enough to get traffic on to the other. This will be done. Somerset County Council is anxious about the A370 because of its limitations at the moment. Therefore, it clearly does not want that road to be signed as a main road for the motorway. Looking at the map, the proposals I have advanced to get traffic as quickly as we can, by making these relatively minor improvements to the road, up to the M5 and getting the traffic down to the M5 will help.

There is another problem. The South Wales traffic will want to go to the South-West. The only relief possible to Bristol traffic would be the diversion of traffic from South Wales via the M4, M32, the Inner Circuit Road, the A37 to Ilchester and the A303. We are pursuing this with the highway authorities. This is a matter with which hon. Members must bear, because there are to be more discussions between the interested parties and the police.

I am sorry to have to be the bearer of sad tidings, but I can assure the House I am taking a deep personal interest. There are many highly skilled engineers in my Department working extremely closely with both the local authorities concerned and the police to see that the alternative arrangements we have to make are the best possible not only for the traveller, but for the people who will have to live with the problem for longer than I should wish. I assure my hon. Friend that we are doing everything possible to see that the bridge is completed as soon as may be.

The hon. Member for Bristol, South mentioned a deputation coming to see my right hon. Friend and myself. It is important to take the local people and everyone else into our confidence as soon as possible. In the latter half of next month I should be in a position to say when we have a completion date for the bridge. All I can say at the moment is when the bridge is not to be completed. I hope to have a full-scale presentation in Bristol and I shall invite all hon. Members who have an interest in the area to come along. I shall also invite the appropriate members of the local councils to come along so that we can discuss the matter and they can be given the up-to-date position regarding the bridge and through them the public can be informed. We will also discuss and examine the alternative road proposals so that as far as possible the situation next summer, with the opening of the section of the M5 might in some ways be better than this summer. I assure the House that the meeting will take place as soon as we have the information. I will be taking a close personal interest in the progress not only of the traffic planning and engineering but also the progress of the bridge.

I hope that the nightmares which many of the constituents of the hon. Member for Bristol, South have had to suffer this year will not be so bad next year. I am hopeful that after that, when we have this wonderful new road going all the way down from Birmingham to Devon, at long last Bristol will be able to breathe again.

3.31 a.m.

Mr. Robert Cooke (Bristol, West)

I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will not feel boxed in because I have chosen to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, after my hon. Friend has made his pronouncements. I thought it might not be a bad idea if my remarks were not made in the dark.

A lot of what my hon. Friend said must have been news, even if somewhat depressing news, to those who have taken an interest in the matter. However, we cannot but be inspired by the personal interest which my hon. Friend is taking in it. With natural caution, my hon. Friend said that the vital bridge could not be completed by next summer. Certainly he does not want to give an undertaking on which he has to go back. However, he did not completely rule out the possibility that we might, with great good luck arid a lot of hard work, have the use of the bridge in the late part of next summer. I am not asking my hon. Friend to react to that now unless it is to slap me down completely. We would be right in being optimistic if we could possibly see the use of the bridge during the later part of next summer.

Mr. Speed

I do not want any false impression to be drawn from the debate. It is much better to be realistic than to offer pie in the sky. I fear I have to say to my hon. Friend that the bridge will not be open during any part of next summer within the definition of the term "summer". I hope that we will know exactly when it will be open in a few weeks' time. I feel it would be wrong to hold out that thin strand of hope.

Mr. Cooke

If that thin strand of hope is being over optimistic, we must be realistic. It appears that we will not get the bridge at any significant part of the holiday peak next summer, although we may be able to persuade people to travel later if we know we will have the bridge during the late part of next summer.

My hon. Friend rightly pointed out not only the difficulty but the impossibility of any type of temporary bridge, because of the length of the span and the clearance which has to be provided of 100 feet. But I expect my hon. Friend will know that the Bristol city docks, which would be served by shipping going under the bridge under construction or any temporary structure, are withering in terms of traffic. It is the city's intention to close them down altogether for commercial purposes.

I do not want to make more work for my hon. Friend, but if he found that the permanent bridge could not be completed in any realistic time, because of the difficulties which he has outlined or others which may occur, and the completion date is long delayed, he might consider the possibility of some temporary structure at a much lower level. I do not use the term bailey bridge as a technical term, nor did my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin), but there may be a possibility of constructing some form of temporary crossing at a much lower level than 100 feet and the great span which is envisaged for the permanent bridge.

We need no excuse for holding this debate at 25 minutes to four o'clock in the morning, because the constituents of the hon. Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Michael Cocks), my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. McLaren)—who is unavoidably absent but takes a tremendous interest in the matter—and of mine have had to put up with the thundering traffic passing their doors at this sort of hour, and, for all I know, because the holiday peak is building up, they may be enjoying that misery now. So we are doing our best here to get an answer for them and we are most grateful to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for what he has said.

It has been stressed that tourism and agriculture are the principal industries of the South-West. Of course, a through route motorway spine route is vital, and a great deal of progress has been made. But we have the frustration we are talking about. Looking into the future to make sure that this ambitious plan is not held up by any other foreseen difficulty, will my hon. Friend consider making sure that any of the foreseeable tricky parts of the route are proceeded with with all possible speed? This could, I suppose, mean that bridges, which very often involve difficulty, and other complicated engineering works could be proceeded with even ahead of the completion or even the starting of some of the long, straight stretches of motorway. The question of land acquisition for a motorway or a new trunk road is often long and tedious, but perhaps the acquisition for the main engineering works could be proceeded with at great speed and enthusiasm and we could get these works done so that there would be no possibility of the sort of hold-up we are now encountering.

I had thought about possible alternative ways of getting to the West Country, but I accept that these could be only a drop in the ocean. I hope that if we are not to have the support of a bridge next year, British Railways will do all they can to get people and their cars into the far South-West, because of the tremendous benefit there would be, even if one is to have the possibility of driving part of the way on a motorway, in going on a train in safety and comfort with one's car. More of this could be done.

Mr. Wiggin

My hon. Friend has touched on an important point. One of the difficulties is that the motorail service does not run to the far South-West from Bristol as such. It might be that, with the creation of the new motorway network and the opening of the new Parkway station, British Railways will look at this.

Mr. Cooke

British Railways has not always been in the forefront of commercial enthusiasm and have often waited for traffic to occur instead of going out to seek it. I hope that the British Railways Board will hear what has been said and do what it can in this direction.

My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare and other of my hon. Friends from the West Country have been very concerned about the effects of holiday traffic pouring off various motorways largely incomplete. In fairness, it must be pointed out to them that their present frustrations should be temporary, although I agree that "temporary" can be quite a long time when we encounter delays of the sort we have had with this bridge. So let us proceed with all possible speed.

Another right hon. Gentleman from the West Country has been brought into a lot of public discussion, or at any rate has been discussed publicly in this matter —my right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport Industries. I addressed a letter to him the other day to say that no doubt if he could speak freely he would use some unparliamentary language, rather like the sort of things he used to say in Opposition, about the delays over this bridge. But I wrote that in ignorance of two important facts. First, he is not responsible ministerially for what is going on with this bridge—and I am most grateful to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment for the interest he is taking, for it is very much his pigeon. Secondly, I did not know at that time about all the technical difficulties which my hon. Friend has told us about tonight. Had I known these facts, I would not have said what I did in my letter to my right hon. Friend. We are grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for what he is doing.

It will come as no surprise to some of us to learn that he has visited the site and had a meeting with those interested. It is not lack of money which prevents the bridge being completed on time, but considerations of public safety, which must be paramount.

My hon. Friend mentioned labour difficulties which have, I hope, been ironed out. I am sure that some of those involved in these disputes would, if they considered the hundreds of thousands or millions put to so much misery, be prepared to make almost any personal sacrifice to get on with this important engineering work, but I accept that one has got to have design right before proceeding, and my hon. Friend is obviously doing his best.

The hon. Member for Bristol, South will not mind my saying that if he thought the congestion of holiday traffic was in Bristol, South, he must by now be convinced by the Minister and by hon. Members on this side that this is a much bigger problem affecting not only Bristol, South, but that the West, North-West and the whole of the West Country are involved and many more of us are most concerned.

Mr. Wiggin

Not just holiday traffic.

Mr. Cooke

Not just holiday traffic. I am glad my hon. Friend said that, because the lifeblood of the West Country depends on getting holiday makers in and safely out again, and also all our agricul- tural produce and needs have to travel largely by road, and cannot do it at present.

I am the hon. Member for half the Clifton Suspension Bridge, and I think I am the Member for the whole of the Cumberland Basin complex. I am not challenged by the hon. Member for Bristol, South, on that. We shall not quarrel about responsibility for that.

Dealing with the suspension bridge, there is a great debate about tolls and we must consider the flow of traffic across the bridge. I am not convinced that the collection of tolls even by methods now used does not hold up traffic. It is suggested that to allow traffic freely on to the bridge produces congestion and that people would be stopping on the bridge.

Opposite the gates of Ashton Court, the traffic coming from Cumberland Basin meets the traffic from the suspension bridge. Given some thought, the traffic could filter gently together if it were properly organised, and there is something to be said for getting rid of the toll for the next summer peak period.

I had a reply from another Minister that it would still be possible for the Government to produce money to reimburse the trustees' loss of toll if it were taken off.

Mr. Michael Cocks

I was speaking to a toll keeper a fortnight ago. This toll collection is essential to keep the traffic on the bridge down to avoid more strain on the bridge.

Mr. Cooke

That is the fear: that the bridge will become jammed with traffic solid in both directions. This may be, but it is worth looking into further.

One other thing arises from the Minister's speech. He suggested that some traffic coming from South Wales could be got round Bristol in some way and even mentioned Ilchester as a final point of arrival before going on to the West Country. I beg him to think seriously about the consequences of trying to divert another great pincer movement of holiday traffic into Somerset round Bristol and into the Ilchester district and the effect that that would have on the massive surges of holiday traffic which already seem to take place from the Midlands and Bristol down to Weymouth which, of course, is a place that I know well, as it is represented by the hon. Member for Dorset, South (Mr. Evelyn King) with whom I have certain family connections. As I move frequently from Bristol to Dorset on my way backwards and forwards to my constituency, I know something about the traffic problems in Somerset and Dorset, and they would certainly be aggravated and probably finished off for good if that sort of movement were suggested.

I think that I have said enough to convince my hon. Friend that we feel strongly about this matter and that we are enormously impressed by the interest that he has taken, is taking, and is to take. It is heartening to see an energetic Midlander, if that is the right term, taking an interest in our West Country affairs. Something of the spirit of our local hero, Isambard Brunel, is here with him this evening. I hope that, just as Brunel was not deterred by any temporary difficulties, or engineering difficulties, or any other difficulties for that matter, so my hon. Friend will press on and—who knows? —be rather more successful than he would suggest at present. I know that he is being deliberately pessimistic and cautious and that he has told us the brutal facts, but what happens in future will depend to some extent on the energy of those pursuing the project, and I know that my hon. Friend is not lacking in energy.