HC Deb 22 December 1972 vol 848 cc1865-76

4.0 p.m.

Mr. Harold Walker (Doncaster)

I am grateful for the chance to use the few remaining minutes of parliamentary time in 1972 to address an appeal to the Government and give the Minister an opportunity to assume the role of Father Christmas.

Few people, if any, familiar with Doncaster and its problems of traffic congestion would question the urgent need of an east-west bypass. Nor is there any doubt about the pressing and growing need for a motorway link between South Yorkshire and the Humber ports. The extension and completion of the M18 motorway would go a long way towards satisfying these needs, and they are objectives which I have pursued for several years.

It was in September 1970 that a scheme was published further to extend the motorway from its present terminal point at Wadworth, near Doncaster, to Hatfield, a distance of about 10½ miles. But there was no welcome from my constituents. Instead they reacted with shock and dismay when they saw the proposed route. To bypass the town had seemed obvious, logical and practical—to everyone but the Minister. He chose instead to run the motorway through the borough, within a mile of the geographical centre of the town, and separate the residential areas of Cantley and Bessacarr—containing more than one-fifth of the population—from the rest of the town.

Along the length of the motorway within the borough lie two nature reserves, two large schools and the playing fields of Cantley Park. All these will be severely affected. In addition, 19 modern homes, one built as recently as 1969, will be destroyed, up to 30 will have their gardens reduced—some very substantially—and many others will be left within a few yards of the motorway. Up to 300 homes will suffer a considerable increase in noise and substantial loss of amenity. Those are matters of fact, established at the public inquiry held last year after 7,500 objections were lodged against the scheme.

Arising out of the objections, the inquiry considered not only the published proposals but three other alternative routes, each of which would have had dramatically less impact on property and on the environment, and two of which would have avoided entirely the disastrous splitting of the town. During almost three weeks of sitting the inquiry received a mass of evidence overwhelmingly opposed to the Secretary of State's proposals and in favour of one or other of the alternatives. The inescapable conclusion on reading the inspector's report is that, while more than 7,500 people were prepared to put on record their objection to the Minister's proposal, only those professionally engaged on his behalf could find words in his favour.

Of the most favoured alternative route —that which the Minister knows as Route 2, which runs about 1½ miles to the east of his scheme—the inspector made an interesting comment. He said: The environmental advantage of this route lies, somewhat negatively in the fact that it would avoid most of the objections raised to the Minister's scheme. Somewhat negatively? On the contrary, I should have thought that such a conclusion was the most powerful and compelling positive argument for its adoption.

Later in his report the inspector said: Accepting that the balance of environmental factors is clearly in favour of Route 2"— the outer route— the question is whether or not the expenditure of £2 million or so, and the sacrifice of some traffic benefit could be justified to avoid the adverse effects on houses, schools, nature reserves and amenities of the draft scheme. The traffic benefit to which he refers is hypothetical, unquantifiable and unsupported by any scientific evidence. Altogether, the Minister had a straight choice between an environmental disaster and one of three schemes which were much less damaging to property, amenity and environment, but more costly.

The additional construction costs of the alternatives range from £1 million extra at the lowest to £4 million at the highest. That was the top figure for the highest costs involved in a route which avoided the town entirely. But the Minister, just to save money, chose the course which cost less in cash terms but will cost more in terms of the environment.

The inspector knew what the reaction would be to his conclusions. He said: I must leave you in no doubt that if you as Secretary of State decide to confirm the draft scheme, you will do so in the face of local public opinion which was expressed in strong opposition to the scheme by the Doncaster Borough Council, the M18 Amenities Committee and the representative naturalist bodies. All of these want an 'outer' route 'which would be less damaging to the environment'. But the Minister ignored those words of warning, and the reaction from my constituents was predictably bitter. The Doncaster Evening Post registered some local comments when the announcement was made—"shattered", appalled ", "It is a nightmare", "It is a tragedy", "The decision is disgraceful", "It will be murder". Mr. Geoffrey Payne greeted the decision with the words "utter disbelief". These are typical comments from the cutting that I have in my hand from the Doncaster Evening Post. Let me emphasise that I am not describing the kind of situation, with which the House is all too familiar, in which better and safer roads can be obtained only by an inevitable sacrifice of homes, amenity and environment. There is nothing inevitable and unavoidable in this problem at all. The Minister could have had his motorway without any of the consequences that I have described. But he chose to impose the sacrifices to save money—£2 million or £3 million. Those are substantial sums in themselves, but of no great consequence when matched with the vast sums involved in the project as a whole.

Unfortunately, the loss of happiness and of scientific, educational, amenity and environmental values cannot be assessed in commercial terms, so they are left out of the arithmetic—as is the divisive effect of the motorway on the borough.

The opposition to the scheme in my constituency is unaltered. What has changed, and what I hope provides real hope, is the Government's general policy and philosophy on new road construction. Recently the Government published the report of the Urban Motorways Committee, set up by the Labour Government in 1969. The recommendations of that committee were a significant switch of emphasis and attitude in road-making policy, and the Government's subsequent White Paper "Putting People First" welcomed the report and noted in particular the committee's proposal that, so far as reasonably practical, the environment should be preserved by the selection of the line and the design of the road.

The Government said that they believed this to be the right general policy. The answer, they said, must be to plan new developments so as to minimise the disturbance and disruption that they can cause. They went on to talk of achieving environmental improvements by diverting long-distance traffic and particularly heavy goods vehicles from a large number of those towns at present suffering severely from heavy traffic. I agree, but what criteria decided the Minister to exempt Doncaster from those considerations?

I have just drawn attention to the divisive effect of the Minister's scheme, separating one part of the town from the rest. The committee stressed the importance of avoiding this effect even where, as in this case, the road is to be aligned with a railway. They said that to compound an existing barrier by the addition of a road might be seriously disadvantageous.

The time restrictions of an Adjournment debate preclude me from pursuing all the contradictions between the Government's policy, as set out in the White Paper, and the proposals for the M18 in its line through Doncaster; but the one issue which I cannot ignore, and which is paramount in this case, is that of the costings. It is on this single criterion that the Government rejected the 7,500 objections, overrode the opposition of the elected representatives of the town and ignored the environmental and other disastrous consequences of their decision. As the Yorkshire Naturalists' Trust said in a letter which I have recently sent to the Minister, this motorway proposal is a classic example of cost versus conservation; and it is the costings which are thrown wide open to question.

To the original estimates must now be added sums to cover the wider compensation commitments, the additional powers of acquisition and the costs of sound insulation, remedial works and disturbance allowances. On top of this, there are question marks over the design costs. We know that the levels of the motorway have already been lowered from those originally declared. The Minister wrote to me on 20th December in terms which clearly implied the likelihood of further design changes. What extra costs will be involved in these that could not be taken into account at the public inquiry? What are the total additional costs to be added to the figures on which the decision was based? Few of these extra costs would have been incurred by an out-of-town route.

There are other arguments which ought not to be ignored but which I choose not to advance today; arguments about fog hazards, and the problems arising from access to the motorway, noise and pollution. But the Minister has chosen to make cost the crux of the issue, and, because it bears on cost, there is one other matter to which I must briefly refer, and that is the railway cutting through which the motorway will run for part of its length.

No doubt—and in spite of the Urban Motorways Committee report—the Minister will seek to use this fact to discount my argument about the severe severance effect of his proposals. But if the cutting can now be made available for the motorway, it could equally be made available for other purposes. Filled in with, perhaps, pit waste, it would be a great asset to this residential suburb. It should be costed as such, and its loss as such should be taken into account.

I am confident that if all the new additional cost factors had been known at the time of the inquiry this appalling decision would never have been taken. Indeed, it was the representative of the Secretary of State, counsel acting on his behalf, who said to the inquiry in his summing up that if there had been, at the time the proposed line was chosen, a means to compensate those persons and organisations injuriously affected by the scheme, it was unlikely that the inner route would have been selected because the difference in costs between that and the outer route would not have been a factor to consider.

The White Paper and the Bill now in Committee have provided those means of compensation, or will do so eventually, and they have provided the reason why the Minister should look again at this scheme.

I ask the Minister to revoke the order and to return to the drawing board to draft a scheme more consistent with the new aims of his Department. If he refuses, the M18 in Doncaster will not only lower the quality of life in my town but bring misery and unhappiness to many families, and it will be a contradiction and a mockery of the policy and the philosophy of the Minister's White Paper.

Having due regard to the fact that we are almost on the eve of Christmas and presuming, on this occasion at least, to speak on behalf of the whole House, in conclusion, may I extend to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to Mr. Speaker, to your colleagues, to the Clerks, to the Library staff, the police and all those who serve this House so very well throughout the year, a very warm Christmas greeting? May I also express best wishes for 1973 and hope that we do not add intolerably to the burdens which are thrown upon them?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

May I be out of order and reciprocate that on behalf of all those mentioned?

4.14 p.m.

Dr. Edmund Marshall (Goole)

May I briefly echo what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster (Mr. Harold Walker) with regard to yourself, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to Mr. Speaker and the staff of the House?

I should like to press the Minister about one matter in connection with the M18. When the original proposals were published, the whole of the M18 between Wadworth and Hatfield in my constituency was to be treated as one section. I think that the Minister well realises that at my end of that section people want the construction of the motorway to take place as rapidly as possible. I am very much aware of the difficulties of my hon. Friend with regard to Doncaster. However, will the Minister confirm that from the point of view of contract and construction the two parts of this section of motorway north and south of Armthorpe will be treated as two separate sections?

4.15 p.m.

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

I should like to thank the hon. Member for Doncaster (Mr. Harold Walker) and congratulate him on his good fortune on having been able to raise at the last sitting of 1972 a matter which I know he has been very concerned about for some time and which has worried his constituents.

The hon. Member has given a clear, forceful and fair account of the problems as he and his constituents see them. He has explained the disadvantages of the approved route, affecting two nature reserves and playing fields and passing through the Bessacarr residential area of Doncaster. The decision announced last March was not easy. We are fortunate in having this opportunity to review the considerations behind the decision on the route which was taken some nine months ago.

The location of a major new read, as the hon. Gentleman said, is of ever-growing importance to people far and near, and I hope that I shall be able to put the matter into better perspective for those who live near or are affected by the route through the outskirts of Doncaster.

This section of the M18 motorway extends for about 11 miles south and east of Doncaster to Hatfield, which I believe is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Goole (Dr. Marshall). There it joins the Thorne bypass section which is already open to traffic. Construction of the remaining section northwards from Thorne to East Cowick will be starting in the spring of next year.

The Doncaster section is one of the missing lengths of motorway leading to the industrial Midlands and Humberside. I welcome the final statement of the hon. Gentleman, if I did not go along completely with everything else he said, that he and his constituents and, indeed, everyone realise that there must be this strategic route to Humberside. Indeed, the route can draw a considerable amount of traffic away from Doncaster.

When the whole of the M18 motorway is complete it will be linked with the extension of the M62 as now planned by an interchange at East Cowick, and this will provide the long and urgently-awaited improvement of road communications to the port of Hull. All these schemes are part of the Government's plans for an improved strategic network to give better access to the major ports on the East Coast which will be so essential for our competitive success when we enter the European Economic Community within a few days' time.

The whole of the motorway network to Humberside is planned for completion during 1975 and, as hon. Members will know, only recently the Yorkshire and Humberside Economic Planning Council has again emphasised the urgent need for completion of these motorways. I am sure we all agree on that need.

From the Thorne area, just north of Doncaster, there is to be a new South Humberside motorway. We aim to have this complete to the Elsham interchange on the eastern side of Brigg, with a new principal road northwards to the new Humber bridge by the time the bridge is finished, as now expected, in 1976. The improvement of the existing A18 trunk road beyond the Elsham terminal is also being planned for as soon as possible after 1976 as far as the existing dual carriageways at Riby which lead into Grimsby. This improvement will also allow for a new link into Immingham.

In the Doncaster area the motorway will not only provide a bypass for a great deal of the long-distance traffic which now passes through the town but also give convenient links to the main industrial centres, including new developments which are planned. The motorway will give much-needed relief from the present burden of traffic in the central area of Doncaster and cater for the long-distance traffic which now goes through the village of Hatfield.

There were many thousands of objections to the motorway route where, for a short length, it is to pass through the Bessacarr residential area south of Doncaster, taking advantage of a railway line which can be closed and made available by British Rail. I am not going into the argument advanced by the hon. Gentleman about the cutting. The weight of objections was almost wholly in favour of an outer route through open country further to the south.

As the hon. Gentleman has said, this and other alternative routes were considered at the public inquiry in March 1971. It has always been accepted that simply on amenity and environmental considerations the advantage lay with another route. But the inner route, which has been preferred, has the advantage for traffic, both long-distance and local, and also, as judged so far, a substantial advantage on costs. The costs of construction as estimated in 1971, including land acquisition and compensation to British Rail for the rerouting of its freight services, were about £2 million less than the comparable cost of an outer route.

The hon. Gentleman says that these are inconsiderable sums that ought to be looked at in the totality of the motorway system. Unfortunately £2 million can often provide two, three or four bypasses in other parts of the country. I have in mind one which the hon. Member for Goole knows only too well. We are limited in the amount of money we can spend and we cannot dismiss the odd £2 million or £3 million. I would be delighted to spend that sum in the constituency of the hon. Member for Goole to help with the problems there.

This cost difference is being reviewed and I shall say more about it later. The route investigations include a special study by consultants of environment and amenity aspects. A great deal of evidence was given at the public inquiry, as the hon. Member has said. He has quoted from the report of the inspector. In that report the inspector concluded that the argument on these grounds did not justify rejection of the route of the proposed inner line and my right hon. Friend agrees with that conclusion, bearing in mind the considerable sum of £2 million.

The route involves the demolition of several houses. I am having the design of the motorway through the residential area re-examined very carefully in the light of the recent report of the Urban Motorways Committee and the Government White Paper "Development and Compensation—Putting People First." This is a new factor since the public inquiry and since the decision was taken by my right hon. Friend in March.

When the review is complete there will be an announcement about any modifications it may be proposed to make to the scheme. I would not like to venture what the conclusion will be but I will give the assurance today that if the route is maintained remedial measures, including sound insulation of houses, will be incorporated in the scheme to the fullest extent in the new policy, as and when approved by Parliament, which I hope will be within a few months' time.

When the motorway passes through the residential area the spread of noise will be significantly reduced because it will be mostly in a cutting rising to 28 ft. deep at Cantley Bridge. Property owners and tenants displaced or affected by the scheme will be eligible for compensation in accordance with the new Land Compensation Bill when this has been enacted.

At present Bessacarr is connected to the town only by Bawtry Road, the former Al trunk road route, and two footpaths to the north and south of this road. The Doncaster Corporation is planning two more connections later, needing bridges over the motorway, and the Department is ready to arrange their construction, on behalf of the corporation, when the motorway is being built.

I deeply regret that the motorway will increase noise levels for some of the houses in the area and also on the upper floors inside the Ellers High School. This can be offset by remedial measures. In the school double-glazing of some of the windows and mechanical—and largely noiseless—ventilation should bring this intrusion well within the recommended level. Experiments are taking place on the M6 near the Gravelly Hill interchange. I have seen these and the initial indications are encouraging. At the college of technology on the opposite side of the motorway no permanent structures will be affected, and I am confident that any serious problems can be resolved when the older buildings of the college are redeveloped, as is now being planned by the corporation.

The motorway will have some effect on two nature reserves but I am advised that this will not be significant. One reserve at Low Ellers is next to the main railway line from London to Edinburgh. The motorway will require six acres of this reserve and will separate a further five acres out of a total of 32 acres of marshland now surruonded by railway embankments.

The present character of that reserve derives from mining subsidence not many years ago and a remarkable reversion to fen characteristics that may have existed centuries before. It is not a designated nature reserve but is well managed by the Yorkshire Naturalists' Trust on lease from British Railways. All is not lost however. There has been a meeting with the trust and others to consider ways in which the regeneration and survival of the reserve can be assured.

The route also passes through the southern end of Sandall Beat Wood, a designated nature reserve owned and managed by the Doncaster County Borough Council and within walking distance for many people. This reserve extends to over 170 acres of which about seven acres will be required for the motorway and six acres will be severed. The severed area will remain as a screen between the motorway and the Cantley Park playing fields nearby. The reserve already suffers noise intrusion from the mineral railway line and the sidings for the large Markham Main colliery. The line severs the wood.

My right hon. and learned Friend and indeed other Ministers who are concerned with this scheme can understand the reasons which have prompted so many people living in the Bessacarr area and also the Doncaster Corporation to ask for the decision on the route to be reconsidered. We are willing to carry out a review in the context of the report of the Urban Motorways Committee and the new White Paper policy. The town clerk was so informed on 29th November.

As I have said, there will be an announcement of the conclusions as soon as the review is complete, which I expect will be in the New Year. I do not wish to raise the hon. Gentleman's hopes unduly, but I wish to reply in a constructive and Christmas spirit. If, as may be the case, the decision on the route stands, I hope that everyone will cooperate to the full so that speedy progress can be made with the preparations outstanding and we can get on with the building of this new section of motorway. It will bring great benefits, improved road communications, the removal of much traffic congestion and noise from the area, and not least from Doncaster itself. I hope that those people who suffer will obtain some personal benefit from the motorway and that the new compensation arrangements, when approved by Parliament, will give solace and a fair deal.

I should like to refer to the point raised by the hon. Member for Goole because it is germane to the debate. The statutory orders, including the compulsory purchase order, for the remaining processes will be divided into sets for Wadworth to Armthorpe and Armthorpe to Hatfield, the latter including the revised proposals for the new link from the West Moor interchange to the existing A18 trunk road at Edenbridge. I hope that we can make progress on both sets together, but if the statutory processes for Armthorpe to Hatfield are completed first we shall be able to get on with construction of the northern section of the motorway and afford the much-needed relief from the present traffic congestion in the village of Hatfield.

As I say, I do not wish unduly to raise the hopes of the hon. Member for Doncaster. It would be wrong for me to do so, and I do not wish to be misunderstood. However, I can give him the firm assurance that we shall consider this matter again in the light of the new reports. I shall be taking a close personal interest in it, and I hope that we shall be able to make an announcement early in the New Year. I shall ensure that the hon. Gentleman is told about it at the earliest opportunity.

I wish to associate myself with the hon. Gentleman's remarks in wishing a happy Christmas to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, your staff and not least my silent colleagues on the Front Bench from the Whips Office, who are unsung heroes but an essential part in the running of the House. I should also like to wish a happy Hogmanay to your colleague in the Chair.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Four o'clock till Monday, 22nd January, pursuant to the Resolution of the House of 20th December.