HC Deb 11 February 1972 vol 830 cc1826-34

4.2 p.m.

Mr. Terry Davis (Bromsgrove)

I am glad to have this opportunity to draw attention to a subject which is causing a great deal of anxiety in my constituency. I am referring to the Bromsgrove section of the M42.

Perhaps I should explain that this road is also known as the Nottingham —Birmingham motorway. The House may wonder why anyone who wants to travel from Nottingham to Birmingham should go through Bromsgrove. In fact, the motorway is being planned to go to the east of Birmingham and then turn westwards to join the M5 motorway at Lydiate Ash in my constituency. In this way the M42 will provide two sides of a motorway box around Birmingham.

I understand that most of the route has already been determined. Only the Solihull and Bromsgrove sections are still outstanding. The route of the Solihull section has already been published, and a public inquiry is taking place. However, we are still waiting for the route of the missing link, the Bromsgrove section, which will apparently run right across my constituency, and this is the subject of today's debate. I understand that aerial photographs were taken about four years ago, and therefore this route has been in the planning process for at least that time. Certainly the planners began to take levels of neighbouring roads three years ago, and at the end of 1970 they began to sink boreholes right across my constituency.

This work is being done by the road construction unit, which refuses to say anything about the line of the road until a preferred route is published by the Secretary of State. In other words, the unit will not give my constituents any idea of its thinking about possible routes for this motorway, and therefore people are concerned about who will or who will not be affected.

The road construction unit has had unofficial consultations with the county council and therefore I understand that the county council has known about the preferred route for some time, but they are not official, so that no information can be given to my constituents, and the county council refers all inquirers back to the road construction unit.

In November, 1970, the Birmingham Post published a map which, it was suggested, showed the preferred route being considered by the road construction unit. In December, 1971, the Birmingham Post published another map which virtually confirmed the previous route. According to these maps, this motorway could affect the village of Alvechurch, the community of Barnt Green and the area known as Catshill in the Bromsgrove urban district. But the line on the map is very broad, and we have a situation in which many people may be affected by this road and no one knows for sure whether he will be affected or not.

In those circumstances, after over four years of planning, rumour in my constituency is rife. The anxiety of my constituents increases with every month that passes. People do not know whether they should built extensions to their houses, or whether to have their houses decorated, for fear that they may be affected by this road. I know of a man who is very uncertain about whether to install central heating in his house, for fear that the new road will affect him. One of my constituents is inconvenienced by low voltage electricity. When he approached the electricity board he was told that the board, too, was waiting for the preferred route of the motorway before it took steps to improve its service to my constituent.

This uncertainty is unfair to everyone buying or selling a house in that part of my constituency. Blight has struck over a very wide area. I appreciate that the secrecy of the planning process is designed to protect people, that the planners do not wish to cause unnecessary anxiety, and that the whole aim of this secrecy is to prevent people thinking that their houses may be affected, only to discover later that the route has been changed. But what is happening now is that it is taking so long to publish the route that all who live in these communities are worried that their house or garden may be affected by the motorway.

I believe that the delay in publishing the route in this case is affecting more people than would be affected if only we could have some idea of the thinking of the road construction unit. Houses are now blighted over a wide area, but they are not blighted in the legal sense. This means that those who live in them cannot obtain any compensation or insist that the Secretary of State purchases their houses: but, on the other hand, they are having great difficulty in selling them. I have received letters from solicitors in my constituency confirming that.

It is taking a very long time to plan this road. Publication of the route has been promised on a number of occasions, but the road construction unit keeps postponing publication. Many people have sent letters to me which they have received from the road construction unit or from the Department of the Environment. The Alvechurch Village Society had supplied me with copies of the correspondence which my predecessor, the late James Dance, had with the Department. At Bromsgrove one of the residents who may be affected, Mr. John Lock, has visited his neighbours collecting the letters they have received from the road construction unit and has supplied me with this information.

Putting all this correspondence together, a surprising story of procrastination emerges. In May, 1969, someone writing on behalf of the road construction unit told one of my constituents that more definite information should become available in about six months' time. In February, 1970, the same constituent was told that the preferred route would be published in early 1971. In August, 1970, my predecessor wrote to the Minister of Transport, and he was then told that the plans would be published in the spring of 1971. In other words, the Minister was confirming what the road construction unit had said the previous February. But three months later a spokesman for the road construction unit told the Birmingham Post that the plans would not be available until the end of 1971.

When a protest meeting was held in Alvechurch, 400 people attended. As a result, my predecessor entered into more correspondence with the Department. He was then told in two letters from the Department—from the Secretary of State and from the Under-Secretary—that the plan would be published early in 1972. So over the period from the end of 1970, during the present Government's term of office, we saw a slippage from the spring of 1971 to the end of 1971 and then to early 1972. That situation still appertained until last summer.

Then my constituents who were writing to the unit were told that the plans would not be published until the summer of 1972. Three months later when I wrote to the Secretary of State he replied that the proposals were unlikely to be published before the end of 1972. Every time we ask the unit or the Department when the plan will be published, when the uncertainty will be ended, they give us a later date. I know that it is essential to find the right route, and that the unit is going into great detail. It is important that planning is done carefully and properly, as all hon. Members will accept. But it is also important that the work is done quickly. The road construction unit and the Department have not shown the sense of urgency required.

During all this period the uncertainty is increasing. Maps are being published in the newspapers. They may be entirely wrong, and even if they are accurate they show such a broad band of possible routes for the motorway that more and more people are affected. I appeal to the Minister to end the uncertainty by publishing the preferred line as a matter of urgency. If he cannot do that, I ask him at least to announce a date when it will be published, and not only to announce it but to stick to it.

4.11 p.m.

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

have nothing but the deepest sympathy for the constituents of the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Terry Davis), who has raised an important subject. The picture he painted is familiar wherever the road building processes move into an area. I thank the hon. Gentleman for the sympathy with which he has obviously approached the matter and for his understanding of the dilemmas facing those who have to plan and build the roads.

The hardest sort of road on any scale to build is that which is affected by other road-building plans, perhaps over a wide area and greatly removed from the area one is considering. That is the difficulty with the section of the M42 we are debating. As the hon. Gentleman said, it is the missing link in an important motorway. We are faced with the work now in progress on two feasibility studies which could, if they were to lead to firm proposals to build roads, affect the stretch of the M42 we are discussing. I refer to feasibility studies into the Strensham —Solihull road and the Oxford—Birmingham motorway, both of which would cut or cross the M42 or link with it at some point. Therefore, we must decide that matter before we can be certain how we should proceed with the section of the M42 we are discussing.

That is to set the problem in a context much wider than the particular stretch of land over which the road will go. I am the first to acknowledge that where we are waiting for other studies there is bound to be a delay. That is a source of great regret to those of us who are responsible for the programme, but it is impossible to see any way of avoiding it.

There are various authorities with responsibility for building main roads. The road with which we are now concerned is the responsibility of the road construction unit. When the units are made responsible for a particular route it is their job to examine all the options for the corridors along which a road could go. They must decide on the status of the road, its width, the volume of traffic, the land over which it will go, the possible costs and economic returns, and local environmental and amenity effects. Having done a broad assessment of the options and applied the standards of those options in terms of costs, they are in a position to have some discussion with the local authorities responsible—in this case the county council—to get the first feeling about what the local reaction is likely to be to what the unit suggests.

It is often said, understandably, that it would be better if the local public could be brought into discussion at an earlier stage so that it could know what the options were and so that there could be public dialogue. I was tempted at first sight to support this argument because it seemed that it would give opportunity to a greater number of people to participate. It was only when examining the consequences of such action that I realised the full and appalling situation which would be caused.

Given that it is always difficult when we publish a line of road because of the effect it has on the people in its way, it would be unthinkable that we should move to a stage where we, as the authority concerned, through the unit, gave the public six or seven or even a dozen lines, because this would have a vastly bigger effect in blighting people's property than the present process.

We have a situation that, having had informal consultations with the local authorities, we try to get the line which is least likely to cause harm, which shows to the community at large the best return and which in the circumstances is most likely to commend itself to the widest public agreement. We believe that at that stage we are right to publish a preferred line for its commencement through statutory processes and public inquiry if that is necessary. In this way the minimum amount of harm is done to the community at large, because when we publish a preferred line it is an indication that we have examined all the alternatives and we are therefore able to save blight; from falling on people whose houses come within the options we have examined and discarded.

Of course, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, it is open to any diligent observer of the scene to follow our surveyors or those doing bore testings on any particular piece of line across the countryside and, by simply marking the way, make a judgment or guess what is to be the likely line.

First, however, it is possible that we have taken borings in order to eliminate a line or that the borings themselves have eliminated a line. Merely following our engineers does not guarantee that one is on the right track. But secondly, much more than that, I would put this point to the Birmingham Post, as I have done to some of its journalists to whom I have spoken. The harm that is done by this process to the people concerned is very real because there is a possibility —I say no more than that, because it goes either way—that they are right or that they are wrong. When that course is taken in advance of publication of the preferred route, the people who lie on the preferred route are not given the opportunity to claim the compensation which is available when blight is incurred because we publish the preferred route. Instead, it imposes on them the hardship which comes from all sorts of alternatives being put forward by people who say "Why not publish a dozen options?"

There is need for responsibility here by newspapers. When the processes are going on, it is to the greater good of the people concerned that newspapers should not try to make informed guesses, as they may too often be harmful guesses which could have an adverse effect on the livelihoods of people who find themselves under the shadow of that guess when it is published in the Press. But I can only leave that to the local newspapers. I believe that this sort of thing has a genuine and adverse effect.

In many ways I agree with what the hon. Gentleman has said. The M42 was included in the preparation pool in April, 1968, as a proposed dual three-lane motorway between the M5 south-west of Birmingham and the M1 near Nottingham. Bromsgrove is one of four separately viable sections of the M42 over a distance of some 60 miles. The other three are Solihull, Tamworth and Castle Donington.

I have outlined the problems which follow once one includes a route in the preparation pool, but we have been able to make greater progress with the Solihull and Tamworth sections, which were published last year and on which work is expected to start at the end of 1973. Studies have not yet been completed on the other two sections. We are discussing the problems which affect the Bromsgrove section. Some of the difficulties that I mentioned stem from our inability as yet to make a firm decision about two feasibility studies which are bound to have a possible effect on the route chosen.

All the arguments are for publishing the Bromsgrove route as soon as possible, but it is incumbent on us to do our homework with great care. Nothing would be worse than for people to feel that, as a result of understandable local pressure, we were publishing a route without thoroughly investigating it. We might then face inquiries at which we could not sustain the route, which would mean that blight had taken place and we then had to start all over again. I would defend the Department's view that it must carry out the most thorough investigations and must know all the answers not only about the published route but also about the discarded alternatives.

We regret the problems for the people concerned and will do all we can to minimise them. But other people are involved in spreading alarm and despondency, and there is a case for asking for responsibility from them as well as from us.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-one minutes past Four o'clock.