HC Deb 04 July 1972 vol 840 cc507-20

5.57 a.m.

Mr. Edward du Cann (Taunton)

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak again about the urgent need further to improve our roads in the West Country. There is merit, I hope, in constancy. I am grateful too for the support I obviously have from my hon. Friends principally from Somerset, Devon and Dorset. We have sat up all night to take part in this debate. It is now almost six o'clock in the morning. This is indicative of the importance we attach to this matter and of the absurd way we go about things in this House.

In 1968 my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said: In transport the prime responsibility of Government is to provide better roads. Good communications remain the key to economic development. That is as clear a statement as it is true, applying to the United Kingdom as a whole. It is especially valid in the West Country where good communications are our lifeline. The West Country has always been a special case for Government consideration. This is not a matter of dispute but a point which is generally acknowledged.

The background to our case is this. Tourism is our most important industry. A quarter of Britain's home holidays are taken in the West. We have a population of 2 million and four times that number will visit Somerset, Cornwall and Devon in 1972. Of that number 90 per cent. travel by road.

There is a great deal in these three counties to attract them. We have a quarter of the total coastline of England and Wales, much of it of exceptional quality. We have two national parks with a total area of over 630 square miles and we have many areas of outstanding natural beauty. We have weather that is better than the normal. The West is Britain's most popular holiday area. Good communications are vital to the tourist industry in the West Country.

Unemployment is persistently high. It is, alas, true to say that we are living on the edge of an industrial depression. The present level of unemployment is intolerable. Our younger people leave to get better livelihoods. Older people arrive to retire. There is an imbalance which is unacceptable, as is the general situation.

The South-West Regional Planning Council's report "A Region with a Future" recently stated: There is no doubt that the problems of the South and West and the far South-West in particular stem in part from their remoteness from the main population and industrial centres and the inadequacies of connecting links. To get unemployment down, we need better roads.

As to industry, in some areas the number employed in manufacturing industry as a proportion of the population is half the national average. The efforts which have been made, though devoted, to attracting new industry, have met with little success. I remember well from my own experience as a Board of Trade Minister how disinclined people are, because of transport problems, to come to the South-West.

These efforts cannot succeed unless and until we have better roads. For existing industry, out inadequate road system entails wastefully high costs of transport and distribution. The South-West being a peninsula, any manufacturer must use roads twice—first to import goods to process locally and then to export to other parts of the United Kingdom.

There is perhaps a paradox in our situation. The value of work in progress on new road construction had fallen from a peak of £580 million in the first quarter of 1970 to £368 million in the last quarter of 1971—that is, by over £200 million or by one-third. Road construction as a whole in Britain has declined to its lowest level for three years.

However, the present Government have kept their promise to the West Country. I am glad to be able to acknowledge this, particularly as there is not one Labour Member present. Perhaps Labour Members are ashamed of their Government's record in building roads in the West. We owe my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) a great deal for the fact that the promise to the West Country has been kept; for 9 per cent, of the present road building and improvement programme is now being spent in the West Country.

So far so good. If the future provides a greater opportunity for employment prospects—perhaps they are enhanced now—it also poses a problem. We have lost our local railways. We are losing our local bus services. These are matters not of dispute but of fact. It is equally a fact that our trunk roads are overcrowded to crisis point, that minor roads are similarly inadequate, that town and village roads are in a hundred instances, perhaps in several hundred cases my hon. Friends may think, bearing loads for which they were never designed or intended.

I am a supporter of the Government's plans—I am glad to say this in the presence of my hon. Friend the Under-secretary, whose presence at this late hour to reply to the debate we all greatly appreciate—for the completion of 3,500 miles of motorways and strategic trunk roads by the early 1980s, with the resulting benefits to the West Country. We have the M5 to Exeter, due to be completed by 1975; the A38 to be dualled to Plymouth and in due course to Bodmin; and the work to be done on A30. We are grateful for this. It is 15 years too late perhaps, but that is neither my hon. Friend's fault nor mine, nor the fault of any of us who are here tonight.

There are substantial gaps. There is the North Devon link, planned but not in hand. There are some improvements planned in Somerset on the A30 and A303 links, but much more is needed, because there is no doubt that a great proportion of the A303 is substandard and traffic is subject to delays, and an early programme for its reconstruction is required.

We need also a Southampton—Bristol link; the A46 to be improved between Bath and M4; the South Bristol spur—not yet in any programme; the Somerset connections to M5, about which my hon. Friends can speak better than I; and modernisation of the A39 and A37.

Then there is the A361 in the north-east, now carrying up to 10,000 vehicles per day, 20 per cent. of them heavy vehicles. Further down in the county there are up to 13,000 vehicles per day. The road is hopelessly inadequate for that purpose. I have in the past raised the problems of villages like Milverton on this route, and I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to say something about the problems of that pleasant place. Then there is the question of town centre relief works needed at Weston-super-Mare, Yeovil and Taunton, about which I took a deputation to see Ministers a few days ago.

These are major matters. Come into the villages, Sir, into Dulverton, into Wiveliscombe—places that are not often talked about but which desperately need bypasses. In all Somerset there are only 12 miles of dual carriageway, and what is the cost? On the 31 miles of the A38 in Somerset between 1969 and 1971 there were no fewer than 961 reported accidents, an annual average of 6.3 per mile. I could continue with a long catalogue, but I will not do so because some of my hon. Friends wish to speak.

There was a good listing which my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will have seen recently in the BRF report: in Cornwall, A391, A3058, A3074, B3302 and A3074; St. Austell, New quay, Truro, Falmouth, Helston. One could list a dozen improvements which are urgently needed.

In Devon, there is A380, the Kingskerswell—Newton Abbot—Kingsteignton road. One has only to travel on that road, the road from Torbay, the A385 or the Torbay ring road to see how urgent are the problems in Devon. There are the A382, A379, A377, A386, and A373. Whether we talk about Newton Abbot, Teignmouth, Dawlish relief, Exeter to Exmouth, the northern bypass or Cullompton to Honiton, relief roads or bypasses, there is much to be done. The need is urgent if not crucial.

The Somerset branch of the Council for the Preservation of Rural England put it well in a recent report: More than even before major through routes are needed to take the volume of heavy traffic and through traffic which should be kept moving and away from narrow lanes some of which often serve as short cuts. We view the scene with some anxiety, and sooner or later restraints of various kinds will have to be imposed—on motor cars, perhaps, as has been done in Polperro, on heavy lorries which must be kept out of villages and small towns. I instance Wellington in my constituency. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-secretary will bear in mind the view of some of us that there should be new criteria of judgment of road schemes. The economic return, yes. The accident rate, yes. These are existing criteria. I would also add amenity, which is of special value and point in the South-West.

In some respects our problems do not diminish. On the contrary they increase, in spite of the helpfulness and sympathy of the present Administration. As the barriers to main road travel diminish, as the mobility of the population increases, there is a danger that the South-West may be swamped. For example, it is estimated that the number of day trippers may increase threefold over the next several years. It is estimated that by 1980 no less than 100,000 people daily will visit Dartmoor. It is estimated that by 1975, when the motorway construction to Exeter will be completed, the Devon coast will be brought within three and a half hours' travel for a further 18 million people. As other roads are completed, the West will be open to London and the South-East, in addition to the people living in the great conurbations of the Midlands. Truly the South-West will be on Britain's doorstep.

If traffic is not to destroy the countryside and coastline we need a comprehensive strategy. It will not be only a matter of providing picnic sites and transit sites to get caravans off lay-bys at night—incidentally, how little caravanners contribute to our prosperity—and not only a matter of special parking places which are called "honey pots"; we must take a broader view.

These new trunk roads will not necessarily help our area unless we make a positive effort to overcome congestion in it, to provide access to areas to which people want to go and to provide them with places to park when they get there. We are not unaware of the problems in the South-West, but we cannot cope alone. We need help and on a substantial scale.

Already we have earmarked certain holiday areas for expansion and others for restraint. But uncontrolled development is a serious threat. We are concerned to protect our uniquely beautiful heritage, and we shall do it.

I hope my hon. Friend will be able to assure us that he is aware of the problems and that they will have the attention of his Department. I hope, too, that he will say that the much-talked-about proposals for additional expenditure in the West of £200 million over the next 10 or 15 years will be considered. We need new feeder roads to our coastal resorts. We need a number of new town developments. It is ridiculous that a place like Newquay should be completely blocked off to traffic in the summer months. We need sympathetic consideration for schemes of traffic management. We need generous loan sanction for parking schemes when we put them up.

Having got on well, thanks to the Government, with stage one, with the building of these new trunk roads, we come to stage two when we need to think about comprehensive programmes of development. It is that which I urge on my hon. Friend tonight.

6.12 a.m.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

I intervene briefly to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) for his energy in promoting this very valuable debate at this hour of the morning. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will have noted that it is a measure of the strength of feeling in the South-West on this problem that a number of my hon. Friends and I are here to listen and perhaps to take part in the debate.

My right hon. Friend has made the case for the South-West very well. I add but one point. It is that my constituency is facing quite intolerable conditions at present with the construction of the motorway. The bottlenecks caused at High bridge and Bridgwater will be known about in my hon. Friend's Department. The consolation in my constituency is that shortly the motorway will be completed and this anguish will be past. But what concerns so many now is the gap which will exist before the construction of the secondary network to deal with the traffic which will come off the motorway once it is built.

I add a special plea for consideration of the northern relief road for Bridgwater and for the total improvement of the A39 from Bridgwater through to Porlock.

6.13 a.m.

Mr. Robert Cooke (Bristol, West)

Perhaps Bristol might quickly follow Bridgwater and say that we very much look forward to the M5 bridge being finished in Bristol. My constituents are suffering intolerably because of the diversion of traffic which should be carried across that bridge.

I support everything that my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) said. As a Bristolian, I know what happens when people pour into the West from that end. As one who lives on the A35, I know how badly the Puddle town bypass is needed in the Athelhampton district and the other places that my right hon. Friend mentioned.

I hope that account will be taken of the way in which our small towns and villages are being wrecked by through traffic. It is no good tearing out the middle of towns and villages. We need bypasses before places are destroyed for ever.

On jobs, my right hon. Friend said that people were leaving the area. If we had better roads there would be greater mobility and people would be able to get to work over greater distances.

Finally, my right hon. Friend spoke of the way in which the vehicle is spoiling the countryside. Access sometimes brings destruction. I hope the Government will say that there are places where the vehicle shall not go. People must walk on their own two feet if they want to enjoy what otherwise they will destroy.

6.15 a.m.

Mr. John Hannam (Exeter)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) for raising the question of this important mass of roads in the South-West. Our county is totally dependent on communications for its future. I am grateful to the Government for the programme already outlined but I would like to raise the question of Exeter which has a notorious record for congestion and bypass problems.

One is in sympathy with the hundreds of thousands of motorists who find themselves stranded on the bypass year after year. I would ask whether it is inevitable that we should wait another four years before the motorway snakes or drives itself all the way to Exeter. Is it possible for part of the motorway which will form the further Exeter bypass to be started and to be linked with the Bristol-Exeter motorway later? That would alleviate the problems of thousands of motorists facing many hours and great problems in the congested area of Devon.

Finally there is the question of congestion in Exeter, with heavy traffic shaking old buildings. The city council introduced a ban on heavy traffic in certain areas but this has funnelled it through other areas, causing havoc and great distress. We are in a hurry to start the primary road through the Exe Valley to North Devon. I am grateful that it is in preparation.

6.17 a.m.

Mr. Robert Boscawen (Wells)

I add my congratulations to my right hon. Friend for his initiative on an extremely important subject for us in the West Country. I do not under-value what the Government have done in a short time in bringing forward major trunk routes in the South-West. They have done well, and it will help to enhance the prospects for the tourist industry in the South-West, but we started a long way behind and still have a long way to go. Let them not be satisfied with what they have done.

The A303 which passes through my constituency needs more double track and bypasses for the smaller towns. Bypasses and relief roads have been scheduled for almost two years in my constituency, but we want to push ahead as rapidly as possible to make the towns as attractive as possible for the sort of industry we need in the South-West.

6.19 a.m.

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

At this late hour I note the absence of any Labour or Liberal Member for this important subject which my right hon. Friend has raised. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) and my hon. Friends the Members for Bristol, West (Mr. Robert Cooke), Bridgwater (Mr. Tom King), Exeter (Mr. John Hannam) and Wells (Mr. Boscawen) for drawing to the attention of the House the serious problems faced by the South-West in road communications.

There are now over £350 million worth of trunk and principal road schemes under construction, in our firm programme, or in preparation, in the three counties of Devon, Cornwall and Somerset. All this work is aimed to be completed by the early 1980s, and, of course, much can be completed before then.

I do not altogether go along with the implication of the remark about the decline in the road programme. This year there will be a constant £1 million more worth of roads under construction each week than last year, and the Government objective is to increase by 10½ per cent. each year at constant prices the expenditure on the trunk road programme up to 1975–76.

Having said that, we should look at the problems of the West Country arising partly from the relative remoteness of the South-West.

In the past West Country road improvements took a lower priority than the more highly trafficked routes to the Midlands and the North-West. The West Country has had more than its fair share of narrow roads and country lanes, and in recent years there has been substantial growth of traffic with the increasing importance of tourism and the development of industry.

Far more is now being done than in the past. Work now in hand means that the spine road of the M5—A38 from Bristol to Plymouth will be completed by 1976, and it will be possible to drive from London to Plymouth, using the M4 and this route, in substantially less than four hours. In fact, most of the A38 section and the M5 to the south of Bridgwater will be open in 1974.

I have noted what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter, but at this stage I cannot give him any firm assurances. Obviously, we are anxious to get on with this section as fast as we can.

My right hon. and hon. Friends will know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced last July that, as part of his strategic plan for the trunk road network up to the early 1980s, the A38 from Plymouth to Bodmin, the A30 from Exeter to Penzance, and the A30—A303 from the M3 to Exeter would all be comprehensively improved. Here bypasses of Liskeard, Launceston and Camborne—Redruth, as well as other lengths, will be completed by 1975. More recently, a link from the M5 to North Devon to relieve the present route along the A361 has been put into preparation. We are pressing on with this. All this represents a substantial programme of work to improve the major routes.

The local authorities, too, have a large programme of improvements to principal roads, towards the cost of which the Government make a 75 per cent. grant. Twenty-seven more schemes were added by us to the principal road preparation list in March. This programme includes links to the motorway, which will be important if traffic is not simply to be deposited from the M5 on to the present road network. I know that this is worrying my hon. Friends in Somerset. For example, a link from Taunton to the motorway is at an advanced stage of development. Washford bypass and the Cannington bypass will also improve the route from the M5 at Bridgwater towards the Quantocks and Exmoor.

As I have said, all this amounts to a commitment to spend £350 million in the period up to the early 1980s. Indeed, the valuable report of the British Road Federation, which I have read with interest, envisaged expenditure of £250 million over 20 years, so we are doing better than was urged upon us.

However, we must be careful that in doing all this we do not lose sight of the importance of conserving the beauty and attractiveness of the region and of saving the multitude of lovely villages and towns from the congestion and the sheer volume of people which our road planning will put within easy reach of this great national asset. Tourism is of great importance to the West Country, and new and improved roads will sustain and encourage that industry, as well as others. However, we must make sure that it does not kill the beautiful charm and heritage of the West Country as well.

This problem is well appreciated in my Department and by the local authorities concerned. I commend to the House the Devon County Council's report, "The Motorway into Devon", which shows one county's appreciation of the situation and its determination that improved road communications shall, without doubt, be an asset to the community.

My right hon. Friend talked about one or two problems in his area. He mentioned Milverton. He knows that we appreciate the problem there. It was discussed a few months ago when he brought a deputation to see my hon. Friend the Member for Tavistock (Mr. Michael Heseltine). I can tell him that the Government will make an announcement about this matter within a few days.

Concerning the Taunton Eastern relief road, Somerset County Council, which is the highway authority for this road, has submitted a firm programme report to the Department. We expect construction work on this scheme to begin in about 18 months. I think this will particularly help my right hon. Friend's constituents.

I should like to repeat my assurance to my right hon. and hon. Friends that we well understand the road problems of the West Country and their importance to its economic life. I hope that some of the matters I have mentioned in this brief debate about the scale of expenditure which is now envisaged show that this is not an empty statement but that we are backing it up with hard cash.

We are also concerned that new roads should be an opportunity, a challenge, to the area, not a threat. There will need to be very full consultations with the local authorities concerned about the various measures to follow this improved road network—stage 2, I think my right hon. Friend would say—to ensure we do not disgorge tens of thousands of motor cars on to inadequate secondary roads.

I hope my right hon. and hon. Friends and, indeed, people in the West Country, will see that the Government are now, perhaps for the first time, ensuring that the South-West of England has a modern and efficient road system which will enhance the environment. I assure my right hon. and hon. Friends we do not look only at economic criteria. Certainly my job as a Minister in deciding these matters is to take into account amenity and environmental factors. For the first time we have a Government which can do just that. We shall be looking at the problems of the region. We shall try to enhance all that is best there, and also to help the industrial development that is needed in parts of the region.

My right hon. Friend asked whether we were aware of the problems there. I give the assurance that we are and that we have the determination to solve them.

Mr. du Cann

I am grateful, as I am sure all my hon. Friends are, for my hon. Friend's most forthcoming reply. I am especially grateful for what my hon. Friend said about Milverton. Can he say what progress has been made on the Avon Bridge?

Mr. Speed

Avon Bridge has been dogged by box girder and industrial relations problems. All I can say is that our present indication is that there is no prospect of the Avon Bridge opening before April, 1973, and it may be even later. We are examining this as a matter of urgency with the local authorities in Bristol and Somerset and we are pressing on as fast as we can to get the technical problems solved.

Mr. Robert Cooke

We put up with the lack of this bridge this summer; we cannot put up with the lack of it for another one. My hon. Friend referred vaguely to its being ready in the spring of next year. I hope that he will firm up his undertaking to get it ready for next summer.

Mr. Speed

If I give any undertaking I want to be as accurate as I can. This is an extremely difficult technical problem, and I cannot be firmer than that. I assure my hon. Friend that all the technical experience of my Department, of the contractors and of everybody else is being put into solving the problem, and we are getting excellent co-operation from the local authorities concerned.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes past Six o'clock a.m.