HC Deb 30 April 1973 vol 855 cc947-60

11.30 p.m

Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles (Winchester)

There is a lot of protest in Winchester about the route to be followed by the new M3 close to the city. A very active M3 Joint Action Group has been campaigning vigorously, under its able chairman, a Mr. David Pare. A protest meeting was held at Winchester College on 13th March, addressed by, among others, some powerful and influential Wykehamists. But I speak tonight not for these people, who do not live in Winchester, but for my constituents, many of whom are very worried about the scheme.

The action group has been very active and has collected more than 19,000 signatures to a petition, 11,227 being from people who live in Winchester. Also, it has collected about 8,000 signatures from people who live away from Winchester, as well as 1,326, I believe, from young people under the age of 18.

The petition which all these people have signed is as follows: We respectfully petition the City Council to heed the strength of the case against the M3 and by vote in Council to rescind their previous support for the motorway between Popham and Compton. The petition has now been handed in to the city council.

The group has also published various pamphlets, and I have sent copies of all of them to the Minister: I drove up to London by car today, instead of coming by train as I usually do, so that I could bring about ½ cwt. of mail consisting of copies of its latest pamphlet for every Member of Parliament.

These people have worked very hard, and I can only say "Thank heaven we live in a country where such democratic activity is permissible".

In addition, the Conservative Association at its recent annual general meeting passed an emergency resolution, That this Association supports the Government policy, as stated in Circular 56/71, which advocates the protection of historic cities, and strongly urges that, with this in mind, the Secretary of State for the Environment should reconsider his decision concerning the published route of the M3 motorway". That resolution was moved by Viscountess Enfield, and seconded by Mr. John Darling, a city councillor.

Moreover, a considerable number of constituents have written to me, most of them, though not all, objecting to the proposed route.

It is a curious fact that since the public inquiry two years ago and until the action group began its activities little attention was paid to the M3, at least in public. But the objections now voiced have worried me, and this is why I have kept the Minister fully informed, and why I asked specially for this debate in the House.

So I think it fair to say that, all in all, the protest has been very fully ventilated.

I should emphasise that this problem is in no sense a party matter. Opinion has been divided right across party lines, and in the recent local elections it was not an issue between the parties as such. One recalls that the basic planning for the proposed route was started in the Department under the Labour Government and continued by the present Conservative Government.

Faced with all this protest, it would have been all too easy for me to put myself forward as a kind of knight in shining armour and join in the campaign to protect Winchester from a supposedly dreadful fate. But I believe it would not have been responsible to do so. For one thing, it seems to me that not all those who have objected or who have signed the petition have had an opportunity to receive an explanation of all the complicated questions involved and the various pros and cons of the scheme. When one speaks to them, one finds that many people still do not really know where the motorway is to go, and do not realise that it will be effectively no nearer the city than the existing bypass. Unfortunately, the diagrams put out by the action group are not to scale, and some of them are rather misleading.

Undoubtedly, therefore, there are many misapprehensions among my constituents. I believe it would be helpful—I hope this is a constructive suggestion—for the Department to publish a really large map, accurately to scale, showing exactly where the motorway will go and perhaps to take a full page in the local paper, the Hampshire Chronicle, for this purpose so that it can be clearly understood by everybody.

My own viewpoint is this. First and foremost the present bypass is utterly inadequate and dangerous, as everybody who lives in or near Winchester will agree. The accident figures are appalling. Therefore, a new motorway somewhere to relieve the traffic is urgently needed. On some days in the summer, particularly on Saturdays, chaos is caused in the centre of Winchester by traffic diverting off the bypass owing to its hopelessly inadequate traffic capacity.

The vital point, therefore, is whether there is any practicable and preferable alternative to the route now proposed. If there is to be a motorway—I believe that national as well as local interests make this imperative—it must go somewhere. Wherever it goes, some of my constituents will be affected and will understandably protest. If a different route were chosen, a different group would protest. I must be on the side of all my constituents. I can only be an "honest broker" between my constituents and my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State who has the difficult job of making decisions on so many questions of this nature.

The objections which have been put forward have been grouped mostly against three things: against noise, against visual intrusion and against cutting off the city from the countryside. From my personal observations—I have checked these recently—I believe that noise will not affect the cathedral, the close or the central area.

As regards visual effect, the new road bridge which has just been completed at Bar End is higher, I believe, than any works on the new motorway would be. Nobody has complained about the appearance of that new bridge. In fact, everybody seems delighted with it. It is a great step forward in safety.

As regards cutting off the city from the countryside, I believe that the citizens would be no more cut off by the motorway than they have been ever since 1936 by the existing bypass. It could be argued that any alternative line, either through the area of natural beauty to the east or through beauty spots such as Farley Mount to the west, would be far worse than merely, in effect, widening the existing bypass.

I have not, therefore, been able to understand fully the objections which have been put forward, although I do not question that they are very strongly felt and that they are put forward in all sincerity. It hardly needs saying that I would be against the proposed route tooth and nail if I believed that it would "ruin the city". Nobody can have the honour and the privilege of representing such a beautiful, peaceful and historic city without having enormous pride and affection for it.

Also, I cannot agree with any criticism, explicit or implicit, of the city council about this matter. We in Winchester are fortunate in having a very able and dedicated city council and very efficient and conscientious officials, and it is absurd to suggest that they have "sold their heritage". I imagine, on the contrary, that the city council has gone into all the facts very closely indeed and is certainly in a better position to understand the pros and cons than is somebody who has merely signed a piece of paper in the street.

Finally, I should like tonight to put six specific questions to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. First, can he confirm that his Department has genuinely considered possible alternative routes?

Secondly, can my hon. Friend confirm that, taking into account all the factors —not only cost factors, but environmental questions in their widest sense, and agricultural questions—the proposed route is the least objectionable? Can he confirm that the Minister himself has personally inspected on the ground the details of the route?

Thirdly, can my hon. Friend confirm that no need is foreseen now or in the future for a new motorway to the west of Winchester, despite the importance of linking Southampton docks to the Midlands? This is a crucial question. Many of my constituents believe that there will be a need at some time in the future for a motorway to link Southampton docks, which are growing so much in importance with the huge container terminal, to the Midlands?

Fourthly, can my hon. Friend confirm that the Department has considered what I call the Calcutt route, put forward by a Mr. David Calcutt, Q.C., for the M3 Joint Action Group at its meeting on 13th March? I have sent the Minister a rather small map of this suggested route.

Fifthly, what would be the shortest delay involved in starting to plan a new route if any preferable alternative could be found? This also has a big bearing on the urgency of providing better approaches to the city and better roads around it.

Lastly, can my hon. Friend confirm to the House the latest opinions of the three local authorities in the area?

I believe it would do much to remove the anxieties of many of my constituents if the Minister would be kind enough to answer these six specific questions this evening.

11.41 p.m.

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

I am glad that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles) has raised this matter. I confirm that he has most ably and forcibly and on many occasions, both to myself and to my right hon. Friend, represented the views of his constituents in this matter.

A great deal of controversy, much of it misguided, has arisen since the decision of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State on the route of the M3 extension between Popham and Hockley was announced in February this year. This debate provides me with an opportunity to correct some of the misconceptions and misapprehensions on which this adverse comment has been based.

First let me say that the motorway proposals in the vicinity of Winchester are in no way incompatible with the Secretary of State's declared policy to give full weight to the preservation of historic towns when road improvements and new routes are being considered. An important feature of this policy is the relief of historic towns from traffic pressures, even if this means incurring increased costs on road construction.

When the initial planning of the M3 route was being considered, the historic status of Winchester was one of the factors taken into account in deciding which route would best safeguard the city and its environment. The motion moved at the association's annual general meeting deals with that point.

The route has been criticised by many people because of its proximity to the city. Much has been said about its effect on the cathedral, the college and other historic buildings. Do critics of the scheme really believe that the Government are not as concerned as they are to preserve Winchester's history? Of course we are. It is only because we are convinced that the character and amenities of Winchester will not suffer that we are proceeding with this scheme.

The motorway will be approximately three quarters of a mile from the cathedral at its nearest point. It will not be seen from the cathedral or its precincts. The ambient noise level around the cathedral will be no greater than exists at present. It is most unlikely that the noise of traffic on the existing bypass or the proposed motorway will be distinguishable above the general noise level in the centre of Winchester.

So far as the college is concerned, the motorway at its nearest point will be half a mile away, and the predicted noise level—I have been into this in very great detail—will be no greater than at present.

Of course there are areas of the city where the motorway will be seen and heard to some extent, but measures which we have in mind and which have been discussed with the city council should do much to ameliorate these conditions. I will return to these measures in a moment because they are very important.

We consider—so do the responsible local authorities—that the route chosen is the most effective way of diverting the traffic from the existing bypass. It has the added advantage of being fully compatible with Winchester City's Central Traffic Area Plan, which will channel traffic towards the existing bypass via two improved routes at Easton Lane and Bar End, where it is proposed that interchanges should be provided with the motorway. This limitation of access to Winchester from the motorway will provide useful relief to a number of roads in the city.

But traffic has to go somewhere, and the requirements of long-distance traffic, including the heavy lorries and container traffic to the ports which are so important to our trade and prosperity, must be provided for. It is an undisputed fact that something has to be done urgently to improve the ever-worsening conditions on the A33 and the sub-standard Winchester bypass. Accidents involving personal injury on the A33 between Popham and Kings-worthy nearly doubled over the five-year period between 1968 and 1972 from 18 to 34—a total of 131 during the period. On the Winchester bypass they increased by one and a half from 32 to 49 over the same period, when there was a total of 223 such accidents in that five year period on the bypass. Already this year four fatalities have occurred. There were two very serious injuries on 23rd April, and as traffic increases so will the number of accidents unless something is done. It is estimated—these are realistic estimates— that opening the motorway could reduce injury accidents by about 40 per cent. This represents about 50 personal injury accidents a year in the early years after opening.

The county council, which is firmly behind the Department in this project, is constantly urging us to get the motorway built quickly. I have recently had letters from the county council to this effect. Its concern is that there should be no more delay. This is our concern, too. Nevertheless we should not be pressing on with the present scheme if we were not convinced that it is the right one. Certainly no one has put forward a better route. I wish those who are now so vociferous in their criticism had come forward at the time of the public inquiry with some really constructive suggestions.

Many people are now suggesting that the route should be further from the city —usually somewhere to the west. They do not say exactly where it should be, although the Calcutt route has been put forward. They do not give a specific route, for the very good reason that they are aware that any route they suggested would provoke the strongest possible objection.

We are convinced that Winchester's interests would not be served by putting a new traffic route through either the western suburbs close to Winchester or through the unspoiled countryside further to the west. The charm and character of Winchester lies not only in its central area, important though that is, but in its surrounding countryside. Anyone who knows, as I know, the attractive villages and delightful countryside to the west of Winchester will realise the immense opposition there would be to a motorway route in that area. Similarly, a route to the east. which would pass through an area designated as an area of outstanding natural beauty, is really quite unacceptable. But in any event—this is most important—none of these alternatives would provide adequate long-term relief to the Winchester by-pass.

On the other hand, the Department's route, by largely confining the traffic to the existing corridor, along the main desire line of the traffic, leaves the surrounding countryside relatively untouched and makes little new intrusion. It keeps all the traffic to one side of the city and avoids surrounding it with main traffic routes.

Here let me dispel another misapprehension. Word seems to have got around recently, not least in the national Press, that the Government intend to build a motorway between Southampton and the Midlands within the next 15 years. This is not the case. There is no proposal to build such a motorway. It is true that the A34 features in the Government's trunk road programme as a route to be comprehensively improved by the early 1980s, and certain improvements are already under way or planned, such as Abingdon bypass, but, on present evidence and predicted future traffic flows, the need for a motorway will not arise within the foreseeable future. I give that categorical assurance.

Mr. Douglas Jay (Battersea, North)

Suppose there were to be such a motorway from Southampton to Birmingham. Would the hon. Gentleman's view be that it ought to be to the west of Winchester or to the east?

Mr. Speed

I have said that there is no likelihood of a motorway within the foreseeable future. Therefore, the question does not arise.

Mr. Jay

It does.

Mr. Speed

I hope what I have said so far will convince my hon. and gallant Friend and his constituents that we looked very carefully at all possible alternatives before deciding the published route for this motorway. The inspector at the public inquiry considered all the objections that were put before him and all the alternative proposals that were presented to him at that time. He suggested certain modifications, which we considered, and most of these have been incorporated in the made scheme. The final decision was not a simple one, nor do we claim that the solution we have found is perfect, but it is the best available. Both I and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport Industries went to see for ourselves the published route and spent a considerable amount of time tramping over it. The Winchester City Council, after careful consideration—I share the view of the city council put forward by my hon. and gallant Friend—came to the same conclusion and has taken the sensible view that it can best serve the city's interests by working closely with the Department in planning adequate safeguards to protect the city from noise and visual intrusion.

My hon. and gallant Friend asked about possible delay. If there were to be a delay and we had to revert to a completely new route, the completion of the new route would take another four or five years longer at the minimum, and I believe that in that time conditions not only on the bypass but in the city would become intolerable. As for the accident record and the number of additional people killed and injured by that delay, I shudder to think how many there would be, but it would be a substantial number.

Now let me explain the safeguards about which the city council is concerned. The House will know that the proposals for the motorway were published well before the Urban Motorways Committee reported and before the subsequent White Paper "Development and Compensation—Putting People First" was published; nevertheless the Committee's proposals were very largely antici- pated when the Department's proposals were formulated, and now that the route has been fixed the Department's current policies as set out in the White Paper will, of course, apply.

For example, an area of particular concern is where the motorway will encroach on the Water Meadows. It has been stated that the motorway will traverse to the centre of the Water Meadows opposite St. Cross. This is patently untrue. The motorway will, in fact, encroach—to the top of the landscaped bank—about 170 feet into the Water Meadows, which at this point are about 1,400 feet wide, and the total area of Water Meadows required for the motorway is about 9 per cent. of the whole Water Meadow area adjacent to Winchester.

We propose to construct an earth bank 15 feet high alongside the motorway between the A333 and a point north of Garnier Road. It would be grassed, planted and properly landscaped. The motorway will be 20 feet lower than the existing bypass here, and the existing tree screen between the motorway and the bypass will be retained as far as possible and added to where necessary. Consequently the motorway will not be seen from St. Cross Meadows, and the noise level will be approximately the same as at present. The earth bank will be constructed as early as practicable in the contract period so as to reduce the inconvenience and disturbance to people living in the vicinity to a minimum during the construction of the motorway.

Another point to which we are paying particular attention is the Winnall Flats, which are at present located less than 200 feet from the existing bypass. The motorway will be double that distance away, and the bypass will be closed along this length. Immediately opposite the flats we propose to erect a 15 feet high earth bank so that the noise level will be less than at present. I know from my own observations that it is now pretty noisy.

Where the motorway cuts across the corner of St. George's Playing Fields it has been designed to minimise the visual and aural effects on the adjacent community. The carriageway furthest from the fields will be dropped by approximately 6 ft., and each carriageway will be individually screened by an earth bank.

St. Catherine's Hill—I climbed to the top of it—is another local amenity about which a great deal has been said—that the motorway will cut it off from the college and the town and so on. This is just not true. Access to the hill will not be affected. Indeed, it will be a good deal safer than it is now, because the present crossings of the main traffic stream at road level will be eliminated and replaced by bridges or underpasses across the motorway. [Interruption.] There is an underpass now, which I went under, but there will be additional underpasses and bridges across the motorway.

I know that at one time my hon. and gallant Friend suggested that the motorway should be taken round the back of St. Catherine's Hill. I do not know whether he is still of that opinion, but I can tell him that it is a proposal that has received little public support, and at the public inquiry the college authorities were very much opposed to it. It has even been suggested that the motorway should be taken under St. Catherine's Hill in a tunnel, but this would cost many millions of pounds, and benefit only a very limited length of the route. That is why we have not pursued the idea.

A problem that has been mentioned is that traffic noise will reverberate off St. Catherine's Hill across the Water Meadows and towards the city. There is no foundation for this statement. We see no reason to believe, after a great deal of thought, research and effort by highly qualified people, that noise levels in the Water Meadows will be increased. Indeed, because of the slope and convex shape of the hill in relation to the motorway there will be a tendency for the noise to be dispersed.

My hon. and gallant Friend mentioned the Bar End Bridge. The motorway interchange will be no higher than the existing bridge. This is the highest part of the whole route.

Mention has been made of the size and unsightliness of the traffic signs that will be required on the motorway. It is true that for essential safety reasons motorway signs have to be conspicuous to users of the motorway—they would not fulfil their purpose if they were not— but I do not think they are unsightly seen from a distance. In any case, even without a motorway but with an improved bypass some large signs would be necessary.

In conclusion, it might be helpful if I summarised the main objectives of our proposal. They are: first, to complete the strategic route between London and Southampton, including the connection with A34 for traffic from the Midlands, in accordance with the Secretary of State's trunk road plan annuonced in June 1971; secondly, to provide a route which will give adequate long-term relief to the existing heavily overloaded trunk road A33, in particular the Winchester by pass, on which conditions are dangerous and will become increasingly dangerous as the traffic volume inevitably increases; thirdly, to provide a route which, with suitable protective landscaping, which we shall introduce at considerable cost, will cause the least additional damage to the overall environment of the area, including Winchester city and its attractive rural surroundings; and fourthly, to provide a route which will carry efficiently and safely the maximum amount of through traffic, thereby giving maximum relief to the existing road ssytem in the area. I genuinely believe that there will be considerable relief to the already overloaded roads within the city of Winchester.

My hon. and gallant Friend made an interesting and constructive suggestion about a map, so that his constituents who are concerned and are not too clear about the scheme could have more details. I cannot give him a firm answer tonight, but I shall consider his suggestion most sympathetically.

We believe, after most careful study— two Ministers have been over the route, and we have carefully considered the inspector's report and have had the benefit of a great deal of technical expertise-that only one route satisfies all the objectives and will in the long term be helpful to the people my hon. and gallant Friend represents. That is the one adopted, which adheres as far as possible to the existing corridor.

I hope that my hon. and gallant Friend's constituents and all those who are properly concerned will at least be a little easier after they have read what I and my hon. and gallant Friend has said tonight, and will understand the reasons why we are convinced that we are right in making this admittedly very difficult decision.

Mr. Jay

The Minister's speech shows such an extraordinary disregard for both the character and geography of the area that it will greately strengthen the opposi- tion among those who really know Winchester to this altogether indefensible proposals.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Twelve o'clock.