HC Deb 07 February 1973 vol 850 cc605-18

10.58 p.m.

Mr. David Steel (Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles)

I am glad to have this opportunity to raise the question of the need to provide bypasses for ancient and historic towns in Scotland. I asked for this debate on the specific question of ancient and historic Scottish towns, and I have put in that qualification, although it is obvious that my remarks apply to any town other than those which have been built in recent years and have taken account of the need to relieve the town centres of through traffic.

My purpose in wishing to discuss the subject, apart from raising specific constituency matters, is to try to get a definitive statement of the policy of the Scottish Office in this matter. Ever since this Government came to power, the Department of the Environment and the Ministers responsible have made various declarations of policy and have encouraged the concept of removing traffic from the centres of towns within their jurisdiction in England and Wales.

In an interesting report of a working party which was prepared at the request of the then Secretary of State for the Environment for the Stockholm Conference of the United Nations on the Environment, it is said on page 189: Local authorities should not allow town centres to be used as through roads for traffic. 'Loop' and other systems should be examined for confining through traffic to circumferential roads. More ring roads should be developed, to allow as many streets as possible within the ring to be physically closed to through traffic. In the foreword to this excellent report, entitled "How do you want to live?", the Secretary of State said, This and other reports will be of the greatest value … Afterwards they will be of help to the Government in developing our policies and proposals in the environmental field. I am anxious, above all, to have an assurance from the Under-Secretary that the Scottish Office supports and endorses that policy, and I ask for that assurance in relation to problems at present arising in towns in my constituency.

First, it has to be said that in the Border area there has been a tremendous growth in the number of private cars registered in my constituency. There has also been a tremendous growth in the amount of commercial road traffic, naturally, following on the closure of the railway line.

A second aspect of national policy which has affected the increase in road traffic in the area is the completion of the motorway network from London right up to the M6 north of Carlisle. This has brought a welcome increase in tourist traffic to the area.

Looking at what has happened in the ancient towns in the Border area of Scotland, there are three cases where the public authorities—in two cases the Scottish Development Department and in one case the county council—are doing the very reverse of the policy which I described a moment ago.

I take first the town of Hawick, where the A7 goes through the High Street which on occasion, as I saw myself last Saturday morning, presents a real bottleneck. The Scottish Development Department argued for the need to replace and re-align a bridge at the south end of the High Street. I do not expect the Under-Secretary to comment on this in detail because it was the subject of a public inquiry and we are still awaiting the decision of the Secretary of State on the objections made at that public inquiry. But I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be able to tell us when we may expect that decision. The public inquiry was held in December 1971 and more than a year later we are still awaiting the decision of the Secretary of State.

The interesting feature of these proposals was that the Under-Secretary himself wrote to me in May 1971 arguing that the Department must press ahead with its proposals for the south end of the High Street and not wait for the report of the working party on the development of Hawick because, he said, that was not expected until November 1972 and it was important "for safety reasons" that the bridge be replaced as soon as possible. We are now well beyond the date of the report of the working party. As far as I am aware, the bridge is still standing and carrying traffic. It is important to have a decision on the matter fairly soon.

Far more important, this proposal highlights the fact that so far there are no proposals for a proper re-routing of the trunk route out of the High Street. Instead, the Department has brought forward proposals to make it easier to continue routing the trunk route through the centre of the town.

My second example concerns the same A7, this time as it passes through Galashiels. Again the Under-Secretary and I have been in correspondence on this matter since the summer of last year. Here I will quote a public statement by the Galashiels Town Council last month. It states, Although the proposal for the realignment of the trunk road A7 through the centre of Galashiels has been regarded as a possibility for a considerable number of years, the proposals was not formally intimated by the Scottish Development Department to the Town Clerk until February, 1972. A copy of the Feasibility Study prepared by the Consultants for the Scottish Development Department, which had been reported to the Department in February, 1971, was supplied for the information of the Town Council. In other words, there was a year's lag while the proposal lay in the Department, unknown to the town council. The town council have said of its decision of December, 1972, The Town Council are, and always have been, conscious of the adverse effect which the proposed realigned route would have on the amenity of the Burgh, particularly in the area of Bank Street Gardens and Cornmill Square, and it is their view that the virtual destruction of this very attractive feature of the centre of the town should not be permitted, if there is any practical and acceptable alternative. That is an important statement, and it contrasts with what the Under-Secretary said to me in a letter in January of this year: This recommendation was extensively discussed with the Galashiels Working Party (composed of local officials and technical officers of the Development Department) which, although not entirely happy with the proposed solution, appeared also to accept that physical and engineering considerations effectively ruled out the alternatives. However that may have been the view of the working party, it is certainly not the view either of public opinion or the town council. I hope that the Department will now consider the possibility of using a part of the now disused railway line in order to remove traffic from the town centre. But, in principle, it seems entirely wrong that the Department should itself bring forward proposals to continue and indeed to develop trunk routes through the centre of the town.

My third case does not stem directly from the initiative of the Department since the A72 road—Glasgow-Peebles-Galashiels—is not a trunk road but it is subject to a 75 per cent. Government grant and therefore to departmental approval. The Peebles County Council is at present putting forward proposals to improve the road through Peebles by realigning the bridge at one end, a case very similar, if I may say so, to that at Hawick—the Cuddy Bridge, as it is known—and, at the same time, it is proposing to demolish the house at the end of the High Street, which was Buchan's house and is of considerable local, historical and architectural importance. The proposal will, I think, have an adverse effect on the present appearance of that end of the High Street. While I concede the need for improved facilities for pedestrians crossing the bridge I do not believe that wholesale alteration like this is necessary except in the interests of through traffic. Again, a relief road of some kind is vital. In these cases at Hawick, Galashiels and Peebles, the public authorities are flying in the face of the declared Government policy.

I turn now to three other places where the sins are not of commission but of omission, and I should be grateful to the hon. Gentleman for any information he can give me tonight. In Selkirk the A7 passes through the centre of the burgh and there has been a proposal, published as far back as 1955, for a bypass of the town. Can the Under-Secretary give us any information as to whether this may he proceeded with some time in the foreseeable future?

In the more specific case of Jedburgh, on the A68, the hon. Gentleman will remember an excellent plan produced in 1964 for the bypassing of the High Street and the ending of a very severe bottleneck into the market place. I understand that financial approval was recently given for the project. Can any information be given tonight about completion dates?

Lastly on this list, there is the question of the A6091 through Melrose—again the subject of a excellent report in 1966. In the meantime, traffic continues through the town and the attractive market place in the centre is cluttered with large traffic signs. At the same time, again, the railway line presents a possible route for a bypass.

The Government are going ahead with the new trunk route across the Tweed and alongside the Tweedbank scheme. I hope that they will proceed at an early date to continue that new route bypassing Melrose and linking up with the A68 to give some relief to that town.

These problems are not by any means confined to the towns in my constituency, but I cite them because I am most familiar with them.

I was interested in a recent very pleasant tour in the North of Scotland to find, on looking at the town development plan for Tain in Ross-shire, that the local authority was at slight loggerheads with the Development Department on the question whether the trunk road should continue to go through the middle of the town, which is still the view of the Department, and to which the local authority is quite rightly opposed.

The Under-Secretary will have noticed a few weeks ago, when he opened the motorway on the far side of Linlithgow Loch, that this was very much welcomed by the citizens of Linlithgow. In fact, the transformation in the town centre should bring great encouragement to other towns when they see what can be done when through traffic is removed from towns which basically were never built and designed to carry the scale of motor traffic that we have today.

When I read some of the statistics and surveys which are taken, I think that they ignore the occasions when the heavier lorries and cars towing caravans are coming not on business in the towns, but are coming through and are perhaps treated as just one more unit in the statistics, when they have a serious detrimental effect on the environment of these small communities.

I accept that any programme of bypassing towns is bound to be expensive. We should consider that expense in relation not only to an annual road programme but to the effect that it will have in creating a very acceptable environment for ourselves and generations to come. I hope that the Under-Secretary will take this opportunity to dispel any impression which has got about that the Scottish Office has been dragging its feet on this general environmental question.

11.12 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Development, Scottish Office (Mr. George Younger)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. David Steel) for raising what is a most interesting subject not only to the House in general and to those who may study our debates outside but to me personally as I have always been extremely interested in both the preservation of historic buildings as such and in the larger scheme of preservation of our historic towns in general.

In thanking the hon. Gentleman for raising this important matter, may I assure him that we in the Scottish Office, regarding not only our roads policy but our policies generally, are every bit as keen as anyone else in any other Department to do all that we can to preserve our historic towns and to insulate them as far as possible against the ill-effects of through traffic.

The historic towns of Scotland are of direct interest to historians and architects alike, but they are not museums. They have a very real life of their own. They are of great value to the tourist industry and provide a very pleasant, high-quality environment for those who live in them. We recognise the importance of all these aspects of historic towns. My right hon. Friend is involved in many, if not all, aspects of their preservation and development. For example, he is responsible for listing buildings of historic or architectural interest, for consulting local planning authorities on planning matters, for conservation area policy, for the promotion of tourism, for regional development and, as the hon. Gentleman has specifically raised tonight, for the planning of new road construction.

In considering whether road bypasses should be provided, my right hon. Friend may be involved in two ways. First, he is the highway authority for all trunk roads in Scotland and, as such, is directly responsible for deciding whether bypasses should be constructed where trunk roads pass through towns.

Secondly, he may have to decide whether grant should be made available towards the cost of bypass schemes on roads for which local authorities are the highway authorities and where the initiative rests with them. I should perhaps point out as a matter of information that within the boundaries of large burghs and cities, with only a few exceptions, the main roads are not trunk roads but are the responsibility of the local authorities concerned. There is, of course, no question of the Secretary of State exercising his roads responsibilities in isolation from his planning and other responsibilities that I have described.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that in the past in our planning we in the Scottish Office had been less active than our English colleagues in paying regard to the needs of historic towns and other towns which are important although not historic. I assure the hon. Gentleman that that is definitely not so, and I should like to refer to a considerable number of towns which have already been bypassed or will be as a result of road schemes planned for the future.

The Council for British Archaeology some time ago produced a list of 57 towns in Scotland which it classed to be of historic interest, and I can tell the hon. Gentleman that of those 12 are already bypassed and a further 23 will be relieved as a result of road schemes now under construction or in an advanced state of preparation.

In undertaking such road schemes we have to consider a wide range of factors, and I am sure the hon. Gentleman will recognise that it would be oversimplifying the matter just to proceed on the assumption that every historic town needs a bypass and that the provision of such bypasses necessarily takes priority over every other aspect of the road programme. It is one of the aspects and one of the objectives of the trunk road programme to relieve as many historic towns as possible of through trunk traffic, but there are other objectives which, in particular cases, may have to take priority even over the degree of historic value that one places on the town concerned.

We aim to provide a comprehensive network of strategic trunk routes which will link the various regions of Scotland with the national network, will ensure that major towns, whether historic or not, are either on or close to the strategic network and will provide quick connections to other major communications, such as ports and airports. In deciding priorities we necessarily give a great deal of weight to relieving congestion and dealing with situations which give rise to accidents, which is every bit as important as the degree of historic value that one might place on the appearance and architecture of any town.

I do not accept that those aims are necessarily in conflict with the general objective of protecting the environment. Indeed, I think that the two go together. It is essential to the life of historic towns and to towns of high amenity value which may not be historic that they should be in good economic heart, and the factors which militate against the proper preservation of our more attractive towns—traffic congestion, noise, fumes, vibration, and so on—also militate against the preservation of an effective system of communications.

As a result of the road programme of recent years we can point to a considerable number of towns which have been bypassed or will soon be bypassed. The hon. Gentleman mentioned Linlithgow. I could add to that Haddington and Ayr, and examples of towns for which trunk road bypasses are planned are Dunblane, Dunkeld, Musselburgh, Perth and Stonehaven, to mention only a few. A bypass of Stirling should be completed before the end of this year. That does not include numerous other towns and villages which may not be of historic interest but which have been relieved of through traffic. A bypass of a town is an important factor, but it is by no means everything. There are many other factors to be taken into account as well.

The hon. Gentleman made specific reference to several of the towns in his constituency, and I should like to say a word about each of them. First, as regards Galashiels. I should like to emphasise that our proposal that the A7 should be improved on a line through Galashiels was put forward with great reluctance. It was only put forward after the most exhaustive investigations. As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, we commissioned consulting engineers and gave them a free hand to suggest solutions to the traffic problems in Galashiels. They examined a whole series of possible road lines, including a by-pass and a line using the route of the disused railway, as well as other routes. But they eventually reported that the best line for the improved A7 was one very similar to that which had originally been shown on the development plan for the past 20 years.

The line of the railway was obviously one that was looked at very hard and carefully, but it was found to be impracticable; not lightly or inadvisedly, but because of detailed and practical engineering difficulties, especially the problem of obtaining the necessary width for the road at crucial points in it, and the problem of providing access to certain of the mills. There were also difficulties of alternative routes for traffic while the road was under construction.

This line was further studied, apart from the consulting engineers, by the Galashiels Technical Working Party, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. It was especially studied by this working party following the expression of the town council's misgivings about the proposed line through the town. But the working party, which included people from various bodies, including the town council, I think, and the Scottish Development Department, also found that the basic railway route, as it is called, was impracticable.

An outer by-pass was subject to the difficulty that because of its length it was likely to be unattractive to traffic, particularly in view of the small proportion of traffic which wishes to pass through Galashiels. The vast majority of the traffic wishes to start or stop its journey in Galashiels. Other possible lines had to be discarded for engineering reasons and because of their adverse effect on amenity at sensitive points.

I well understand—as the hon. Gentleman has corresponded with me about this—the misgivings in the area about the line that is now proposed. In particular, I understand the misgivings about its possible effect on the Bank Street gardens in Galashiels. We are now investigating further to see whether it is possible to avoid the gardens altogether or whether, at the very least, we may limit any necessary encroachment to the absolute minimum.

I still hope that we may find a solution which will be generally acceptable in the town. But these are still early days, and there is still further opportunity for discussion before we reach a final decision. Any proposals would have to be advertised and would be subject to objections and, if necessary, could be discussed at a public inquiry. So I hope that the hon. Gentleman, who has been most interested in this matter for a long time, will feel that we are not lightly doing something to which the people of Galashiels may object. We are, indeed, doing it with the greatest of care. We have taken every possible step to find a route other than the one through the centre of the town, and if another route proves to be practicable, no one will be more delighted than me.

The hon. Gentleman and I have also had correspondence about Hawick and we know the problems involved. As I see it, in Hawick there are two separate issues. The first is the question of the replacement of Drumlanrig Bridge and the improvement of the approaches to the bridge. The second is the question whether trunk road traffic should continue to pass through Hawick High Street. It is generally agreed by all concerned, I believe, that the bridge is weak and that it needs to be replaced as a matter of urgency, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned. But a decision on this does not necessarily prejudice the long-term consideration of the other question, that is, whether trunk road traffic should continue to use the High Street. On that question, we were awaiting the report of the Hawick Working Party, and we received that last December. It will require very careful consideration as it raises many difficult problems. But the working party suggests that as a long-term alternative to the High Street, Commercial Road might be used as a possible route for traffic. As I have said, this needs careful consideration.

It is interesting to note that the proportion of through traffic in Hawick is very low indeed. It is only about 9 per cent. of the total traffic. It may be, therefore, rather difficult to justify proposals for a relief road to deal with only 9 per cent., whereas 91 per cent. of the traffic starts or stops in the town.

There is not much more I can say tonight about Drumlanrig Bridge. The matter was discussed very fully at the public inquiry, at which the hon. Gentleman himself made a useful contribution. We are still considering the report which reached us last September. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept from me the assurance that the report is not being pigeon-holed or forgotten, or gathering dust on the shelves of St. Andrew's House. The decision which we must now reach on this matter will be the final decision, and it is very important that the issues are very carefully re-considered at this stage, even if this takes a little time. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that, as we hope to announce a decision fairly soon, it will be well worth ensuring that we make the right decision, even if it takes a little longer to do it.

As regards Peebles, the hon. Gentleman acknowledged that this is not perhaps yet directly a matter for the Scottish Office. I know that the local authority is making studies of this and is trying to get a solution to what is a difficult problem. I understand that the county council has agreed to consider whether there is a case for bypassing the High Street area where the A72 principal road passes through the town, but this is a matter for the local authority and it is not for me at this stage, anyway, to give advice to the authority. If the council comes to me, I shall have to consider carefully what it asks. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will give the matter very warm consideration.

As regards Melrose, there is no specific bypass planned at present, but the county council is considering whether the road link which will serve the Tweedbank development might be expanded eastwards providing an effective bypass of the town. We are not yet in a position where details of this scheme could be discussed. In the meantime I understand that the county council has been considering a shorter term proposal for a relief road within Melrose, which would pass fairly close to the Abbey. We in the Department have pointed out to the county council that the environmental implications of this will require very careful consideration, but the initiative rests with the local authority, since this would be a principal road and not a trunk road. It is difficult for me to comment on the merits of the proposal, because I understand that it would require amendment of the development plan, and the issue could well come to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for decision in due course, a decision which I dare not anticipate at this stage.

The hon. Gentleman asked about Selkirk. We will shortly be asking the county council, as the trunk road agent authority, to consider possible lines for a bypass of Selkirk. I cannot yet say when the construction work might start.

Proposals for a relief road for Jedburgh are, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, in a very advanced state of preparation in conjunction with the redevelopment of the town, and I am hopeful that we shall achieve notable progress on this before long.

To sum up, I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this useful debate. I acknowledge the importance of historic towns, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is not only the historic nature of towns that matters. It is the protection of towns generally from through traffic wherever that can be done. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we in the Scottish Office—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-eight minutes past Eleven o'clock.