HC Deb 23 January 1973 vol 849 cc418-28

1.26 a.m.

Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South-West)

For some months the Secretary of State for the Environment has had before him proposals for the construction of a new traffic circle at the Angel in Islington, and his approval to those proposals from the Greater London Council is required. I understand that his decision will be given one way or the other in the near future. I have been trying for some time to have a short debate like this on the proposals because they are causing deep concern amongst a large number of individuals and organisations in my constituency. Tonight I shall press upon the Minister a number of considerations some of which the Department may have heard before and some of which it will not have heard before. I hope that these proposals will be seriously considered before the Minister reaches his decision.

It will be an important decision because the Department will be providing 75 per cent. of the capital costs of the operation, and that is likely to come to a very high figure. Therefore, the Department cannot be content to leave it that the GLC is satisfied with the proposal and that it ought to be all right. The Minister must go into it properly and satisfy himself that the proposal makes sense.

There is great confusion about many points in relation to the proposed roundabout. I hope that the Minister can make clear just where things stand within the Department. I have stated what I understand to be the position about ministerial approval, but there is doubt about it. Representatives of the Greater London Council have let it be known that in their opinion the Department has got the cost of this proposal into its firm financial programme for 1977. I want to know what that means. Is there any commitment at this moment on the part of the Department to approve the scheme? That is typical of a number of confusions which there have been about the scheme.

I hope that the Minister will bear with me while I refer to a rather technical point. It relates to new ideas on the shape and size of roundabouts which emerged from the Transport and Road Research Laboratory, which is a direct responsibility of the Department.

The proposal at the Angel is for an enormous roundabout, the central island of which will be an acre or perhaps 1.1 acres in area. It will be surrounded by a relatively narrow carriageway of 20 yards—relatively narrow, that is, in relation to the central island. In late 1970, the Transport and Road Research Laboratory brought out a valuable report—No. 356—by F. C. Blackmore on the capacity of single-level intersections. Briefly, the conclusion reached was that several traffic experiments had shown that the capacity of roundabouts of conventional design—that is, with a fairly large central island and a relatively narrow circulating road around it—could be improved by reducing the diameter of the central island by about one-third while maintaining the diameter of the border perimeter. By this means, the capacity of any roundabout could be improved.

That conclusion was based not just on a few traffic experiments but also on the study of a number of road conditions. It was a firm conclusion of the report that the old idea of a huge central island was bad. It got a good deal of publicity at the time and as a result a number of changes have been made in London roundabouts.

The roundabout at the Angel is a fine example of the shape of a scheme which pre-dates the ideas put forward by the TRRL. When the TRRL studied a roundabout at Hillingdon—it happened to be one with four carriageways running into it, like the Angel—it found that it got the best results with an island of 15 metres in diameter within a larger circle of 46 metres in diameter. That is, the central island bore a relationship of one to three to the outer circle. The TRRL said that the ratio could have been smaller if it had been able to design the entrances and exits to the roundabout, as it could do with a totally fresh plan, as proposed at the Angel.

I want to know first whether the GLC referred its plan, which was certainly dreamed up before the TRRL came out with its ideas, to the TRRL at any stage. Secondly, has the Department referred the plan to the TRRL? Here, the Department has its own research establishment exactly for such a purpose. The TRRL is not there just to dream up general plans and reach general conclusions. It is invited to comment on specific plans by some local authorities, and, therefore, the Department is free to refer a specific case to it if it wishes. Has it done so in this case? If not, why not, in the light of the clear conflict between the proposal at the Angel and the conclusions of its own subordinate body, the TRRL?

I am not suggesting that we should reduce the size of the central island at the Angel and increase the capacity of the roundabout. What I am suggesting is that we should keep the proposed capacity static, if it has to be at that level at all, reduce the size of the central island and reduce the size of the outer circle. That would save, I calculate, an acre or more of the area from the devastation which will otherwise strike it.

What is the cost of the scheme? Figures are bandied about of £7 million, £7½ million, £9 million. What will be the cost of stage A—that is, without the proposed underpass, which is to follow in 20 years' time? What will be the cost of stage B, including the underpass? Therefore, what will be a 75 per cent. share of that which will fall upon Exchequer funds?

A number of other questions have been raised about the rationalisation of this proposal. First, is it designed to take the expected expansion in traffic flows which was predicted nearly a decade ago by the London Transport survey? Certainly that was shadowed out a few years ago. But the current explanation and rationale appears to be that it will not do that. It will apparently now merely take the traffic which comes through the Angel and also traffic from the rat-runs which surround the Angel and which should go through it. There is confusion on that point. I hope that the Department will clear it up before reaching a decision.

How much of that traffic is divertable to the Angel anyway? It is no good simply putting a man on the street and taking a count of the vehicles passing. Not all of those vehicles can be diverted to the Angel even if there is a traffic management scheme which will create an incentive to achieve it, and even if the capacity of the Angel is improved. Will the Minister say whether there have been studies by the GLC, the Department or anyone else to see how much of that rat-run traffic can in practice be diverted into an improved Angel intersection?

I have heard it said by the chairman of the appropriate GLC committee that if the scheme at the Angel was made less ambitious the Department of the Environment would turn miserly and not provide the 75 per cent. grant. I cannot believe that there is any truth in that, but will the Under-Secretary confirm or deny it? The Department is now looking at the scheme, as I understand it, and if it gives its approval to it, surely the 75 per cent. grant would automatically become available.

It is completely unknown at this stage whether the southern junction of Liverpool Road will be closed. That junction is only about 100 yards from the proposed roundabout, even in its present location, and a good deal less than that from where the entrance will later be situated. Here again is an important point which has not yet been dealt with, and the Department should not take its decision before it is resolved.

There are, of course, difficulties if the Angel is developed in this way. There will be consequences for Kings Cross, Euston Road and Highbury Corner and for other linkways east and west across the York Way. Experience in London and elsewhere in recent years is that all that happens when the capacity of an important junction is improved is that six traffic jams are created on the surrounding roads. Unless the authorities are prepared to impose restraints upon traffic, that is what will happen at the Angel.

I have mentioned but a few points to illustrate the confusion that exists not only among my constituents but in the minds of those who are responsible for putting the scheme forward. My constituents have approached the matter in a very workmanlike way. They have set up committees and used bodies like the Islington Society, which is opposed to the scheme. They have had discussions with the appropriate officials and the elected representatives on the GLC. The confusion which exists on the points I have mentioned results from these discussions and was not removed by them.

The important considerations to be taken into account are those deriving from the changing attitudes in this House and in most authorities, and, I hope, in the Department of the Environment, towards the question of urban transport. Last week we had the Expenditure Committee's report on urban transport. I was happy to be a member of the sub-committee which produced that report. We had the Prime Minister's little walk to 10 Downing Street, and earlier last year we had the GLC document "Traffic and the Environment" which was obviously produced by a totally different set of people from those who produced the design for the Angel.

We have had the occasional comments of Sir Richard Way, Chairman of London Transport, who feels strongly that some considerable reduction—about 40 per cent.—should be made in car usage if we are to have a decent bus service in London. There is developing—fully developed even—what might be called a new orthodoxy in urban transport philosophy, which is that we have to have restraints on the commuter travel at peak hours in city centres combined with improvements in public transport—and we cannot have one without the other. It is part of that new orthodoxy that the improvement of urban roadways in itself will create far more problems than it will solve.

I remind the Minister of the degree of urgency which the Expenditure Committee attached to these fundamental matters. We said in paragraph 11: There is a growing feeling that unless positive policy decisions are taken in the near future we may be faced with irreparable social and environmental damage and the breakdown of public transport facilities. We were pleading not only that this should be accepted in theory but that something should be done and done quickly. Otherwise London will become even more of an asphalt jungle than it is now.

A more apposite recommendation is contained in paragraph 107, where we said: we … recommend that, as an urgent priority, all trunk and principal road schemes of urban road building which have not reached the exchange of contract stage should be re-examined ab initio. Road proposals take an awful long time in gestation. If we adopt a new road policy and apply that policy only to the plans which are but a twinkle in someone's eye, it will be half a century before we get any concrete on the ground in accordance with the new ideas. What has to be done now is to re-assess the plans which are not yet confirmed and started and try to moderate those in line with that new policy. That policy will provide for better public transport, more bus lanes and a restraint upon the use of the motor car by commuters at peak hours in city centres.

If we do that, it is highly questionable whether we need an increase in the capacity at the Angel of the order intended. I stress that I am saying not only that we do not need that increased capacity but that, even if we want it, there is a way of doing it by a smaller scheme, which will use less land than the one proposed.

We would be very disappointed in Islington—certainly this is the case with the Islington Borough Council—if there were to be a further prolonged period of delay in settling these matters. There is no need for that. I would like the Minister to say that this scheme is too ambitious, that he wants a more modest scheme, and that he wants to get it buttoned up this year. The GLC claims it would take five years to work out something new. That is nonsense. I hope that the Minister can say, when he takes his decision, that he will not approve this but will approve a more modest scheme, and that he wants it to go ahead rapidly so that the land freed from planning blight can be used for important housing purposes in Islington.

1.45 a.m.

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

I thank the hon. Member for Islington, South-West (Mr. George Cunningham) for introducing this debate at this late hour. I will do my best, but I cannot answer all his questions. I reaffirm that no formal decision has yet been taken. I will certainly look at the hon. Gentleman's remarks, and I have no doubt that the Greater London Council will also do so.

I will first outline the topography so that we are all clear exactly what we are talking about. The routes converging on the Angel intersection are the Al—Goswell Road, Islington High Street, Upper Street—and the A501—City Road, Pentonville Road. Traffic also reaches the intersection from the A401—Rosebery Avenue—and the A104—Essex Road. These are metropolitan routes for which the GLC is the highway and traffic authority.

The Al is a radial route and is a main road to the north connecting directly to the Ml. In the past, this route has been improved in the Holloway Road, and is currently being improved in the southern part of Archway Road. Draft orders are about to be published for the improvement of the remaining length of Archway Road.

The A501 which crosses the Al at the Angel is part of the inner ring road around the West End and the City, terminating at its western end with the Western Avenue Extension, the A40 radial route. The hon. Gentleman referred to the effects this will have way beyond the Angel. At its eastern end it feeds into the A13. One can see how the Angel is thus a major interchange and the traffic movements at this point are extremely complex. There is no difference between us on that.

In view of the current measures proposed by the GLC for controlling the passage of long vehicles through six square miles of central London, use of this major east-west distributor road for the central area is likely to increase.

Delays and congestions both in and out of peak hours have been the feature of the Angel intersection for many years. In a study of delay times taken in 1969, delays of over seven minutes were recorded. A more recent study taken in July 1971 for a proposed southbound bus lane in Upper Street gave an average delay to buses in the morning peak of four minutes, with the longest recorded on the day of the study of nine minutes. Also in July 1971 in Upper Street a peak hour queue length of 2,400 ft and off-peak length of 1,400 ft were recorded. This affects peak-hour traffic and buses.

As a result of this congestion, many drivers avoid the junction and take diversionary routes through adjoining residential areas, including three conservation areas around the Angel. Traffic flows have resulted along such roads as White Lion Street, Duncan Street, St. Peter's Street, and Colebrook Row. Other major flows bypass the area altogether; for example, the flow of traffic using Liverpool Road was estimated by the GLC to be as much as the parallel metropolitan road, Upper Street.

These considerable subsidiary flows which have built up penetrate the adjacent residential areas whose quality has been recognised by their designation as conservation areas. Their design includes provision for directing these flows on major routes to bypass the Angel. The proposals do not envisage a reduction of traffic on roads such as Amwell Street and Liverpool Road, which carry heavy flows through residential areas.

What the hon. Gentleman did not refer to is the accident record in the neighbourhood of the Angel intersection which gives cause for concern. Over the three years between 1969 and 1971, 87 accidents were recorded involving personal injury. Over the same period five people were killed and 50 sustained serious injuries. One cannot ignore these figures.

In view of the difficulties being encountered at this intersection, the former London County Council in 1959 approved in principle the provision of a roundabout to improve the situation at this point. Pending agreement on the precise form of the improvement, traffic management measures have been progressively introduced since that time both to alleviate congestion and to improve the safety of the intersection. Waiting restrictions were introduced in 1960, a one-way scheme in 1963 and further banned turns and signal improvements in 1968. The number of turning movements at the intersection requires lengthy cycles at the traffic signals which control the flows. In spite of what has been accomplished, congestion persists and there are road safety problems.

Mr. Cunningham

While the Angel is one of the 100 intersections in London where there can be delays for buses of more than five minutes, will the hon. Gentleman not agree that those counts were taken before the introduction of bus lanes and that the Angel is by no means in the top range of the worst intersections?

Mr. Speed

I would not say that it was in the top range of the worst intersections, but I am sure the hon. Gentleman will not argue that it is a satisfactory situation. I shall say something about bus lanes in a moment, because the GLC is making considerable strides in that respect.

Concurrently with the introduction of traffic management measures and stemming from proposals mooted by the LCC in 1959 for improvement works at this junction, more than 20 alternative schemes or variations have been considered by the GLC. The realignments involved were, however, extremely costly or intrusive on amenity or conservation areas. The larger gyratory systems considered were also expensive and presented problems of integration with the likely redevelopment.

The present proposals have resulted from a decision by the GLC in 1968 to set up a working party with the Islington Borough Council. From its discussions has emerged a scheme comprising a large roundabout at the main intersection with pedestrian subways connecting from all sides to a central sunken area within the roundabout. A further pedestrian subway is proposed at the improved intersection of Islington High Street and Liverpool Road. This intersection will be bypassed by a southbound "bus only" lane from Upper Street into Islington High Street. Bus lay-bys have been provided in the proposals to obtain maximum advantage from the traffic capacity of the roundabout.

The hon. Gentleman asked about cost. The cost of this scheme has been estimated by the GLC to be about f6¾ million, of which our share, if the scheme went ahead, would be about £5 million. I hope that will give the hon. Gentleman and his constituents some information to work on.

The improvement includes widening to deal with the Liverpool Road junction and the St. John Street/Rosebery Avenue junction. Goswell Road will be made into a cul-de-sac south-east of the main intersection, and traffic will be diverted to St. John Street. The east end of Myddelton Street will be closed at St. John Street, and a signalled intersection provided at St. John Street/Spencer Street junction to encourage use of Goswell Road. The existing zebra crossing opposite Owen's School will be made safer by the provision of traffic signal control. The GLC proposals for the roundabout are designed to take the capacity of the existing roads as a constraint on the traffic growth. Provision will be made at the roundabout for an east-west underpass at a later stage should this be necessary. The design would also permit a north-south underpass at a later date if needed, but this is very much in the future.

Although the road engineering of the improvement has been designed to be independent of redevelopment proposals, considerable traffic and environmental advantage could be gained in the future as the adjacent property redevelopment schemes mature. I understand that the London Borough of Islington is considering the diversion of Liverpool Road as part of major redevelopment, while London Transport is investigating ways of improving the Angel Underground Station. Over the years planning blight has occurred throughout the area likely to be affected by the scheme and many properties are boarded up. The implementation of this or something like it should bring considerable improvement to the environment of the whole area.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that consideration of these proposals should be deferred pending reconsideration of London's traffic problems in the light of the report of the Expenditure Committee on urban transport planning. We are taking the report very seriously, but it has only just come out and needs careful reading and a lot of thought. However, I do not think we can freeze everything on the basis of that report at this point in time, because one wants this year to come to some sort of conclusion. There is considerable concern among the hon. Gentleman's constituents and many others concerned with the area that after more than a decade of indecision we must try to take some decision in the very near future.

Mr. Cunningham

Is the hon. Gentleman going to say anything about the Transport and Road Research Laboratory?

Mr. Speed

I will come to the two particular points which the hon. Member raised.

The first, which is very important, is that no formal decision has yet been taken by my right hon. Friend. Entry of this scheme to the programme, if my right hon. Friend said that the scheme could not go into the firm programme, would not of itself guarantee that the improvements will be carried out even in part. It would simply give sufficient assurance to the GLC that it has the Government's support in principle for proceeding with detailed design of the scheme to the point where steps will have to be taken to acquire the necessary land—a process which almost inevitably would require a public inquiry. If the decision on a firm programme were taken, I guess that the public inquiry would take place next year, and there would be no question of any construction until 1977. I cannot see a public inquiry being held before next year if the decision were taken to go ahead. A public inquiry would provide the opportunity for further public comment, as regards both the actual appearance and the effect of the proposed works on the neighbourhood.

The hon. Gentleman made some interesting points about the TRRL report. I cannot give him an answer now. I will let him know whether the scheme was referred to in that report. My officers and experts in evaluating the scheme will give advice to my right hon. Friend on whether it should appear in the programme, and will take very much into account——

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Tuesday evening, 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 four minutes to Two o'clock.