HC Deb 31 July 1974 vol 878 cc866-73

2.59 p.m.

Mr. Alan Fitch (Wigan)

I have to declare an interest in the subject of roads, though it is not a financial one. I am chairman of the all-party Road Study Group, and I was very pleased when the present Minister of Transport said on 3rd April: I am satisfied that, after allowing for a substantial transfer of traffic and resources from road to rail, the continued development of a national network of inter-urban roads is justified."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd April 1974; Vol. 871, c. 12521.] More recently my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State said on 24th May: I spend perhaps more of my time meeting delegations from groups which desire to have roads than delegations from groups which do not desire them, because it has been accepted that roads are frequently one of the ways of preserving certain parts of the environment."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 24th May 1974; Vol. 874, c. 850.] It is encouraging that both Ministers see a constructive roads policy playing a major rôle in an integrated transport policy.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary made what to me was a very important point when he spoke of roads as being one of the ways of preserving the environment. Much of the opposition to a forward-looking roads policy in general and to the construction of motorways in particular comes from a misguided view of what improves or what detracts from the environment.

We all want to see our environment improved, and it is a matter of pleasure to me that more and more people are taking an interest in this problem. Unfortunately, however, some people are developing the attitude of an ostrich with its head in the sand to the motor car and to road vehicles in general and, in turn, to the construction of new roads. They adopt, quite unconsciously I am sure, the view that all road vehicles are a menace except their own cars. The truth is that we shall see more and more cars on our roads, despite the fact that we are passing through an economic crisis which could well mean that our standard of living remains static for the next two or three years.

In my opinion, it is still the aim of many young married couples to own, first a house and then a car. I will not weary the House with figures, but all estimates for the future show that more families are owning cars. The SELNEC transport study shows that in the North-West only 25 per cent. of householders will not own a car by 1984

I believe that a properly planned network of roads can improve rather than detract from the environment. I have in mind in particular the M6, the design and construction of which has improved the surrounding area and enabled thousands of people to enjoy the beauty of the Lake District after a relatively quick journey time.

The M62 is another example of a significant piece of road engineering giving an added beauty to the surrounding hills.

Despite an economic crisis, or the suggested changes in energy pattern, road vehicle traffic will expand and we must plan accordingly. In the North-West region the figure for private vehicles per household is 0.658 whilst for the country as a whole the figure is 0.747 per household. Putting it in another way, in the North-West there are two cars for every three households.

I should like to turn to the transport policy of the Greater Manchester Metropolitan county, of which Wigan forms a not unimportant part. The Greater Manchester TPP, in a draft submission, states: Greater Manchester is one of Britain's largest and most important urban areas containing within its boundaries over 2.7 million people and more than 1.2 million jobs. It has a central urban core of Manchester and Salford which contains the regional centre, a large concentration of manufacturing employment, densely populated inner suburbs and more spacious outer residential areas. Surrounding this core is an outer ring of manufacturing towns linked with Manchester, but themselves containing important concentrations of offices, shops, industry and people. In the western part of the area, the urbanised belt extends through a series of small industrial towns and mining settlements across to Wigan, an important manufacturing and service centre. This pattern of development creates complex demands for the movement of people and goods. This is an admirable summing up of the factors influencing the transport needs of the Greater Manchester Metropolitan County.

Another factor is that of population, which has remained stable at 2.7 million people for the last 20 years, and recent estimates suggest that in the foreseeable future this figure is not likely to increase. But the stability in numbers must not conceal the fact that important changes have taken place in the metropolitan county. In general, the older inner areas, particularly of the conurbation centre, have been losing population through redevelopment whilst the outer areas, with land available for residential development, have been expanding. This is an important factor in planning transport needs.

What should be the objectives of a regional transport policy? Perhaps I may refer briefly to some of them. Attractive and efficient public transport facilities should be provided to cater for those movements of people who are most economically or beneficially carried by public transport.

It is necessary to direct investment in highway improvement towards providing for essential business and commercial traffic a network of good quality routes, linking major employment centres in the area to the national motorway network and to important railheads, ports and airports. Priority should be given to highway schemes which improve the environment by relieving traffic congestion in city and town centres.

Efficient use should be made of the existing road network by means of day-to-day control, where possible by a computer system. Consideration should be given to the designation of routes for heavy lorries and to car parking policies in major centres of population which favour the provision of short-stay parking spaces to cater for essential commercial business and shopping needs.

The Ministry figure for local transport spending for 1975–76 is unlikely to be much in excess of £585 million, of which Manchester's share will be about £38 million. Proposals costing £58 million have been submitted by the TPP. The proposals have been broken down into three categories: £31 million already committed, £20 million for essential projects and nearly £7 million for less essential expenditure. Under the new system the Government have the final word both on the total amount spent on transport by local authorities and on how it is to be financed. If the £38 million figure is insisted upon, none of the less essential and little of the essential expenditure will be possible. Of the £11 million proposed for expenditure on new road construction, nearly £9 million falls into those two categories.

I ask the Minister to think again about his suggested maximum of £38 million and, in view of the transport needs of Greater Manchester, to revise his estimate upwards. I realise that we have a serious economic crisis to deal with but, as the Government's policy is mild reflation—I think that is the right policy—an effici- ent transport policy is essential to improve our growth rate. The national basis on which available resources are allocated is weighted unfairly against the metropolitan counties, particularly Greater Manchester.

I am not sure what will happen about the proposed mid-Lancashire motorway linking M6 and M61. I understand that it is to be a continuation of the M58, but nothing about it appears in the document published on Monday, and that is a significant omission. Wigan Metropolitan District Council and Bolton Metropolitan District Council would like a speedy affirmative reply that this project is to go ahead. I should like the proposed Manchester-Sheffield motorway to be given the go-ahead, but that is a purely personal point of view.

In reply to a Written Question on 17th June, the Minister of Transport made a significant policy statement which should have received more attention. In that reply the Minister rightly spoke of the necessity of a continuing national road programme, but went on to say that future expenditure will have to be reduced in real terms. The road programme cannot be immune from Government decisions on public expenditure, but I regret that expenditure has been reduced in real terms quite apart from current money terms. The estimates published on 1st July show that expenditure on trunk roads and motorways in the 1974–75 programme will be even less than was proposed in March this year. Making allowances for the very rapid increase in costs, with particular reference to the cost of materials, it would seem that in real terms that is, the amount of road construction improvement and maintenance achieved—the road programme is being run down to a far greater extent than is desirable for our economic wellbeing, and that the roads programme cannot be switched on and off without damage to transport efficiency.

I note that the Minister said in his June statement that some 3,100 miles of a national network of motorways would be completed by the 1980s. However, I do not know what he meant by the phrase "the 1980s". That is a span of 10 years. I hope that it would be in the year 1980. I should point out that France, Germany and Italy will have considerably more mileage completed by then, and that our roads are more congested.

I note with interest the consultative paper on measures which may be taken to minimise the impact of heavy lorries, which was published a few days ago. This is a problem which concerns many people. Here again, however, the impact can be minimised by more and not fewer roads, particularly those built to bypass our towns and cities.

In assessing a road programme for the future, one fact stands out above all others. It is that well over 80 per cent. of our goods and people are transported by road. While I am in favour of railways, aircraft and canals playing a greater part in an integrated transport system by encouraging them to carry more goods and people, the great bulk of goods and people will continue to be conveyed by road.

The road programme must not be treated as a thing apart. It must be treated as something that is central to the achievement of many of the Government's aims—economic efficiency, future growth and the improvement of the quality of life and the environment. All these things will be retarded if the road programme continues to be chopped by successive Governments.

3.12 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Mr. Charles R. Morris)

I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Mr. Fitch) has returned to a subject on which he speaks with such authority and, indeed, eloquence. I assure him that the points he has made in regard to the M6/M62 and the link between the M61 and the M6 will be taken into very serious consideration and drawn to the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister for Transport.

I am also pleased, even at this hour, to be given the opportunity to enlarge on the short statement of our future plans for roads which my right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport made on 17th June, to which my hon. Friend referred. I believe it to be essential that we should adopt a co-ordinated approach to transport. Transport takes a good deal of our national resources. It forms a major part of industrial costs, accounting for up to 40 per cent. of some industries' net out put. It is also a major consumer of energy, representing 14 per cent. of our total energy requirements. It is, of course, almost exclusively dependent on oil, one of the most sensitive and, now, increasingly expensive of our energy sources. So we must be sure that we are allocating resources between the various forms of transport sensibly and without waste.

Our aim is properly to maximise the benefits and minimise the costs, with quick, efficient movement of goods and people as a prime objective. So the ideal transport plan should be one in which the emphasis given to each mode of transport reflects its ability to carry out a particular transport task better than any other. Some forms of transport will always be interchangeable but invariably some will be better suited to the job than others. The choice can seldom be made against so simple a background. I need hardly remind hon. Members, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan, of the numerous other considerations that we must take into the balance when we decide our transport priorities.

My hon. Friend is concerned about the effects of public expenditure cuts on transport spending, particularly the road sector. Perhaps my hon. Friend will accept my assurance that we have not been unmindful of our obligations. I remind him that in the past five years the Government have expended £2,000 million in improving and constructing roads and motorways in England. I am afraid that transport and other areas of Government spending cannot be excepted from general cut-backs. There must be an order of priorities; for example, an overriding need for new or improved houses may demand more cuts in the transport sector than elsewhere.

Retrenchment comes hard in any situation. We cannot change the particular character of transport investment to make it easier but we can try to ensure by continuous review and monitoring that we identify those areas which can bear sudden cutbacks with the least difficulty, with the least adverse effect on the achieving of our general transport objectives and on the efficiency of the transport system as a whole.

My hon. Friend referred to the transport policy programme submitted by the Greater Manchester Council Metropolitan Authority. I should explain to him that the amount of transport supplementary grant that the Greater Manchester Council will receive in 1975–76 will depend on a number of factors. The first factor is the Secretary of State's view of the GMC's proposal and policy in its first grant submission. The Department, as my hon. Friend indicated, has seen preliminary drafts of the GMC's first TPP, but we understand that it is not due for formal approval by the council until 1st August. At this stage Ministers cannot say anything about the content of Manchester's TPP or about the amount of TSG the GMC is likely to receive.

At a recent meeting of representatives of the metropolitan county councils my hon. Friend the Minister for Transport explained the implications of the limitation of resources for local transport expenditure over the next few years for individual TPPs. Councils will be notified of their allocation of TSG for 1975–76 towards the end of this year, and they will be given the reasons for the Secretary of State's decisions. It will then be for each council to decide for itself which proposals should go ahead in the light of its allocation of TSG and the Secretary of State's views.

My hon. Friend will accept that at present there are a number of pressures to which my right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport is subject. As the Minister with a special responsibility for urban environment, I am concerned that the transport needs of towns and cities are met in ways which do not destroy or damage the surroundings in which people live and work. I am sure that many hon. Members on both sides of the House could give me examples of how that need has been met in the past at vast social cost to the community. Equally, I am aware that the British public generally take a somewhat ambivalent attitude to the provision of roads and motorways. In the context of roads and motorways it is perhaps worth reminding the House that one man's intrusion is another man's form of escape.

May I assure my hon. Friend that all the points that he has made during the course of his illuminating contribution will be given close and detailed consideration.