HC Deb 24 June 1974 vol 875 cc1172-8

12.25 a.m.

Mr. Jeffrey Archer (Louth)

I am pleased that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, are in the chair. You will know that your appointment gave me great delight and that I have enjoyed watching you in the Chair since.

I apologise to the Under-Secretary of State for the late hour at which I rise to speak on this most important subject, but the fault does not lie on my shoulders. In fact, I took particular trouble to read through the list of names and the times of speeches. With the exception of the Solicitor-General, most hon. Gentlemen on the Government side spoke for 20 minutes when they should have taken 10 minutes and the Front Bench speakers took 30 minutes when they should have taken 15 minutes. Although I apologise to the hon. Gentleman, I should again point out that the blame does not totally rest on the Opposition benches.

The matter that I wish to bring to the attention of the House concerns a small but beautiful town called Louth. My constituency covers 300 square miles, but it is the small town of Louth in the centre of it to which I wish to call attention. The name of my constituency is, of course, the name of that small town—Louth. It is in many ways anomalous because only one-twenty-fifth of my constituents live in the town. Nevertheless it is a market town of some considerable beauty and historic interest and importance.

The Under-Secretary will know that the views of my constituents have been expressed to the Department very clearly over the three years that I have had the privilege to represent them. Equally he will know that the late Under-Secretary of State, using the word "late" in its corrective sense, because I have no doubt that Mr. Keith Speed who had the privilege of holding that office will return not only to the House but to office on those benches in the near future—of course, it is important that in this interim stage the hon. Gentleman should carry on where Mr. Speed left off—paid my constituents the courtesy of visiting the constituency last year. We were able to show him that that small town has a very narrow road going through its centre. To the north is Immingham, now world famous for its oil refineries and its energy complex, and the vast lorries and tankers that leave Immingham charge down the country lanes to the small town of Louth. When they arrive they are unable to pass each other because the main road is so narrow.

On top of that we have adjacent to the main road one of the most beautiful churches in England. Some people, including Lord Boyle, have described it as a cathedral. It is without exception one of the most beautiful churches in England. Architecturally it has been agreed—indeed the rector, Mr. Michael Adey, has pointed out to me—that from tests which have been made there is now reason to fear that the foundations of the church are becoming less secure because of those vast lorries rumbling by its side day after day.

Therefore, we asked the former Under-Secretary, Mr. Keith Speed, to come up to see the road, the church and the town, and to agree that a bypass should be put into the programme immediately. Mr. Speed and his advisers pointed out that they were giving special treatment to the 50 most historic towns in England, and they agreed privately—I am sure the hon. Gentleman will find that his Department backed me up on this matter—that a mistake had been made in not including Louth in those 50 towns. Indeed, when such places as Broadway, Moreton-in-theMarsh and Malmesbury were mentioned I became conscious, as did Mr. Speed and his advisers, that we should have been not in the first 50 but in the first 10.

I realise that these are hard times in which to ask for money, and I realise too that it is the job of the Under-Secretary and his Department to make cutbacks. Nevertheless, the only thing that I ask the hon. Gentleman to do tonight is to make a two-minute speech—not even to take the full 15 minutes or more which he could have. I know that he is a compassionate man, and I ask him to rise at the Dispatch Box and say "Yes. It is still in the programme and we will allow it". He need say nothing more. We need no dramatics from the hon. Gentleman nor any great important speech. The short statement will be enough for my constituents, and they will be delighted.

I remind the Minister that I have the privilege of having the constituency next to his right hon. Friend the Member for Grimsby (Mr. Crosland), and I am sure he would support me in everything I say today. I should not want to threaten the Under-Secretary, but in the previous Parliament I called for three resignations when I was unhappy with speeches from the Front Bench and all three men were promoted within two weeks. Therefore, if the hon. Gentleman falls into line I am sure that he will become Minister of State in no time at all.

Louth is a small and beautiful town which is being hindered and damaged by heavy traffic. A bypass should have been allocated to this small area and built many years ago. I ask the Under-Secretary to say that it is in the programme, that it will stay in it and that none of the cuts made by the previous Government and which have had to be confirmed by the present Government will keep it out.

12.32 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Neil Carmichael)

I am sure that the hon. Member for Louth (Mr. Archer) need not apologise for keeping the House up until this late hour. Adjournment debates on transport matters in particular tend to come on rather late.

I have not had the pleasure of visiting Louth, and I cannot promise to visit the town because it is not included in my outline tour of visits.

Mr. Jeffrey Archer

May I say that we should treat the hon. Gentleman like the centurion in St. Mark. The hon. Gentleman need not come to Louth. All he needs to do is to give the order that the bypass will be built. That will be enough for us. We know his power, and we shall accept that.

Mr. Carmichael

The hon. Member is too kind. There are, unfortunately, a large number of hon. Members who have made similar offers to me to visit their areas with the promise of being royally entertained, but life is not that simple.

This evening's debate is by no means the first occasion upon which the hon. Member has intervened with the aim of ensuring that a Louth bypass road should be provided. He has taken this matter up in the past by correspondence, by deputation and by Questions in the House. In raising the matter again in this evening's debate he has accordingly reflected the anxiety of the people of Louth that the idea of a bypass should not be shelved.

Let me say at once that I understand and sympathise with their anxiety. The pattern of roads in rural areas grew up to meet local needs of the villages and towns they contained. Traffic such as we encounter today, and the long-distance journeys which are now commonplace, have imposed demands for which the old roads were not designed.

In Louth we have a historic market town standing astride the A16 running from north to south, at the junction with the A157 to the east and west and with the A153 joining in from the south-west for good measure. At least one narrow stretch of road is virtually axiomatic in a town of this sort, together with number of buildings of architectural or historic importance, often predictably along the main traffic route. Here are the basic ingredients for a conflict between modern traffic and an urban environment.

Those are the roots of the problem in bald terms. Looking a little deeper we find that Louth, with its Georgian and Regency buildings, has, as the hon. Member said, been selected by the Council for British Archaeology for inclusion in its list of 100 or so historic towns. We find, as the hon. Member said, the parish church of St. James, described by Pevsner as one of the most majestic of English parish churches", with its perfect perpendicular steeple, set in the midst of the town centre road network.

I need elaborate no further on the situation described most eloquently by the hon. Member. The possible risks to this five-centuries-old church, and to other listed buildings of lesser eminence, from the proximity to modern traffic cannot fail to be of concern; nor is there significant doubt about the means by which that concern could be allayed. A bypass of Louth is the only convincing means which has been put forward for relieving traffic pressure in the Louth town centre, and as long ago as 1963 a diagrammatic line for such a bypass was evolved and has since been protected.

That does not, however, import, as I am sure the hon. Member realises, that the construction of a Louth bypass is imminent. As he will no doubt recall, in reply to a Question which he asked in the House on 29th March 1973 my predecessor, Mr. Keith Speed, announced the addition of the Louth bypass to the principal road preparation list. This step enables development of a scheme to proceed to the point of publication of draft proposals for public discussion. Construction follows only after the necessary statutory procedures have been completed. In the case of the Louth bypass detailed plans and the statutory procedures have yet to come.

It is only proper that I should say a word about the problems which a Louth bypass scheme has to surmount before it could relieve the traffic situation in the town. One of these is the opposition which may be encountered when trying to settle an acceptable route for a bypass. The countryside to the west of Louth is very attractive and the risk of objection to the requisite statutory orders cannot be ignored. I do not wish to labour this point, far less to put into the mouths of potential objectors arguments with which to disable any scheme which may come forward. As I am sure the hon. Member will accept, however, it is much easier to visualise the benefit which may attend removing traffic from one locality than it is to anticipate the reasons which may be advanced against rerouting it through another.

The problems of finance are a further factor which has inevitably to be taken into account. We shall shortly be receiving from local highway authorities and discussing with them their transport policies and programmes. Towards the end of this year we shall be indicating to them the sums of money they may expect to have at their disposal in the forthcoming financial year. Decisions about the order of priority in which they should carry out their schemes will rest with the councils concerned, and I do not wish to give any impression of anticipating decisions yet to be taken by the Lincolnshire County Council.

In the present economic climate, however, it would be foolish to pretend that any of these decisions will be easy ones. As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport has recently indicated, councils will be unwise to base their plans on facile assumptions of greater sums of money being available for these purposes. One of the factors which the Lincolnshire County Council may possibly find troublesome about a bypass for Louth is that while the traffic through the town might well be regarded as heavy when considered from the viewpoint of its environmental impact, when looked at from the viewpoint of the amount of use which would be made by a bypass road it is far from heavy. The decision will be for the county council, but it would be unfair to it to present it as a simple one.

There is one other possibility which the hon. Member has not raised but upon which I should perhaps touch, namely that we might consider providing a bypass for Louth as a trunk road scheme to be financed by the Government instead of leaving it to the Lincolnshire County Council as a principal road scheme.

Here I would refer to the announcement my right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport made in the House on 17th June about future plans for the road programme. As he then indicated, he intends to give priority to schemes which form the first stage of a national network of high-quality roads aimed particularly at getting heavy lorries away from people and the towns and villages in which they live, and which would also meet the other, wider objectives of a national road programme. My right hon. Friend envisaged cornpletion of this first stage of network by the early 1980s. He indicated his intention to issue a consultative document which will treat his proposals under this head as an essential part of measures to be taken to minimise the impact of the heavy lorry. It would accordingly be inappropriate for me to enter into any detailed discussion of the consultative paper in advance of its publication.

Nevertheless I can say that a bypass for Louth is not among the proposals which I expect to see brought forward as part of the first stage of this network; and the hon. Member may not think me altogether unreasonable if I find some difficulty in accepting the view that we should transfer the scheme to the trunk road programme simply as a manoeuvre to give it higher priority than the local authority would attach to it as a principal road project.

Having said that, I would add that I would certainly be willing to look objectively at whatever arguments there may be for the view that a bypass for Louth, whenever it may come to be constructed, ought to be provided not as a principal road but as a trunk road. The hon. Member will appreciate that if those arguments prevailed the result would be the transfer of the scheme out of the preparation list into the preparation pool; but there would not be an accompanying undertaking that construction would begin at an early date. The Government, no less than the Lincolnshire County Council, would be faced with the problem of priorities, which were referred to in the announcement of 17th June which I mentioned earlier.

The hon. Member will forgive me if I do not this evening attempt to speculate as to the timing of construction in the event of this being accepted as a trunk road scheme rather than a principal road. We must take this one step at a time. What I can say, and I gladly give this assurance, is that if this change of status comes to pass, the matters which have been raised in this evening's debate will be fully considered when we come to the problem of ultimately fixing priorities.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seventeen minutes to One o'clock.