HC Deb 19 December 1975 vol 902 cc1991-2001

2.0 p.m.

Mr. Terry Walker (Kingswood)

This debate is important for many of my constituents who are unfortunate enough to live in the village of Hanham, which is on the eastern fringe of Bristol. Until about five or six years ago, it was a delightful place to live in but since then it has been seriously blighted by road proposals which have never been implemented, and part of the village is now a type of "shanty town", being untidy and dilapidated.

I have lived in Hanham for many years, but my home is not affected by the "shanty town" area. The problems for the village started in the late 1960s when it was decided that Hanham was to be the point at which the Bristol east ring road was to cross the River Avon into Bristol. Many local protest meetings were held. I was not an hon. Member then, but my right hon. Friend the present Secretary of State for Energy represented my constituency. He was most active in drawing attention to the fact that the road would pass through a built-up area and that houses would be affected and many shops in the village would have to close.

However, despite the local opposition at the time, in 1970 the Gloucestershire County Council submitted a programme report to the Department of the Environment. As I have already mentioned, it was planned that the road would cross the River Avon and enter the area covered by the then Bristol City Council. Therefore, the Bristol City Council was involved in the continuation of the scheme once it crossed the river. Lamentably, at the time the Bristol City Council did not submit any scheme for its part of the ring road to the Department of the Environment. Therefore, there was a long delay.

Meanwhile, the Gloucestershire County Council went ahead acquiring properties to make way for the new road and in some instances it threatened compulsory purchase orders. Such action sent many elderly people to an early grave. However, throughout that time Bristol City Council did nothing.

I am indebted to the New Observer, which is the local weekly newspaper which covers my area. That newspaper has sent me many photostats of articles on this subject. Notwithstanding the answer that the Minister will give me today, I hope that he will accept that some of this information can be referred to the Department. In 1972, over two years after the original decision had been made, the New Observer said: The two years' delay has resulted in frustration and concern with part of the Memorial Road and New Walk areas falling into decay as property acquired to make way for the new road had become derelict and gardens overgrown. The eyesore was present for all to see.

Some perfectly good houses had been built adjacent to the line of the road and the people who owned those houses had great difficulty in selling them because of the squalor of the Memorial Road area. Many of these people have lost promotion because they have not been able to move to other parts of the country as they could not sell their houses.

In 1972, the Gloucestershire County Council said: the road scheme was eligible for a 75 per cent. grant from the Government and must be included in a national road programme. We have submitted a programme report on the Hanham—River Avon section to the Department—and the report for our part of the project was submitted a little over two years ago. At that time the Department of the Environment insisted—probably quite rightly—that it would take only the whole of the ring road into account and that it was waiting for the Bristol City Council to produce the plans for its part. However, they were never submitted.

Soon afterwards the land use transportation study was introduced. That study was implemented, reported upon and cost the taxpayers about £600,000. However, during all this time nothing could be done about the land in Hanham. It was left to the boarded-up houses and the empty shops to tell their own story of the sad legacy which had been left them by the Gloucestershire County Council and the Department. The land use transportation report has now been published and the road will not go through the Memorial Road area.

All this need never have happened. There is a new line on the map called the "Corridor of Opportunity", which still blights Hanham to a certain extent, but not the Memorial Road area. It affects another part of Hanham. On behalf of my constituents I say that the time has come for this road to be taken officially off the map in order that the matter can be cleared up and something done.

Therefore, while the new Avon County Council makes up its mind about the land use transportation study, the misery, filth and decay remain in the Memorial Road area, blighting adjoining properties. My constituents are rightly asking how long they will have to wait. In view of the regular statements about cut-backs in public expenditure, they see themselves having to wait another six years before the matter is finally resolved.

There have been many protest meetings in Hanham. The officers of the former county council and of the present council, partly under the auspices of my predecessors and now under mine, have been looking at this matter in great depth. My constituents look to the Department of the Environment for guidance and advice. It is their view that in the past the Department should have been stronger with the Bristol City Council and much stronger with the Gloucestershire County Council. However, that is all in the past.

The local authorities seem to have let the matter go and nothing has happened. My constituents ask the local authorities to act quickly to resolve the problem once and for all and to clear up that part of Memorial Road which has been laid to waste.

The new line, called the "Corridor of Opportunity", will run near to houses now being erected in Castle Farm Road and Common Road. These houses are being built because the previous Secretary of State for the Environment, the right hon. and learned Member for Hex-ham (Mr. Rippon), on appeal, gave permission for this to be done. My constituents are rightly asking who will pay for the noise insulation if the Corridor of Opportunity passes through the area where the houses are being built. This is a matter of grave concern.

I realise that the line of the Corridor of Opportunity is not definite, but, in view of what has happened in the past, we need this information quickly. If there has to be a Corridor of Opportunity, it should be sited further out towards Keynsham away from the development. The people of Hanham have suffered enough. We suggest that the unused railway lines should be considered as a possibility, because if it were sited there, people's homes would not be disrupted.

Many people have had their lives ruined by this costly blunder in Memorial Road by the local authorities, a decision in which the Department of the Environment has been involved. Hanham has already paid the price of this blunder and we do not want to see this happen again in the "Corridor of Opportunity".

Even now the development companies are being given nods and winks to prepare plans for development as a result of which ordinary people have been driven from their homes and others have had to live near a shanty town for many years. This has seriously devalued property. If ever action were needed, it is now. We can no longer leave it to people in the local authorities, who have failed us so many times abysmally in the past.

Public money has been used to buy property which has been left to rot and decay. It is time for the talking to stop and for action to be taken. Hanham has already borne too much of a load. The whole subject of the east fringe loop road should be looked at before it is too late. Many of my constituents will be affected by the loop road as it makes its way across my constituency to Hanham. Many houses will be blighted. I have a letter from the chief executive of the Avon Council to the effect that nothing can be done about the situation until agreement has been reached. It is wrong that this road should bring more traffic to Hanham.

We are seriously questioning whether the continuation of the road into Bristol over the River Avon is necessary. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Cocks) is unable to take part in this debate, because he is a Government Whip, but I know that he is seriously concerned because his constituency will be affected by the continuation of the ring road as it crosses Highridge Common. He will also be affected by another part of the land use transportation study if the outer circular road is extended as proposed. Many people in the Bristol area are extremely worried about the situation, and they hope that the present position will not be allowed to continue for very much longer without some action being taken.

Many people give the impression that they want the public to have a say in what happens in an area. This must be proved to be a genuine desire, because all too often the public are just "kidded along". Decisions are made before the public are even consulted. Of course my neighbours in Hanham are cynical about what will happen. They have seen public money spent to no avail. Now is the time for us to aim at public accountability and for due consideration to be given to these problems. That is why I have raised this matter today.

2.14 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

The subject of the impact of new or improved roads upon those who are most closely affected by them is of great concern to us all. I have listened with great interest to the strong case made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Walker) this afternoon. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Cocks) is also concerned in the matter. Although he is not able to speak in this debate, he has certainly made strong representations to me on this subject.

I have great sympathy about the issues that my hon. Friend has raised and the problems that they pose—and still pose—for his constituents. I must make clear at the outset that in the main these are essentially matters for local determination, but my hon. Friend has served his cause and his constituents well in raising this subject this afternoon. I am sure that the local authorities concerned will take note of what he has said. In the case of Bristol's ring road, and indeed the city's network as a whole, the responsible highway authority is the Avon County Council.

There are two main considerations for my Department. The first is that since April this year a new system for providing Government assistance for local authority expenditure on roads and transportation has been in operation. Specific grants for road schemes are no longer made and funds are now provided through the rate support and transport supplementary grants. The Government, therefore, no longer exercise detailed control of local authority road schemes. It is for county councils, in consultation with the Department, to draw up transport policies and programmes, and within a broad framework to decide the details and priorities of their transportation proposals.

Secondly, as my hon. Friend is aware, the Bristol land use transportation study report has now been published and is at present the subject of public consultation exercises aimed at informing the Avon County Council of local feeling on the options offered by the report.

I understand the frustration and concern of the people of Hanham, but the democratic process takes time and one cannot short-circuit these matters. One can get into serious trouble if one does so. It will be for the council to decide later which individual road schemes will fulfil the strategy options it proposes to adopt from the study.

It will fall to the Secretary of State to decide the level of grant appropriate to the overall transportation proposals for the county in each year in the light of funds available, but detailed decisions on the programmes on which these allocations are based are initially matters for the county council.

At this point, it may be helpful to outline briefly the history of these road proposals. As long ago as 1947 the Bristol ring road was defined in the approved city development plan when the city and the Gloucester County Council were the highway authorities; Gloucester for that section of the route outside the city boundary. Because investment in Bristol was mainly concentrated on improving other major routes in the city, the ring road did not receive high priority before the 1966 development plan review. But as development proceeded to the south of the city the line of the ring road was protected and Hartcliffe Way was built as the first stage of the ring road.

In response to development pressures and the expected increase in car usage, the 1966 development plan review set out a programme of road improvements which it was hoped to complete in the 1980s. The programme included the completion of the ring road and involved the upgrading of existing roads most of which are residential streets with frontage development. The standard of design adopted included the provision of roundabouts at all major junctions capable of subsequent modification to flyovers or underpasses.

Since the construction of Hartcliffe Way, two further sections have been completed—one between Filton and the M32—Parkway, north of the city boundary—and the other from Airport Road to Hartcliffe Way in the south of the city.

In addition, the Bronley Heath diversion from the A432 to the M32, which opened in the late 1960s, was built in association with construction of the M4 motorway and the Hambrook spur.

Two further sections of the ring road were included in the Department's principal road preparation list in 1968. The first ran from Wells Road, A37, to Callington Road, thus providing a link between Bath Road, A4, and the A37. This scheme, known as stage IV of the ring road, is included in Avon County Council's transport policy and programme for 1976–he level of expenditure accepted by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will enable the county council to make a start on it in that year.

The second section ran from the Bath Road to the city boundary on the River Avon and the third, in what was then Gloucestershire, from the river to the A431 at Hanham. These latter two schemes, although the responsibility of different highway authorities, were planned to be constructed together.

About that time, however, a study carried out by Bristol City Council and Gloucestershire County Council produced further road proposals for the period up to 1986 which included a new concept of a loop road from the Bronley Heath diversion via the A432 to the A431 southeast of Hanham. This new proposal had considerable attraction for the authorities as it would pass through open country and involve little or no demolition of property compared with the development plan line.

Preliminary design work on the two sections in the preparation list had still not been completed when in 1972 the local authorities of Bristol, Bath, Gloucestershire and Somerset, together with the Department, British Rail and the Bristol Omnibus Company, jointly appointed consultants to lead a team to undertake the land use transportation study. On the reorganisation of local government in 1974, Avon County Council became the local authority responsible for the study.

The object of the study was to recommend a transportation plan for Bristol and the surrounding area for 1986 together with a programme of implementation. A number of road schemes were held in abeyance pending the outcome of the study and the ring road was among those so deferred. Against that background, I well understand the reaction of those most closely affected who feel that these developments are taking a long time.

As I understand the position now, the study team adopted three different approaches in developing an integrated transportation plan for 1986. These were "highway-based" strategies, "bus priority" strategies and "car user restraint" strategies. All their recommended options included the construction of the east fringe loop road and the Hanham Bridge, over the Avon, and approaches from A431 and A4.

The report also identifies those road proposals which could be abandoned in the context of the strategies proposed, and I am advised that the appropriate committee of the county council has resolved not to proceed with a number of schemes, including the ring road north of Furber Road, St. George, as shown on the development plan, that is, the section from the Kingsway through Charlton Road and Thicket Avenue to Down-end Road. But I understand that it considered it inappropriate to delete the whole scheme until a decision had been reached about the alternative put forward in the report for the realignment of the ring road, that is by the Hanham Bridge, on a different alignment and via the loop road.

I also understand that a corridor for the east fringe loop road is being protected. Its precise final location and alignment are matters for the county council and will be for decision in the light of the outcome of the current public consultation exercises. I am told, however, that the usual provisions for blight purchases apply on the line currently being protected.

As my hon. Friend has said, both the former Gloucestershire County and Bristol City Councils had acquired property for the original ring road proposals under planning blight provisions and those which have not been demolished are boarded up. I am told that the Avon County Council is now considering ways of putting this land to beneficial use pending a decision on the future of the ring road and that it does not propose to acquire any further property unless statutorily obliged to do so.

My hon. Friend referred to dereliction and rubbish tips in the Memorial Road area, and I am told that an official tip at Conham Hill—Conham Road has been closed and tidied up. No doubt the problem of fly-tipping arises, as it unfortunately so often does on derelict sites, but I am sure that the local authorities will take note of what has been said this afternoon.

On the question of noise, the number of properties which would be affected by a new route would depend on the precise alignment and also, of course, on its design and on whether the road was in cutting or on embankment, all matters which have yet to be determined. The noise insulation regulations of 1973 and 1975 do, however, lay a duty on highway authorities either to provide insulation or to make a grant in respect of the cost where properties are subjected to noise above a specified level from a new highway.

I hope that what I have said will give some reassurance to my hon. Friend. As I have explained, the matters of detail he has raised are essentially for the local authorities concerned, but it will be clear that future planning in the area will be based on the comprehensive transportation study produced by the study team, which, incidentally, was grant-aided by the Department. While we must look to the county council for the initiative in the development of the local highway network, the broad issues involved and the county's future transport policies and programmes will, of course, be the subject of continuing dialogue between officials of my Department and officers of the Avon County Council.

There is, however, one other matter that I should like to mention. The Department has for some years followed a practice of public participation designed to inform people about practicable alternative routes for trunk road projects and for obtaining their views about them. These are genuine attempts to involve the people most concerned. These procedures were drawn to the attention of local highway authorities and they were asked to have regard to the principles of informing the public and providing at the proper time the opportunity for them to express their views. It was not, however, thought appropriate to impose on them any prescribed procedures.

I am very glad, therefore, that the Avon County Council, following the publication of the land use transportation study report, has embarked on a thorough programme of consultations with the public. I hope that this will prove to be a meaningful and helpful exercise and that the outcome will be a comprehensive solution to Bristol's traffic and transportation problems. I can assure my hon. Friend and the constituents for whom he has spoken so forcefully that my Department will continue to help wherever we can, because we want to see a satisfactory and, if possible, speedy solution to the problem he raised.