HC Deb 14 April 1976 vol 909 cc1471-81

4.0 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey Pattie (Chertsey and Walton)

This is the third Adjournment debate that I have been fortunate enough to secure during my time in the House, and I suppose that it is very much the spirit of the day that all these occasions ought to be used for prodding the bureaucratic machine into some kind of action.

The House may recall that on 26th November 1974, my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) and I raised the question of when the Government intended to announce their decision on the route to be followed by the Chertsey-Wisley section of the M25.

At that time, I told the House that the concept of the M25 dated back to 1936. In those days it was a light in the eye of Mr. Hore-Belisha. Not surprisingly, the project became dormant with the onset of war, but it gained a new lease of life in the Abercrombie Plan for the post-war reconstruction of London.

The next time that we heard about this concept was when the ill-fated Greater London Development Plan was published, and shortly afterwards, in June 1971, the first public inquiry into this section was held. Two and a half years later, in September 1973, a decision letter was produced by the Department of the Environment deferring the decision pending further consultations.

On 1st April 1974, six months after publication of the decision letter, the Minister said, in answer to a Question from me: My right hon. Friend will make a statement as soon as evaluation of the various options is complete."—[Official Report, 1st April 1974; Vol. 871, c. 281.] In reply to my Adjournment debate in November 1974, the then Minister announced the reopening of the public inquiry, some 14 months after the decision letter had been published.

We then waited a further three months for the public exhibition in February 1975, and it took a further three months after that for the reconvened public inquiry to open.

There are a number of matters to which I wish to refer about the inquiry itself, and I shall do that later in my speech.

At the second inquiry in May 1975, the number of options for the route was increased from two—the original route, and what is known locally as the "BAC route"—to five, with a corresponding increase in the number of people affected by planning blight and without any redress under the Land Compensation Acts.

Once again, time slipped away. Before we knew where we were, we were into 1976, eight months after the second inquiry and still with no sign of a decision.

On 26th January of this year, the Minister answered a Question from me in these terms: The complex issues raised in the inspector's report are being urgently considered. My right hon. Friend will give his decision as soon as possible."—[Official Report, 26th January 1976; Vol. 904, c. 223.] On 3rd March, I wrote to the then Secretary of State expressing the annoyance and impatience that my constituents and I felt at the continued delay in reaching a decision and reporting that rumours were circulating in my constituency which suggested that three routes had already been unofficially discarded and that some people had been informed of this.

On 19th March of this year the Minister replied: I assure you that the Secretary of State's decision will be announced as soon as it is possible to do so. I could not say exactly when this will be, but we are considering the inspector's report on this important section of the M25 as a matter of urgency. On Monday, following the announcement that we were to have today's debate, I received a letter from the Minister stateing that the decision would be announced at the end of the second week in May. That will be 12 months after the opening of the public inquiry and nearly five years since the first inquiry in 1971 and about eight years from the time of the first inquiry to the opening of the motorway.

In the late 1950s, when the Ml was being constructed, the gap between the first inquiry and the opening of the motorway was about four years. In the last 15 years the time taken to construct a road has doubled. I am sure that the Minister will refer to that fact in his reply.

The second aspect that has disturbed my constituents is the conduct of the inquiry itself. I want to make it clear that I am not suggesting that the inspector who carried out the inquiry was acting improperly. He was simply carrying out the rules laid down for him. The comments that I make about the procedures are relevant and are based on the M25 inquiry, but they are also germane to other public inquiries.

Public exhibitions, held prior to inquiries, are an excellent innovation and they should put the problems to be considered at the inquiry into proper perspective and enable local people to make a correct assessment of the options open to the Minister. But in this case that did not happen. The intention is to bring in the public, at least to a certain degree, but one either has to shut out the public altogether—which no one would suggest is correct—or one has to bring them right in and carry the consultation procedures further than at present.

The M25 exhibition had sizeable gaps. No information was available on aspects of noise and flooding, which are important to the area. Officials did their best, but they were unable to answer many detailed questions put to them by local residents, who, in many cases, were told that they could not inspect detailed maps and drawings. In some cases, the road construction unit was very firm and allowed certain residents' representatives to make copies of documents only after my hon. Friend the Member for Woking and I had exerted considerable pressure. The effect of the exhibition was therefore somewhat reduced, because it was not possible to evaluate the various route options. I submit that if such exhibitions are to be worth while in future, local people must be given a full brief of all the options likely to be considered.

There were a number of unsatisfactory aspects of the inquiry itself. First, the inspector—I am speaking of inspectors in general—is a technical officer appointed to assess the evidence presented. He is not legally qualified and yet he has to assess evidence in quasi-judicial proceedings that often involve barristers or QCs. In this case, the inspector spent the first day listening to submissions about the legal validity of the inquiry and then said that he was not competent to rule on that. Perhaps a legal assessor or someone similar should be appointed to sit with the inspector to cover this aspect of an inquiry.

I turn next to the question of procedure. It was immediately obvious that local residents were not aware of any rules of procedure. In my experience, inspectors are usually very good about this and take great trouble to point out to local residents what their rights are. But this is an inadequate substitute for the local residents having legal representation at public inquiries.

The appointment of the inspector is currently made by the Secretary of State. Many people feel that, again without impugning any individual's motives, as it is the head of the Department who will make the final decision the Department is, in a sense, judge and jury in an issue in which it has prime concern. The Minister might consider whether it would be better to redeploy the people now responsible for setting up the tribunals into a separate special tribunal service, so that that belief by the public does not gain further credence.

People who can show that they have a legitimate local interest should be legally represented and have legal aid. There is always the problem of having to raise several hundreds of pounds, if not thousands of pounds, to pay for a barrister at local inquiries. Without legal representation one is very much one down, despite all the help that the inspector may give. The local residents are in the position of being the rabble, wondering when they will have their chance. They feel very intimidated by all the legal dignitaries bobbing up and down on behalf of the county council and others.

The matter of venue and accommodation is a problem. It is very important to hold the inquiries in the area concerned, but the M25 inquiry was held in a cramped hall, full to overflowing.

The order of evidence was changed on a number of occasions, to suit counsel. If the residents had been legally represented, their counsel could have got together with the others to sort out the resulting problems of people who had taken time off work to give evidence and whose personal lives had been thrown into considerable disarray for two or three weeks.

It should not be possible for groups to raise questions about new routes during the course of an inquiry or after a specified cut-off date before it. In this case it was possible for people to say, with no basis, "I represent such-and-such a residents' group, and it would be very nice if the route went here", just drawing something on the map. The proposal was released to the local newspaper, and although it had no status the inspector felt that he had to take it into account. Property anywhere near that wild, maverick route was effectively totally blighted, just as though it was on one of the Department's own routes.

I apologise for having taken so much time to raise these issues, but one should think not only of the particular local difficulties, bad though they have been, but of the wider issues and how we could improve procedures at future motorway planning inquiries.

4.14 p.m.

Mr. Cranley Onslow (Woking)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Chertsey and Walton (Mr. Pattie) for giving me a minute or two to intervene and to the Minister for agreeing that I should do so.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his persistence in raising the matter once again and blasting out of the Minister at least one thing—the date by which he intends to make a decision. Given the imminence of local government elections in the area, local electors may regard it as rather rum if he makes it known that the decision will not be announced until after polling day. For the hon. Gentleman's sake, as well as for the sake of my electors, I hope that he will firmly agree this afternoon that the announcement will be made before the local electors go to the polls. Local people cannot understand what the delay is all about. They were encouraged last summer to believe that the decision following the inquiry would be announced within weeks rather than months. They have been getting increasingly frustrated and anxious.

As my hon. Friend said, many people who have bought houses are as anxious as those who wish to sell houses because they have to move elsewhere. Many people have suffered a considerable loss. In at least one case a substantial loss has been incurred without any opportunity to recover under the statutory blight provisions.

There is a lingering doubt about the inquiry, and some considerable feeling. If tempers remain as high as they were last summer, there might well be complaints to the Parliamentary Commissioner about the adequacy of some of the evidence. That must put the matter back into the melting-pot. That is what is wrong. We need a decision in the interests not only of local residents who are affected by all the possibilities, but of residents throughout a much wider area.

The delay in starting this essential link road has greatly increased the prospects that through-traffic from the M25 to the M 3 and M4, not having a full connection, will make its way across our constituencies. We may find traffic using a series of short cuts on totally unsuitable roads. In any event, the roads will be churned up by construction traffic. People in the Woking residential area generally will be subjected to an intolerable traffic nuisance for two or three years. That will probably happen because of the continued delay in the making of this decision.

The link between the M25 and the other motorways must be completed as quickly as possible. It is undesirable that there should be any cross-cutting across this corner of Surrey. I hope that the Minister will tell us that he appreciates that point. This has been an unhappy story. It has continued for too long. I hope that the Minister will say something firm this afternoon that will at least give the people concerned some encouragement.

4.17 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Kenneth Marks)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Chertsey and Walton (Mr. Pattie) for drawing the attention of the House once again to the particular difficulties faced by his constituents in connection with the Chertsey to Wisley section of the London orbital route, for giving me the opportunity of expressing the Government's concern in relation to the scheme, of commenting on some of the complex problems that we face in relation to motorway construction and before motorway construction, and of reiterating the high priority that the Government continue to attach to the completion of the M25 London orbital route, of which the Chertsey-Wisley section forms part.

I take note of what the hon. Gentleman has said about public inquiries in general. I am almost sorry that he did not label the debate "Public Inquiries in General". If he had done so, I might have persuaded my right on. Friend the Minister for Planning and Local Government to reply. I shall ensure that my right hon. and hon. Friends who are affected by the current controversy about public inquiries in general take carefully into account what he has said.

The hon. Gentleman described the history of this case, and I shall refer to it again later. I should like to say first of all that I am aware of the length of time that has elapsed since proposals for this section of motorway were first published, in 1970. I very much regret the uncertainty that local residents have suffered over the years since then.

Motorway proposals inevitably cause blight. I speak with feeling as a constituency Member as well as a Minister. I appreciate that these proposals can have damaging effects not only on the immediate line of a proposed route but in surrounding areas, where people feel uncertainty about the effect which the new road will have on their lives. I realise that delays in giving decisions mean longer periods of uncertainty, and I quite understand the feelings which may be aroused as a result.

These problems are not uniquely associated with Chertsey-Wisley but are common, to a greater or lesser degree, to all major road projects and indeed to other types of development projects, as many hon. Members will appreciate. A new major road scheme resulting in the expenditure of a great deal of public money, about which we are constantly reminded, and the creation of a structure which may prove to be a prominent and permanent feature of the landscape inevitably requires the most careful preparation and planning.

A very important motorway, such as the M25, can also be expected to have a profound effect on the pattern of transport and social habits over a wide area and to have a particular impact on the area through which it passes. The selection of the route of a new road is not to be made without careful deliberation, without appreciation of the views of very many different groups of people, and without full consideration of the complex issues which may be involved.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the speed with which the Ml went through. I am not sure whether there were any objections, but certainly they were very few compared with the numbers we get on motorways today and on the consultation process which takes place beforehand. I believe that the consultation process, although it adds to the time, is a valuable asset to the participation of people in the area concerned regarding what should take place.

We take these responsibilities very seriously. I believe that the ultimate results generally bear out the great care taken by the Department in accommodating the interests of everyone affected as fairly as possible. I assure the House that the Department makes every effort to keep delays to a minimum and to avoid perpetuating the circumstances of blight. This is certainly true of the Chertsey-Wisley section of the M25.

It may be helpful to say a word about the London outer orbital route as a whole. Proposals for an orbital route around London have been under consideration for many years and they have been included in development plans since the 1930s. The then Minister for Transport announced in August 1966 that she intended to proceed with further surveys to establish the South orbital road as a motorway between Staines and Wrotham in Kent.

The Minister for Transport later announced that the outer orbital route around London, which was currently in preparation, would be known as the M25 Motorway. This route, which has general support, will relieve London of through traffic, will act as a bypass of the capital and will facilitate movement between the major radial routes.

Ministers have stated in this House on a number of occasions that the Government attach the highest priority to its completion. I am glad to be able to say that, subject to the satisfactory completion of the statutory procedures and to the availability of funds, the whole route should be in use by about 1983 or 1984. Subject to the same reservations, the section south of the Thames between Egham and the Dartford Tunnel should be completed rather earlier—by about 1981.

To the north of Chertsey the length between the M3 at Thorpe and the Runnymede Bridge is under construction and is expected to be opened to traffic early next year. Between Thorpe and Chertsey the route is fixed, but there are further statutory processes-"to be undertaken and it is hoped that construction will start early in 1978. East of Wisley, the line of the motorway is fixed as far as Sevenoaks, a distance of nearly 30 miles, and of this the section between Rcigate and Godstone is already open to traffic. The public are being consulted about the route of the section between Sevenoaks and Swanley, while the next section between Swanley and the Dartford Tunnel approach road is under construction and due for completion at the end of this year. I should also mention that from Sevenoaks the M26 will run eastwards to connect with the M20 near Wrotham and this will provide a through route from the Channel ports to the south and west of London.

I turn now to the Chertsey-Wisley section with which the hon. Member for Chertsey and Walton is most concerned. It may be of help to the House if I explain some of the complex issues which have had to be tackled since the proposals were published in 1970. The draft scheme was considered at a public inquiry which took place between June and September 1971. The main issues arose from the suggestion by an objector of an alternative route across the British Aircraft Corporation airfield at Wey-bridge. The advantages claimed for this were that it would avoid the residential property in New Haw, Byfleet and West Byfleet which would be affected by the published route.

At that stage the Department had not given any very detailed consideration to this alternative possibility, principally because it was expected that there would be a continuing need for the BAC to operate from the Weybridge works and airfield.

The inspector considered the objectors' views very carefully and, from the information which was available to him, concluded that he would have been in favour of the alternative route were it not for its effects on the activities of the BAC at Weybridge dependent on use of the runway.

Bearing in mind the evidence that BAC had given as to its future plans or intentions in regard to such activities, and the employment likely to be afforded, the inspector considered that he had to find against the alternative route, but he drew special attention to the arguments the objectors had put to him and recommended that a confidential report should be obtained on the future of the Weybridge works before a final decision was taken

After carefully considering the inspector's report, and taking account of changed circumstances of the BAC's Weybridge operations, the then Secretary of State announced in September 1973 that further studies would be made of the issues affecting both the published and alternative routes. He also gave an undertaking that there would be no final decision on the motorway route until an opportunity had been given for further public consultation, whether this was in connection with the published scheme, modified or otherwise, or by way of revised proposals to be published in a new draft scheme and subject to all the usual objection procedures.

The very thorough investigation of the main alternatives which followed brought to light important revisions of the information which had been before the inspector at the 1971 inquiry. The new evidence was both environmental and technical and related both to the published and the BAC routes; the possibility of flooding emerged also as a significant factor.

In the event, the Secretary of State decided that the proper course would be to reopen the inquiry into the Chertsey-Wisley section of the M25 and, in an earlier Adjournment debate on 26th November 1974, my predecessor announced this decision to the House.

As a preliminary to reopening the proceedings, plans and information about the alternatives were put on display at local exhibitions held in February 1975 to give all concerned an opportunity to consider the fresh information available and prepare any further representations they might wish. The inquiry duly took place in May and June of last year before a new inspector, and it is, of course, an announcement of the decision following this inquiry that hon. Members are now awaiting.

The hon. Gentleman raised points about the conduct of the public inquiry. I shall consider what he said, although I cannot comment on the specific matters involved prior to the announcement by the Secretary of State.

I understand and share the concern of hon. Members and their constituents to have this matter resolved, and I would hope that what I have already said about the importance of the M25 motorway will reassure them that I, too, am most anxious that there should be no unnecessary delay in fixing the route of this important section. It is essential that the decision should be the right one. The issues involved are complex and considerable differences of view have been expressed.

At last year's inquiry, there were some 300 objections to the published route, and over 500 counter-objections to the alternatives proposed by objectors. All of these have had to be taken into account in considering the report of the inspector who held the reopened inquiry, and this is clearly a task of some magnitude.

However, I am glad to say that good progress is being made, and I expect that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be able to make an announcement within the next month. I hope that hon. Members and their constituents will bear with me until then.

Although, as I have said, I accept that they have already suffered uncertainty for far too long, I think it fair to say that, bearing in mind the complexity of the task, the time that has elapsed since the inquiry was reopened last summer—which, in effect, took the position back to the beginning—has not been excessive. The announcement, when made, will ease the problem of blight. The Department would be prepared to purchase properties affected by the selected route and the shadow of blight will be lifted from the others.