HC Deb 25 March 1976 vol 908 cc758-66

10.1 p.m.

Mr. Caerwyn E. Roderick (Brecon and Radnor)

Mr. Speaker, I am most grateful to you for drawing this debate in the Ballot for the Adjournment and for your attendance at the debate. I am also grateful to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Wales— the Member for Flint, East (Mr. Jones) —for attending the debate. It is obviously a subject of burning interest, as witnessed by the attendance in the House. It shows that people are vitally interested in the subject.

I appreciate my hon. Friend's attendance, because I know what a sacrifice it is to come to the House on a Thursday night when one might be doing other things.

Brecon is situated on the junction of the A40 and A470. The A40 was the main road from London to South Wales. It is no longer so regarded, since the advent of the M4, but it is still an important artery. In the Brecon area the traffic on that road is mainly travelling from the Midlands to South-West Wales.

Recently the A470 was designated as the main trunk road between South Wales and North Wales, so its junction is important. It may explain why Brecon has the only set of traffic lights in the whole of my constituency, which is not a bad record for 1,200 square miles and goodness knows how many miles of roadway.

Brecon is typical of the small market towns of this country. It has the usual narrow streets, and in a part of the town centre we have created a one-way system. The many large vehicles passing through Brecon create a problem which is particularly serious in the summer. On a summer Saturday the town is one of the major bottlenecks on the routes to holiday resorts.

My hon. Friend will recall that last July, to ensure his safe arrival in Brecon, the Prime Minister travelled by helicopter. If he had not done so, he would have arrived for the close of our meeting. You, Mr. Speaker, will be well aware of this problem, because I am sure that you make due allowance for the delays that will be caused you when you travel through Brecon. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary was present at that visit last July. I am sure he must have left himself on hour of two in hand in order to be sure of arriving in time to greet the Prime Minister in Brecon.

A feasibility study has been carried out into a proposal to double the population of Brecon in the space of the next 25 years. This feasibility study has been accepted. Incorporated in the plan is the conservation and protection of the centre of Brecon, and an essential element in the plan is the bypass. It goes without saying that it is impossible to protect the centre of Brecon unless it is bypassed.

Over the years, travelling in various parts of southern England on holiday, I have become convinced that our towns should be bypassed. Our shopkeepers and traders used to object to bypasses, because they felt that their trade would lose out. Whenever I was in a long queue of vehicles trying to get through a busy town, I would never leave the queue in order to shop in the area; I would opt for a town that had a bypass. It was on an occasion like that that I was prepared to leave the bypass in order to shop in the town, knowing that I could safely rejoin the traffic travelling past it.

Fortunately, the shopkeepers and traders of Brecon have changed their view. I recall that years ago they, too, held the view that they did not want a bypass, because of their fears about the loss of trade. Now they believe that a bypass is essential, and they are as keen as anyone in supporting this view. In fact, I know of little objection to such a proposal.

The proposal has been to build a 4½-mile bypass, mainly over agricultural land. There are some objections to that proposal, because of the loss of agricultural land involved, but I can think of no scheme that affects building so little. I believe that only one building is affected. In my short time in this House, I cannot recall an occasion when a new road has been proposed resulting in so few buildings being affected.

At present many schemes are going on in the Brecon area, and I know that there are difficulties because decisions about them are taken in a different sense. They are road schemes of a minor character, which are desirable but not necessary. We have had some nice improvements. They make a little bit more convenience for the travelling public, in that certain bends are cut out, but they are not essential, as is the removal of the bottleneck that Brecon produces.

I should like my hon. Friend to look at the whole of our expenditure on roads programmes. I understand his difficulties. He is not responsible for the choice of minor schemes. The population of the area became worried when they see money being allocated to various schemes around Brecon, when they would opt for the important scheme—the Brecon Bypass. They do not understand that the money so allocated could be transferred. I think that we should be looking at the nature of our expenditure on roads programmes to see whether we ought not to do what the public really want.

Let me deal with the bypass itself. In January 1973, mention of the bypass appeared in a list published by the Welsh Office. It appeared under the heading of schemes expected to start in the next two years or so. That was in January 1973. Draft line orders were issued in March 1973. In May 1974, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales announced that he saw no need for a public inquiry into the line of road.

On 10th December 1974 a public inquiry was held to consider objections to the draft compulsory purchase order from parties interested in the land that was to be acquired. That inquiry lasted one day, and that was the last we heard of it. That was 15 months ago. We believe that 15 months is long enough to wait for a report from a public inquiry. I hope that my hon. Friend will throw some light on the situation tonight.

We have also awaited, for a similar period, the result of an inquiry into the proposed road scheme at Storey Arms, near Brecon. Can my hon. Friend tell me something about this scheme?

Finally, about three years ago, in May 1973, I attended an inquiry into a proposal to close permanently the old road from Pontneathvaughan to Rhigos. I understand that a reply was sent to the objectors. I was one of them. It was sent in 1975, but no such reply has yet arrived on my desk; therefore something has gone wrong. We shall blame the Post Office in this case. The Post Office is ready to take the blame for many things. I should be grateful to receive the result of the inquiry, and the Secretary of State's determination on it. I shall be most grateful if my hon. Friend will add this to my request concerning the Brecon Bypass.

Once again, I thank my hon. Friend for his attendance and forbearance in accepting the delay to his departure to his constituency. He knows well enough that I should have been on my way as well, had it not been for the luck of the draw on this occasion.

10.12 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Barry Jones)

My hon. Friend has asked about progress on the provision of a bridleway bridge over the Glynneath bypass in the vicinity of Pencae Drain Farm. As he will recall, my right hon. and learned Friend accepted the inspector's recommendation that although the Pontneathvaughan to Cwm-Hunt Road would be closed to vehicles, there should be a foot and bridleway bridge over the bypass.

In announcing this decision last April, my right hon. and learned Friend said the necessary orders would be made when the design and optimum position of the bridge had been finalised. A copy of the decision was sent to my hon. Friend on 8th April 1975. I shall, however, send him a further copy tomorrow. Work on this is being carried out by the West Glamorgan County Council as the agent authority, and I am awaiting its report.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the possibility of an early decision on the proposed improvement of the stretch of the A470 road near Storey Arms. There are important issues to be resolved here, but I can tell him that my right hon. and learned Friend will be able to announce his decision within the next few weeks. Subject to the satisfactory completion of all statutory procedures, I hope that we can start this improvement, costing about £200,000, in 1979–80.

My hon. Friend spoke eloquently and at length about the need for a Brecon Bypass, and I thank him for raising the subject. He never fails to press for the interests of his constituents, and I try, whenever it is humanly possible, to satisfy his demands and to be as helpful as I can.

I agree with him on the need for a bypass to reduce the flow of traffic through this beautiful and historic town. Its very attraction contributes to the congestion in the summer months, when holiday traffic combines with north to south and east to west flows which pass through it.

But in agreeing with him, I must do so with other considerations also in mind. The most important of these is the consideration which my right hon. and learned Friend must have for the priorities he should recognise in deciding which transport schemes should have first call on the limited funds that are available. This is a period of extreme financial restraint, and we have to weigh very carefully in any proposed road scheme the economic return we shall get as well as the environmental and traffic management returns. That is why our roads programme in Wales was reviewed recently, and some schemes in the preparation pool were suspended so that we could concentrate more fully on roads for which the justification was greatest.

We cannot build the M4 and every other road we want at the drop of a hat, and the decision—the correct decision— to concentrate on the M4 followed by the A55 has meant that we cannot start on other schemes as soon as we would wish.

The Brecon Bypass still stands as a very desirable scheme, and it is one on which my right hon. and learned Friend would like to make a start as soon as the situation allows. The orders fixing the line of the bypass and dealing with the side roads affected were made in 1974. Making these orders should have removed most of the uncertainty about which my right hon. Friend is concerned. Now only the compulsory purchase order which defines precisely the area of land required remains to be made. Whilst I must make the necessary resarvtions about the availability of funds and the successful completion of the outstanding compulsory purchase order procedure, present indications are that a start in 1980–81 may be possible.

But I know that my hon. Friend appreciates the restraints and the need for schemes to take their turn in a tightly-budgeted programme. His concern, I know, is that there should be a decision, and an announcement, so that his constituents will know where they stand. That is what he demands and that is what he is entitled to. I appreciate his concern as a true reflection of the concern of his constituents. He never misses an opportunity to take up cudgels on their behalf. Like him, I like to see quick decisions.

But in all matters concerning trunk road lines and compulsory purchase we have to get the right balance between speed and an exhaustive investigation into complaints and objections. My hon. Friend will agree that the rights of the individual objector must not be overridden in the interests of speed. In turn, I will agree with him that waiting for a decision is disturbing for people in the area affected by road proposals.

In the case of the Brecon Bypass the inspector recommended that we should look again at the possibility of saving the property of one of the objectors by altering the design of the road. This meant that after the inspector had carried out his inquiry and made his report my Department had to carry out further investigations followed by discussions and correspondence with the owner and his representatives.

Having done this, we were then bound by the rules which govern the procedure of such inquiries to make the correspondence we had carried on since the inquiry available to the other objectors. The time limit within which the objectors had the opportunity to comment expired at the beginning of January, and since then a very hard-worked section in my Department has been putting together the necessary material to enable my right hon. and learned Friend to make his decision. I can now tell my hon. Friend that the Department will be putting a submission to my right hon. and learned Friend during the next few days and that he hopes to be able to take a decision and announce it in the week beginning 5th April.

Entering into negotiation and correspondence after an inquiry has been held is a fairly rare occurence which is bound to delay proceedings. It was, however, in the interests of an objector that we should do so. While the need to look further into the proposals has meant a delay in making and announcing a decision on the compulsory purchase order, it has not in any way affected the starting date of the scheme.

With the provisos that I have already made about finance and procedures, the scheme should start in 1980–81. Procedures concerned with schemes on which there are earlier starting dates therefore have to take some priority.

At an estimated cost of £8.6 million the bypass will, I believe, be a worthwhile investment. Its value to Brecon itself is obvious, as I think we would all agree. If there were any doubts, they have been removed after my hon. Friend's very forceful and effective speech. However, the bypass will also form an important part of the improvements we are making to the A470 as a more realistic contribution to the links between North and South Wales than the expensive motorway dreamed up by those who will never have to face up to the financial decisions involved.

My hon. Friend was in the Chamber a few weeks ago when he heard a scheme for an expensive motorway dreamed up by some who will never have to face up to the reality of finding the finance and making the decisions involved. My hon. Friend has never put forward irresponsible solutions in this Chamber. He has always put forward the interests of his constituents, and he has never departed from the highest standards of realism.

It is in Brecon that the north to south route—the A470—crosses one of the important east to west routes—the A40— and the bypass will form part of both routes. It therefore also contributes to easier movement between the Llandovery area and the network leading to the M5 and the Midlands and West of England.

My right hon. and learned Friend is aware of the value of improving both of these routes. But he is also aware of the overriding need to press on with the M4 and with the A55, and there is no possibility of bringing the Brecon Bypass forward in his programme. He will however announce his decision on the compulsory purchase order—as I have said—the week after next.

In conclusion, I thank my hon. Friend for raising this very important matter. He has raised it in a most effective and timely way. He has once again demonstrated to the Welsh Office that his is a representation of his constituency that is of the highest order. We are full of admiration for what he does for his constituency. I thank him very much for the way in which he has put his case.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-three minutes past Ten o'clock.