HC Deb 10 February 1977 vol 925 cc1824-34

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Stoddart.]

11.24 p.m.

Mr. Peter Mills (Devon, West)

I am grateful for this opportunity to bring before the House and the Under-Secretary of State for Transport a matter that is very important for my constituency, though not such an important matter nationally as that which we have just been discussing. I refer in particular to the problems of the people of Okehampton and district arising from the route of the A30, the Okehampton bypass, and the planning blight that some people are experiencing.

People want road improvements and it is easy to promote a new road. Most people are at one on that, as long as it does not pass through or near their own gardens. There is no doubt of the need for road improvements in the Okehampton district or that problems will arise as a result of them. Indeed, they have started for many people.

I turn first to the need. The A30 has been a nightmare of a road for motorists for many years. It is true that this may be so for only a few months of the year, but one cannot bring new motorways down to the West Country without improving the other roads. That is why I support the proposed improvements. However, I believe that after the completion of the improvements to the A30 and perhaps the spur road off the motorway to North Devon we should call a halt to further improvements or new roads. Otherwise, we shall not be able to preserve the land for food production.

The other reason for my supporting in particularly the Okehampton bypass is my dread that one day a lorry will come careering down the hill into Okehampton, as has happened elsewhere. Because the loss of life could be considerable, I believe that there is a paramount need for a bypass.

A further reason for the improvements is to assist the future development of Okehampton and district. Good communications are essential. While there may be some loss of agricultural land in carrying out the improvements, jobs are scarce in my part of the country, and new employment will do much to help the area. Lord Northfield and his Development Corporation are determined to help in the area, and we are grateful to them. We hope that the Government will provide the finance for them to carry out the schemes that they have in mind. A proper bypass and link road to that industrial development will be of great benefit to the area.

Therefore, I find the need proved beyond doubt. The route is another matter. The proposed route has caused considerable problems to some people already. I support the southern route, because I believe that it will mean the loss of less agricultural land and less distur- bance and blight than other routes, although some people on that route will be considerably affected. Consultations with the public resulted in most support for the southern route, although it is true to say that the proposed route is different from that proposed for consultation.

I must say a word about consultation. I believe that Okehampton was one of the first towns in the area where the new consultation procedure was used. In theory it is fine, but it results in serious blight for all who are on any of the proposed routes. If there are four or five proposed routes, many farms and houses may be affected by blight. For some this may be only temporary, but it can be serious at the time. People cannot sell their houses, and farmers find it difficult to plan for the future.

How does the Minister see this new method of full consultation? I am not condemning it, but it produces many problems and much more blight. Certainly we shall have a tremendous amount of that in the new proposals for various routes between the motorway in North Devon and my constituency of Torrington.

Before I turn to the question of blight and the effect of the proposed route on people in the area, I must ask the Minister for an explanation about the route of the A30—the new road—between Tongue End and Whiddon Down. The facts are that the route has been determined; we have had consultations and an inquiry, and so on, and the people in the area have accepted the problems of blight. The whole procedure has been gone through, and it has cost a lot of money. Now we have this sudden change. I want to know the real reasons why. We see it as more delay, more blight and more money being spent. There is the cost of studying the possibility of another route, with all the consultations that are necessary. There is bound to be another inquiry. It will all mean the expenditure of more money, and more delay.

I believe that this change is quite shocking. I must protest strongly to the Minister. I wonder whether he realizes—I expect that he does—and whether all those concerned in his Ministry realise the anxieties of many people in this area arising out of the proposed change. The original route was less disruptive, less expensive and less damaging to agriculture. Surely that is an important consideration.

Now we have a change in the route. The new route is being surveyed. We know the difficulties created by putting a road through a national park. We know all about the Sandford Report. Why was this matter not thought of before? That is what the people in my constituency cannot understand.

The inspector said that the new route would be more expensive and more difficult to build and would have a serious effect on the village of South Tawton. If the inspector was right—and I do not doubt his word for a moment—why is it that we have changed back to the route which he said was not as suitable as, and was more expensive than, the one that had been decided? This question must be answered. If the Minister cannot answer it now, I hope that he will do so in the form of a letter, so that I can make it clear to my constituents what are the reasons for the change.

I now turn to the problems of blight. They are very real, not only in the Okehampton area but in other parts of the country where similar developments are taking place, and they can cause real hardships. This is certainly true of Okehampton. Even though a small minority will be affected, I believe that their case must be put before the House and the Minister. It is the duty of a Member of Parliament, even if he disagrees with the ideas of these people about where the route should go—and most of those who are affected prefer the southern to the northern one—to put the case before the House and the Minister.

In this case the problems of blight are very serious, so much so that at Okehampton an action group has been formed. It consists of perfectly respectable people. They are not the sort of people who protest for the sake of protesting, as may have been the case in other parts of the country, with not "do-it-yourself" protesters but "rent-a-protest" protesters. These are not such people. I have met them and I am able to say that they are perfectly sensible. They feel strongly, however, that the southern route is not the correct route. To some extent I agree with them, because there are major technical problems in cutting a way through the moor. There is the problem of a local quarry, which ought not to be affected by the route because of the employment that it provides.

I believe the southern route to be the best, in spite of the troubles of blight and the technical problems, because it has the least effect on agricultural land. It is important that all these issues are tied together—Whiddon Down and Tongue End, developments by the commission, and the bypass.

I cannot agree with the minority, but I have considerable sympathy with those holding that view because of the impossible positions of many of them. I could quote at length from their letters expressing their strong feelings. I should like to quote a letter from the secretary of the action committee. He makes what he calls three points of principle. I should be grateful to the Minister if he could reply to them tonight, but I should like his assurance if he cannot do so that he will write to me. The letter says: We should like to know the difference in cost between knocking 14 houses down (Park View Terrace and Mount View properties) where excavation and levelling would already have been accomplished and the preferred route which is far from level and encroaches further in the national park. The former suggestion would also mean road and rail would really be together. The letter says that the second "point of principle" is: The preferred route is not the same as the green proposed route and many people in Okehampton feel cheated that the route which they voted for has been altered to such an extent. Is this fair or even legal? He says that it certainly "smells of sharp practice". I do not believe that, but that is the view of some people in Okehampton.

The letter adds thirdly: The proposed route between Whiddon Down and Tongue End has been re-surveyed to comply with the Sandford Report which recommended major trunk roads to avoid national parks. On this basis, then, the Okehampton bypass 'preferred' route must be reconsidered in the light of 'reasonable alternative means' to the north of the town. This is serious for those who are affected by planning blight. The Ministry has stated a preferred route. After six months or a year will the Ministry, because of the Sandford Report, take some action between Whiddon Down Cross and Tongue End and change the route again? Once again this will cause uncertainty and blight. That is what the secretary of the action committee, Mr. Jeremy Stephens, thinks about the position.

I should like to quote a very sensible letter that I received from Mr. John Newton. Writing on 1st October, he said: Until the 3rd of September we thought we had sold the house. The intending purchasers knevs, of the original 'green route' and agreed with us that we were right in voting for it. However, since the commencement of the proposed modified 'green route' they have withdrawn their offer and we are left in the unenviable position of having to sell a house which now has a massive planning blight and a Company which quite obviously is pressing me for a quick removal to Eastern England. In other words, Mr. Newton has had to move his job to the east of the country and wants to sell his house. He is in a difficult position.

My constituent continues: In the present economic difficulties there would appear to be little hope of the road being built for at least ten years. Even if the present building plan was maintained I understand that I would have to wait for twelve months after completion of the road before the question of blight compensation can be considered which would make it 1982 before I could move. I am hoping there is some way in which people who are affected by the proposed road plans can be helped. At the moment I seem to be on a 'hiding to nothing' ". That shows how strongly people feel about these issues. My constituent has had to move to the eastern counties because of his work. That means that he cannot sell his house and that his family is split up. His is not an isolated case. This situation occurs throughout the country and it causes serious hardship to many families. The constant delays and the cutting back in the building of roads by the Government means that people will continue to suffer for many years.

In his letter to me of 8th November, the Minister stated: We will make a decision as quickly as we can but it may be a few years yet. It will be a few years before the decision is made, but then how long shall we have to wait before the road is built? In the meantime, the blight problem continues.

What can be done to help in these circumstances? Having been a Minister myself, I know how difficult such situations are. However, I shall put to the Minister one or two points that could help decisions to be speeded up. Of course we want consultation, but we must speed up the decisions. Once a route for a road has been agreed, it should be finalised and not changed. In the case of Okehampton adjustments could be made that would save some of the affected houses. On the Okehampton bypass that could be done by straightening the route, which would cost less than paying full compensation to the owners of many of the houses that are to be knocked down. It would cost little to straighten out the route.

We should have more flexibility over blight compensation. Even drawing the line 100 yards back from the edge of a new road would be a considerable help to those affected. That is known as fringe blight, which is often just as bad as blight itself. When one is affected by fringe blight, one receives nothing, but when one is affected by blight, one receives compensation. The Government should consider compensating those affected by fringe blight.

Outright purchase before a road is built would help those who are seriously affected by fringe blight. Such people—and there are many like my constituent throughout the land—are getting a raw deal. If it is in the interests of the community at large to have major road improvements and blight or fringe blight is caused, the community should be more helpful and generous in dealing with the problems of those affected. Each case must be judged on its merits. Where families are seriously affected and homes are broken up because the father has to move away to find work, we should be more helpful and generous.

I have made my case to the best of my ability and I am grateful to the Minister for listening so attentively. I hope that he will answer my questions if not now in a letter explaining the situation to my constituents in the Okehampton area.

11.45 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. John Horam)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills) for giving me the opportunity to speak about the proposed route of the Okehampton bypass and the problems of blight that are associated with it. The hon. Gentleman takes a keen interest in these matters to judge by the volume of correspondence alone, quite apart from the Adjournment debate that he has initiated. If I cannot answer all the questions he has raised in the short time that is available, I undertake to answer them by letter.

I reply specifically to the questions that he raised from correspondence with the secretary of the action group. The first of the three questions was about the cost of 14 houses. I shall write to the hon. Gentleman about that as I do not have the specific figures at hand. As for the green route, which was the southern route to Okehampton, and the extent to which it was changed post consultation, my understanding is that it was changed largely as a result of suggestions made during the consultation exercise, which were improvements to the route from an environmental and amenity point of view. There was a genuine effort to take those factors into account. I hope that there have been improvements in many cases. Certainly it was not changed other than to take account of views expressed in the consultation exercise, which was particularly keen and thorough. Indeed, it was a model of its kind in many respects—for example, the uptake of questionnaires.

Thirdly, the hon. Gentleman asked whether we shall change the Okehampton route in the same way as the other route is being reconsidered further east. The answer is "No". We shall stick with the route we have, which we have announced as a preferred route. We are happy to get on on that basis. I do not think that one route affects the other.

The hon. Gentleman asked why we should reconsider the route that affects South Tawton and that particular stretch of road if the inspector said at the original inquiry that it would be more expensive to have an alternative route and that an alternative would have disadvantages. the point was that the inspector drew very narrow boundaries within which we could reconsider the route. He suggested that the examination should be limited to the length between the River Taw to the west and Ramsley Stream to the east of the village. The alternatives we are considering are of a rather wider band and bring into possibility the construction of an alternative route that is no more expensive than the existing route. I think that gives us a wider remit to consider a more satisfactory route.

What is the real reason for our reconsidering this route? I think the answer is that the Sandford Report came out after we had fixed the initial route. But, in view of the Government's commitment to revise their routes in the light of the report's findings, I do not think we could have gone ahead and ignored the report when we publicly admitted to its findings in the case that we are considering.

The Government would have justifiably been open to criticism at a public inquiry if they had made no attempt to look at the route again, especially in view of the impact on the village of South Tawton, which is a beautiful little village and well worth doing all one can to preserve from an environmental point of view. That is the real reason and I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts it. There has been an honest effort on the part of the Department to carry out as speedily as possible the work involved in considering the new route. I have told the hon. Gentleman in correspondence that we shall press ahead with all possible speed.

We are aware of the anxieties of the local community about blight as well as the eventual site of the road. I shall write to the hon. Gentleman and issue a Press notice as soon as we have reached a decision, which I hope will be very soon. The aim for the bypass is to publish draft orders under the Highways Act. Another public inquiry would then be held early in 1978. If there is to be a change in the line between Tongue End Cross and Whiddon Down, revised orders will be published and a joint public inquiry will be held. We shall do that as soon as possible.

M r. Mills

Is the hon. Gentleman saying that there will have to be another public inquiry?

Mr. Horam

If the route were revised, there would almost certainly have to be another inquiry. There might be objections. There will be no public inquiry if there are no objections. If there are objections, there will have to be a public inquiry.

I turn now to planning blight. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State explained in the recent transport policy debate, we fully appreciate the anxieties of those who find that their homes and community are threatened by proposals of this kind. Inevitably, we have great sympathy for those who are overshadowed by the cloud of uncertainty.

The fundamental problem, not peculiar to this particular scheme, is one of striking the right balance in the public interest between, on the one hand, full disclosure about the possible lines of route for new roads to enable the public to participate meaningfully in decision-making and, on the other hand, the uncertainly caused in the property market and the anxiety or, in some cases hardship experienced by householders whose property may be affected by the disclosure. I do not think that we can satisfactorily resolve that question. Successive Governments have tried to do it and have made steps forward during the last few years—I can say that in a nonpartisan spirit—but we cannot totally resolve it.

We try to take decisions as speedily as possible after the consultation procedures. The hon. Gentleman, in the aftermath of the Okehampton consultation procedures, pressed us to reach a decision as quickly as possible. We have had a great deal of correspondence with him on that matter. We did our best, but it was an exhaustive consultation process which required a great deal of time to examine thoroughly all the possibilities.

The Town and Country Planning Acts, as extended by the Land Compensation Act 1973, provide relief for this type of planning blight in two ways. A right may be exercised under the relevant statutory provisions to require the Department to buy property in advance of the time when it would normally wish to do so, or separate discretionary powers of advance land acquisition may be used. In both instances it is necessary for an expectation to exist that some or all of a property, or of a right over a property, is or might be needed in order to build the road. The law on this point was improved considerably by the Land Compensation Act, but it did not go so far as to alter that basic consideration.

I turn now to the question of houses blighted by proximity to the proposed southern bypass to Okehampton. With one exception which has been dealt with—the Langham family—the land is not required for the building of the road. Perhaps it can be made plain to potential purchasers of the house that it is not possible for the land to be bought because it is not directly affected by the road. Indeed, I understand that there are several fields between the house in question, owned by Mr. and Mrs. Newton, and the road. I appreciate that—

The Question having been proposed often Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour. Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at six minutes to Twelve o'clock.