HC Deb 21 November 1977 vol 939 cc1273-84

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

11.45 p.m.

Sir Anthony Meyer (Flint, West)

The Under-Secretary does not need me to tell him of the terrifying level of unemployment in North Wales, particularly in the county of Clwyd, nor of the awful uncertainty hanging over the future of those industries, particularly steel and aircraft construction, which are still the largest employers of labour in the area.

If Clwyd is to get the extra jobs which are so desperately needed, one thing above all is necessary—the certain prospect of a very early improvement of the trunk roads that connect the area with neighbouring industrial areas in England. I do not believe that there is any other single factor which could do more to improve job prospects than the firm assurance of an early date for the completion of dual tracking of trunk roads within the area, linking the area to the English motorway system, and most notably the notorious A55.

What I shall suggest tonight in a speech that will be purely constructive, I hope helpful, and certainly free of any party politics, is that the process of completing this essential dual tracking could be very greatly speeded up. In speeding up the process the cost to public funds could be cut, the worry and anxiety which are necessarily caused to residents in the vicinity of new road construction could be reduced, and the damage to agricultural production and interference with the farmer in his work could be diminished. All these advantages could be secured if only two principles were accepted by the public authorities responsible for road planning and construction.

The first is a substantial lowering of specifications for the purpose-built dual carriageway roads. The second is that the Ministry, having announced its line for a new road, should be very much more resolute not only in sticking to that line but in maintaining its declared dates for the commencement of work than has been customary in the past.

Before I elaborate these ideas I introduce a mildly critical note. I have had a complaint from a firm of contractors, actually within the Minister's constituency—he knows the firm well—that the Welsh Office, without any advance warning to the contractors who usually tender for road works in North Wales, has adopted the practice of inviting tenders only in the columns of the journal officiel of the European Community. In doing so it would seem that the Welsh Office is being more European than the Commission itself, for there appears to be no EEC prohibition of advertising these contracts in local papers in the area where the work is to be carried out.

I think that contractors are now probably all aware of the need to keep a close watch on the columns of the journal officiel, but I must ask the Minister for an assurance that he has taken steps to make all those contractors who usually tender for road works in Wales aware of the change of practice. With unemployment in the construction industry at present levels, we cannot risk losing work on road construction projects. Certainly the firm concerned has a strong sense of grievance that it was not given the proper opportunity to tender and that work has been lost that was badly needed. Is it not really possible, even at this late hour, to give it a chance to put in its bid?

I come now to the cumbrous and lengthy procedure for announcing the line of a new road, inviting objections to it, revising the line, hearing objections to the new line, modifying it again and so on. Of course everyone who may be affected by a new road should have the opportunity of objecting, and the Department should be ready to be flexible in making small variations of line in order to diminish the inconvenience or distress of individual complainants.

It is all too easy to lose sight of the fact that if there is a major change in the line originally announced, or even if it is thought that there may be a major change, the evils of planning blight—people unable to sell their homes, not knowing whether to improve them—and the worry and uncertainty will affect not only those along the original line, but all those along any of possibly a large number of alternative routes. I believe that the Welsh Office, as the Department responsible for trunk road construction in Wales, needs to look carefully at its present practices in three areas.

It should be quite sure that in choosing its preferred route for a new road it is reducing to an absolute minimum the loss and distress which will be caused to those householders and farmers along the route. Secondly, once the route has been published the Department should show itself completely flexible in making small changes so as to meet the real needs and anxieties of those directly affected. But, thirdly, the Department should be pretty resolute—a good deal more resolute than the Department has been in England—in sticking to the general line it announced at first. In this matter firmness may well be the kindest course.

The principal matter which I want to raise with the Minister tonight is a more fundamental one. I believe that the Welsh Office, like the Department of Transport in England, is using much too high a standard in the construction of new roads. The most conspicuous example of this is the superb and almost unused carriageway from the M4 near Newport to Monmouth, the A449. I am sure that the dual carriageways of the A55, when they are completed, will be much busier than that, and indeed that they should have had a higher priority than the A499. But I am equally sure that there is no need whatever to build the A55 to so high a standard.

From Written Questions which I put to the Minister last week it emerged that the cost of dualling the remaining 48 miles of the A55 from the Welsh border to Bangor is to be £180 million. Admittedly, £120 million of this sum is for the 17 miles of the Col-Con section—Colwyn Bay to Conway—and it is hard to see how the cost of this, the most essential part of the route, can be kept down. But the remaining 32 miles is to cost £60 million and I cannot believe that there is no scope for reduction.

I am sure that on this road it would be possible to accept gradients substantially steeper than the 1:25 which is the normally permitted maximum, with curves somewhat sharper than the 510-metre radius which is the present limit. I see no need whatever for the elaborate interchanges, with roundabouts and slip roads which are provided for at the Lloc end of the projected Holywell bypass, which will take two fields and part of a third field out of agricultural production. Simple feeder lanes, if necessary with traffic lights, would be far less expensive to build, would take scarcely any agricultural land and would be quite adequate for the traffic.

Surely the object is not to enable traffic to move at a steady 70 m.p.h. from the border to Bangor, but to avoid any traffic jams or having to travel long distances behind very slow vehicles. I cannot believe that anybody would complain if he could rely on always being able to do the journey at an average 45 m.p.h., and on long stretches of the road it should be possible to achieve this by building a new two-lane road alongside the existing single carriageway.

It should also surely be possible to reduce the width of the outside grass verges, thereby taking less land from farmers. If steeper gradients are acceptable, as I think they should be, there will be no need for the hugely deep cuttings and embankments which eat up such a vast quantity of agricultural land. After all, we cannot eat even the best roads, or grow anything worth eating on them.

It must be a nice change for the Minister to listen to a Member asking him to spend less money, even if I do not want him to spend that less money a lot sooner. But if he is to save large sums by accepting lower standards, on the other side of the picture he should be prepared to be very much more generous in the provision of underpasses for cattle, and cattle and pedestrian bridges.

As I understand it, that kind of interchange which I have been describing as totally unnecessary costs most of £1 million whereas a cattle bridge costs a mere £80,000, and a pedestrian bridge a mere £50,000.

Where the new road departs significantly from the line of the old one, as with the Holywell bypass, it will cut communities at places like Brynford, in half, and will make it impossible for many farmers to run their farms, cut in two, as a viable unit. Cattle and pedestrian bridges can do a good deal to reduce the inconvenience and loss. I hope that the Department will be generous in the provision of them.

I hope that the Minister will not get me wrong. I believe that we could make do with cheaper roads, but, whether we build them to the present unnecessarily high standards or to the somewhat lower ones that I am suggesting, we need them very soon. We must also ensure that in building them we reduce to an absolute minimum the loss and distress of those who live along the route and who have to suffer so that the rest of the community may benefit.

I look forward with interest to the Minister's reply. I hope that he will not content himself with a defence of his Department's policy, for I have not been attacking that policy tonight. I hope that, on the contrary, he will undertake to give careful consideration to what I have said, and to ask his officials to look carefully at the figures I have used and see whether there is not something in what I have been saying.

11.55 p.m.

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

The hon. Member for Flint, West (Sir A. Meyer) began on a gloomy note. I believe that industrial Deeside can weather the economic storm. There may be steelworks and aeroplane factories with far bigger problems than those in my area.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the subject of trunk road planning and construction procedure. Like him, I am deeply concerned that the planning of our trunk roads in North Wales and our construction procedures take the fullest account of the needs of our community and of the interests of individual members of the public, both as taxpayers and as people who might be closely affected by what is done.

I refer first to the needs of the community. Certainly, for the most pressing economic reasons, North Wales must be furnished with a modern system of roads giving rapid access to the centres of Merseyside, Manchester, and the Midlands. I have no intention of setting as a target for the development of the infrastructure of North Wales a standard that does not put us in effective competition with the remainder of Great Britain and of the EEC. This means plugging in to the motorway system, as well as improving the network of trunk, principal and minor roads.

Let me refer at the outset to the gateways of North Wales. The recent decision by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport to go ahead with the extension of the M56 from Hapsford to Lea-by-Backford and to give a 100 per cent. grant to Cheshire County Council for the extension of the M531 southwards from its existing terminal to the new M56 interchange at Stoak is vital. Tenders have already been invited for the stretch of the M56 from Hapsford to Stoak and should, I understand, be invited in early 1979 for the remainder of the M56 extension from Stoak to Lea-by-Backford. Tenders are due to be invited in the spring of next year for the first stage of the M531 extension.

This radically changes for the better the approaches to North Wales. The decision to spend £12 million was taken by the Department of Transport in close collaboration with the Welsh Office as an influential partner.

I am also happy to announce tonight another piece of construction work which is critical to the creation of a modern access to North-East Wales. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Wales has now accepted the tender from Fairclough Civil Engineering Limited for the construction of the new grade-separated interchange at the junction of the A494 and A548 at Queens-ferry. The scheme, which will cost about £2.2 million, will involve constructing a new roundabout to the east of Queens-ferry and a flyover to carry the trunk road traffic over it. Construction is expected to start shortly and should take about two years to complete. I am confident that the approaches to Wales will continue to be improved.

I come now to the matter of the A55, which I know the hon. Gentleman watches carefully. These decisions are only part of a series which the people of North Wales can expect as we press ahead with improvements, particularly on the High Road, the A55. from Chester to Bangor, where about £180 million is to be spent. My right hon. and learned Friend hopes to move as soon as possible to an important announcement about the Col-Con scheme. I also want to mention the £13 million scheme for a bypass of Hawarden, on which a public inquiry has just been held. A possible starting date there is mid-1980.

I lose no opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to carry through planned improvements along the whole length of the A55. As a North Walian, I am glad to see the Department using such considerable resources to deal with the problems of roads in North Wales particularly the A55.

I now want to say a word about the A483 and the A5. I cannot talk in detail about all the trunk roads in North Wales this evening, but I want to mention two more of them, starting wih the A483 between Wrexham and Chester. The preferred route has already been announced. Clwyd County Council has suggested some alterations before the draft orders are published and there are some matters of delay and extra cost, but we wish to get on speedily with what has been proposed. Schemes for the improvement south of Wrexham are already included in the preparation pool with work expected to start on the Ruabon bypass at a cost of £6.5 million in late 1981, and that on the Chirk and Newbridge bypasses after 1983.

I must also make it clear that there is a positive improvement plan for the A5. We have a series of schemes although necessarily more modest than those on the A55. But in fact on the lengths of the A5 across Clwyd and Gwynedd, excluding the major schemes at Britannia Bridge and the Bangor and Llanfair PG by-passes, which will cost £28 million, we have seven smaller schemes due to start before the end of 1979 with a total cost of almost £2 million. Orders will be published this week for the Bangor bypass which is scheduled to be started early in 1980 at a cost of £14½ million.

So far I have talked about sensible planning for the needs of the community and in particular for its economic wellbeing. Industrial regeneration is of the highest importance and we must give the young people of the area a better future to look forward to. However the hon. Gentleman has drawn attention to the need for economies in the use of resources in land, money and materials as well as the need to minimise disruptions both physical and psychological that trunk road development can bring to members of the public. I have in mind members of the farming fraternity. I must accept these points in principle. I note the hon. Gentleman's suggestions, both general and specific, and undertake to reflect upon them.

I now want to respond to some of the points that have been made. The preparation of trunk road schemes is a complicated lengthy process which can involve strategic, planning, legal, environmental, social and economic problems. The processes, whether statutory or non-statutory, are aimed at reconciling the needs of road users with those of the people living in close proximity. Such a balance could not be struck if at an early stage in the process the Secretary of State was committed to one particular line from which he could not deviate. There are occasions, following consultations with the public, when a perhaps better route than the one we originally proposed has been put forward. We need a measure of flexibility before we can finally arrive at a preferred route.

Even after a line has been published we are always prepared to consider any worthwhile ideas that are put forward. For example, an alternative for the Holy-well bypass which has been proposed by the Delyn Borough Council is at present being evaluated. It is of direct interest to the hon. Member that as a result of further trial boreholes made since the publication of orders and investigation into the slip on the A55 at the eastern end of the scheme, the Department now considers it necessary to carry out further detailed soil investigations to determine stability and elasticity. That is of direct interest to the hon. Gentleman and me. These investigations will have to be completed and a review undertaken of the Department's proposal and the other alternative routes put forward by objectors, including the Delyn Borough Council, at the eastern end of the scheme. In these circumstances it is likely to be well into 1978 before a public inquiry is arranged. This is an instance of the Department indicating what we have always said, namely, that we will not railroad people.

It is the normal practice of the Welsh Office to adopt selective or restricted tendering procedures in which contractors are selected from a standing list before being invited to tender for highway works. This is in line with the practice of Government Departments generally and a practice which is largely followed by local authorities. This system ensures that tenders are received only from those firms that have the necessary financial standing and expertise to carry out a particular job satisfactorily and at a competitive price. It also ensures that large numbers of tenders are not submitted, thus relieving many contractors of the effort and cost of tendering for contracts which they have little chance of securing.

Since the United Kingdom became a full member of the EEC the selective tendering procedures have had to take account of the Community's Directive No. 71/305, the effect of which is to require the Department to notify the official journal of the EEC of impending contracts and to select the firms to be invited to tender only from those firms that have indicated their interest subsequent to the appearance of the item in the official journal. The hon. Gentleman strove hard to take this nation into the EEC and he probably knows as much about this matter as I do.

I turn to the hon. Gentleman's remarks about Messrs. F. G. Whitley and Sons Ltd. A total of 27 firms indicated that they wished to tender for the A55 East of Abergele scheme. Whitley was not among them. Under the EEC rules, therefore, the Department was not able to extend to them an invitation to tender. The EEC common procedures for advertising and awarding public sector contracts have been in operation for more than four years and I think it safe to assume that contractors should be fully aware of their implications. Certainly these procedures received wide publicity in the United Kingdom technical Press, and the Federation of Civil Engineering Contractors, of which Whitley is a member, was aware of the change.

My Department has had no other complaint that the publicity afforded to the new procedures has been inadequate. However, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the local Press, as well as the technical Press, is informed when scheme; are notified to the EEC journal. I cannot re-open the tender list for the A55 East of Abergele scheme, but the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know I am sure that this firm has recently been successful in gaining a £109,000 contract for a scheme in Gwynedd at Waterloo Bridge and has been invited to tender for two more schemes in North Wales. I can also assure the hon. Gentleman and Whitley's that the interests of the firm have been and will continue to be borne in mind in the future when further trunk road improvements in North Wales reach the tender stage.

We approach the design of any scheme with an eye to relating the size of investment to the probable use of the road, savings made in fuel, in vehicle-operating costs, travelling times and accidents, as well as the environmental benefits likely to accrue elsewhere. In many respects pressures are put on the Department not to reduce the size of our planned schemes but more often to increase the design so as to raise the capacity or status of the roads. Thus I accept what the hon. Gentleman has said about making better use of existing resources and investment by increasing widths of existing roads or by building new carriageways alongside the existing ones to produce dual carriageways. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman might want to turn his missionary zeal to Clwyd County Council in some instances, but that may be a subject for other debates. However, that development is not always possible. One often gets ribbon-type development or even towns like Holywell alongside existing roads and in order to increase their width or to build alongside them one would have either to demolish great numbers of proporties or place roads so close to people's homes as to make them uninhabitable.

Holywell is a good example. It is a town for which I have much affection and of which the hon. Gentleman has considerable knowledge. This is just not on. We do improve existing roads wherever we can, but there are many sections of existing road with quite unacceptable alignments. The condition of the road from Holywell to the seaside resorts is a good example. It is not always possible either to meet the needs the forecast levels of traffic and the aspirations of the community for economic development without going beyond the modest techniques which the hon. Gentleman has outlined.

The hon Gentleman mentioned economical land purchase and prices. We are economical in land purchase. We buy only enough to enable the roads to be built to the standard designed. Sometimes we may purchase more than is ultimately needed where this is in the interests of the owner or of the good management of the land itself. We are also obliged on occasions to buy more than we need under the blight provisions. But I can assure the hon Gentleman that any land surplus to requirements is sold off as soon as possible after the scheme has been completed.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising these subjects in an Adjournment debate. The time was ripe for a brief debate and an exploration of views—of the Department's and of the hon. Gentleman's. I hope that in some small way I have effectively responded to the issues that have been raised.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at thirteen minutes past Twelve o'clock.