HC Deb 28 April 1978 vol 948 cc1934-46

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

4.2 p.m.

Mr. Hugh Rossi (Hornsey)

My object in securing this Adjournment debate is to ventilate in public the announcement by the Secretary of State for Transport in answer to a Written Question of mine on 21st March that he had decided to abandon the public inquiry into the Archway Road improvement scheme. The announcement has left a number of unanswered questions, which I hope will be resolved as a result of this debate.

The Secretary of State is not present to reply, but I know from the discussions he has afforded me privately that he is deeply concerned about the matter, and he has been kind enough to write to me to explain his unavoidable absence today. The Under-Secretary present in his place will understand that I must nevertheless persist in my criticism of the announcement and what it contains.

Although the inquiry primarily concerns my constituents, it attracted a great deal of outside attention—one might almost say notoriety—because of its failure to make progress, allegations of lack of impartiality on the part of the inspectors appointed by the Secretary of State and of non-democratic conduct of proceedings, and the Department's apparent reluctance to make available the data upon which it had based its case.

I say at once that I deplore many of the scenes that disrupted the proceedings and that to my mind served only to damage the otherwise reasoned case of those making their objections. It is a matter of shame that one of the inspectors had to retire from the inquiry because of ill-health, contributed to by the tensions created by the scenes before him. He was given a difficult, if not impossible, task and we cannot but express the greatest sympathy with him.

It is not without significance that in the announcement of 21st March the Secretary of State gave as one of the prime reasons for his abandonment of the inquiry a campaign of organised disruption".—[Official Report, 21st March 1978; Vol. 946, c. 514.] This in itself calls for grave criticism. His abandonment for such reason is seen widely as capitulation in the face of disorderly conduct. Let him consider the full implication of that. He has created a precedent whereby every group, whatever its motivation, however representative or non-representative it may be of a majority view, whatever the strength or weakness of its argument, may secure its will simply by disruptive tactics, by denial of freedom of speech to others, by preventing supporters as well as opponents of any scheme from expressing their point of view.

The right hon. Gentleman by his own statement has abdicated the responsibilities of government in the face of this disruption. He has given a recipe for anarchy. I believe that as a matter of utmost urgency he must put the record right.

The advice of the Council on Tribunals concerning the independent appointment of the inspectorate by the Lord Chancellor and the new procedures to be adopted in highway inquiries go a long way to show how many of the bona fide objections may be met, as does the Leitch Report on the nature of information to be made available to objectors.

I urge the Government to implement those reports and to reconstitute the inquiry as quickly as possible. I ask the Minister to do that not only in the wider public interest, but in the interests of my own constituents.

The Secretary of State has expressed concern for the uncertainty that would have continued fora long time ahead had he allowed the abandoned inquiry to continue. I must tell him that his action has created even greater uncertainty. On the one hand, the withdrawal of the draft compulsory purchase orders and the side road orders would seem to imply a withdrawal of the scheme. However, this is at once contradicted by a further paragraph in the statement which refers to the economic importance of the Archway Road and the prevailing need to improve the conditions of those living and working alongside it.

Moreover, in answer to a further Written Question of mine, the Secretary of State confirms that the line of the road remains. In the White Paper "Policy for Roads 1978", published after the abandonment of the inquiry, we find the improvement scheduled to start in 1981–83, and a sum of £5.2 million earmarked for this purpose. In other words, we have had a mass of contradictions, which has created a good deal of anxiety and uncertainty, which I wish to see allayed as quickly as possible, both in the minds of those for the scheme and in the minds of those against it.

My constituents on both sides of this argument ask "Where do we stand?" That is the question that I wish to put to the Minister. I ask him to consider the plight of those who wish to move from alongside the road. Those properties remain blighted by the line order, which the Minister has not withdrawn. It is true that home owners can serve blight notices under the Town and Country Planning Acts but, if they serve those notices and are not acquired under a compulsory purchase order, do they not lose home loss payments under the 1973 Act?

Far worse again is the plight of the many business people, some of whom wish to retire, who are not entitled to serve blight notices under the law and remain trapped in ever declining businesses as the conditions along the road continue to deteriorate.

I ask the Minister also to consider those whose homes abut the Archway Road. Some of them have bedroom windows no more than six feet away from a day and night stream of heavy, containerised lorries. A bed may move a foot away from the wall, due to traffic vibrations in the course of a day, crockery is shaken off mantelshelves, and normal conversation is impossible. How long are they to continue to endure these hellish conditions?

One of the people affected telephoned me today to ask "Are we condemned to live in those conditions for the rest of our lives?" I ask the Minister to answer that question. Yet the Minister has even refused, through me, provision to the local authority for grant aid for the provision of sound insulation for those people—the cost of which would be an infinitesimal part of the total cost originally allocated for the road scheme. It is common ground, I think, between the Minister and myself, and between the various factions within my constituency, that the conditions to which I have referred cannot be allowed to continue.

What are the solutions? The first that is apparent is to revert to the original Ministry of Transport scheme that was first put on paper in, I think, 1947 and revived in 1968. This would lose the benefits of grade separation of traffic and the use of the disused railway line, for which my constituents fought between 1968 and 1973, and successfully obtained as part and parcel of the 1975 orders. I hope that that aspect will not be lost sight of if a road widening scheme is in contemplation. Is that solution now intended?

Another possibility would be for the Minister to revert to the old lorry route system, which envisaged the Archway Road as a one-way route, with the other stream of traffic diverted up Highgate Hill and through Highgate Village. This would have a disastrous impact upon a unique conservation areas, and I ask the Minister for an assurance that if he has abandoned the more recent Archway Road scsheme, he will not go back to the old lorry route. I can assure him that the objections to that would be as vehement as those that he has recently had to face.

The third solution, which is now most canvassed among my constituents—and seems to be a unifying concept between those who were both for and against the old scheme—is the declassification of the Archway Road as a trunk road, diverting the heavy traffic around London upon an improved North Circular Road. I do not know to what extent this solution is practical, since it must presuppose that the bulk of traffic using the Archway Road is not destined for Central London and for the major markets and distribution centres there. However, it is a solution that is put forward in all seriousness, and I should like the Minister's assurance again that this will be given due and serious consideration.

The one possibility that is left is the scheme that was recently subject to the inquiry, and which may or may not have been abandoned. That I do not know, because it is not clear from the announcements that have been made, but if any kind of scheme is proposed to improve the Archway Road, maintaining it for heavy traffic instead of declassifying it as is now being asked, I request the Minister most urgently to have full regard to the need to grade-separate the traffic, to use the railway line to take the traffic away from the fronts of people's homes, and also to do whatever is possible to improve the environmental condition of the people who for the past 25 to 30 years have been enduring a veritable hell upon earth.

4.13 p.m.

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

The Secretary of State is very sorry that he has not been able to take this debate himself. He has written to the hon. Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi) to explain that pressing engagements have prevented him from being here.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the decision to abandon the inquiry was very much a personal decision of the Secretary of State, in which he was obviously closely involved, so that he would particularly have liked to be here. The decision was not taken lightly. We fully understand the very strong feelings on all sides about this notorious scheme—if I may use the hon. Gentleman's words—and in consequence the decision was made very carefully indeed.

The hon. Gentleman may also know that my right hon. Friend has for the last 16 years lived within two miles of the Archway Road, and at an earlier stage in his life lived almost on the road itself, and is therefore very well acquainted with all the problems about which the hon. Gentleman concluded his remarks. My right hon. Friend will, of course, read very carefully what the hon. Member said today.

I welcome this opportunity to discuss the implications of my right hon. Friend's decision to abandon the inquiry adjourned on 12th October 1977, together with the draft orders under consideration and the draft compulsory purchase orders for the scheme as a whole that were published five years ago. The hon. Member for Hornsey has been assiduous in his support of the proposals to improve Archway Road, and I can understand his disappointment at my right hon. Friend's decision.

Archway Road is part of the A1 trunk road. It is one of the routes linking the industrial and business areas of central London with the Midlands and the North via the A1 and the M1. The road is heavily trafficked throughout the working day. It has been improved at its southern end, but northwards for just over a mile past Highgate Station to its junction with the A1000 the road has only a single carriageway.

Traffic congestion on this length causes intense frustration and delay and adds to the difficulty of pedestrians in crossing the road. The noise and fumes make living and working conditions particularly unpleasant close to the road. To avoid Archway Road, traffic diverts to other routes, such as Highgate Hill, and adds to the difficulties on these.

In 1962, the Department included in its trunk road programme proposals to improve Archway Road. Hornsey Borough Council and its successor, Haringey London Borough Council, were appointed as agents for the preparation of a scheme for a dual three-lane road with at-grade junctions. Plans were well advanced when, in 1967, Haringey suggested that grade separation should be provided at the Shepherds Hill and Muswell Hill Road junctions. After discussions with the council, it was agreed that in view of the difficult traffic and environmental problems to be solved, both civil engineering and planning consultants should be appointed to prepare a scheme acceptable to Haringey and the Department. This was the first trunk road in London where planning consultants were brought into partnership in the design of a scheme.

The consultants' proposals took advantage of the fact that railway land adjacent to Highgate Station was no longer required by British Rail. This enabled part of the route to be located in a cutting away from the present road. The revised proposals were welcomed by the GLC. Although the present public consultation procedures were not in force at that time, local exhibitions were mounted describing the proposals in considerable detail. Local reaction at that time seemed to be largely favourable.

A public inquiry into these proposals started on 1st November 1973 and continued until 21st January 1974. The inspector was able to conduct the inquiry in an efficient and orderly manner. At the start, there was a certain amount of rowdy behaviour, but this was quickly brought under control.

The inspector reported in 1974 in favour of a dual two-lane road, as desired by the GLC, but with provision for future widening to dual-three in view of his doubts about the effectiveness of GLC's proposed restraint measures in central London. He also put forward his own ideas about the Shepherds Hill junction problems. It was this reservation that made it necessary to hold further inquiries.

Accordingly, the orders could be made only in part, omitting the part dealing with the Shepherds Hill junction and leaving the confirmation of the compulsory purchase order for the scheme as a whole until this problem had been solved. The orders were made in May 1975.

After considering the alternatives for the Shepherds Hill junction, including the inspector's proposal and an alternative by Haringey giving much more limited access, the Department decided to retain its original proposals but to put the Haringey scheme on deposit so that it could be investigated properly at the inquiry.

The inquiry commenced on 15th September 1976. From the outset, the inspector found it difficult to make progress because of rowdy behaviour and filibustering by certain objectors. After a series of adjournments, the inspector became ill and the inquiry had to be abandoned on 1st October 1976. No progress whatsoever had been made during this time on investigating the substance of the objections.

The inquiry started afresh on 19th April 1977, under a different inspector. After the start of the inquiry the GLC and Haringey changed their views, the GLC to full support of the proposals as a whole and Haringey to outright opposition. The inspector managed to keep things going until 12th October, but there were only 28 working sessions during this period, 18 of them devoted to arguments about legality and procedures. Only during the last 10 sessions was a start made on examination of one of the consulting engineer witnesses. The inspector found it necessary to conduct the proceedings with limited access on several occasions.

Nobody would wish to deny the rights of objectors to put forward their case and to question the Department's proposals in detail, but it is a cause for concern when, as in the inquiries which started in 1976 and 1977, some objectors and groups of objectors have seen fit to pursue their case by organised disruption and filibustering, thereby making it difficult—and sometimes impossible—for the inspectors to make effective progress.

I very much regret that the inspectors—honourable and learned men, who give an invaluable service to the community—should be harassed and vilified in so doing. I am unhappy too when officials dealing with the inquiry arrangements and counsel and witnesses supporting the Department's proposals are intimidated and abused.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have followed the Archway proceedings carefully and with increasing concern. With considerable reluctance the Secretary of State concluded that the latest inquiry seemed likely to drag on indefinitely. I have no doubt that eventually the inspector would have produced a full and fair report, but I am equally sure that if it suited their books, some people would still have challenged it, quoting in aid the unsatisfactory, fragmented and disorderly nature of at least part of the proceedings. In these circumstances it would have been extremely difficult for the Secretaries of State for Transport and the Environment to reach clear and defensible decisions.

We have not been helped in all this by the changing views of the local authorities directly concerned. Although I do not criticise them for changing their minds I cannot help wondering whether greater involvement might have prompted a more consistent approach, to the benefit of all.

Mr. Rossi

I have received a note from the GLC. Although at one time it did decide to change its original view of the scheme, it has now gone back to that view. The GLC made that announcement in two months, and its present stand is the stand that it originally took.

Mr. Horam

I am grateful to the hon. Member for that information.

In closely built-up urban areas such as Haringey it is particularly difficult for the Department to devise proposals that will satisfy the often conflicting interests of the local councils and the local community, despite the fact that such proposals may be designed to bring substantial environmental benefits and much-needed traffic relief. Whether or not an improvement such as this should go ahead is very much a matter for the GLC in view of its statutory highway and planning responsibilities in London and for Haringey in view of its more local environmental and traffic interests.

In the recent roads White Paper the Secretary of State indicated that consultations would take place with some urban local authorities with a view to their assuming responsibilities for at least some of the trunk roads in their areas. London will be included in these consultations.

It is too early to surmise how they may affect Archway, and the Secretary of State has accordingly invited representatives of GLC and Haringey, the local authorities principally concerned, to meet the Department to try yet again to agree on measures to deal with the intolerable conditions in the area.

If the hon. Member for Hornsey is asking me the way forward, I think that this is it. I believe that the Department must get together with Haringey and the GLC to see whether we can produce a sensible agreed solution to overcome the difficulties, which are well understood.

Mr. Rossi

I am grateful for these consultations at local level. Will the Minister assure me that no time will be lost, and can he indicate a time scale? We want to know these things locally. The matter should be proceeded with urgently and we want an answer one way or the other. We do not want this matter to drag on and on.

Mr. Horam

I cannot give the hon. Member an exact timetable but I can assure him that this matter has top priority. My officials are working on a date for the first meeting. We fully understand and accept the need for urgency in this case, because this case, above all, merits that degree of priority and urgent consideration.

I know that this prospect of further investigations does not please the hon. Member who, like me, would have preferred to see quick decisions on the outstanding line and side road orders, and the draft compulsory purchase order. But Ministers cannot cut through statutory processes.

The hon. Gentleman also suggested that the Department should have based its case on dealing with existing traffic congestion rather than future traffic. The Department's counsel made it clear at the inquiry that we were prepared to justify the need for the main Archway scheme on present traffic levels and that the traffic forecasts, with all their uncertainties, were not directly relevant.

It is too early to say how long the further investigations will take—as I said, I am unable to give the hon. Gentleman an accurate timetable other than to say that we shall get it under way as soon as we physically can—but I am sure that the GLC and Haringey will co-operate fully in seeking the solution that the hon. Gentleman requires.

Whilst the investigations are in progress, it will be sensible to retain the line and side road orders made in 1975. That will enable the line to be protected from development until we know whether it will be needed in future. Similarly, property acquired for the scheme will be retained until it is known whether it will be needed in future.

I confirm the hon. Gentleman's impression that people living on the Archway can serve blight notices on the Department. They will be accepted, provided that the property satisfies the statutory requirements of blight notices. The compensation paid will be less than would be paid under a compulsory purchase order, because people will not become entitled to home loss payments. The hon. Gentleman was correct in stating the position. The home loss payment is made to a person who is forced to leave his home. In this instance, people would be—

Mr. Rossi

They are trapped.

Mr. Horam

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. However, they will be voluntarily relinquishing their homes, whereas under a CPO they would be compulsorily purchased. None the less, they are able to serve blight notices and to obtain compensation.

The hon. Gentleman was not absolutely right about business properties. A business with a rateable value of over £2,250 is not covered by the blight provision. A business under that rateable value is eligible if it is run by the owner of the premises, including lock-up premises, or by a leaseholder with at least three years of his lease to go. Where the business falls outside those limits and hardship arises, sympathetic consideration is given to the use of discretionary powers.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the costs of the Archway proposals in a Question which my right hon. Friend was unable to answer fully at the time. I can now inform him that up to 21st March the total cost is estimated at £815,000. That figure includes property acquisition costs of about £380,000, consultants' costs amounting to £250,000 and inquiry costs of £135,000. Except for costs directly attributable to the inquiry, Departmental staff costs have not been included as those concerned have also been dealing with many other matters over this period.

I sympathise with all those who feel that they have been adversely affected by the abandonment of the scheme. Some may have bought or sold properties in anticipation of the improvement scheme. In so doing, they were taking a clear risk, particularly when they knew that the order-making processes had not been completed.

The position on providing sound insulation is clear. If there is no road improvement, there is no legal power to provide insulation against traffic noise.

In formulating new proposals we shall, of course, welcome any constructive ideas that the public may wish to put forward. I have no doubt that, as ever, local groups will not be slow in making their views known to the councils and the Department. When our review is sufficiently advanced, I should expect that, in the normal way, public consultations will take place in which any proposals or possible alternatives will be explained in sufficient detail to enable councils and the public to express their views on them before decisions are taken on which scheme, if any, should be prepared in further detail.

On the scheme itself, certainly I give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that we shall not return to the old Ministry of Transport scheme. We shall not return to the old lorry route scheme. Any other schemes, including the declassification of trunk roads or the scheme which has now been abandoned, obviously are on the table in a theoretical sense. Whatever comes out of the consultations on which we are now embarking, I cannot say other than to rule out the two possibilities mentioned by the hon. Gentleman—the old lorry route scheme and the old Ministry of Transport scheme.

Any future public inquiry, should there be one, will be under the new inquiry procedures introduced by my right hon. Friend. I hope that progress will be smoother under these new procedures.

For example, the inspector will be nominated by the Lord Chancellor, who will choose a particular individual considered by him to be suitable—not necessarily from the panel of inspectors. I hope that will ensure that the inspector will be accepted by all as being completely impartial and will give full weight to the environmental considerations discussed in the Leitch Report.

Finally, I must emphasise that progress will depend on the consistent support of the local councils, in the first place, and on the willingness of the community, in the second place, to represent their views in a reasonable and helpful manner. For its part, the Department will do all that it can to help in alleviating conditions on the Archway road corridor.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Four o'clock, till Tuesday next, pursuant to the Resolution of the House of 20th March.