HC Deb 14 June 1978 vol 951 cc1143-54

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

10.19 p.m.

Mr. Esmond Bulmer (Kidderminster) rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. Perhaps the hon. Member will wait a moment while hon. Members who wish to leave are doing so.

Mr. Bulmer rose

Mr. Speaker

I propose to time the Adjournment from now.

10.21 p.m.

Mr. Bulmer

I welcome the opportunity to put before the Minister some of the wider implications of the Government's decision not to proceed with the Kidderminster eastern bypass and to ask him, in the light of these considerations, to re-examine that decision. If the decision is not reversed, it will have the most serious consequences for many of my constituents. It will vitally affect their chance of a job and, indeed, whether they can live at home in peace or move about their neighbourhood with ease.

I understand that the Minister is not familiar with Wyre Forest. He would be welcome if he cared to visit us. Such a visit would aid his understanding of the problems that I wish to explain to him.

The part of the A449 about which we are concerned runs through my constituency on its way between Worcester and Wolverhampton. It is a trunk road planned as a lorry route. It runs through sensitive residential areas of Kidderminster. The need for an alternative eastern bypass to take the traffic out of the town has been accepted by successive Governments since 1960. The present road is wholly inadequate.

In a letter to me, the chief executive of the Wyre Forest District Council describes the sheer inadequacy of that portion of the A449 between Hoobrook and Broadwaters at Kidderminster, particularly the stretch between its junction with the Comberton Road and its junction with the Birmingham Road. The volume of traffic is far too heavy for the existing carriageway which is barely wide enough for two articulated lorries to pass one another. Any attempt to improve the existing A449 between Hoobrook and Broadwaters would have a catastrophic effect upon the residential properties fronting that stretch of the road. In many cases it would probably result in a complete demolition of the houses fronting the road. The cost of any such improvement would be extremely high. In my opinion, the portion of the A449 between Hoobrook and Broadwaters at Kidderminster was the most congested and inadequate stretch between Worcester and Wolverhampton and I just cannot understand why this section of the improvement scheme has been or is proposed to be, abandoned". If the Minister were to join me and travel from Worcester to Kidderminster, he would enjoy a fast journey over that part which has been much improved between Warndon and Hartlebury. But then he would come to Kidderminster. He would be appalled by the conditions that were so eloquently described by the chief executive for Wyre Forest.

The situation as it stands is bad enough, but my constituents have a real fear that the situation might deteriorate rapidly because of what is happening on the M5. I understand that the M5 is 10 per cent. short of saturation. But for the big increases in oil prices, it would already have reached that point. I understand that major reconstructions are inevitable and that perhaps between 16,000 and 20,000 vehicles per day will not be able to use the M5. If they do not use the M5, what road will they use? Will they use the A38, in which I know my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove and Redditch (Mr. Miller) has a keen interest?

Mr. Hal Miller (Bromsgrove and Redditch)

Will my hon. Friend ask the Minister to consider the effect of the extensive repairs, extending over several years, to the M5 upon traffic on the A38 going from my constituency? Will he also consider the need for the Bromsgrove eastern bypass to be completed and the possibility of widening the M5 to a three-lane highway at the completion of these extensive repairs?

Mr. Bulmer

My hon. Friend can draw some comfort from the fact that the police at the moment regard the A38 as a priority road to be kept clear for emergency traffic. That does not apply to the A449. At present the Department is advocating its use for holiday traffic. If half of that traffic was unable to use the M5 and used the A449, the effect on my constituency would be catastrophic.

Will the Minister confirm that virtually the whole of the road between junctions 3 and 6 will have to be rebuilt? What guarantee can he give that Kidderminster will not be shattered by heavy traffic diverted from the motorway? What steps will he take to improve the inevitable congestion in Kidderminster if he is not to reinstate the eastern bypass? What steps will he take to see that traffic is not diverted from the M5 through Kidderminster? The Minister may not be able to answer these questions tonight, but I hope that he will write to me in due course giving me the answers I seek.

The Kidderminster eastern bypass has been accepted by succeeding Governments over the last 18 years. Planners have many variables with which to contend—including population, traffic flow and jobs. One that they should not have to contend with is variation of this sort. The structure plan was approved by the Secretary of State for the Environment. It projects the Wyre Forest as a growth area. We desperately need new industry. The carpet industry is going through cyclical and structural difficulties. The Government's decision to close RAF Hartlebury meant that there were 2,000 fewer jobs in the Wyre Forest area. Unemployment has gone up by a factor of three in the last four years, and we have many school leavers who will not be able to find work this year or next.

We have no regional aid and no development status, and we have lost rate support grant. Good communications remain one of our essential selling points. I hope that the Minister will not seek to deprive us of them.

Our planners and the Minister's Department have always until now accepted that the eastern bypass was an integral part of the scheme which included the Kidderminster ring road and the Bewdley bypass. The eastern bypass was the rim of the wheel, and the inner ring road the hub. A wheel may run with a few spokes missing, but it cannot function without a rim or a hub. Not to build the eastern bypass will destroy the balance of movement and have serious implications for the Hereford and Worcester structure plan and the Wyre Forest urban structure plan.

I cannot accept the Department's view that the bypass must be costed in isolation. Nor am I satisfied with the consultation that has been extended. The Department has to work to formulae which do not allow it to consider such factors as the benefits of jobs for school leavers or retaining inviolate such a marvellous eighteenth century townscape as Bewdley. Its calculations are over-dependent on traffic volume. We cannot accept that situation, nor could the Minister himself if he were to come to my constituency and see the problems at first hand.

In spite of the Minister's decision not to proceed with the eastern bypass, the county council—and all praise to it—is bringing forward consideration of an earlier start to the construction of the Bewdley bypass and phase four of the Kidderminster inner ring road. The inner ring road was started on the assumption that the Government would at some time proceed with the eastern bypass. Three stages have been completed. The remaining two stages, which have not yet been undertaken, have created extended planning blight and have made the town of Kidderminster shamefully derelict in its appearance in the parts that are affected. The need for action, as the county council appreciates, is urgent.

The Bewdley bypass has been regarded as crucial by the county council since 1944. Bewdley is the first conservation area in Worcestershire, and yet more than 100 listed buildings continue to be exposed to increasingly serious damage from heavy traffic. The county council is determined to end this vandalism.

The Government's decision not to proceed with the Kidderminster eastern bypass is serious enough. But if it was seen to threaten the resolve of the county council to make an early start on the next phase of the Kidderminster inner ring road or the Bewdley bypass, that would indeed be a body blow.

In conclusion, I say to the Minister that I am not asking tonight for money to be spent. I am asking him to come and see for himself the effect of this decision on the whole future balance of Wyre Forest. I ask him to declare the preferred line for the Kidderminster eastern bypass so that the county council can obtain the maximum benefit from the inner ring road and the Bewdley bypass.

If the Minister is not prepared to do this now, I would ask him to meet a deputation from the county council to consider the present situation in the light of changed circumstances, in the light of what he now knows about the M5 that I do not think was known at the time, and in the light of the county council's desire to go ahead at an earlier date with the Bewdley bypass and the inner ring road—and this certainly was not known. I am sure, too, that within the Minister's Department there is increasing support for the Leitch Report and a desire to look at the whole basis on which weighting is given.

I believe that the Kidderminster eastern bypass is essential to the future well-being of my constituents. I am not asking that it be built tomorrow, desirable though that would be, but I am concerned that it should remain within the planning framework to be brought forward as soon as circumstances permit.

10.32 p.m.

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

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Bulmer) for giving me the opportunity to explain to the House the present position on the scheme about which he is obviously and rightly so concerned. The background to it is the general policy set out in last year's White Paper on transport policy and the review of schemes we then referred to and on which we reported more fully in this year's White Paper "Policy for Roads: England 1978".

Following publication of the White Paper on transport policy, we set in hand the review of the trunk road programme in which we considered the need for each scheme and whether the standard for each scheme was appropriate. The method of the review was to consider each scheme in the road programme in terms of its impact on the environment, its value for money and its sensitivity to different assumptions about the growth of traffic.

In some cases it was clear that even on the most modest assumptions about traffic growth the scheme was still needed and the standard was right. In other cases the scheme was confirmed but the standard was modified. If it were clear that a scheme could not be justified in the light of the new approach, it was dropped altogether or replaced by a more limited alternative. Altogether, over 30 schemes were dropped from the programme in this way.

For most schemes we reached a clear conclusion one way or another, although all these schemes will be kept under review and re-appraised at each stage when decision have to be taken. But there were cases, particularly those at an early stage of planning, where some doubt remained or where it was too early to determine what the standard ought to be. As I shall explain, in this case we came to the conclusion that the scheme could not be justified against our present criteria and ought to be dropped from the preparation pool. I am talking about the Kidderminster eastern bypass.

We had not, however, had a full opportunity to discuss with the Hereford and Worcester County Council, first, the implications for that council of such a decision and, secondly and most importantly, what alternative more modest works might be needed as an alternative to building the full-blooded bypass.

The detailed investigations into the possibility of an eastern bypass for Kidderminster to supersede the existing A449 trunk road began in June 1971, when the then Secretary of State for the Environment announced the inclusion in the trunk road preparation pool of a scheme to improve comprehensively the A449 from the Waresley bypass to Wolverhampton. Subsequently, the scheme to be investigated was more specifically defined. Its first stage was a new route between the northern end of the Hartlebury bypass, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, and the boundary of the then Worcestershire County Council, the proposed route which has now come to be referred to as the Kidderminster eastern bypass

The bypass was expected both to remove a considerable amount of through traffic from the A449 in Kidderminster, and thereby improve the environment and access within the town for pedestrians and drivers, and to complete a high standard route from just north of Kidderminster to Worcester, which would be safer and more convenient for through traffic.

The first stage of the work included the identification of possible solutions. This is normal practice, and I should explain that for almost every major road scheme it involves predicting the volume of future traffic which is likely to use the new road in the design year—that is, the fifteenth year after the road is open to traffic. In making those predictions we have to make a good many assumptions, including assumptions about other new roads which are also being planned or are likely to be planned in the intervening period. The most significant of these to the Kidderminster eastern bypass investigations has always been, as the hon. Gentleman rightly implied, the Bewdley bypass proposed by the Hereford and Worcester County Council to replace the existing principal road, the A456, through Bewdley by a route to the south of the town.

Soon after the study began, it became clear that the justification for the eastern bypass would be substantially enhanced if the Bewdley bypass were to go ahead in the same period, and the county council's programme at that time fitted well in this respect. Our study also took into account the possibility of a Birmingham west orbital route and the relief that a Kidderminster eastern bypass and the adjacent improved length of the A449 south of Hartlebury would give to the two-lane section of the M5 motorway in Worcestershire. Towards the end of 1974, we had identified possible solutions. Public consultation on these was undertaken in January 1975. By the time the results of the consultation were being examined and evaluated, changes in the Department's criteria for making decisions on road schemes had taken place. First, in 1974 the Department had reviewed the carrying capacity of new roads and reached the conclusion that higher standards of vehicle construction and the improved quality of driving, amongst other factors, indicated that a road built to a given standard could carry a greater volume of traffic than had earlier been assumed. We therefore revised our design standards and issued detailed technical advice in our technical memorandum on design flows for motorways. The following year we also reviewed our national traffic prediction advice. This led to a reduction in the forecast rate of increase in traffic flows and the issue of a further technical memorandum. Improved techniques for asses- sing the economic value of road schemes were brought into use at the same time.

Along with all other trunk road schemes, the Kidderminster eastern bypass was reviewed in the light of these changes. The review began to cast doubt on the economic viability of the scheme. More recently, we have had to take account of the views expressed in the report of the advisory committee on trunk road assessment—the Leitch Committee—about the need to reconsider the methodology to be applied to traffic forecasts. On 10th January, the same day as the report was published, we produced an interim memorandum on traffic forecasting. This includes advice on how the uncertainty inherent in making such predictions should be reflected by assumptions of high and low levels of traffic growth. The economics of schemes are now assessed on the basis of the low levels. Overall decisions take account of the consequences of flows being under-or over-estimated.

During our review this year of all schemes in the light of the policy set out in the transport White Paper and of the Leitch Committee's report, we reached the firm conclusion that, irrespective of what the county council might decide about the Bewdley bypass and the timing of its construction, there was no case for building the Kidderminster eastern bypass for many years to come. The economic assessment produces a negative result and the environmental effects could not possibly justify any priority over competing schemes elsewhere.

However, before taking a final decision on the future of this scheme we felt it essential to consult the Hereford and Worcester County Council, the local authority with the strategic planning responsibility for the area and the local highway authority. But consultations on these lines had not been carried out—due mainly to shortage of time—when the White Paper was published on 4th April, so we included the scheme in the section of the White Paper which listed schemes for which start dates had not been determined and, by a footnote, indicated that the future of this scheme, which was in a category with several others, was under review.

We appreciate that a decision to abandon the Kidderminster eastern bypass could affect future consideration of the proposed Bewdley bypass by the county council. I realise that the county council's scheme is important to it in environmental and local planning terms and that any decision of ours which reduces its potential is bound to give it cause for concern.

The hon. Member for Kidderminster understandably stated his own views on the matter. He shares the concern that both these schemes have been considered as integral, with a decision on one affecting the other. However, a decision to drop the Kidderminster eastern bypass would affect only the economic and not the environmental arguments for the Bewdley bypass, which are very strong.

The hon. Member has mentioned to me before the consequences of the Leitch Report. That also mentioned the need for an environmental framework for any scheme. The Bewdley scheme has strong environmental advantages. I understand from what the hon. Member has said tonight that Hereford and Worcester are prepared to go ahead with it and are not necessarily proposing to defer it as a consequence of our decision on the Kidderminster scheme.

Mr. Bulmer

That emphasises the need for further consultation, because the scheme is finely balanced. The decision has not been taken but it will shortly be taken, so additional consultation is essential. In his earlier remarks about the Kidderminster eastern bypass, was the Minister taking into account all that might happen as a result of the break-up of the M5?

Mr. Horam

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman mentions that point, which was also made by the hon. Member for Bromsgrove and Redditch (Mr. Miller). I have visited his area, if not Kidderminster, because I have taken a close interest in developments on the M5. The surface of that road has reached the end of its design life and it must be replaced over the next few years so that the road can be used fully. That will have repercussions for the adjacent roads. On the other hand, the complete replacement of the surface of the M5 over the relevant two-lane stretch will take place over the next four years. It is not possible for the eastern bypass to be built in that time, even if we started today, given the statutory procedures and building time. Therefore, no diversion of traffic as a result of those works could be helped by any favourable decision on the Kidderminster bypass.

Mr. Hal Miller

Can the hon. Gentleman understand the fear not only that during the diversionary period while the M5 is being reconstructed there will be trouble on the roads but that when the M5 is completed, if it is still a two-lane road, it will have passed its capacity, which it has already reached? Therefore, there will be continued diversion, either on the A449 or on the A38. We have tried to press the Minister to have alternative provision made to carry that excess traffic.

Mr. Horam

That is something that we should like to discuss with Hereford and Worcester. I accept the need for consultation on that. We are increasing the capacity of the M5 to the North from two lanes to three. We shall have to take a view on whether the two-lane stretch of the M5 is reasonable for the needs of the immediate future. There may be a difference between the Department, the hon. Member and the county council, but that should be discussed. It has obvious implications for the council and for roads such as this in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. Clearly, we shall take into account the ramifications of the M5.

Another point that was raised concerned the inner ring road and any link between that and a decision on the Kidderminster eastern bypass. The inner ring road is complete on the eastern side of the town, where it is, in effect, an alternative to what would have been the eastern bypass. It is on the western side of the town, as I understand, that the remaining links are to be completed. The construction has been brought to its finality, and it is utilised fully on the eastern side of the town. In that sense, there is no immediate connection between our decision on the eastern bypass and what happens in the future on the completion of the inner city link. That is something rather separate from our decision.

I want to make clear that the door is in no way closed. I am very anxious that we should take our decision on the scheme's future in the light of all the facts and the detailed views of the county council. When the White Paper was published, the Department's regional director in the West Midlands wrote to the county council explaining our view that the scheme should be dropped from the preparation pool on the ground that it was not economically viable and would not lead to overall environmental benefit to the community in the immediate future. Comments were invited, and the county council has made clear that it is concerned at our decision and would like to discuss it further with us. The best way to achieve this is for the regional director, with other representatives of the Department, to meet representatives of the county council so that they may have the fullest opportunity to deploy their case for the scheme's retention in the preparation pool.

In replying directly about the suggestion that I should meet a deputation, I should prefer it if we could allow these meetings to take place between the regional director and the county council officials. I have seen the regional director of our West Midlands Region today about this very subject and have made plain my desire for the meetings to be held at an early stage so that the matter can be thrashed out without delay. I realise the implications not only for the road decisions for the area but also for the structure plan, and so on.

As I understand it, a number of technical factors have to be taken into account, and reference has been made to one or two of them. In reaching our decision on the eastern bypass, should we declare the results of the public consultation, declare a firm line and leave it at that, indicating that we do not believe that it is right to go ahead in the immediate future, or do we say that the scheme is abandoned? What happens in the Torton area, which is the real problem area, where the A499 jinks around and there are some difficult parts? What is the proper relationship, in the eyes of the county council, between the Bewdley bypass and the eastern bypass? I think that the Bewdley bypass can be justified quite independently of the eastern bypass. Certainly the decision not to go ahead with the eastern bypass will reduce the economic advantages of the Bewdley bypass but will not affect the environmental case for it.

A number of important technical decisions will have to be thrashed out in all these areas. I should prefer it if we could proceed by means of having these meetings at official level between the county council and officials of my Department. But certainly, if the hon. Gentleman feels at the end of the day that he would like to see me with a deputation, I shall gladly see him. I feel, however, that it would be right, as a matter of practicality, to proceed in the way that I have suggested. I hope that that full and speedy consultation will sort out the genuine problems in this area in an amicable fashion.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eleven minutes to Eleven o'clock.