HC Deb 10 July 1979 vol 970 cc431-42

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Lord James Douglas Hamilton.]

11.56 p.m.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Edge Hill)

I am grateful for the opportunity to bring before the House the problem of the Liverpool inner ring road. The construction of the road must be seen against the background of public expenditure cuts and the energy crisis. It must also be seen in the context of Liverpool's inner city problems and their possible solution.

Yesterday the Conservative-controlled Association of County Councils issued a press release detailing a package of what it called " revolutionary ideas ". If one accepts that revolution is bred out of disillusionment, cynicism and rebellion against measures that are basically repressive, the ACC's ideas could be called revolutionary. It talks of delaying fire protection in elderly people's homes and stopping the pocket money given to them; charging for nursery school education and further education; stopping free school milk, stopping subsidies for school meals, and reducing nutriment in those meals; repealing consumer protection legislation because it costs too much, and abandoning public participation in planning for the same reason.

All of those revolutionary ideas are necessary according to the Conservative ACC because of the need to cut public expenditure. The same argument was put forward by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State for the Environment when they announced the cuts of £300 million in rate support grant to local authorities.

These cuts have resulted in jobs being lost to local government, and to basic services such as meals on wheels, home helps, and housing programmes being slashed. Yet at the same time as all these things are happening the Merseyside county council, also Conservative-controlled, is embarking on the construction of a £40 million monstrosity known as the Liverpool inner ring road.

Dreamed up in the 1960s by planners and politicians whose eyes were bigger than their pockets, it was first called the inner motorway. It was opposed at that time by the man—Councillor Trevor Jones—who later became the leader of the Liverpool city council and the Liberal group in Liverpool. Indeed, they petitioned the House of Commons at that time.

Parts of the road were to be 10 lanes wide, and it was responsible for the decimation of homes and businesses alike. During that decade our city lost more than 70,000 people as a direct result of redevelopment plans. These plans ripped and tore the heart out of the city, created barren wastes, and shanghaied people to places they did not know and did not want to go to. And all for what? A decision taken in the early 1970s by the same group of dedicated megalomaniacs and lunatics led to the abandonment of this road that had led to nowhere.

But within a year they had decided on a modified version of the road, this time to be known as the Liverpool inner ring road. It affected more jobs, and more homes, and turned one area—Vauxhall—into a traffic island, preventing local rehousing, requiring more bulldozing and costing ratepayers and taxpayers a more modest £40 million. Again it was opposed by me and other Liberal members of the city council. Indeed, I petitioned the House of Lords to try to prevent the Merseyside Bill—the enabling power—going ahead.

Those who argue in its favour say that the city needs the road, but I believe that Liverpool needs it about as much as a goldfish needs a folding bicycle. How can any body justify building this road while my constituents cannot get work? In some parts of my constituency 30 per cent. of the people are without jobs. How can this road-bulding be justified while people still live in homes without inside toilets and bathrooms? The last census showed that in Edge Hill there were more people without inside toilets in their homes than in any other town in England. How can this road be justified while children in the city of Liverpool still attend schools that were built in the nineteenth century, and while our environment still bears scars left since the Second World War?

The chairman of the Merseyside county council is said to keep in his drawer a photograph of Adolf Hitler. At any rate, that is what he said in the local newspaper. Perhaps that is where he derives his megalomaniac delusions from. Certainly he is trying to finish off the job that Hitler started in wrecking and ruining the city of Liverpool.

While I am on the subject of the county council and those who run it, I am profoundly disturbed that the chairman of the highways and tunnels committee of the county council, Councillor Hubert Harriman, is an employee of one of the half-dozen consultants involved in the feasibility study of the Liverpool inner ring-road—a firm that was paid £50,000, a quarter of the total fees paid to the consultants. I am even more concerned that, despite the fact that he has actively promoted this fee-generating project, the authority itself has allowed the highways committee chairman to go on with his job. The Secretary of State will be aware that this matter was the subject of correspondence between himself and Councillor Trevor Jones, the then leader of the city council, and more lately I have written to the Secretary of State for the Environment and to the Home Secretary on the matter.

Furthermore, I think it is political sharp practice that documents were kept from members of the council allegedly on the grounds that they were too complicated for them to understand. Those documents were produced by the county council and totally disprove the need for an inner ring road.

I wish to quote from sections of technical report No. 25, copies of which I furnished to the Minister this evening. In these documents drawn up by officers of the Mersey county council it is said: We estimate that of the 400 to 450 jobs probably displaced, 55 per cent. might be retained in the central or inner areas, 15 per cent. might be retained in Liverpool and 30 per cent. lost to the local economy … Most firms interviewed feared the effect of 100 to 200 per cent. increases in rents on relocation. If they stayed in Liverpool they would probably be forced out of business because of the high cost of relocation.

Elsewhere in the report it is said that the loss of any further jobs must be regarded as a serious disbenefit in the context of inner Liverpool. Later the report says that A survey of 23, mainly transport-intensive firms, in and around the central area, indicated that accessibility is not a major problem. In other words, they did not believe they needed a ring road in order to get in and out of Liverpool.

The report also says that There is little evidence to support the view that this form of public sector investment would create confidence in the area or stimulate private investment … The most effective assistance from the public sector to firms operating in the area would seem to be the provision of sites, the creation of an atmosphere of security, financial assistance and motorway links. The primary requirements of incoming firms to inner Liverpool are sites and a suitable supply of labour. Those requirements do not include an inner ring road.

Again, in the report those who were employed by the Merseyside county council to evaluate the necessity for this scheme say: The valuation and job opportunity analyses confirm the above. Marginal improvements in land value as a result of easier assembly of sites, the availability of services and some improved access if the road is built is not likely to be sufficient to offset real value losses as a result of demolition. Finally, the report says: However, results indicate that road construction is less efficient in creating jobs in the construction industry than most other construction packages. The city planning officer adds his views to that startling report when he says: The county council's predictions of a 43 per cent. increase in traffic by 1998 are wrong. The London Road shopping centre will be seriously hit by the ring road as designed. The road would mean unnecessary job losses and would harm the city's environment. Despite the size of the ring road, it would not in some cases speed traffic movement any more than present roads. It is evident why the reports of the Merseyside county councillors were repressed in the first place—because they damaged the case of those who wanted the road built.

The city council is opposed to the road, the Liberal and Labour parties on the county council are opposed to it, the Liverpool Echo has campaigned courageously against it, local people are opposed to it and some county council officers are against it. Yet, the scheme for the road trundles on.

Mr. Anthony Steen (Liverpool, Wavertree) rose

Mr. Alton

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not give way. Time is limited and there are 15 minutes only allocated to me. Traditionally, hon. Members are allowed to put their cases without intervention.

Not only will homes be demolished and up to 1,000 jobs lost; the London Road shopping centre, a premier shopping precinct, will virtually be cut in two. No fewer than 5,400 people arrive there daily, and the council admits that it would cost a further £2.8 million to provide alternative access for them.

All that to achieve what? Liverpool may have problems, but traffic congestion is not one of them. More people in Liverpool do not have a car than do. With the continuing energy crisis, who can possibly justify a new road? There may be no need for cars in the future, and Merseyside people would be far more grateful if a decent public transport service were provided.

When I asked the Prime Minister last week to intervene in the row she suggested that the road might bring benefits to Merseyside. To build the road might create 300 new temporary jobs in the construction industry, but weighed against the long-term jobs that benefit will be lost. Patently it is not a convincing argument for building the road.

If the Government are serious in their declared intention to rationalise public expenditure, Ministers should speak to their colleagues in the Department of the Environment to prevent the Department of Transport from making promises to pay for the promised land and motorways. Instead, the money should be used for more useful and helpful matters. While land in the city centre of Liverpool remains blighted no developer in his right mind will establish business there. The best service that the House can do for Merseyside is to abandon the scheme now.

Finally, while I do not expect a decision from the Minister this evening, urge him to go away from this place and to consider granting the right to a public inquiry. The Merseyside Bill, in reenacting the provisions of the old Liverpool Corporation Act, effectively denies the affected businesses and residents the chance to put their case. How can this be justified? This is not the same road; it is not the same route, and it is 13 years later.

The people should be given the chance to air their grievances, and the misgivings that many of us have about this road should be properly ventilated. Otherwise, the road may go ahead but its construction will be shrouded in misgivings and doubts. I do not believe that that would be doing a service to the people of Merseyside, most of whom are up in arms about the road being built. I believe it is the worst disservice that could be done to the ratepayers and taxpayers living in that conurbation.

12.8 a.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. Kenneth Clarke)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill (Mr. Alton) in one respect only. In his extraordinary speech he used language that was hysterical at times about those who disagree with him over the Liverpool ring road. However, in my few years in this place, he is the first Member who has succeeded, to my recollection, in raising a matter that is entirely the responsibility of local government and for which there is no ministerial responsibility. He has also raised a subject matter that has a limited effect in his own constituency and that is largely the concern of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Scotland Exchange (Mr. Parry), who has already tabled a number of questions on the Order Paper about it.

The Liverpool inner ring road is a local authority road. The Merseyside county council is, therefore, responsible for it. Despite the diatribes aimed at that authority by the hon. Member for Edge Hill this evening, the council is the democratically elected representative of the inhabitants of the area, who have pursued this matter for a long time and who are entitled to reach a conclusion on the needs of the area. Indeed, they are in a better position to do that than are Ministers in London and civil servants in the Departments of Transport and the Environment.

I realise that the road has caused local controversy. It is of local importance, and there are conflicting views. By no means does each inhabitant of Liverpool agree with the hon. Member for Edge Hill. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Steen) represents his constituents, and he does not accept the strictures that have been directed at the scheme.

The question on the right local road system in the inner ring of Liverpool is decided better in Merseyside than in London. The Government do not believe that it is right to intervene in this matter. Not only is that not right; we have every confidence in the ability of the county council to come to a balanced conclusion. I am assured that it has done its best to consult the Liverpool city council and others about the modified scheme.

I know that at one time the hon. Member for Edge Hill was a member of the Liverpool city council.

Mr. Alton

I still am.

Mr. Clarke

The hon. Member has made his speech several times to the Liverpool city council. It was appropriate to make it there. He has sought to use his position in the House of Commons to involve Ministers in local disputes.

Mr. Alton

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Clarke

I shall not give way, since the hon. Gentleman was not generous in giving way to my hon. Friend the Member for Wavertree, who has an equally close interest in this matter.

I understand that the hon. Member for Edge Hill was elected on a platform described as " community politics ". That means that one does not campaign on the sometimes complicated and difficult national issues with which the House is involved, but that one seeks to represent that it is right to go to Westminster on the basis that one will, somehow, overturn local authority issues that one has not been able to carry by the local ballot box.

The hon. Member would have resented any suggestion that someone in the minority on his council should be entitled to come to Westminster and make vehement attacks on the majority of the council and attempt to persuade a Minister to step in to overturn decisions made by a democratically elected authority in the area for which it is responsible.

The hon. Member described those who disagree with him among the elected councillors on the Merseyside county council as megalomaniacs and lunatics. He compared one of them to Hitler. He based his case on extraordinary personal attacks, presumably confident in the knowledge that no one is here to answer him. I am sure that those attacked would vehemently answer if he made such attacks outside the protection of privilege and in Merseyside, where this decision should be taken.

That is the end of the matter. Everybody appreciates the anxiety in Merseyside and the local controversy. This is a Merseyside matter, which must be decided by the democratically elected local authority. It would be improper for the Government to intervene and overrule the decision.

I shall now deal with the pressure for a public inquiry. If a public inquiry were conceded by the Secretary of State for the Environment or the Minister of Transport there would be yet greater delay in reaching a local conclusion on the scheme. Delay is the principal problem.

Parliamentary powers for a road scheme, of which the present proposal is a modified version, were first obtained as long ago as 1966. The scheme has been modified and reduced in scope since then, in response to local pressures. That should please the hon. Member for Edge Hill.

Nevertheless, disputes about this road go back to 1966, when the powers were first obtained. The position is that, because of continued indecision, a large and conspicuous swathe of underused land now runs through parts of Liverpool, property values have been interfered with, enterprises have been stunted, and communities have been left uncertain about their future. The continuing delay of a firm decision on the road has caused substantial blight to property in the city —[Interruption.]—and in such a situation it is plain that further delay whilst a public inquiry is now held, 13 years after the proposal was first mooted, cannot be in the interests of Liverpool.

As one who has visited Liverpool from time to time as a sympathetic political visitor and observer, I find the apparent dereliction of Liverpool one of the most disturbing sights that one can see in the city—[Interruption.] A great deal of land lies vacant and blighted. The kind of pressure that the hon. Member is seeking to bring this evening to produce further delay in reaching any conclusion on this inner road scheme would simply perpetuate the blight that is already damaging Liverpool.

If the Merseyside county council decides to go ahead with the road—and it is for the council to decide—at least if the road begins to be constructed it will be refreshing to see something being built on the ground of value to the transport system of Liverpool in replacement of the blighted property that is there at the moment.—[Interruption.]

The hon. Member referred to the excessive cost of the scheme and sought to contrast the cost with the general restraints on public expenditure which are being applied by the Government. He began with an attack on the Association of County Councils across a very wide scale, which I do not propose to reply to this evening. He made another attempt to make a local government speech in his new position as a Member of Parliament. Of course, the cost of the road will be substantial. There will be restraints, of course. But surely the hon. Member is not suggesting that the effects of the Government's restraints on public expenditure should be that no ambitious projects of any kind should be financed in Merseyside. The county council, in reaching its conclusion, will have to bear the cost in mind. It will have to bear in mind what local priorities it wishes to pursue. But the effect of the Government's restraints will certainly not be to eliminate all projects of any kind in Liverpool.

The hon. Member made other points of detail. Since he has initiated this debate, and since other Liverpool Members have asked questions on the subject since the new Session of Parliament began, I have looked at the transport case for the road. It would not normally be justified for a Minister to examine a local road scheme. I do not propose to argue with the hon. Member about the traffic forecasts and the basic transport case. Again, it is for the county council to make its case. It is not for the Government to step in and argue matters that are a local government responsibility.

I realise that there is considerable controversy about the figures, but I can find nothing to justify the Government's taking the view that there is no transport case for the road, or that there is no need for it, or anything of that kind. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said when the hon. Member went so far as to raise this matter at Prime Minister's questions last week, there are many people in Liverpool who believe that the scheme will provide for employment, release a lot of blighted land and give a badly needed boost to the area. Those members of the Merseyside county council who take that view—

Mr. Alton

They do not live in Liverpool.

Mr. Clarke

—could, I am sure, argue a restrained and sensible case to support it, probably in more cogent and sensible terms than the hon. Member has used in opposing it this evening.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made the matter quite plain to the hon. Member and tonight I reinforce what she said. The Government will not take sides in this dispute. We believe that we have a system of local government under which it is right to leave responsibility for matters of this kind to the democratically elected local representatives who know best about it, and that is the Merseyside county council.

The hon. Member made an extraordinary speech this evening. He followed it by sitting throughout my speech making mutterings which I could almost catch. That underlines to me the fact that he is slightly beside himself on the subject of the road and is not taking a very balanced view of it. He has not cast a serious doubt on the county council's case, and I prefer to leave the matter to its judgment rather than to the kind of judgment that he has demonstrated this evening.

If the council does decide to go ahead —and it is a decision entirely for the council—the Government can only hope that the project is carried forward with success and does something to help the revival of Merseyside that we would all like to see and something to boost the industrial and employment prospects of that very troubled city.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes past Twelve o'clock.