HC Deb 26 July 1979 vol 971 cc1034-47

10.39 p.m.

Mr. Tony Speller (Devon, North)

It is the first time that I have addressed the Chair with you, Mr. Speaker, in it, and may I say as a new hon. Member how much we appreciate you, Sir, for your courtesy, kindness and occasional restraints. I intend this evening not to delay the House too long.

It is noticeable that our friends from Scotland in the House depart as we from Devon arrive. They are none the worse, and nor are we, for that occasion.

There is one mile of dual carriageway in 650 square miles of the North Devon constituency. That is the total for the beautiful and until recently the development area of North Devon. In North Devon we do not seek privilege or advantage. We seek merely parity for an area where we have many jobs in industry but no good roads to travel.

I listened early this morning to the sorrows of the shipbuilding world. We have a small but booming shipbuilding industry. I also listen when hon. Members say how sad and bad times are. In North Devon times are good, and we intend to keep them that way. We ask not for anything special but only for our fair share to keep things going as well as they are at present.

I find it strange in the House when everyone is talking about saving jobs, people's trouble and everything going wrong. We do not fear depression. We fear that the growing seed of our industry may not be allowed to come to full fruition at this time when soon it will be in a position to stand on its own feet. When that day comes, we would with pleasure give hack our development area or assisted area status and will manage perfectly well without it. I repeat, however, that we have only one mile of dual carriageway, and that cannot be enough.

Many hon. Members spend their holidays in North Devon. I see them. They come to our fetes and pay small sums of money, if not to keep me here, at least to keep my association there. I ask them whether they think that the roads are awful, and they agree. There are stories of travelling 20 miles behind one caravan or so many miles behind one meat lorry. That is not surprising because there are 10-mile stretches of road where one cannot pass. It is almost unbelievable that we have built up successful industry in an area where a bus cannot travel from the county capital of Exeter to the regional capital of Barnstaple without breaking the law and crossing the centre lines.

In the near future when the North Devon link road inquiry, which we are promised for the autumn, comes out, I ask only for the sympathetic consideration of the Government and the sympathetic acceptance by Labour Members of the plea that because we do not seek great advantage we should still be given our just share.

The hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon) spoke of his constituency, which is another beautiful part of the world but luckier perhaps than we are. All roads in the West Country slide south. The motorway goes to Exeter and on in dual carriageway to Plymouth, which is an excellent city and is now to be a development area. It has a dual carriage- way, is on inter-city railway and has an airport and a ferry service, while in North Devon we have none of these things. We do not begrudge Plymouth, Torbay, Totnes or Falmouth their advantageous status.

Mr. David Penhaligon (Truro)

Is it not a fact of geography that in order to get to Cornwall one has to travel on these roads through Devon to which the hon. Gentleman is referring?

Mr. Speller

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. We do not charge any toll. We wish him well at his 13.9p a mile, and we say "Welcome", but the hon. Gentleman never comes through North Devon. No one seeking speedily to go from A to B ever comes our way. All the roads are in the south, as, indeed, Truro is in the south. Ours is a fine part of the world and a beautiful place that everyone comes to, but nobody comes twice or three times if he is considering fuel economy.

It is the only part of the West Country where a freight surcharge is the normal course of events. If goods are sent to Plymouth there is no freight surcharge, but to Barnstaple there is. We have the excellent and busy Appledore shipyard with few of the problems of other shipyards, apart from the problem of getting its raw materials. There is no railway, and we do not have the roads to carry the heavy industrial materials needed at Appledore.

To get to Appledore shipyard, one goes over what we call the long bridge. It is not long by Welsh or Bristolian standards, but by ours it is. Every arch is of different size and it is a scheduled ancient monument. Every day it takes the buses for the tourists and the long-loaders for the shipyards, and every day it creaks more and more. When will we get the inquiry into the Bideford bypass? The last day for objections was in September 1978, and now it is nearly September 1979. We do not seek special privilege; we simply seek no less than the others in the West Country.

There is an energy crisis, and we have but four industries. We have agriculture, which is superb but not a great employer of labour. We have tourism, which is a great employer of labour for perhaps four months of the year. This year the tourist trade is being badly hit, first by wicked rumours of people in places like Bristol—"No petrol west of Bristol", they say. Sometimes they were nearly correct and the tourists hesitated. It seems that our holiday trade cannot rely on Bristolians not to stop the tourists as they pass.

We have light industries, of which we are proud. They were subsidised to start with, but having started they are doing well. The hon. Member for Crewe (Mrs. Dunwoody), who used to represent Exeter, was instrumental in getting many things going in the area. Her picture adorns two or three walls in factories in North Devon. I have seen them and admired them, and have heard her spoken of in glowing terms, even though she has moved to Crewe.

I accept the good work of all people of all parties. My predecessor in this House worked hard and well. The hon. Member for Crewe worked hard and well when she was in Government, and I seek to work hard and well also. What I am saying is not meant to be controversial. All I am asking is that we should have in our area facilities as good as the rest. Then North Devon will be a happy, prosperous place and the Government can pass the development area status elsewhere.

I know personally four hon. Members I have booked in for holidays in our part of the country. They will come by car. They are very welcome, but when they go home they will say how bad our roads are. Whether it be an extension to the M5 motorway or merely an improvement to existing roads, it is only equitable that we in North Devon should have the same facilities as other places. I do not doubt that we shall soon need fuel-saving regulations on our roads. Soon we must have a speed limit of perhaps 55 m.p.h. It is ridiculous that lorries should pass me doing 85 miles an hour down the motorway, consuming twice the fuel they should do. We accept all the constraints on things like fuel, on weights of lorries, but, because the motor is the only way in which one can get to our part of the country, we must, when the time is right, have the roadway to give us that parity to which I keep referring.

It is not just the question of the roads into North Devon. In their wisdom, the Government have left Ilfracombe as a development area. It is interesting that the delightful parish of West Down, which which is a rural parish of many sheep but no factories, is a development area, while the next-door parish of Braunton, a place of no sheep but several factories, is no longer a development area. To get to Ilfracombe development area we must go through Barnstaple. I ask the Government to ensure that we get the funds for the Barnstaple relief roads.

We are really talking about a big "T" shape improved road. The bottom of the "T" is the M5. I do not mind if the bottom is in the city of Exeter, adjacent to the borough of Taunton or adjacent to Tiverton. I leave this to the engineers. From the bottom of the "T" we go to the top, which is Barnstaple, a place with which you, Mr. Speaker, are familiar, and go then eastward to Ilfracombe and westward to Bideford. When we have that "T" completed, I can assure the House that here is one "T", for "Tony", who will be delighted and feel that his time in this House has not been wasted.

10.50 p.m.

Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

The history of the North Devon link road has a number of strands in it. One was a report by the South-West economic planning council which placed a very high priority on the necessity to provide a new link road between the motorway system, which was then embryonic, and the development area of North Devon.

The better part of a decade ago, the old—as we must now say—Trade and Industry Sub-Committee of the Public Expenditure Committee carried out an investigation into development area policy. In the course of that, it took evidence from a considerable number of business men who had brought new industry to development areas. They were asked what was the crucial inducement: was it the existence of selective employment tax, regional employment premia, advance factories, interest-free loans, grants for the education of the work force, or what? In a very significant number of cases the answer was "Good roads", because they represented a real and permanent reduction in costs whereas the others were of a transient nature which had been known to alter not even just with the complexion of Governments but even with fashions and, of course, with exterior economic criteria. Rootes, for instance, said that it would never have decided to construct its plant at Linwood had it not been for the M6.

As we get further restriction on drivers' hours, this becomes all the more crucial. A line must be drawn beyond which a firm with its own transport needs double the number of drivers and double the number of vehicles if they cannot get to its market or the docks from which its goods are exported and back again in one day.

In terms of fuel economy, many hon. Members will be aware of the remarkable reduction in fuel consumption that comes wth use of the motorway system. By using the motorway from my home in Devon, it may be about 17 miles further to London but I use half a gallon of fuel less each way, which is a saving of a gallon on the return journey. This is due to a combination of several factors. It is partially a matter of gradients. It is also the complete absence of low speed limits so that the vehicle is travelling virtually at a constant speed for the entire journey rather than dissipating energy into heat through its braking system and then having to accelerate its mass again to cruising speed.

The case for the North Devon link road is not only for the benefit of North Devon, although that in itself is adequate justification for it. The existing class A roads serving North Devon are in many cases incapable of radical improvement, for if it is conceptually possible it cannot be done economically. For example, the A361 from Taunton to North Devon passes through Bampton, in my constituency. There, the position is far beyond inconvenient; it is dangerous. Large vehicles have to drive on the pavement because there is no other way of getting through Bampton. Yet such are the topographical features of the ground round Bampton that the engineering works necessary to bypass it would be hideously expensive.

Again, coming up the road from Exeter through Crediton to North Devon the volume of traffic is hideous, especially in summer, in Crediton itself and in villages such as Newton St. Cyres on the way. But on the most direct route through Sampford Peverell, Halberton and Tiverton the position is chronic and can be adequately relieved only by a complete bypass system which, among other things, the North Devon link road will provide. One hopes that it will not only provide a much better road for the traffic using that route at present but that it will also attract traffic that previously went on the serpentine route through Taunton and Bampton and, to a lesser extent, from Exeter through Crediton to North Devon, just as the A303/ A30 system has had such a large proportion of the traffic that it carried between the South-West and London removed to the more suitable M4-M5 motorway system.

At a meeting with the previous Minister of Transport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann), the former right hon. Member for Devon, North and myself, the Minister gave a categoric assurance that, subject only to some dramatic recommendation from the public inquiry, stage 2 of the North Devon link road scheme would follow immediately, without a break, on stage 1. This is important, because where stage 1 ends there will be an intolerable focus of traffic unless stage 2 follows immediately from it.

Originally, it was planned to end stage 1 to the west of Tiverton at a place called Rifton Gate on the worst of the three possible routes from Tiverton to North Devon—on the one class B route rather than on the two class A routes. This was a sensible route so long as it did not end there. But to gather up most of the traffic going to North Devon, particularly the heavy goods traffic, and deposit it on a class B road would produce an intolerable situation, not for my constituents, just over the "frontier", but for the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, North (Mr. Speller). That was why I proposed, on the basis of the previous Minister's assurance of continuity, that it would be more sensible to end stage 1 immediately to the east of the River Exe in Tiverton where the traffic could be distributed temporarily while stage 2 was being constructed over two class A and one class B road systems instead of being concentrated on one class B road.

If, however, there is any possibility of a delay, postponement or even cancellation of stage 2 of the North Devon link road, it would be necessary to revert to the original terminal point. Otherwise, an intolerable situation would be produced in Tiverton.

I should like to mention a matter that is relevant in the context of the totality of funds available for extending the road system. The Ministry of Transport has been fairly enthusiastic about a dual-carriageway system between Ilchester and Exeter along the existing A30. The need for this, to put it mildly, is of very low priority. In many people's judgment, the amount of land that it would take would render it cost-ineffective.

The important fact is that the road connects with the M4 on the wrong side of the junction proposed for the North Devon link road. What would save more than 70 per cent. of the expenditure on the dual carriageway system between Ilchester and Exeter is a new dual carriageway section from Ilminster to Taunton feeding into the M4 at that point on the right side, the shorter side, of the triangle—in other words, to the North Devon link road.

Therefore, it would be entirely consistent with the concept of the North Devon link road that it should be followed when funds were available by a much more suitable and less expensive link system between the M4 and the A30 to Ilminster which would enable goods traffic from North Devon wishing to use the Southampton docks, for instance, to get there much more directly than having to go south to Exeter and then double back on to a dual carriageway system. I have written to the Minister on this subject.

As well as the economic benefit to North Devon, as well as the saving in fuel which would undoubtedly result, there is also the pressing necessity to provide bypassing for Tiverton, Sampford Peverell, Halberton, Bampton, Crediton and Newton St. Cyres in my constituency, either in a physical sense or by providing a route which will take the intolerable traffic load, as this link road would substantially do. In my hon. Friend's constituency, the chronic traffic congestion in South Molton would also be cured by stage 2 of the link road. That is why I am particularly glad that my hon. Friend had the good fortune to come high in the ballot, so that the Minister can share with us the Government's thinking on this project of such great priority.

11.2 p.m.

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

To follow from where my hon. Friend has just concluded, I am sure that we are all grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, North (Mr. Speller) for this opportunity to look at the traffic needs of his constituency and for presenting his case so engagingly and persuasively.

My hon. Friend is right: we all think of North Devon as an extremely attractive part of the country which residents of most other areas visit for holidays; but it is also a developing and successful industrial area, with the consequent problems and needs. We already appreciate that my hon. Friend will be a powerful advocate for those needs and for some development and assistance. Certainly the Government share his view that at the moment his constituency has inadequate transport links with the outside world. In the case of North Devon, that is road works, so there are a number of schemes under way, to several of which he has referred.

I apologise to my hon. Friend if I do not go into the slightly wider matters about development area status for parts of his constituency and so on, which he will undoubtedly raise in due course with the responsible Ministers.

I begin with the road scheme which was advocated so powerfully by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop)—the North Devon link road. It is the view of the Government and of my Department that North Devon needs an adequate road link to the M5. My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton has described the inadequacy of the road links between North Devon and the M5 at the moment, all of which create problems in his constituency as well as in that of my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, North.

The present trunk road, for which my Department is at present responsible, is the A361 Barnstaple-Taunton road. It is 52½ miles long, all single carriageway, and passes through many towns and villages—a number of which my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton commended for bypasses. It has several steep gradients, numerous tight bends and some very narrow stretches. It is generally unsuitable for the heavy commercial traffic which has to use it and at summer weekends it is heavily congested with holiday traffic. My hon. Friends are pushing at an open door when they suggest that urgent relief is needed for the A361 and that there should be improvement in the links to Barnstaple.

The Department's solution is the North Devon link road from the M5 at Sampford Peverell, passing north of Tiverton to the outskirts of Barnstaple. It would be only 34¼ miles long and would provide a standard of road which is more in keeping with the needs of the area. It would join the M5 between Taunton and Exeter and would serve motorway traffic in both directions.

The scheme has been pursued for some time. A public inquiry into the need for the new road and into the details of the first stage from the M5 to Tiverton closed early in April. The inspector is expected to report in November.

There must be consideration within the Department by my engineering advisers and others about the implications of the inspector's recommendations before further ministerial decision can be taken. I expect that we shall move to the next stage of decision in the spring of next year at the latest. I cannot anticipate the outcome of the inquiry and ministerial deliberations. It would be legally risky to do so. When a public inquiry has been held, Ministers have a semi-judicial capacity. It is not right to prejudice findings by debating the merits of proposals. We must wait to see what the inspector recommends.. We shall then reach a decision.

Subject to the outcome of the public inquiry, if the strategy is thought to be correct, construction of the first stage could begin in about two years from now. The remaining stages could begin two or three years later.

When talking of the remaining stages, I refer to what my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton said about the relationship between stages 1 and 2 of the North Devon link road. I shall ensure that I am given the full details of the undertakings given to my hon. Friend by the previous Government. The undertakings do not sound surprising or unexpected. One half of the road does not stand apart from the rest. The anticipation is that stage 2 must be subjected to inquiry and will follow closely behind stage 1. There must be no significant gap between decisions on stage 1 and stage 2. The programme would lead to no significant gap if the schemes went ahead as planned.

The North Devon link road is the main proposal for the area. We are waiting for ministerial decisions following the public inquiry.

My hon. Friend the Member for Devon, North discussed the proposals for Bideford. The position is inadequate and something must be done about the bridge. My hon. Friend described the bridge as an interesting ancient monument. It has had a chequered career and it is due for a decent retirement, some sensible weight restrictions and some replacement. We are considering that.

Draft orders under the Highways Act for a northern bypass of Bideford, incorporating a high-level bridge, were published in 1978. These are controversial proposals. The controversy involves the bridge and whether there should be a high-level northern bridge or a southern low-level bridge. My hon. Friend is probably more familiar with that argument than I. He has expressed views which are not in favour of the Department's suggestions. We are examining that matter. My hon. Friend's views are shared by residents. Fortunately, some residents support our proposals. We are considering public consultation so that we arrive at the best solution.

Once we have considered all the results of the public consultation, the present intention is to arrange for a public inquiry into whatever preferred solution is then put forward for debate by my Department. That public inquiry will be held, probably in the spring. At that stage all interested parties will have their say and will be able to put forward their points of view. We shall be very much influenced by the inquiry and its findings in deciding what the solution shall be for the crossing.

I understand that my hon. Friend has been in contact with my Department about the activities of our surveyors on the various routes in the Bideford area. I should explain that with a controversial proposal of this kind there is no secrecy about our surveyors going to an area. My Department prepares studies not only of its own proposals but of everyone else's. When objectors put forward alternatives, therefore, engineers and surveyors from my Department will walk the countryside and survey the landscape in connection with those alternatives. The aim is that the debate at the public inquiry should be carried out more sensibly.

I hope that what I regard as a generous extension of our public consultation and public inquiry role is not taken anywhere, least of all in Bideford, as some kind of sinister activity by our surveyors secretly switching to an alternative strategy. My hon. Friend's constituents are divided over the whole matter. I hope that it will be satisfactorily resolved at the public inquiry next spring.

My hon. Friend then referred to the Barnstaple bypass. The proposal to provide a new bridge at Bideford has been brought forward partly as a result of our concern about the ancient long bridge and partly because it is seen ultimately as a continuous length of new road with the North Devon link. We intend to provide a bypass for Barnstaple which will connect the two. Barnstaple is a historic town. It is a traffic bottleneck. From the expression of my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, North, I gather that he regards that as an understatement. Most people who have been through Barnstaple would.

In this way an adequate route would be provided joining the industrial enterprises at Bideford and Barnstaple down to the M5. We are also looking at the needs of the Ilfracombe area. They must not be neglected, and that requires improved connections to the motorway.

Barnstaple is not solely the responsibility of my Department. Developments there go beyond the trunk road programme. Devon county council has improved proposals in its draft structure plan and its TPP for the provision of an urban relief road. It looks to us as though the county council's proposals will give relief to the town centre and to the long bridge in terms of removing congestion, improving road safety and reducing environmental damage caused by traffic. It will also form a new connection between the North Devon link road and the A361, giving access to other parts of North Devon.

Those schemes are being developed by the city council. They will certainly be eligible for grant support by the Government through the system of transport supplementary grant. We are at an early stage of the year to look at Devon's TPP and come to conclusions about the grant. However, I hope that I have said enough to indicate that the proposals for Barnstaple are certainly consistent with our view of the transport needs of North Devon.

I have noted what my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton said about the need for dual carriageway on the route between Ilminster and Exeter. I had less notice of his intention to raise that than I had of other matters. I understand his point, and I realise that he has written to me putting forward a proposal supported by some arguments from a constituent indicating that he believes that a more cost-effective link could be produced by doing some work on the A358 between Ilminster and Taunton. That will be considered, but in a national context.

My hon. Friend will appreciate that more than the local traffic needs of his constituency are involved. These matters link with the high priority that we are giving to the improvement of the A30 through the centre of Cornwall beyond Exeter to provide the best means of taking the traffic from the rest of England to the farthest South-Wet.

My hon. Friend the Member for Devon, North referred to industrial development and the status of parts of his constituency for industrial development purposes, most of which are outside my responsibility and sphere. My hon. Friend knows that grants are available to provide roads for industrial development purposes. I am glad to be able to tell him that those grants are unaffected by the recent downgrading of parts of his area to intermediate status. A number of schemes have been discussed with the local authorities—for example, at Barton Fields, Barnstable Alverdiscott Road, Bideford and Mullacott Cross, Ifracombe—which have been offered grants totalling about £40,000. Another three schemes are under consideration at Barnstable, Bradworthy and Holsworthy.

I hope that I have dealt with as many specific matters as my hon. Friends expect me to deal with on this occasion. I have already said that the Government recognise that the area has transport needs and that all the encouraging industrial devolpment that is taking place in North Devon is heavily dependent on the proper development of transport services in future. It is a beautiful and attractive area. All the schemes that are submitted raise difficult and sensitive considerations. The moment that we start drawing lines on the map and proposing new roads for industrial purposes, we have to consider more seriously than in most areas the environmental damage that might result.

I assure my hon. Friends that we shall deal with all the road improvements with as much sensitivity as is possible. There are occasions in parts of the country where the procedures that we now have for dealing with objections to road schemes, for example, are almost oversensitive. Objectors are allowed to delay worthwhile schemes over quite minute causes. That is perhaps not the position in North Devon, although there are often difficult conflicting issues between transport needs and attractive countryside and agricultural land.

The present system of public consultation, public inquiries, moving properly forward and weighing all the issues in a way that the public can judge and contribute to is important in an area such as North Devon. That is the way in which we hope to proceed. We hope to proceed in such a way as not to delay the decisions that are needed to provide the North Devon link road in the right place and such other links as are required to help the constituencies of my hon. Friends.