HC Deb 25 June 1980 vol 987 cc708-18

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

2.40 am
Mr. Edward Lyons (Bradford, West)

People living in the Manchester Road area of Bradford are bitterly frustrated by the seemingly endless inertia and paralysis of the West Yorkshire county council in the face of prolonged and numerous complaints about difficulties for pedestrians in relation to that road. They are angry about the deaths resulting from attempts to cross it.

Manchester Road is a six-lane highway, built in the 1970s, thrusting direct into the heart of Bradford. Down the centre of that road there runs, like a spine, a fence of metal railings 3ft high. That fence is a "Berlin wall", both symbolically and physically, dividing the local community, separating shoppers from their shops, banks and post offices, pensioners from their social security offices and passengers from their bus stops.

Those who produced the road have shown a total disregard for the real interests of local people, and it is no consolation that people coming into Bradford are able to race unimpeded to the city centre, when that speed is at the expense of the convenience, safety, happiness and coherence of the local community.

It is a road that is extremely unpopular along 2 miles of its route. For years there has been a constant stream of protests to the West Yorkshire county council, to the local newspaper, to councillors and to myself. The West Bowling Community Association is extremely angry, and even now has a meeting arranged for July to plan further action.

The planners have tried to ensure that pedestrians cross this road either by subways or overhead bridges spaced at long intervals along the route. Last Saturday I climbed to the top of an overhead bridge. The 32 steps were steep and high. That task is too difficult for many frail and elderly people and also for pregnant women. It is impossible for women with prams or parcels, and in winter the steps can be icy or slippery. There have been falls from the steps, and some people turn back half way up. Many cannot, or will not, use the overhead bridges.

The subways have steps—in one case 66 steps—or ramps, but these again are difficult for the disabled and others. People have been molested and robbed in the deserted passages, and women and the elderly will not use the subways because they fear attack or robbery. In a subway one is on one's own, and only the strong have a defence against attack. Further, people use the subways to urinate and the walls are often fouled with graffiti. One lady wrote: The subways are a nightmare to elderly people. Every day we see old people gasping for breath—some suffering from heart and chest troubles. In winter apart from smell and filth the subways are flooded inches deep in water. Another constituent demanded that the police should patrol Ripley Street subway 24 hours a day because women and the elderly were afraid to use it unescorted. Yet another constituent wrote: Many of us cannot possibly climb the steps and slopes of the bridges and subways. Last year a vehicle plunged into a similar subway in Wakefield Road, Bradford at about 2 am and no one found the dead driver until 11 am because the subway was so seldom used.

The Post Office services are essential to the disabled and elderly, on a frequent basis. There is no shop, post office or telephone for about 2 miles on one side of the road. People have to cross somehow, so they cross this dangerous six-lane highway. The 40 mph limit is frequently not observed, and old people in their seventies and eighties and women with small children seek to negotiate the speedway. They run the gauntlet of six lanes of speeding traffic. Old ladies are seen climbing or squeezing through gaps in the centre railings. A woman with two children will lift one child over the fence and trust to luck that the child will not run in front of traffic while she helps the second child over the fence.

In about 1976 a woman resolved not to use the subways again because gangs of teenagers were chasing women in them. The next day she was killed on the road by a motor cyclist while seeking to negotiate the fence in the middle of the road. People are forced to engage in a deadly duel with fast traffic because they feel that there is no other way to cross the road. One sees them crossing three lanes of traffic, climbing over the fence and then crossing another three lanes of traffic.

This year alone, to my knowledge, three old-age pensioners have been killed on the road, two of them on 1 May while returning from a necessary journey to the post office. One was 82. One has to imagine women of 82 crossing a six-lane highway because there is no other effective way open to them. No wonder people are being killed. One 73-year-old man said that he could not use the bridge because of the state of his legs, and he refused to use the subway because of fear of assault. He crosses that highway every day.

At a time when buildings are constructed to ensure access for the disabled, and when consideration for the disabled is shown by measures such as the mobility allowance, Manchester Road has been built as though the disabled simply do not exist. For two miles there is no pedestrian crossing. The motor car rules supreme and the planners have ordained that pedestrians should either scurry through the tunnels under the road or ascend to the skies above it. One appreciates that transport needs to be able to move speedily, but when a road is driven through a community there has to be a compromise between the car and the pedestrian. There is no such compromise on Manchester Road, and it is essential that pelican crossings be installed at a number of points along that road; for example, at the traffic lights at Ripley Street and Bankfoot, and also at Park Road and Parkside Road.

The proposition for pelican crossings is simple. One can either agree to it or can refuse to accept it and give reasons for refusing. One must remember that a motorist is delayed for only a second or two at a pedestrian crossing, but at present pedestrians are expected to expend much time and energy to reach a subway or a bridge and to cross in that way.

The West Yorkshire county council seems to consider a decision on pelican crossings on Manchester Road as akin to deciding changes in common agricultural policy in Europe. It is afflicted with utter paralysis. In November 1978, in response to my representations, the then executive director of transport and traffic, Mr. Naylor, said that he had put in hand a complete study of the length of road. Naturally, all of us in Bradford were happy to hear that. On 2 January 1979 he wrote that the problems were being given detailed consideration. On 4 September 1979, in response to a further letter of mine in August 1979, the new executive director, Mr. Hunter, wrote that his investigations had only recently been completed, that he intended to report his conclusions at an early meeting of the transportation committee of the West Yorkshire council, and that he would write to me again when the recommendations of that committee were available. Silence then fell, and deaths continued on that road.

On 13 May of this year I again wrote to the West Yorkshire county council to ask what was happening. I received an acknowledgement, but nothing happened, and I applied for this debate on 18 June. Since then I have received another holding letter from the executive director saying that within the next two or three weeks he will inform me how he intends to present the matter to the county council's transportation committee. It is now over 18 months since I was told that a review of the road would be inaugurated.

I have not been told the conclusions of the comprehensive study that was completed in September 1979. I do not know whether the conclusions of the study were presented to the transportation committee, and I do not know the comments of the transportation committee. Even now, the executive director proposes to inform me within two or three weeks of what he will put before his committee, but he does not say when he will put the recommendations before the committee. It was because of the earlier procrastination by the council and its failure over a long period to reveal its thinking or to reach a conclusion that I was prompted to seek this debate.

I ask the Minister to press the council to bring an end to this prolonged and disgraceful inertia in the face of the continued loss of human life. It is not as if the council has refused to take action. It is simply that it will not say what it proposes to do and what it is thinking. Meanwhile, a whole community continues to suffer inconvenience and disruption, and there is a constant haemorrhage of human life that is totally unacceptable to the people of Bradford. I should like the Minister to shed some light on the matter and to press the West Yorkshire authority to respond to the feelings of local people.

2.54 a.m.

Mr. Gary Waller (Brighouse and Spenborough)

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport for giving me a moment of his time to comment on this unfortunate matter, and I congratulate the hon. and learned Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Lyons) on raising the matter.

I appreciate that my hon. and learned Friend has little responsibility for the situation that has arisen. It has arisen because the roads authority—the county council—has provided a dual carriageway through an area which was a community, but taken little account of the fact that the main line of communication between people on either side of the road requires them to cross it in some way.

As the hon. and learned Member for Bradford, West said, there is a barrier about 3 ft high but a number of people try to cross it, with the result that a large section of the barrier is missing because people have managed to push their way through it. In the words of the hon. and learned Member for Bradford, West, the barrier represents something of a "Berlin wall".

There are lessons to be learnt which affect many of my constituents who drive into Bradford and often have to contend with pedestrians crossing the road in front of their vehicles. It is reasonable to expect that there should be pelican crossings and that drivers on the dual carriageway should be prepared to put up with a certain amount of inconvenience, in that they would be required to slow down from one point to another. If there is to be a barrier, to be fair to drivers as well as pedestrians, it should be a barrier that will deter people from trying to cross the road. There is no point in having a barrier that is easily surmountable. Drivers assume that pedestrians will not impede their passage, whereas that can easily happen. I can well understand the position of those pedestrians who do not like to go into the subways and find the kind of thing referred to by the hon. and learned Gentleman.

The situation that has arisen in Manchester Road, which is very much as the hon. and learned Gentleman described, should in future lead us to consider the needs of the pedestrian rather more than we have in the past. Subways and bridges across the road are not adequate. We should, above all, take the view that crossings on the same level as the road represent a more desirable system, and that in this case pelican crossings are probably best. I hope that the county council will look upon that as the way to proceed in the future.

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

I, too, congratulate the hon. and learned Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Lyons) on obtaining this Adjournment debate and on his clear exposition of the problems that face his constituents in Manchester Road, Bradford. He forcefully put across his concern about the safety of this road and his feelings about the casualties that have been suffered along it.

What we have here is a situation which, as I understand it, results from the substantial improvement of the road as an important traffic route. That improvement was accompanied by measures intended to segregate pedestrians from vehicles by providing no less than nine specially constructed crossings along a 2-mile length of road. All those crossings are made by way of a footbridge or subway. At the same time, in order to discourage people from crossing on the surface—because this is a busy six-lane highway—a barrier was constructed along the full length of the central reservation.

I appreciate that the concern of the hon. and learned Gentleman and of my hon. Friend the Member for Brighouse and Spenborough (Mr. Waller) is that the use of the bridges and subways is unattractive to some pedestrians, so that they prefer to cress on the surface, sometimes by scaling and sometimes by going through the holes in the barrier. This is not a suitable road to cross through the traffic flow, as I understand the description of it, and no doubt the crossing is made more dangerous by the scaling or getting through the 3ft high barrier in the middle, which reduces the ability of pedestrians to avoid danger. In those circumstances, it is extremely regrettable, but not very surprising, that some of those who have adopted that course have been killed or seriously injured.

The hon. and learned Gentleman, in whose constituency this problem arises, suggests that the reason why so many people are doing this is that the aged and disabled in particular do not like the bridges and subways. We are all familiar with complaints about large bridges, and certainly subways are often unattractive and even dangerous places in cities. Nevertheless, it must be the case—I am sure that it is—that many of the people who climb over the fence and cross the road could perfectly well cope with the bridges and subways. I am afraid that a proportion of those who cross the road are prepared to risk life and limb to avoid the inconvenience of using the specially constructed crossings. I have been looking at some press cuttings, and some of the photographs that I have seen in the Bradford Telegraph and Argus show remarkably young and fit-looking people climbing over the barrier in the middle of the road, plainly preferring to run the risks involved to climbing up and over a bridge, for example.

Nevertheless, the people about whom concern has been expressed tonight are the elderly and disabled in particular. The solution which the hon. and learned Gentleman is urging on the local authority, and tonight on me, is the provision of pelican crossings so that people can cross in safety at surface level.

The first point that I must make—I must make this my principal point, because it is the constitutional position and I would mislead the House if I said otherwise—is that the proper allocation of responsibility here makes this firmly a problem for the West Yorkshire county council to decide and not one for me or for my right hon. Friend. Manchester Road, although an important and busy through-route, is not a trunk road for which the Ministry of Transport is the responsible authority. It is a principal road, which makes it the statutory responsibility of the county council. It is therefore its job, not that of myself or my right hon. Friend, to determine what pedestrian facilities are to be provided. That is very much the case at the moment.

Central Government involvement in these decisions has been reduced recently. Until June of last year my Department did concern itself with the siting of pelican crossings, and before then a local highway authority that wished to install such a crossing had to secure my right hon. Friend's consent. The Government take the general view that the central Government have been exercising far too many controls over the discharge by local authorities of their local responsibilities, and we felt that these controls should be reduced to a minimum. This control over pelican and other pedestrian crossings was removed as from 1 June 1979 and there is no central control over the provision of any sort of pedestrian crossing facility on local roads.

Even before June of last year it would not have helped very much, because it was never the practice for the Minister of Transport to initiate these proposals. The powers that the Minister used to have enabled him to refuse consent when local authorities wanted to install pedestrian crossings, if he thought that such a proposal was unsuitable. We do not believe that those controls and restraints should be exercised by the Government, who are not best placed to know the local needs or how to sort out local problems. Local authorities should be much more able than the Government to appreciate and assess a local situation and understand the views, concerns and fears of their ratepapers and inhabitants.

Because I strongly take the view that this is properly a matter for the local authority to decide, I must deliberately refrain from attempting, by a detailed study of the evidence from this distance, to put myself in a position of passing judgment on the merits of the case. Entirely on the general proposition I would say that on a wide, fast and busy road the best solution, in principle, must be the provision of adequate facilities conveniently placed to enable pedestrians to cross where and when they want, at their own speed, without waiting for traffic to stop, completely separated from traffic. I would be attracted to the general proposition and description of this road, which has all these purpose-built crossing facilities, put in at considerable expense, and is designed to ensure maximum pedestrian safety by keeping them away from the traffic.

I have heard what the hon. and learned Gentleman has said and I can, from his description, appreciate that many of the local residents find in practice that the bridges are substantial. We have all had experience of subways that are unattractive, particularly for the elderly and for women, because they are misused in all the ways that the hon. and learned Member mentioned.

There is a balance to be struck by the local authority. It must take the decision in this case. It has to examine the evidence before its eyes and within its experience, as well as listening to the submissions from hon. Members and anyone with views on behalf of the local community. It must decide whether the situation is now so grave that it justifies further expenditure—in addition to that already embarked upon to provide subways and foot-bridges—and, consequently, the building of pelican crossings at points along the road.

We have disposed of the powers that we previously had to require our consent to any proposals put forward by the county council. I have nor consulted it closely because it would be inappropriate, in the light of what I have said, for me to start getting involved with something that is for it to decide. I am sure that it will note carefully the criticisms made by the hon. and learned Member of apparent delay and inability to take a decision. The responsibility to take a decision is that of the county council. I am sure that it will have listened to everything that has been said and will take note of the reports of the debate. I hope that it will come to a conclusion rapidly and decide what is best to enable this road to function as a the same time provide a proper level of protection for pedestrians who want to cross it.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at four minutes past Three o'clock a.m.