HC Deb 23 February 1981 vol 999 cc714-9

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

7.52 pm
Mr. Keith Stainton (Sudbury and Woodbridge)

One is always grateful for the opportunity to ventilate an issue in this Chamber, and I am doubly grateful to the Minister for his courtesy in being present. I hope, not too precociously, that I may look forward to a sympathetic and meaningful reply.

Briefly, the issue which I raise concerns what was referred to in the June 1980 White Paper, "Policy for Roads", as the Martlesham bypass in Suffolk. It features on page 49 under the heading "Reserve List 1984 onwards" at an end-1978 cost of £3 million. Its projected length is 1.9 miles.

Both the cost and the length are timely when measured against any current road project, and this is the central point which I wish to make in the debate. We are now witnessing the reconstruction of the Ipswich southern bypass and the Orwell bridge. The total cost of this scheme will almost certainly top £70 million on current updated estimates. Yet the access to and egress from this £70 million scheme at the north-eastern corner at Martlesham will, without implementing the June 1980 White Paper proposal, merely link this magnificent new network to the existing A12 which, through both Kesgrave and Martlesham, is little more than a passable country single carriageway.

Clearly this would be wrong. The new Ipswich southern bypass will carry traffic from London to East Norfolk round Ipswich and out at Martlesham. Likewise, this junction will funnel in the reverse flow. There is also the ever-mounting container traffic generated by the Haven Ports of Felixstowe, Ipswich and Harwich deriving from the East Midlands and the North-East.

What must also be understood and appreciated is that the traffic flows in this vicinity are in any event already dangerously high. The most recent figures that I have been able to obtain from the Suffolk county surveyor show about 22,000 vehicles per 16-hour day on a yearly average, and that is a yearly average which diminishes the high seasonal flow in the summer. In the vicinity, the position is being aggravated by the happy relocation and expansion of the Post Office research station at Martlesham and the new county police headquarters and general development in the Martlesham area.

Without the Martlesham bypass, for which I am arguing tonight, the hazards, delays and tail-backs are certain to become intolerable at this point. It is in this context that I make my plea to the Minister.

Inevitably, there has been slippage with the Ipswich southern bypass itself. This gives us breathing space, I urge my hon. and learned Friend to use this to accommodate the Martlesham bypass with some certainty as part of the overall Ipswich southern bypass programme.

It is somewhat distressing that in a letter which I have received from the Suffolk county surveyor I am told that the necessary representations in this matter were made to the director of the Eastern Road Construction Unit of the Department of Transport on 18 September 1979. He says: Despite repeated reminders, no response was received, except that in July 1980 a letter was received, stating that the Department had been made subject to cash limits and that they were unable to devote any further resources to the joint study and that their work on Martlesham bypass had stopped. It is my understanding from the consulting engineers, Messrs William Dobbie, that that is precisely the situation and that the possibility of the Kesgrave wing itself has become a county project upon which, happily, the county is still conducting its own survey for improvements.

I should not like, as a result of my reference to the delay in the reply from the Eastern Road Construction Unit to the representations from the county surveyor, to imply friction. Throughout very lengthy exchanges with both the Suffolk county council and the much and properly concerned Martlesham parish council, the Eastern Road Construction Unit at Bedford has shown co-operation and understanding. I should like that to be recorded and transmitted, I hope with a firm date from the Minister, so that when he or the Secretary of State cuts the tape for the official opening of the Ipswich southern bypass he will not finish up in a traffic jam or something worse as he emerges on a single carriageway at Martlesham Hill no doubt en route to visit the other numerous attributes of my constituency of Sudbury and Woodbridge.

Adjournment debates usually come on late, and the prospect of them is known to engender remote and dangerous thoughts in the minds of certain Ministers. Tonight we have been fortunate. It is still only 7.59 pm. Let us hope that this is a happy omen for a firm and early commitment to this small but critical finish to the bold new road schemes around Ipswich which were authorised ministerially under the previous Conservative Administration.

8 pm

The Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Kenneth Clarke)

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Sudbury and Woodbridge (Mr. Stainton) on his good fortune in being able to initiate a debate on the Martlesham bypass and also on his wisdom in choosing an evening when we could have a debate at a civilised hour. I know that this is a matter of considerable importance to him and his constituents.

My hon. Friend began by pointing out the fairly important strategic position that Martlesham has on the very busy A12 trunk road. The A12 is of great strategic importance nationally. It is the main route from London and the South-East to the ports of Ipswich, Felixstowe, Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth. I am glad to say that for most of its length, from London to Ipswich, it is already a high quality road.

Two stretches between London and Ipswich, however, need improvement. The first is the length from Gallows Corner in Havering to the Brentwood bypass. The second is where the A12 at present goes through the middle of Chelmsford. I am glad to report that we expect to begin work on those two gaps in the not too distant future. We expect to begin work on the Gallows Comer scheme early in 1982. Having announced last year the preferred route for the Chelmsford bypass, we hope to publish the draft orders for a southern bypass in June this; year. There will no doubt be controversy about that bypass, and inevitably there will be a public inquiry. Nevertheless, we intend to proceed with its preparation, and it is in the main programme for 1984 onwards. If all goes well with the statutory procedures, and if funds are available, a start early in the period 1984 onwards should be possible for the Chelmsford bypass.

North of my hon. Friend's village of Martlesham we have a scheme for a western bypass of Great Yarmouth, including a second crossing of the river Yare. I am giving great priority to that bypass because of earnest requests, not least from my hon. Friend the Member for Yarmouth (Mr. Fell). I announced the preferred route in June last year and we hope to be able to publish draft orders for that road in May this year. Again, therefore, much has been achieved for Great Yarmouth.

There is also the important Ipswich bypass on which work has already begun, and I am glad to say that the Orwell bridge is making very good progress. We still have to take decisions, following a public inquiry, about the route of the southern and eastern sections of the bypass, but my right hon. Friend and I hope to announce decisions to finalise the route very soon indeed.

That activity up and down the A12 no doubt makes people in Martlesham particularly resentful at having to wait so long for their schemes to begin. My hon. Friend, with his local knowledge, has described better than I could the present traffic conditions on the A12 as they affect the village. I accept that the present road conditions are inadequate and that the village plainly needs a bypass as soon as it is feasible and practicable to finance, design and construct one. I am not sure that the opening of the Ipswich bypasss will bring more traffic on to the road than is there already, but I am sure that it will create an even greater contrast between conditions on the new stretches of the road and those in Martlesham from which my hon. Friend's constituents at present suffer.

My hon. Friend has asked when there will be tangible signs of progress, because this bypass has unfortunately had a long and chequered history. It appears to have begun life as part of a longer bypass through both Kesgrave and Martlesham. A scheme was included in draft orders published in 1970. Unfortunately, those draft orders for the longer bypass attracted much opposition. In the light of that opposition, the orders were withdrawn in 1971. I have to concede that in the intervening 10 years not very much appears to have occurred. It was apparently decided to await the results of the Ipswich transportation study, which was put in hand to seek a solution to the traffic problems of Ipswich.

With the decision to provide a bypass of Ipswich, it was decided that the original Kesgrave-Martlesham proposals should be shortened to bypass Martlesham only. It therefore became the Department's policy that the A12 through Kesgrave should cease to be a trunk road when the Ipswich bypass had been constructed. That decision, taken before the present Government came to office, means that it is now for Suffolk county council to decide whether to make any improvement to the road in order to benefit Kesgrave. By the time the Government came to office, therefore, a bypass was envisaged for Martlesham alone. It was not, however, very well advanced when we came to office.

My hon. Friend asked a parliamentary question of my predecessor in February 1979. The hon. Member for Gateshead, West (Mr. Horam), who then held the post which I now hold, made the position clear. He said: We are continuing work on a bypass of Martlesham and subject to the outcome of the statutory procedures and the availability of funds, construction of this bypass is more likely to start in 1985–86. It is too early to give dates for the intermediate processes.""—[Official Report, 23 February 1979; Vol. 963, c. 383.] That was the position of the Martlesham bypass when we came to office. One of our first duties was to reorganise the priorities in the national trunk road programme, which we did in preparing the White Paper, published last year, to which my hon. Friend referred. In that White Paper the Martlesham bypass appears in the reserve list for 1984 onwards. My hon. Friend and his constituents feel some disappointment at that not very exciting description of where the Martlesham bypass stands in the national order of priorities.

Unfortunately, we faced some difficult choices in drawing up that national trunk road programme. The main thing that we had to do was bring some realism into the programme to match the timetable that had been given for progress on various schemes with the resources that were likely to be available. We did not make any significant change in the overall level of resources, and we tried as far as possible to protect the trunk roads construction programme from the effects of the present financial crisis and to avoid unnecessary cuts.

However, maintaining roughly the same level of spend as our predecessors, it would still have been impossible to complete many road schemes by the dates that our predecessors had given to many people waiting for them. We found that roads in the trunk road programme had been given target dates which were utterly unrealistic and could not be met. The result was that expectations had been created in many towns and villages which stood no chance of being fulfilled. We therefore looked at the likely resources and produced a timetable which made sense in the light of those resources.

The first call on those resources was intended to be the schemes in the main programme, which include the Great Yarmouth scheme and others to which I have referred. Reserve list status means that such a scheme will not have first call on resources available, including resources available for preparatory and design work. The main programme schemes will have first priority for all resources. But reserve list status means that work will be continued as far as practicable. It is a way of ensuring that, if main programme schemes slip, desirable schemes are sufficiently prepared to be slotted in to take their place. That was the category of road schemes into which we put the Martlesham bypass.

At the moment, as my hon. Friend has said, there is not a great deal of work being done on the Martlesham bypass. The preparation work is not being given very high priority. Nevertheless, some work is planned for next year, and I assure my hon. Friend that we shall continue the design work and that the consultants will be given the necessary instructions to keep up progress and to get nearer to having a road designed and ready. But we have to be careful in allocating resources for preparation work on trunk roads.

Our inheritance was that, at least in theory, preparation work was being continued on all 400 roads in the trunk road programme. If resources were to be devoted to preparation costs on that scale, it would merely mean that money would be spent over the next two or three years on preparation work for roads which could not conceivably be built for many years. The money spent on preparation work of that kind would reduce the amount available for getting on with construction now on vitally needed roads which are ready to be built.

We are therefore trying to match the extent of preparation work to likely construction dates and we are giving the highest priority to preparation work on roads likely to be built in the next two or three years. The result is that we are fitting in preparation schemes such as Martlesham as far as possible. As I have said, I hope that it will be possible to spend a significant sum on this scheme next year.

My hon. Friend's main point, then, is whether sufficient money could be spent and higher priority given to ensure that the Martlesham bypass is opened at the same time as the Ipswich bypass or shortly thereafter. The Ipswich bypass, however, is well advanced. We are making as much speed as possible in building that road, and I hope that the full length of the bypass will be open in the not too distant future.

Unfortunately, with Martlesham we are at a comparatively early stage of the preparation. The scheme was published in 1970 but excited so much opposition that it was withdrawn. The next step now will be to examine possible alternative routes for taking the traffic around the village and for submitting them to the public for their reactions.

I realise that my hon. Friend will be more familiar with the village than I and will know this better than I do, but I expect that there will be some controversy in Martlesham whichever route we choose. For example, should we stick to a route on the lines of that indicated in the original 1970 plan, which passed to the west and north of Martlesham? My understanding is that people who live in Great Bealings and Little Bealings would not be very pleased with that choice.

On the other hand, should we go for an improvement along the lines of the existing road? That would be rather difficult in this case. One can also expect that such an improvement would be fairly unpopular in the village because it would keep the traffic in the centre of the built-up area. One could also examine the possibility of an eastern bypass, but the problem there is that difficult ground conditions could significantly increase the cost.

I pose those questions not to answer any of them but to show that there is genuinely a need in this case for public consultation and that it will be almost impossible to produce a line which will please everyone. Therefore, we have to have a public exhibition, leaflets, and so on, to try to find out which route will achieve the broadest consensus of the local inhabitants.

I am glad to say that we expect to reach that stage in the spring of 1982. We shall then come to conclusions about the route, to be worked up as soon as possible after that. Once we have reached the stage of choosing a preferred route, at least that will remove some of the uncertainty which no doubt exists in the village and affects planning decisions and matters of that kind.

However, even after the choice of preferred route has been made, there will then have to be the detailed design work to produce the drawings upon which the draft orders are founded. If there continue to be objections, there will need to be a public inquiry. I am afraid that the timetable for trunk road works of this kind is such that a great deal of good luck and smooth progress would be required if we were to be ready to start work some time in 1986, assuming that the funds were available.

I realise that that time scale will disappoint my hon. Friend and his constituents, but there is keen competition for resources. The decisions which we had to take in drawing up our priorities were often hard and involved difficult choices between similar villages in different parts of the country. Many villages like this now find heavy lorry traffic through the built-up area unacceptable. There is a greater demand for bypasses than can conceivably be served in the near future, and some deserving schemes have had to take low places in the queue. But the programme is not immutable, and we intend to review it year by year, taking things a little further as we get roads completed and into use. The time will come in this calendar year when my right hon. Friend and I will have to review the road programme once more and reassess the priorities that we put on roads last year and decide which schemes now appear to be in urgent need and which might be given greater priority.

As I said, even with greater priority, Martlesham will take some years to prepare, but no doubt the time scale that I have described could be somewhat shortened if we devoted greater resources earlier on to preparation and design work.

I can make no promises about the outcome tonight, but I am impressed by my hon. Friend's strength of feeling. He has gone to the extent not only of writing to me but of raising the matter on the Adjournment. I can certainly promise him that, when we review the programme and reconsider our priorities when updating the programme and looking at how we will spend our resources next year, we shall specifically consider the case of the Martlesham bypass to see whether we can do something better for it.

However, there is great competition for resources. Higher priority for the Martlesham bypass will almost inevitably mean a lower priority for some other township which is expecting to have a bypass in the not-too-distant future. However, I shall not deal with the difficulties. I appreciate the urgency of this matter and the sense of frustration in his constituency. Therefore, I promise that we shall give this matter our particular attention when we next review the programme and our priorities within it.