HC Deb 24 February 1981 vol 999 cc853-60

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

11.42 pm
Mr. Alan Fitch (Wigan)

It may seem odd that I should raise the question of the road needs of the North-West when I live 10 to 15 minutes drive away from the M6, the M61, the M62, and the M63. Those of us who live in South-East Lancashire could not be better served by motorways.

The problems that we face are more fundamental and deep. They apply to the country as a whole and not just to the North-West. It is the whole question of road transport, and the part that it can play in our economic revival, that is so important. How much we spend on transport or on any other public sector is a matter of choice, and the decisions reached depend on the political and social priorities of the Government in power.

In the past 15 years, consumer expenditure on transport has increased from 10 per cent. to more than 15 per cent. of total consumer spending. In contrast, public spending on roads and transport has declined considerably. Public investment on roads in the EEC now runs at an average of 5 per cent. of gross national product compared with less than 1 per cent. in the United Kingdom. In the EEC, the gross national product and the rate of investment are very much greater than here.

Each of our main industrial partners has a more advanced road network than Britain. Our economic survival depends basically on an efficient transport system, and as the overwhelming movement of freight and passengers is by road our road transport system should be second to none.

At present, 6.5 million people—that is, 12 out of every 100 in Great Britain—live in the North-West, and much of our national prosperity depends on the region. It is, therefore, essential that the distribution of its people and employment should be planned in such a way as to promote its maximum efficiency. This must include not only good road links with other parts of the country but also an adequate internal road system. It is well served by motorway connections, as I have already indicated from my own experience, but there are still missing links, including a high standard all-weather route to Sheffield and thence to the East Midlands and the Calder Valley, and routes to North-East Lancashire. It needs routes from the motorways into the industrial area and ports, including completion of the M602 Salford docks spur, for which the contract, I understand, has just been let. Another example is the Blackpool lateral road to Fleetwood and also route 225, about which I shall say a little more later and which concerns my constituency of Wigan.

Since the publication of the 1980 roads White Paper, progress on some of the North-West schemes has been encouraging. I understand that tenders are being invited for two more sections of the M65 Calder Valley route, and the preferred route for the M66 Manchester outer ring road east flank has been announced. But that does not give us any reason for complacency. It is a good thing that at least there is some light at the end of the tunnel in regard to those roads. But seven schemes are not programmed to start until 1984 onwards, and eight schemes are in the list of schemes which are to be suspended until such time as there is the prospect of funds being available for them.

Within the urban areas, road construction has fallen far behind the programme drawn up even as recently as five years ago, and some other parts of the county road programme will not be completed until after the end of this century, at the present rate of progress.

In the recent TPP/TSG settlement for 1981–82, the total accepted level of capital expenditure for the four counties was only £26.3 million, the amount for Cheshire being as low as £3 million. This means that there will be very few new starts. Greater Manchester council, for instance, will have only one major scheme. The level is now so low that there is a danger that short-term policy decisions will compromise long-term objectives.

The strategic plan for the North-West, published in 1973, and the county structure plans all show that the somewhat grandiose plans for the 1980s can no longer be afforded, but they nevertheless recognise that the economic problems of the region and the need for regeneration of the urban areas require considerable expenditure on roads in the next 15 years. Existing and new firms must be encouraged. Workers must have easy access to their place of work, derelict areas must be improved, and the four new towns of Central Lancashire, Runcorn, Skelmersclale and Warrington must be able to achieve their full potential.

High priority should be given to the Calder Valley route to provide increased accessibility to North Lancashire; the completion of Manchester's outer ring road to help to improve north-south accessibility by providing links with the older industrial areas; an all-weather route across the Pennines linking Merseyside and Manchester with Cheshire and Sheffield; completion of the M602 link from the M62-M63 to Salford docks—I understand that that contract has been let; construction of the A59 dual carriageway from Liverpool to Preston, including the Preston southern bypass to relieve congestion in Central Lancashire new town, especially on the north-south roads through Preston. I must mention again the Blackpool lateral road to complete the link between the M55 Preston northern bypass and Fleetwood. I want to hear the Minister's comments on those plans and whether he can give an assurance that they are likely to be achieved within a reasonable period.

It will be necessary to relieve the pressure on the existing motorways, especially the M6. Experience in other parts of the country, especially in the Midlands, should be a sufficient warning of the problems that can arise when motorways reach saturation point. Because of the continuing need for high standard connections between the North-West and the West Midlands, it is vital that provision of an alternative route to the M6, or its duplication, be put in hand well before that stage is reached. As the average gestation period for a major road scheme is 12 to 15 years, no time should be lost in preparing the plans. One possibility could be the use of the M53, M531, A55 and A51 route via Chester, Newport and Whitchurch.

Although car ownership in the North-West at 50 per cent. of households owning one or more cars is lower than the national average of 57 per cent., there is considerable scope for growth. In addition to the opportunity that car ownership offers for choice of home and place of work, it helps to widen horizons for leisure, cultural activities and holidays. In parts of the region, notable along the coast and in the Pennines, there is considerable scope for tourist expansion. All that will require good roads and roadside facilities, including service stations, picnic areas and car parks.

In addition to new roads, the North-West requires increased expenditure on the maintenance of its existing roads. That is an important matter. One of the great problems today—even greater than that of building new routes—is the problem of maintenance. The North-West's extensive motorway network will benefit considerably from the Government's intention to spend an increasing amount of trunk road maintenance funds on older motorways. But that can be done only at the expense of other trunk roads, of which the North-West has more than 300 miles.

County road maintenance budgets have been badly hit by cuts ever since 1973. The recent TSG settlement for 1981-82, which contains the total accepted level of maintenance for the four counties, reveals a 7 per cent. reduction on the 1980–81 figure.

The North-West is well aware of the problems that it faces. It is prepared to help itself, but it must have assistance on a substantial scale. It needs completion of its trunk road network and adequate feeder roads to its ports and industrial areas. It needs assistance for its new town industrial access and estate roads and funds to help it regenerate its derelict areas. Above all, it needs assistance to reduce its unemployment to enable it to attract new industry and to encourage commercial and business development.

Of major concern is the sum that the Government have allocated out of the overall national total to the Greater Manchester Council for the maintenance of the local highway system and its improvement. The local road system includes over 80 per cent. of the county's main road system.

In the transport policy and programme settlement announced by the Government shortly before Christmas for the coming year, Greater Manchester's accepted level of highway maintenance expenditure fell in real terms compared with the previous year by about 10 per cent. This gives considerable cause for alarm if it is appreciated that GMC's average expenditure per mile of road was the lowest of all metropolitan counties in the previous year. In 1981–82 it fell even further below the average of all other metropolitan counties.

The GMC's average expenditure was £6,280 per mile in 1980–81 compared with the average of all metropolitan counties of £7,659. The GMC's expenditure for the coming year will be £5,660 per mile compared with an average of £7,007 per mile for all metropolitan counties. That is a fall in absolute and relative terms.

The Greater Manchester council has made representations to the Secretary of State. The issue is of considerable concern to all who reside in the area. I plead with the Minister at least to improve the grants for road maintenance. It is an extremely serious problem of which I am sure the right hon. Gentleman is only too well aware. The detrimental effect of roads that are in need of maintenance at a time when traffic is increasing can be extremely dangerous in terms of safety and the efficiency of transport.

Will the right hon. Gentleman be rather more specific than his hon. and learned Friend the Under-Secretary of State when he answered a question of mine on Monday 19 January? I shall not repeat the question because time is passing. Suffice it to say that, in my opinion, the hon. and learned Gentleman's answer was slightly evasive. I should like more definite and concrete facts on how the Minister views a possible increase in the allocation of moneys for the purpose of road maintenance.

I refer briefly to route 225. At present it is on no one's list except the local government list. The proposed route is from Orrell, which is on one side of Wigan, connecting the M6, and continuing right through to Bolton to connect with the M61. At present there is uncertainty about how the road will be financed. It is said that it might fall between trunk road, motorway and a major county highway status. The Minister could clear that up by accepting the route as a trunk road and bearing financial responsibility for it. The cost is likely to be over £18 million, which is outside the scope of any county council.

The route was originally included in Lancashire county council's road plan for Lancashire in 1949. The benefits that it would bring to the metropolitan borough of Wigan are manifold. It would create a direct link from North Merseyside, Skelmersdale, Wigan and Ince to the M61 and M62. It will create a bypass for Wigan, Ince and Hindley. It will create access to proposed industrial areas at Pemberton, Higher Ince and Westhoughton.

The route is of vital importance to the economic regeneration of the depressed areas of Wigan, Ince and Hindley. It would greatly benefit three assisted areas with exceptionally high unemployment rates—North Merseyside, Skelmersdale and Wigan. The scheme might also be eligible for aid from the EEC regional development fund. The building of the Wigan and Leigh bypasses has been deferred because not enough money is available. They are essential because both towns suffer congestion.

I recognise the great concern about new roads, particularly motorways, detracting from the environment. In my opinion, motorways do not detract from but add to the environment. I think in particular of the M62, which is a fine piece of engineering. It winds through the Pennines, opening up a vista of beauty which could not be seen before as it can be seen today. I think also of the M6 which has made the Lake District more accessible to millions of people. I deplore the continual harping and carping about the bad environmental effects of motorways.

Until recently I was the joint chairman of the all-party road study group. I have no financial interest in any company connected with road construction.

Investment in the construction and maintenance of roads has several objectives. First, it promotes economic growth and meets social needs by making the movement of industrial goods and personal travel more efficient. Secondly, it minimises social and economic consequences, including accidents that stem from inadequate highways. I do not want to be too party political on this occasion since I have a great respect for the Minister. If, however, this is the season of Government U-turns, could the Minister possibly do a U-turn on the financing of road maintenance and, where necessary, new roads? This important issue must be at the basis of our industrial revival. That revival must start with a revitalised construction industry. It is true, I believe, that 70 per cent. of freight is carried by road and that 90 per cent. of passengers travel by road. Roads are the most popular and most used means of travel. They should be as efficient as possible.

12.5 am

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Norman Fowler)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Fitch) for raising this important subject. The hon. Gentleman is a long-standing expert in these matters. He has already made a notable contribution. I find myself in agreement with much of what he has said. I agree about the importance of the construction industry. Nothing is more important than that we should seek to give support to that industry.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman's remarks about the importance of the environment and road construction. There is no question but that many of the roads built in this country are a positive addition to the environment and do not detract from it, both in terms of design of the roads and the relief of traffic from towns and centres of population. I remember well the first road that I opened. It was part of the M25. On that occasion, a great number of people turned up, although it was pouring with rain, to cheer not the economic importance of the motorway but its environmental importance because it would take traffic away from villages and towns.

I agree also with the hon. Gentleman's remarks about the importance of road investment and the need for an adequate road system in this country to deal not only with road freight but with the ordinary needs of the motorist. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the roads White Paper, which I published last year, set out the three major priorities of the Government. The first is to build roads that aid the economic recovery of this country such as roads to the ports. The second is roads with an environmental importance such as bypasses. The third is maintenance, which the hon. Gentleman rightly stressed. It would not make sense to allow a road system that has been bought with a great deal of money over a great number of years to decay. We have to fit these priorities into the context of financial restraints. There have to be priorities in the road programme.

I agree not only that the North-West is an important area but that it is also in need of reinforcement and renewal. Good communications in the North-West are a prerequisite to the efficiency of existing industry and to the encouragement of new industry. But I do not agree that the North-West has been in any way disadvantaged by current roads policy or has been discriminated against. A glance at the map and a review of the history of the motorway construction programme would prove the reverse.

Some of the oldest motorways are in the North-West. The Preston bypass on the M6 was completed as long ago as 1958. The region was at the forefront of the intensive motorway construction programme of the 1960s and 1970s. It now boasts about 260 miles of motorway and one of the most complete and coherent systems of strategic routes in the country. It is traversed by the M6 and the M62, two of the nation's busiest industrial arteries which link the industrial heartland of the region with the Midlands and the South-East, and Merseyside with Hull and from there with the Continent. The M57, which becomes a trunk road in a few weeks, and the M58. completed only last year, give access to the Liverpool docks. Manchester is now ringed on three sides by motorways and to the north Blackpool is connected to the system by the M55.

In this region 150 miles of motorway have been completed in the last decade. A further 19 miles of motorway are currently under construction. Work on trunk road and motorway schemes currently under way in the region represent an investment of about £85 million.

Clearly I accept the general point made by the hon. Member about the importance of the investment. However, may I put this point to him, because it needs to be emphasised? The Government have not cut back the road building programme. A fair and objective observer will recognise that the massive cuts were those which took place in the middle and late 1970s. Spending on new construction has been maintained at the level inherited from the Labour Administration but has been given added focus by concentrating resources on the most urgent projects which can be brought to contract in the first half of the decade.

The White Paper on roads spelt out the Government's policy in this respect. The theme was realism and the top priority was those roads which aided economic recovery and development. In any objective assessment the North-West did not fare badly from this view which acknowledged the need to fill the gaps in the existing network. The top priority in the region is to complete the ring road for Manchester. It is our policy to provide high standard orbital roads for—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Twelve minutes past Twelve o'clock.