HC Deb 16 November 1981 vol 13 cc136-44

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

12.6 am

Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West)

I wish to express, not for the first time, my disquiet and that of many of my colleagues and thousands of my constituents at the Government's continued determination to press ahead as a priority with the construction of the M66. That determination is being displayed at a time when there is great and passionate opposition to the scheme from huge numbers of the public and, almost incredibly, at a time when the Government are seeking to cut public expenditure by a further staggering £5 billion.

If the Government make those cuts in items of public welfare, which in my view constitute a far greater and more real public need, and at the same time proceed with the M66 motorway at a cost to the taxpayer, at today's prices, of probably more than £120 million, it will be an extraordinary perversion of public priorities for which I believe the Government will pay a heavy price in South-East Lancashire in the next general election.

I wish to deal with both strategic and technical aspects of the M66 proposal. The fundamental issue is the need for the motorway in the first place. Several questions arise here.

Is the motorway justified as a component of the new North-South trunk route from Burnley to Crewe, as recommended in the strategic plan for the North-West? If so, is the whole route being evaluated? Or is it to achieve the structure plan for land use and socio-economic objectives of reversing decentralisation, and so on? If so, why are the traffic forecasts based on the assumption that these trends are inevitable, or even desirable? Or is it, rather more simply—I suspect that this is the real reason—to solve local traffic problems, or to cope with the traffic growth that is expected? If so, what alternatives to the massive disruption that a motorway would involve have been or are being considered? Surely specific expected problems of congestion should be pinpointed rather than aggregate statistics for overall traffic growth being postulated. The specific problems should then be examined within a framework of detailed comprehensive transport planning which goes much wider than merely expected road use.

No doubt the Government's basic justification for the scheme, as shown in the 1980 White Paper on policy for roads, is the overriding need in the North-West to help the region's industrial and economic regeneration by improving communications both with the rest of the country and within the region with heavy industrial traffic also being removed from unsuitable urban roads. If that is the rationale—I do not think I have been unfair in stating it that way—trunk road schemes should be compared in costs, as well as benefits, with other and rather surer ways of achieving these aims, such as building industrial estates, modernising old industrial buildings, implementing different traffic measures and improving public transport.

It is difficult to see how industry in the area would benefit from the construction of new motorways except to the relatively small extent of minor savings in journey times. The environment can hardly be improved by motorways constructed in river valleys——

Mr. Charles R. Morris (Manchester, Openshaw)

Will my hon. Friend accept that in the Daisy Nook area of Failsworth, in my constituency, the building of a motorway in a sole remaining area of beauty to which people in north Manchester have access will mar and ravage the countryside?

Mr. Meacher

Myright hon. Friend makes the point exactly about the effect of motorways in green belt areas provided by river valleys. The area to which he refers adjoins my constituency.

The effect of the role of road construction units is, in my view, to ensure, juggernaut-like, that priority is given to investment in new trunk roads at the expense of more cost-effective expenditure on local transport. One cannot help thinking that if the budget earmarked for trunk roads was made over to county councils they would make better use of it, considering all the options to improve the local economy and environment.

Without a vested interest in trunk road construction the regional offices of the Department of Transport and the Department of the Environment, when vetting structure plans, transport policies and programmes, would be able impartially to ensure that all the options were examined, so that a more genuine cost-benefit calculus could be created than under the present arrangements. More particularly, the Government have sought to justify the M66 in terms of forecasts of traffic growth. However, in his letter to me of 11 November—I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for his voluminous correspondence and detailed answers to my many letters—the Minister stated: We are still revising the detailed traffic forecasts which we released at the time of public consultation. If the rationale depends on traffic growth, yet the detailed forecasts are still subject to revision, I do not see how there can be such dogmatism that the motorway is justified. To be fair, the Minister added: We shall continue to require to be satisfied that the motorway is needed. I should like an assurance from the Minister that his Department really has an open mind on this issue. I understand that the first step towards a public inquiry, which will probably not be held before 1984—the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—will be the publication of detailed proposals under the Highways Act, probably in 1983.

I am grateful that there is a promise to make the updated forecasts available to hon. Members and all interested parties before a public inquiry. Previously, the procedure has been to announce the decision, to hold a public inquiry and then, and only then, to provide objectors, on request, with a copy of the Department's explanation and justification of the scheme. I should nevertheless like an assurance that the forecasts will be made available for comment before the Minister decides to hold a public inquiry, so that there is ample time for the county and district councils to consider them and to draw up their plans in the light of the most up-to-date evidence.

Given that this is the desirable procedure, I have to ask why it was not followed in the past. Why, for example, were the draft orders for the M63–M66 Portwood-Denton scheme published on the basis of outdated traffic forecasts and before an economic evaluation had been carried out? Presumably the Government do not expect even informed members of the public to draw their attention to defects of methodology or choice of assumptions, or matters of that kind. It gives the impression that the Government intend to go ahead whatever the cost and benefit.

I should also like to know why no before-and-after studies, as recommended by the Leitch committee, have been carried out in the Greater Manchester area to test traffic forecasting methods before appoving the use of discredited methods.

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

What discredited methods does the hon. Gentleman say we have approved the use of?

Mr. Meacher

Those which underlay the forecasts for these schemes.

In reality, the M63–M66 schemes will cost far beyond £100 million at today's prices, and it seems essential to check the accuracy of the forecasting method before accepting its continued use. I know from letters from the hon. and learned Gentleman that the Greater Manchester transportation model is being used to produce the forecasts, and the information given me by the Greater Manchester transport action group, which has been a very effective representer of the public's views in this matter, suggests that although the model is reasonably accurate in predicting overall traffic growth it is highly inaccurate in forecasting growth on specific routes. That is why I am far from satisfied about the status and quality of the current forecasts. I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman will be able to say more to satisfy us.

The memorandum on national road traffic forecasts says, in para 4, that the Government should give firmer guidance about the application of the forecasts, given the uncertainty about traffic growth and the factors affecting its growth. It stresses that as a rule the assessment of each scheme should proceed on the basis of higher and lower forecasts as well as, in some cases, forecasts of intermediate value. Instead, the Department of Transport has produced high and extremely high forecasts and called them "low" and "high" forecasts. I also think that the Minister could profitably seek the advice of his own standing committee on the revised national forecast for car ownership and use.

I make a final point about the purchase of blighted properties. I know that it worries many of my constituents. I understand that owner-occupiers of houses needed for a new road can sometimes, if certain conditions are satisfied, oblige the Department to buy in advance by securing a blight notice. I am told that this applies when a proposed road is shown on a town map or when a preferred route has been chosen after public consultation. In addition, the Minister has said that in cases of personal hardship the Department can sometimes agree to buy houses that may be needed for a route under investigation.

On the Denton-to-Middleton section about 180 houses have been bought under these provisions, but I am still concerned about the fact that these arrangements are not yet well understood amongst the affected public, and I should therefore be pleased if the Minister could undertake to ensure that they are very much better and more systematically publicised in the local media throughout the area.

I want again to thank the Minister personally for his very detailed explanations and answers to my many letters. Having said that, I must tell him that the fight against what I and many of my constituents regard as an unnecessary and extremely expensive folly will be a bitter and determined one, which in the end, I believe we shall win.

12.19 am
Mr. Kenneth Marks (Manchester, Gorton)


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine)

I understand that the hon. Gentleman has permission to take part in the debate.

Mr. Marks

Yes, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The proposed road will have a very considerable effect on my constituency. It will pass through it for a great deal of its length. It is my view and, I believe, the view of the vast majority of my constituents that the Manchester outer ring road should be completed.

We have our arguments with the Minister about particular routes and about the effect of the road on particular constituents, and we shall continue to have those arguments, both directly and at the public inquiries, but we regard the completion of the ring road as essential for the improvement of the environment and for industrial regeneration not only in Denton and Audenshaw, in my constituency, but in the rest of Tameside and in Stockport. I have the support of the other two Members for Tameside constituencies—my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) and my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry)—and of the hon. Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) in saying that. They now have to bear the brunt of heavy traffic on inadequate roads. Some of the roads are B roads, district roads and estate roads. The traffic is heavy not only in quantity but in weight. This is at a time when the traffic is much reduced because of industrial recession.

We need the link with the M62 on the one hand and the link with the roads to the South and West on the other. The constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) would be more convincing in their opposition to this road if they had opposed the motorways that link Oldham with the M62.

The Labour-controlled councils of Greater Manchester and Tameside support the completion of this road. I believe it to be the kind of capital project to back employment and the industrial regeneration for which the last Labour Party conference called.

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

I am pleased to have the opportunity to take part in this short debate on road building priorities in Manchester. The contributions of the hon. Members for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) and for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Marks) show that there is some division of opinion in and around Manchester on the wisdom of completing the outer ring road.

I should like to repeat and underline the point made by the hon. Member for Gorton—that there is considerable public support for the completion of the outer ring road. The support cuts across party-political divisions in Manchester. The road scheme was conceived by my Socialist predecessor, but it is being continued by the present Government. I believe that the scheme continues to have the support of all the elected local authorities in the area, irrespective of political allegiance, with the exception of the Rochdale borough council, although individual borough councils have their reservations about particular aspects of the scheme.

In these times we must all have regard to priorities in public spending, but I repeat what the hon. Member for Gorton has just said. There is a clear distinction between public spending on important capital projects, which can have lasting benefits to the economic infrastructure of areas such as Manchester, and current spending of a sort that has to be restrained from time to time by Governments of all complexions in the light of the country's general economic position.

I should like to answer the main case of the hon. Member for Oldham, West by saying that I come to this matter with an open mind, as do those who work in the Department. The road construction units, to which the hon. Gentleman referred somewhat disparagingly, have now been disbanded, and we organise road construction in a different way. There is no one in the Department with a vested interest in trunk road investment. We try to apply the same methods of economic evaluation to investment of all kinds across the whole transport spectrum. We try to adopt methods that do not favour road building versus public transport or versus railways. The methodology has to vary according to the different modes of transport, but we try to form an objective judgment of transport priorities.

Mr. Tom McNally (Stockport, South)

Does the Minister agree that the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) suggested that we were talking about a minor bypass, whereas we are talking about the outer ring road of Greater Manchester? When that ring road is two-thirds complete and set in the middle of constituencies such as mine and that of the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Marks), it is absurd to start bringing up these minor complaints. We are talking about the economy of Greater Manchester and its industrial future. Nit-picking by constituencies that have already had the benefits of motorway construction is not acceptable.

Mr. Clarke

I think that that is right. The reason why the Government's proposals have the support of the elected county councils and of the two hon. Members who have just spoken is that they accept the basic aims set out in our White Paper—that a road of this kind can indeed be of real benefit to the industrial infrastructure of the area by reducing delays and hence reducing the transport costs of industry.

It is no good talking of the mere saving of a little time for industrial goods being transported out of an area such as Manchester, which needs every cost cutting advantage that it can get for its industries. We must remember also the greater environmental advantages that are to be won by taking the heavy industrial traffic that Manchester needs out of residential areas and away from the areas where people live, work and shop.

If we were to stop the outer ring road at the position that construction has reached, we would create appalling traffic chaos on the edge of the constituency of the hon. Member for Stockport, South (Mr. McNally), and the relief that is required from heavy traffic conditions in the constituency of the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Marks) would be put off for all time. As the hon. Member for Gorton said, there are industries in his area, in particular in Trafford Park, that could benefit to a great extent by the opening up of access to the outside world.

The criticism comes a little hard from the hon. Member for Oldham, West, because he speaks for a constituency where there has already been massive expenditure on road infrastructure, and the road links in his area are better than those in the rest of outer Manchester.

We continue to believe that the Manchester outer ring road should have high priority in the trunk road programme. It would, of course, complete the entire Manchester outer ring road. We have reached the position where about two-thirds of it is already built. We are talking now of a further 13½ miles that are required to be built—first, that 3½ miles from Portwood to Denton and then a 10-mile stretch from Denton to Middleton. We believe that this road will play a part in industrial recovery for the area and that it will improve living conditions for many people in Manchester's suburbs.

On the other hand, there is understandable concern among those most affected by the route that we have chosen as a preferred route, and obviously people wish to be reassured that there is a need for the disruption that is caused to the houses and the localities along the immediate path that we propose to follow.

Before choosing the preferred route on the difficult stretch from Denton to Middleton I visited Manchester and saw a good deal of the areas affected. For instance, I visited Daisy Nook, to which reference has been made. To put a road across the middle of Daisy Nook would, indeed, desecrate the countryside, but the motorway that we are proposing would cut through a small corner of it and be out of sight from the areas that I visited in the middle of Daisy Nook, which people plainly value as a beauty spot.

Along the other parts of the route that we have chosen, a large part has been reserved for road construction for a long time. Evaluating the route against any alternatives put forward to give some relief to the heavy traffic from the suburban areas, I believe it can be seen that we have chosen the best route that can be followed, given the difficulties of fitting a modern road into an urban area.

A great many issues have been raised—and will be debated, quite properly, at the public inquiries that are bound to be held—on the methodology that we follow and the traffic forecasts that we produce, the design standards we set, and so on. These are all questions that have to be examined with the utmost care when producing a modern motorway scheme.

The hon. Member for Oldham, West can be reassured that the Government will continue to look at the proposal and that we shall not build the road unless we remain convinced, on economic and traffic appraisals, that it is definitely needed. Major changes have taken place in national traffic forecasts over the past year or two. There have been changes in methodology and changes in the forecasts that we produce, and all those will be incorporated into our assessment of the new scheme and made available to the public and objectors before we get to the public inquiry stage on either of the two lengths that remain in contention. We have already met several of the points that the hon. Member has raised, although I by no means criticise urn for failing to keep closely in touch with the rather obscure methodology, which we continue to update. For instance, we have recently issued new guidelines about methods of traffic appraisal and economic assessment of trunk roads. Those new methods will be applied to the new scheme before we proceed with it. We are also constantly updating the traffic forecasts that we use.

The hon. Member for Oldham, West described the past traffic forecasts on which we have proceeded as being based on discredited methods. However, he would probably criticise us either way. If we just produced one set of traffic forecasts and stuck to them rigidly for the next 10 years the hon. Gentleman would say that we were not considering new evidence. However, when we consider new evidence, try to improve our methods, to revise our assumptions about future economic growth and to acquire more information about the underlying causes of traffic growth, we produce new figures. It does not discredit the planning of our roads if we look at each new scheme in the light of the new figures, release the new figures and redo our economic analysis of the scheme to ensure that the economic justification for it still exists.

When we release traffic figures—even the new figures that we are preparing—it would be unwise to regard them as absolutely certain and clear. Traffic forecasting is not an exact science and it is impossible to predict with absolute precision traffic flows 15 or 20 years in advance. Therefore, we produce higher and lower forecasts. They are designed to take into account possible variations in economic growth, and underlying trends that we have detected both in national traffic figures and in the local traffic figures for which we have a model in the Manchester area.

I do not accept the criticism that all our figures are higher assumptions. The history of traffic flow figures is that there has been a tendency to underestimate the growth of traffic and a slight tendency to underprovide the road infrastructure needed in various parts of the country. However, we continue to update the methods by which we arrive at the traffic figures and the methods by which we use them to appraise a new scheme from the economic viewpoint and from the viewpoint of the choice of design standards. In the case of the Manchester outer ring road, all that will be done and the results of all the work will be made available to the public in good time for the public inquiry so that interested groups can challenge them.

I shall briefly describe the stage that we have reached in the two stretches of road concerned. For the Portwood to Denton section nearest to Stockport we have published the Highways Act proposals—the formal statutory orders that the law requires us to produce and to which people can object—and we have received about 50 formal objections. I hope that I shall shortly be able to announce a public inquiry into those objections.

Mr. McNally


Mr. Clarke

I hope that the inquiry will be held at some time in 1982. I know that the hon. Member for Stockport, South will be disappointed, but it did not prove possible to hold the public inquiry before the end of the year, as I first intended. However, that arises from the constant review of our traffic forecasts and economic appraisals. Indeed, the hon. Member for Oldham, West rightly asked us to continue making such appraisals.

The preferred route from Denton to Middleton was chosen following public consultation. We are now having to develop that preferred route, and that includes considering detailed points about the design of junctions that the public have raised as a result of our consultation. We are also still carrying out surveys of the topography and the soil. The surveys have not yet been completed, and obviously the results are unlikely to be to hand for some time.

We are buying houses under the planning blight provisions that always apply in such circumstances. As the hon. Member for Oldham, West said, people should know that once we have identified a preferred route—with the result that house owners may find it difficult to sell their houses when they want to move—they can require my Department, as a matter of law, to buy them at full market value when we take them into ownership. This is to compensate the former owner for the consequences of the blight. We have bought about 180 properties so far in that way.

That is all the ordinary activity that takes place during the preparation of any trunk road scheme. It does not imply any underlying commitment or irreversible decision, regardless of public inquiry, public consultation or further public debate, to go ahead and build the road. It will be some time before we are able to publish the Highways Act proposals in the form of statutory orders, in respect of the road from Denton to Middleton. I expect that they will be published in 1983 and that they will be accompanied by full publicity, including exhibitions. Formal objections will then be invited and a public inquiry is certain to take place—possibly in 1984. I am grateful to the hon. Member for telling me that reports appeared recently in the Manchester press to the effect that no public inquiry would be held. That is impossible. It would be illegal to try to do that. It never crossed our minds not to hold a public inquiry. There will be a public inquiry into Denton and Middleton and into the Portwood to Denton section in due course.

When that inquiry takes place it will be conducted by an independent inspector, appointed on the nomination of the Lord Chancellor. We shall give plenty of notice of those public inquiry arrangements. Objectors who have written and told us of their objections will be given written notice and notified of the outline of the department's case in advance. Before the public inquiry they wil be given the type of information for which the hon. Member for Oldham, West asked. After the inquiry the two Secretaries of State will make a final decision about whether the road should be built, in the light of all the objections and the inspector's recommendation.

Mr. Meacher

The Minister implied—which is important—that the economic evaluations and traffic forecasts were continually revised. As new evaluations are continually different from previous evaluations, how will the Department determine whether there is a need for the motorway?

Mr. Clarke

We are constantly producing new methods. We shall assess the need for the motorway in the light of the economic appraisal, the traffic forecasts, our priorities for the trunk road programme and in the light of the pressure from Manchester and the general assessment—including our own—of the industrial needs of the area and the environmental advantage to be gained from the road.

There is no exact way of judging the need for a road. It calls for judgment——

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Monday evening 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 twenty-four minutes to One o'clock.