HC Deb 08 April 1982 vol 21 cc1105-12
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine)

Before I call the right hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Prentice) I should explain, as I believe he was not in the House earlier, that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley) gave up 15 minutes of his time so that this debate could proceed at length. The right hon. Member's speech is not being curtailed.

11.30 am
Mr. Reg Prentice (Daventry)

I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for your statement and I thank the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley) for his generosity.

In directing the attention of the House to this subject I speak mainly on behalf of people living in South Northamptonshire, particularly those living in the two towns of Brackley and Towcester and the two large villages of Blisworth and Silverstone.

I begin by making a brief reference to the general context of Government spending on road improvements and especially on bypasses. I hope that when my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Transport replies he will be able to put this important local issue into that wider context.

The latest Government statement on public expenditure shows that every year about 30 towns or villages are to be liberated, so to speak, from the environmental damage and additional dangers caused by major traffic, through bypass schemes or similar arrangements. I congratulate the Government on achieving that rate of progress in difficult economic times. Nevertheless, we should be doing even more. I say that fully recognising the need for public expenditure restraint.

My own view can be put in a nutshell. The Government should be tough on public expenditure—tougher than they have been in many departments—but the country badly needs increased public expenditure on capital projects, especially on capital projects affecting the building and civil engineering sides of the construction industry. For national reasons I hope to see an expansion of existing plans.

I have no time to develop the arguments in detail but I shall give them under separate headings. First, it is an inescapable fact of economic history that a country does not have economic growth unless its construction industry is growing. Secondly, road improvements are badly needed for the efficiency of all our industries that move goods by road. That applies to a great proportion of our industry. Thirdly, road improvements will pay an important dividend in that there will be fewer people killed and injured in road accidents. Fourthly, we should consider the time saved and the relief of wear and tear on the motorist. The majority of our citizens are motorists, or travel in motor cars. Fifthly, we need more bypasses for the sake of an improved environment for people living in the towns and villages of our countryside. That all adds up to a much stronger case than some of the more fashionable arguments we hear for the expansion of other parts of public spending.

Having made that general point, I turn to the situation affecting the A43 in my constituency. This important trunk road travels north-east from Oxford to Northampton and beyond. As the local Member of Parliament I am concerned with about 24 miles of the road from the Oxfordshire-Northamptonshire border to Northampton.

That part of England has been a national crossroads, so to speak, for traffic flows ever since the industrial revolution. Many people have travelled on its roads, canals and railways in all directions. The A43 is an extremely busy road and it is becoming busier every day. Statistics show that last year about 11,000 vehicles a day passed along the stretch of the A43 to which I refer. Nearly one-quarter of these were heavy vehicles, which badly affect the four communities concerned.

That flow of traffic has grown and is still growing. It has grown, among other reasons, because the whole area had has an expanding population. Northampton has expanded considerably and taken large numbers of people from the London area. Daventry, a mile or two to the north, is an expanding town taking overspill from Birmingham. A few miles to the south, Milton Keynes has been rapidly expanding. Virtually every town and village in that part of the country has expanded in recent years. That expansion is continuing, and will continue to do so into the immediate future.

These four communities have naturally been pressing for a bypass for many years. The state of play was set out for me in a helpful letter to me from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport on 4 January—helpful, that is, in giving information but not as helpful as I would have wished on the progress he indicated. My right hon. Friend pointed out that during 1981 routes for bypasses had been agreed for Brackley and Towcester. He was hoping that construction of the Brackley bypass would start by the beginning of 1985. He informed me that if funds were available he was hoping that construction of the Towcester bypass would begin about six months later.

As regards Blisworth, the proposal had not been on the active list—I do not know if that is the correct departmental term—but it was restored to the active list as part of the White Paper following the Armitage proposals. I am grateful for that. However, the Secretary of State points out that its planning is at a much earlier stage than Brackley or Towcester and it is unlikely that construction will start before 1987. My right hon. Friend goes on to say that Silverstone is on the list of schemes for which work has been suspended until there is a reasonable chance of fitting them into the programme. He does not think that construction can start during the present decade. My basic argument is for faster progress on all four of these schemes. I shall briefly refer to each of them.

Brackley has rightly been recognised as having the most urgent need. Its traffic problems are horrific. It is a historic town of great charm with a population of about 6,000 people. Its main street is one of the most impressive in the country with about 60 listed buildings along the frontages of the main street. However, its charm is spoiled by massive traffic problems. The traffic is dense, crowding the town and creating considerable delays and making it unsafe and difficult to cross the road.

After local government reorganisation the town retained its town council and mayor. I receive constant messages from them and from other organisations and individuals in Brackley about the urgency of the matter. Those of us who care for our historic towns wish for them to be given such relief. A survey carried out recently showed that three-quarters of the traffic passes through Brackley and so would use the bypass. The problems of Towcester are similar, but other factors may aggravate the situation. The A5 also passes through Towcester. The junction of the A5 and the A43 is greatly congested, particularly at peak travel periods. A large proportion of the population travels considerable distances to work. Again, the town has charm and a history and to a large extent is spoilt by traffic congestion, particularly when it builds up in the main street. Again, I have constant demands from local people for early action.

Blisworth and Silverstone are large villages. Both are accident black spots. At the time of and just after the general election, when I first represented the area in Parliament, there had been some serious road accidents, and I was presented with a petition for a bypass. Local residents posted signs stating "This is Silverstone village and not Silverstone race track. Please slow down." I fear that the message is not heeded as much as it should be.

I quoted the Secretary of State's letter which pointed out that the plans were at an early stage. I hope that the Department will take account of the view of councillor Bill Morton, who was the distinguished chairman of the county council transportation committee until the unfortunate election of last May. His view is shared by a number of people in the county. In a memorandum that he sent to me and others, including the Department, he states of the A43: This major trunk road should be connected to the MI at the Rothersthorpe Service Area and follow a line to provide a bypass for Milton Malsor and Blisworth on the west side. There is a strong case for that approach, which should be carefully considered before the final plans are put forward.

This part of the A43 is the worst stretch of road for accidents in the county, with the exception of one or two road junctions in the middle of towns such as Northampton, where the accident rate per yard is higher. In the past three years there have been eight fatal accidents, 32 accidents resulting in serious injury and 26 in light injuries. A map of accidents shows a close relationship between the black spots and the places identified as requiring bypasses.

In a recent letter to me the county surveyor mentions the fact that the police committee has had serious discussions about the accident rate on the roads. He states: As can be seen on the map, there is an overwhelming case on accident grounds for Brackley bypass and strong cases for the improvement north of Silverstone and Blisworth/Milton bypass. There is no doubt that these and other improvements listed will bring about a substantial reduction in accidents. I have been in touch with the south Northants branch of the National Farmers Union. The provision of bypasses could cause problems for individual farmers, but the NFU strongly supports the improvements. It has made representations to the Department about the compensation available. The provisions for financing of fences when there is a new motorway are better than when there is a new trunk road development.

I realise that the problem is partly one of resources, but it also concerns procedures. Plans must be prepared, there must be notification and there may be inquiries and so on. In Brackley and Towcester a great deal has been done already. Another letter from the county surveyor makes two points: If the Section 10 and Compulsory Purchase Orders were progressed at the same time, it is my view that schemes could be brought forward some six to nine months. I hope that that point will be considered. More fundamentally, the county surveyor suggests that this road, along with others, might sensibly be managed by the county council instead of by the Department. That reflects the views of the Select Committee on Transport. The county surveyor states: From the experience in my Department in constructing bypasses on county road schemes, it would be possible to trim 1–1½ years at least off the timescale, allowing a start at Brackley in late 1983. I hope that both suggestions will be seriously considered.

We cannot sensibly consider the future of the A43 without relating it to the proposal to extend the A40 from Oxford to Birmingham. That scheme is put forward by the Department as part of its main trunk road programme from 1984. The proposed route would cut through the southwest corner of my constituency not far from the communities that I mention. The greater part will then proceed northwards close to but outside Northamptonshire.

The proposed road will have a profound effect on traffic flows in Northamptonshire. It will benefit most of the county. The county council welcomes the M40 proposals. Flows on the M1, which is badly overloaded, would be reduced. For my constituents and others it would provide an alternative, and in many cases better, route south towards London or north towards Birmingham and the Midlands. But there is concern about the effect on traffic flows on the western side of the county with people entering the proposed motorway. The A43 is one road that would be most affected. The county council wants, as far as possible, to encourage the additional traffic to use the A43 provided that it is improved in time. That is the crucial point. Other roads in the area are less able to take the burden. I am thinking of the A361 and a network of minor roads north and west of the A43 going through village communities, which should not be subjected to additional traffic.

I emphasise as strongly as I can that all this reinforces the urgency of improving the A43. It is vital to achieve those bypasses, and, perhaps, other improvements to the A43 such as additional carriageways, although I have not discussed that in detail. Those improvements should be achieved before the extended M40 is in operation. Otherwise, all the problems to which I have referred will be greatly aggravated.

I suggest to my hon. Friend that there is a strong case for examining the programme again and seeing whether it can be speeded up.

11.50 am
The Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Reginald Eyre)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Prentice) on securing this debate. I know that the subject is of great importance to him.

The Government's recent White Paper on the trunk road programme gave particular priority to bypasses. Our system of motorways has done much to reduce transport costs and to get drivers and freight on to roads that have been designed with modern traffic conditions in mind. As the motorway system nears completion, we shall be able to turn more and more to bypass schemes such as those about which my right hon. Friend has spoken. Bypasses are usually the simplest way of dealing with the environmental problems caused by traffic, especially lorry traffic, using roads through small towns and villages that were often laid out in medieval times.

Our experience has been that people living in towns that have been bypassed find life much more pleasant when through traffic is removed. That is, of course, what we expect. A great deal has already been achieved. Many thousands of communications have been bypassed by new roads.

More than half of the historic towns on trunk roads in England and more than two-thirds of towns with populations above 10,000 have been relieved of through traffic, for example, as well as countless smaller communities. But we are keen to deal with the remaining problems as quickly as possible and we have a substantial programme of bypasses in hand.

Following the Armitage report, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced in the White Paper, "Lorries, People and the Environment", that more new schemes had been added to the programme. Six schemes had been promoted from the reserve list to the main programme. Of special interest and, I hope, pleasure to my right hon. Friend the Member for Daventry, was the fact that work was to be resumed on the A43 Blisworth bypass.

The Government's 1981 White Paper went on to announce the addition of yet more bypasses to the programme and the resumption of work on a number of other schemes. About 120 specific bypass schemes are planned at present, worth about £760 million. This, of course, covers only trunk roads—local authorities are planning many others for their roads. By the mid-1980s, more than half of the schemes starting will be bypasses.

My right hon. Friend has referred to the number of bypasses on which we have stopped design work for the time being. When we came to office, we found that far more road schemes were being designed than we could ever have hoped to start, even if the country could have afforded a large increase in the resources going to road building.

We decided, therefore, to stop design work on about 100 schemes which had little prospect of going ahead in the near future to free money and manpower to concentrate on schemes that could start. Our plans have proved realistic. We have got most of our schemes under way on time. There was some scope for increasing the number schemes being worked up, so in the White Paper on Armitage and in the roads White Paper in February we announced that we were restarting work on some. In all, nine schemes, eight of which are bypasses, were restarted, including the scheme for Blisworth. We are keeping the programme under review, and we shall pick up work on the schemes that are still suspended as soon as we can.

The Government made it clear from the outset that one of the main aims of our trunk roads programme was to provide bypasses to relieve our towns and villages of the problems of congestion, noise, accidents and environmental damage caused by traffic, particularly heavy lorries. The Government have pursued that aim with vigour and will continue to do so. Although we are giving priority to bypasses, that does not mean, I am afraid, that we can press on immediately with every scheme. The Government's priority above all else—except for the immediate problem of the Falkland Islands—remains economic recovery. We must live within our means and the road programme must play its part.

That means that we cannot do everything we would like to at once. The Government's overriding priority must be to secure economic recovery. Reducing public spending has a major part to play.

This Administration has maintained spending on trunk roads at roughly the same level in real terms as when we came to office because we recognise the importance of capital investment in infrastructure. This year we shall spend about £700 million on maintaining and improving the trunk road system, and local authorities will spend about £1,200 million on the roads for which they are responsible. But I am afraid that there will be no scope for increasing spending until we have got the economy right.

My right hon. Friend has argued well and eloquently his case for building more quickly bypasses for Brackley, Towcester, Blisworth and Silverstone. He has pressed his case on behalf of his constituents on many occasions. We accept without any reservation the need for those bypasses and we shall build them as soon as we can.

As my right hon. Friend described, the A43 trunk road is a cross-country route running north-east to south-west across the South Midlands between Stamford, where it connects with Al to the north, and Oxford, where it connects with A34 to Southampton. It traverses the whole of Northamptonshire, linking the major industrial towns of Corby, Kettering and Northampton. Traffic flows vary considerably along its length with a maximum of about 12,000 vehicles per day in South Northamptonshire, including approximately 2,500 lorries. In that part of the county, the road is a single two-lane carriageway throughout, and follows an undulating and twisting cross-country alignment.

My right hon. Friend referred with concern to accidents on the A43. I, of course, share that concern. While accidents are always to be regretted, I understand that the number on this length of road is no higher than on other comparable roads in the county. Nevertheless, accidents on that stretch of road have probably been more serious.

To improve the general road alignment as well as preparing proposals for bypasses, the Department has carried out many smaller improvements over the years and more are planned to bring the road up to a more satisfactory standard. There is no doubt that conditions leave much to be desired, not only for drivers but, as my right hon. Friend said, for those living in the towns and villages through which the traffic passes—Brackley, Towcester, Blisworth and Silverstone. It is attractive countryside and they are all pleasant places in which to live—and would be more so were it not for the heavy lorries and other traffic passing through them. There is no doubt that the quality of life for people living in these small towns and villages would be much improved if the through traffic was removed from them.

As my right hon. Friend knows, the fact that we cannot build these bypasses this year, or even next year, does not mean that we are doing nothing about them. With the exception of Silverstone, to which I shall return, there are schemes for all of them in our present programme. Brackley is in the reserve list for 1984–85 and Towcester and Blisworth for 1986 onwards.

The reserve lists were introduced in the 1980 roads White Paper. They give us a shelf of schemes which are being fully prepared and taken through all the statutory procedures laid down in the Highways Act. They will be able to go ahead quickly if, because of delays to schemes in the main programme, there is a gap and we have resources available.

The value of the reserve list was proved last year. Because tender prices were very keen, and because one or two large schemes were held up by challenges brought by objectors in the High Court, we were able to start six out of seven schemes in the reserve list.

I have noted the points that my right hon. Friend made on behalf of the NFU with regard to compensation and acquisition.

I should explain that the public were consulted in February and March 1980 about the possible routes for a bypass for Brackley. After considering the responses—and there was a good response—a preferred route, passing to the east of the town, was announced in May 1981. Since then, the Northamptonshire county council—our agent—has continued with the preparation and detailed design of the scheme. There is still a lot of work to be done. We aim to publish draft line and side roads orders under the Highways Act in about a year's time. They will be followed by a draft compulsory purchase order.

Should there be objections to the draft orders, we shall need to consider whether a public local inquiry should be held. If one is necessary, it will probably be held in the winter of 1983–84. In that event, if the inspector reports favourably and funds are available at the time, it should be possible to start work on building the bypass in early 1985.

Mr. Prentice

Will my hon. Friend take on board the point that I made, quoting the views of the county surveyor, that if the county had a relatively larger role in this it might be possible to speed things up? I do not ask him to respond one way or the other at this moment, but will he study that and perhaps write to me later about that possibility?

Mr. Eyre

I assure my right hon. Friend that I shall ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State who has ministerial responsibility in that part of the Department to consider the point that he has raised.

Towcester bypass should follow about six months behind Brackley. The public were consulted about possible routes in December 1980, and the preferred route was announced in May 1981. The scheme will have to go through the same procedures as Brackley. Provided that we are able to complete these satisfactorily, we aim to start work in the latter half of 1985.

As I have already mentioned, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in his White Paper, "Lorries, People and the Environment", announced that work was to be resumed on Blisworth bypass. The Northamptonshire county council—our agent—has resumed work on the preparation of the scheme and is now nearing the end of a study of possible routes. We shall now be asking them to undertake all the remaining preparation work.

Our studies may show that there is only one route which could justify building, in which case we would hope to dispense with a time-consuming public consultation exercise. If this turns out to be the case, we would hope to announce the route in about six months' time. This would mean that it would follow about a year behind Towcester, with a possible start to the work towards the end of 1986.

The proposals for Blisworth will also take traffic away from another village, Milton Manor, as well as providing the present missing connection between the M1 and the A43.

I said that I would return to the question of Silverstone bypass. It is the one scheme for which my right hon. Friend has pressed the case on which, at present, I can offer little encouragement. It is a scheme on which work has been temporarily suspended until there is a reasonable opportunity of fitting it in, and I am sorry to say that it must remain so for the time being. Silverstone was, in fact, bypassed many years ago—about 50 years ago, to be more precise—with the result that through traffic no longer passes through the village centre. It is only fair to say, however, that some development has subsequently taken place on the side of the bypass remote from the village proper, and we accept fully the need for another bypass.

The scheme is in the programme, and we shall resume work on it as soon as there is a realistic chance of finding the money to build it. As I said earlier, we have already resumed work on some suspended schemes, and the programme is reviewed regularly. We shall pick it up as soon as we can.

My right hon. Friend also referred to the likely effects on the A43 of the proposed M40 motorway. The published proposals for that scheme include a junction with the A43 at Baynards Green. The trunk road will therefore act as a feeder route to the M40 for traffic from Brackley and surrounding areas.

Having said that, we do not expect any significant increases in traffic on these sections of the A43. Nevertheless, all the points made in this connection by my right hon. Friend will be carefully considered. I know that what I have said about the provision of these bypasses will not wholly satisfy my right hon. Friend, but I hope that I have been able to assure him and the House of the Government's determination to pursue our aim of taking heavy lorries and indeed all through traffic away from places where people live. In the case of the bypasses that we have debated today, we are pressing on with these as fast as we can.