HC Deb 19 October 1982 vol 29 cc336-44

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

11.30 pm
Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarvon)

I am pleased, so early after the Summer Recess, to have an opportunity to raise in the House a question which is of some worry to a number of my constituents—namely the failure of successive Governments to improve the A487 trunk road between Caernarfon and Porthmadog. I have letters on file to the Welsh Office and Gwynedd county council since June 1974, three months after I entered Parliament, on various aspects of this road, and the need for its modernisation, but progress has been minimal. Indeed, at times it would appear that the improvements which my constituents seek are further away than ever.

This road forms part of two trunk routes. One is the Bangor to Fishguard trunk road, which is essentially the north-south route along the western Welsh seaboard. The other is the north-south trunk road leading to Cardiff. The A487 links Caernarfon, the county town of Gwynedd, to the A470 main north-south trunk road, a few miles to the south of Porthmadog. The road is, therefore, one of major importance for both the tourist industry, and for those wishing to go frorn the capital of Gwynedd to the capital of Wales, which includes growing numbers of those involved in local government and offices of central Government, as the Minister will know, as well as the increasing number of voluntary bodies which are organising themselves on an all-Wales basis.

It is also, of course, the path trodden by those making their way from Caernarfon to the Arms Park national stadium. This is, in other words, a vital part of the north-south link in Wales, and many of us feel that it is high time that the Welsh Office started thinking in terms of north-south in Wales, rather than giving the impression that the only roads that matter in its view are those running into England.

A generation ago, the Caernarfon-Porthmadog road was regarded as being of reasonable standard for that era. Subsequently, little has been done to modernise it, and in 1969 the Development Corporation for Wales said in its report, "Road Communications in North Wales" that the A487 Fishguard-Bangor road was "of major importance". It added that, in view of the withdrawal of rail services under the Beeching plan, which ended rail links between Porthmadog and Caernarfon, There is clearly a need to provide alternative road communication to make up, as far as possible, for the loss. It is my contention that successive Governments, Tory and Labour, have totally failed to provide this alternative of good road links, in the case of the A487 between Caernarfon and Porthmadog. I would add, at this point, that Caernarfon is one of the largest towns in Wales which has no rail service whatsoever. It is, therefore, even more dependent on having good roads.

When we see how the Llanllyfni bypass on the A487 to the north of Caernarfon has drifted back, having undergone a public participation exercise some years ago, to now being designated for commencement sometime after 1987, we really do start to despair about getting a modern road service for the Caernarfon area. Parts of the Caernarfon-Porthmadog road have not even reached this preparation stage, and stretches with critical problems have had no feasibility studies completed. I suggest that the Welsh Office have shown culpable neglect in not making faster progress with this route.

I wish to make it clear that I am not seeking a motorway between Caernarfon and Porthmadog, not even a dual carriageway. Those are luxuries enjoyed by other areas, but we have learnt the hard way in my part of Wales that they are not facilities which the Government will afford us.

I am, therefore, at this stage, pressing merely for a good, 24-ft wide, single carriageway, with grass verges or pavements that give distant visibility, and a fast safe route for traffic. The Welsh Council publication "Roads in Wales", which appeared in 1974, has already designated the A487 to receive substantial improvement up to the 24-ft standard, but little has been done to achieve this for large parts of the Caernarfon-Porthmadog section. I am also seeking to take the trunk route traffic away from the conurbations, which at present creates the twin evils of significant road safety hazards and a slowing down of journey time.

If the Government press ahead with their reported intention to increase lorry weights to 38 or 40 tonnes, the need for such road improvements becomes even more acute, particularly in those areas which cannot benefit from the Government's plans to try to move more freight to the railways. Perhaps the Minister in replying could indicate how the Welsh Office intends to safeguard villages and towns in Wales, such as those on the A487, from the effects of heavier lorries. Are we to have many more new bypasses, such as has been announced by the Department of Transport, or are such luxuries only to be provided in England? Does the Welsh Office accept the recommendations of the Armitage report in this context to spend resources on new roads and bypasses?

There are four parts of the A487 between Caernarfon and Porthmadog on which I seek assurances from the Minister. Three of these are on the stretch between Caernarfon and Llanllyfni, and the fourth concerns the Porthmadog area itself. I shall not dwell on the Pant Glas problem, which has had half a job done on it recently, nor on the Llanwnda junction or the Glanmorfa village, which have had go-aheads for minor schemes. I am grateful for small mercies—I only wish that the Welsh Office were tackling the whole problem as a coherent whole, rather than playing with it in a piecemeal fashion, which can cost more in the long-term and prejudice certain policy options such as the route to the Porthmadog bypass.

In the Gwynedd county council transport policy subnission of 1976–77, which should be the basic document for formulating a strategic approach to roads such as this, the characteristics of the A487 showed that between Caernarfon and Llanwnda as much as 75 per cent. of the road falls below the 24 ft standard and 40 per cent. of both the horizontal and vertical alignment are classed as "fair" or "bad". On the Llanwnda to Llanllyfni stretch of the road, 94 per cent. is below the 24 ft standard and 69 per cent. of the horizontal alignment and 43 per cent. of the vertical alignment is inadequate. Little has improved since 1976. Later studies have shown that between Caernarfon and Llanllyfni overtaking is restricted or prevented on no less than 86 per cent. of the road length outside the speed-restricted areas. Furthermore, of the 28 side-road junctions that come into the A487 between Pont Seiont, Caernarfon and Llanllyfni, no fewer than 26 have inadequate visibility against accepted standards in both the left and right directions. Only one junction has adequate visibility in both directions. The accident frequency at Pont Seiont, Penygroes and Llanllyfni is between four and five times higher than the accepted standard for an unimproved trunk road. The summer traffic volumes double the number of vehicles using the road. Taken together, these statistics paint in graphic terms the picture of a trunk road in acute need of improvement.

The first point on the road, working from the Caernarfon end, which requires a major scheme is at Pont Seiont, a mile from Caernarfon itself. The bridge is within the town's 30-mph limit, is on an S-bend and has approach roads of significant gradient on either side. It can be lethal on ice and has been an accident blackspot. A couple of years ago, there was a very sad fatal accident there. The bridge has been acknowledged to be structurally unsafe and a public consultation took place as long ago as 1977 on alternative routes. One of these has been identified as a preferred line and the work was expected to go ahead during 1982. Indeed, it is a natural follow-on from the Caernarfon inner relief road which brings high speed traffic into a bottleneck at South Road, Caernarfon at present. Unfortunately, the present Government have pushed the Pont Seiont project back, according to "Roads in Wales" 1980 so as to start not before 1987 at a cost in 1979 terms of £3 million. Will the Minister state categorically that the bridge is safe for present traffic without weight restriction? If heavier lorries are to be allowed, can he give an assurance about its safety for 40-tonne lorries? In any case, for road safety reasons, will he look again at the timing of this scheme and bring it forward?

Secondly, will the Minister state whether the brigade at my home village of Bontnewydd, over the river Gwyrfai, is regarded at present as being safe, and will it be able to cope with heavier lorries? If it cannot cope with the juggernauts that the Government are contemplating, how does the Minister see an alternative route for traffic? Will he undertake to study this bridge and to ensure that its condition is upgraded if necessary to cope with the lorry traffic which might be foreseeable over the next few years?

Thirdly, I come to the most pressing problem of all—the need for a bypass for the villages of Penygroes and Llanllyfni. I have written letter after letter to the Welsh Office about this and, as the Minister well knows, I have tabled numerous questions too. The A487 goes through the middle of these two busy villages. The nature and layout of the housing there and the slopes in both villages make it impossible to achieve significant traffic improvement without the provision of a bypass. The village of Llanllyfni, in particular, suffers because the road is narrow there, is on a steep hill with minimal pavements and is close to terraced housing. There have been a number of accidents at Penygroes and Llanllyfni—and a particular blackspot is on the way out of Llanllyfni near the cemetery at the southern end.

As it happens, there is an obvious route for a bypass for those villages, namely, the old railway line which could be used from the village of Groeslon or even from Llanwnda itself, through to beyond Llanllyfni, relinking with the present road near the Nebo turning. That railway has already been converted to being a haulage road for heavy lorries carrying gravel from nearby pits to the CEGB construction site at Dinorwig.

I know that successive Ministers under both the Labour Government and the present Government have considered the problem, but nothing concrete has been decided. In a letter dated 11 May 1981, the Under-Secretary of State for Wales told me that a route study had been undertaken and that Gwynedd county council had submitted a report to the Welsh Office for consideration. I ask the Minister for a firm commitment tonight that the scheme will go ahead immediately into the preparation pool, with whatever necessary feasibility studies being made as a matter of urgency, and that the Welsh Office will make every endeavour thereafter to make progress on the bypass proposal. I ask specifically, if there are to be additional bypasses authorised to help deal with the heavy lorry problems, that this be one of them. I feel that it is crazy that there should be hundreds of building workers unemployed in the Gwynedd area, that the land for this bypass be in local authority ownership as it has been since 1973, and yet we prefer to pay people to do nothing rather than pay them to undertake such socially and economically useful work.

May I also say, at this point, that the timing of road surface improvement work, carried out this summer on the A487 in the vicinity of Groeslon, and in Llanllyfni itself, was highly regrettable. For weeks at the height of the holiday period, when the road is at its busiest, there was no surface whatsoever on those two stretches, and traffic was delayed while work proceeded. Surely it is possible to schedule such work out of the three-month period of the year when tourist traffic is at its height?

I turn now to the Porthmadog area, where again there are problems for both the local inhabitants and for travellers arising from the route of the A487. The town of Porthmadog is a focal point through which passes not only Welsh north-south traffic but also traffic coming from the Midlands of England on holiday to the Lleyn peninsula—to Pwllheli, Criccieth, Abersoch and Nefyn. Porthmadog itself is a bubbling and busy holiday centre, and, while the main road through the town is wide, it is packed with pedestrians in summer, both during the day and in the evenings. Geographically, Porthmadog forms a bottleneck for traffic, being located on an estuary, and further delays in the vicinity are caused by the villages of Penmorfa, Tremadog, Minffordd and Penrhyndeudraeth. Between Porthmadog and Penrhyndeudraeth there is a narrow cob with a toll-gate, which is unsuited to present-day traffic conditions. While the abolition of the toll may well come through a decision of residents in the area between now and next summer—thanks to the enterprise of a group of local persons who bought the toll-gate and cob some five years ago—the traffic problem will remain since the traffic will then only arrive that much quicker into the tail-back at Porthmadog. I ask the Minister whether the cob can carry 40-tonne lorries.

The only real answer is for a bypass to be built which would take traffic away ideally from the northern end of Penmorfa, bypassing Tremadog and Porthmadog, running across the Troeth roughly parallel to the railway line and possibly also helping to bypass Minffordd and at least part of Penrhyndeudraeth. In February 1975, the Dwyfor council pressed for a meeting with Ministers at the Welsh Office to discuss a Porthmadog bypass. Policy 3A of the Porthmadog-Ffestiniog district plan, published by Dwyfor council in June of this year. states: The early definition of the route for a bypass to Porthmadog, and its early implementation is seen as an essential part of the improvement of the highway network within the area. That document also sees the bypassing of Tremadog as an integral part of the A487 problem in and near Porthmadog. Such reports and recommendations are, sadly, nothing new. The Development Corporation for Wales, in the study of 1969, specifically noted that a new road alignment of the A487 was needed between Tremadog and Penrhyndeudraeth, to form a Porthmadog bypass.

If the work that. I have proposed could be undertaken, it would reduce the travelling time on the north-south journey by up to 12 minutes, obviously more in summer when traffic congestion can cause jams holding up traffic for half an hour al: a time. It would create much needed work in the area, it would improve the safety and wellbeing of the residents of the area, and in the longer term it would make it possible for the area not to be wholly cut off the map, if heavier lorries are introduced. It will also make it easier to develop new job opportunities by way of new factories.

The A487 is a trunk road, and the responsibility for giving it priority, and for getting on with the job of bringing it into the second half of the twentieth century, rests with the Welsh Office and the Minister. I appeal Ito him tonight to show that he is aware of the problems of western Gwynedd, that he is not myopic in thinking that only east-west traffic matters, and I ask him to give commitments that will lead to early action on this road.

11.44 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Michael Roberts)

I have been very well aware for some time of the interest the hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Wigley) has in the A487 between Caernarfon and Porthmadog, and in particular that major improvements are made especially at the villages of Penygroes and Llanllyfni. He has represented the desirability of such improvements on behalf of his constituents.

It is entirely natural that people feel that their own particular towns and villages are worthy of priority treatment, because they have to live with the traffic problems of their own particular areas. However, I am sure that the hon. Member will appreciate that the Secretary of State has to consider, and make judgments on, many claims for priority treatment for trunk road improvements from all over the Principality, and has to decide which routes should be given priority claim to the available resources. In doing so, he has, of course, to take note of the national as well as the local interest.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the Government' s priority for trunk roads in Wales made clear in the document "Roads in Wales 1980". It is to improve the main trunk road east-west routes in North and South Wales. I do not believe that these priorities are a party political matter. They have been widely endorsed, and I am happy that we have been able to make very significant progress over the last two-and-a-half years in getting the east-west programme in North Wales under way. Four major schemes have been started—the Hawarden by -pas, and Colcon stage I on the A55 and the Bangor and Llanfair PG by-passes. The current estimated gross cost of these schemes is £172 million, and further schemes to improve the A55 are at an advanced stage of preparation. This is ample indication of our commitment to improving trunk road communications in North Wales.

I cannot reconcile those facts with the hon. Gentleman's statement that dual carriageways were not for his part of Wales. If his part of Wales is North Wales, a substantial investment has been made. I spent a pleasant time last week looking at the great improvements that we are making in North Wales, which I am sure the hon. Gentleman regards as his particular part of Wales.

Our strategy does not mean, however, that the needs of other routes such as the A487 are being neglected or ignored, although clearly there is a limitation in the amount of resources, both financial and staff, which can be devoted to them. There are always a large number of minor but worthwhile improvement schemes being undertaken by county councils on behalf of the Department. This point can be demonstrated by what has happened on the A487 between Caernarfon and Porthmadog. Thirteen minor improvement schemes have been completed on behalf of the Department by Gwynedd county council in the last eight years, the largest of these being two schemes each costing more than £100,000 north of Pont Tafarn Faig and south of Dolbenmaen. The total cost of these improvements was just under £0.5 million. A further two schemes at Pantglas Village and north of Goat Inn, Llandwyfach, at a combined cost of £260,000, are under way. In addition, contracts have recently been let for improvements at Penmorfa-Glanmorfa and Llanwnda junction at a combined cost of just under £500,000 and work on these is expected to start shortly. A further seven schemes, of which the more significant are those for the Golan junction, Penmorfa and that from Pont Seiont to Bontnewydd, are in course of preparation. It can hardly be said, therefore, that the route has been overlooked and certainly not by the present Government in whose term of office the majority of the schemes I have mentioned have been implemented or expenditure on them committed.

I am also pleased that Gwynedd county council has been undertaking improvements to roads for which it is the responsible highway authority. The hon. Member has referred me to the work which it is doing on the Caernarfon-Pwllheli road. I welcome this, but it should not be forgotten that a substantial element of local authority spending on county roads is financed by central government grant.

The projects that have been carried out to date on the trunk road between Caernarfon and Porthmadog have been admittedly relatively minor improvements to overcome localised problems requiring urgent attention. But the need for, and the scale of, improvements, must be kept in perspective. Traffic flows are very low during winter months and even in the peak of the holiday season are not high by many standards. Accident rates are not high and on the length between Caernarfon and Porthmadog are broadly in line with those elsewhere in Great Britain. Indeed, in the built-up areas of Penygroes and Llanllyfni the accident rate is well below the national figure with only 17 recorded accidents involving personal injury over the three-year period 1979 to 1981. Of those, 12 were slight injuries and the remainder serious but with no fatalities. In the same period over the route between Caernarfon and Porthmadog 72 accidents occurred, with one fatality, 22 serious and 49 slight injuries. Maintenance of the road within its physical limitations is generally good, with annual expenditure on it being a little higher than the county average.

The hon. Gentleman has referred to the traffic congestion which arose during August this year. I regret that this should have happened, but the difficulties between Llanllyfni and Penygroes during the period were caused in part because the Wales Gas Board was engaged in laying a new trunk main in the road in Penygroes with new service connections to each house. There were also some problems arising from the surface on part of the road near Groeslon becoming polished and a lorry jack-knifed in this area. The problem was rectified in September in both situations. It is certainly the policy of the Department to endeavour to carry out routine maintenance outside the main holiday periods.

The hon. Member has raised a number of specific issues about the road between Caernarfon and Porthmadog. First, Pont Seiont. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the existing bridge has been buttressed and that it is not considered necessary to impose a weight restriction upon it. The planning of a replacement crossing must, however, proceed; and towards this end a public participation exercise into the choice of routes was held in June 1977. Following consideration of comments received, we announced a preferred route in December 1979 and this has been protected for planning purposes. I know that the hon. Member is disappointed that on current assumptions room cannot be found for this scheme in the programme of major schemes until after 1987. This does not mean, however, that work on its preparation has ceased. In fact we are endeavouring to take into account certain changes in traffic which it is forecast will be using Coed Helen lane and we are expecting a report from our consultants on this by about the end of November.

Next, the bridge at Bontnewydd. As I know it is the hon. Gentleman's native village, I am glad to be able to give him some reassurance about a bridge that he knows better than most.

I should like to assure the hon. Gentleman that this is not a weak bridge. It is perfectly adequate to take normal construction and use traffic. What it cannot take are abnormally heavy loads. The CEGB has asked us in the past to strengthen the bridge to take some of its loads in this category and the Department has indicated that it stands ready to do so provided the CEGB will bear the cost. A scheme of strengthening has been prepared, but the CEGB has not up to this point felt that the cost involved—some hundreds of thousands of pounds—was worth it.

As regards the proposal that Penygroes and Llanllyfni should be bypassed, the Department commissioned and has received a report from the surveyor of the Gwynedd county council into the possibilities of improving the road from Pont Seiont to south of Llanllyfni. The report identified five main improvement areas and gave a recommended order of priority for tackling them. The improvment recommended as having the most urgent priority was that between Pont Seiont and Bontnewydd. That was not the priority that the hon. Member gave a few moments ago but that is the priority given by the Gwynedd surveyor.

As I indicated earlier, this scheme is in preparation and I very much hope that resources will be available so that it can be started within the next two years. A bypass of Penygroes and Llanllyfni rated fourth in the order of priority. As the hon. Member is aware, a possible route for a bypass using the old railway bed from Llanwnda to Llanllyfni has been protected for some time, but this is not necessarily the simple solution that some people think. Inevitably, the considerations are complex. Its costs will certainly be not less than £2 million to £3 million, and against that one has to bear in mind that the traffic flows are in the region of only 6,500 vehicles per day in August and substantially less in the winter months. The solution to the problem here will not necessarily be easy to arrive at, and I cannot give the hon. Member any guarantees as to the progress which can be made with this scheme.

The position in respect of the Porthmadog area is that the Welsh Office has commissioned consultant engineers to prepare a route and feasibility study for improvements of the A487 from Maentwrog to west of Porthmadog. The work is well in hand and the report is expected early next year. Again, the expenditure on improvements in this area could be of a significant order, and the report will therefore need very careful consideration.

The hon. Member has rightly recognised the importance of the A487, not only to his constituency but because of the link it provides in the north-south trunk road network in Wales down the western seaboard from Bangor to Fishguard. A number of improvements have been carried out in recent years to this route in the south of the country and also between Caernarfon and Bangor, where minor improvements made over the last eight years have cost almost 1 million. In respect of this area two reports by consulting engineers on the improvement of the road at Griffiths crossing to Caernarfon and the Port Dinorwic bypass are being examined in the Welsh Office currently.

In conclusion, I should like to stress that the Government as a whole are fully aware of the need to remove through traffic, especially heavy goods vehicles, from our towns and villages. Indeed, our major improvement programme will do just that, removing substantial volumes of through traffic from sizeable communities. I believe that I have indicated this evening the extent to which we are committing resources towards that end. But within that programme of expenditure on major schemes, there is still a place for a programme of worthwhile improvements to trunk roads such as the A487 between Caernarfon and Porthmadog. In many cases those are being carried out by and in co-operation with county councils such as Gwynedd. The expenditure on individual schemes may be small in comparison with the major improvements but they are worth while for all that.

I think that the hon. Member will recognise that the expenditure to which we are committed in the major east-west project along the A55 is substantial, and it is a commitment which his party. I am sure, supports, as does mine. It was supported by the previous Labour Government. Indeed, I have never heard any opposition to the importance of constructing the east-west road. I know that we wanted to improve north-south, but we must not dismiss the significance of the investment that is being made.

Major schemes along routes such as the A487 between Caernarfon and Porthmadog will certainly be considered very carefully in the light of all the relevant facts. But with the major part of our resources committed to a programme which I know commands wide agreement, it would be wrong of me to give any specific commitments as to the rate at which we should be able to make progress on such schemes.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twelve midnight.