HC Deb 28 March 1984 vol 57 cc425-32

Motion made, That this House do now adjourn. —[Mr. Garel-Jones.]

1.12 am
Mr. Deputy Speaker

The Question is, That this House do now adjourn.

Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

Get away.

Mr. Deputy Speaker


Mr. Nellist

What a coward.

Mr. Deputy Speaker


Mr. Nellist

Do not worry, I am going.

Mr. Michael Forsyth (Stirling)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the important question, to my constituents, of the Dunblane bypass. Improvements in the A9 have been under active consideration since before the war. Official reports since 1945 have argued for widening the road, providing dual carriageways or even building new alternative roads. The regional plan for central and south-east Scotland argued as long ago as 1948 for the new Edinburgh-Stirling road that, many years later, became reality in the form of the M9.

More recently, the 1970 report "Tayside: Potential for Development" recommended that the section from Blackford to Perth should be upgraded to dual carriageway. Unfortunately, throughout that period the interests of Dunblane appear to have been given little thought—if, indeed, they were given any thought at all. Situated just outside the Stirling county council boundary, Dunblane was not considered as a part of central and south-east Scotland. Neither was it regarded as a part of Tayside.

While other stretches of the A9 were considerably improved, other towns were bypassed and substantial stretches of road were replaced by motorway. Dunblane remains divided by a river and a railway, and by a major road with one fifth of the traffic using it in the category of heavy goods vehicle. It is a loss not only to Dunblane, but to Scotland. We can drive all the way by motorway and dual carriageway from London, and the first town to be reached will be Dunblane—it is also the last before reaching Inverness.

It has been recognised that something should be done about the problems of Dunblane. For 20 years it has been acknowledged that the position is unsatisfactory. I venture to remind my hon. Friend the Minister that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, when he was a candidate in that part of the world, gave a strong commitment that the Dunblane bypass would be pursued with vigour.

Originally, it was intended to upgrade the road through Dunblane to dual carriageway status. Understandably, there were protests from the people who live in Dunblane. It was therefore agreed by the then Secretary of State, Lord Ross, that a bypass would eventually have to be provided. In 1972, the Conservative Government formally agreed that a bypass was needed. On 7 August 1972, the Scottish Office wrote to the clerk of the joint county council saying: in principle, the improved trunk road should follow the line of a western bypass as favoured by your county council. Unfortunately, 12 years later, not a sod has been turned, not a square inch of new tarmac laid. While other smaller communities on the A9 have been bypassed at Blackford and Auchterarder, Dunblane remains forlorn.

Not unnaturally, the people of Dunblane feel that they have been unfairly treated, and when one looks at the history of the project, it is easy to see why. When they succeeded in getting the bypass accepted as the solution, instead of upgrading the road through the town, they accepted that it would have to take its place in the list of priorities. Perth and Kinross joint county council undertook considerable work on the scheme, looking at a route to the west of the town, as well as — at the insistence of the Scottish development department — a route through the town. The latter route raised so many objections that it was abandoned by the Department, amidst a blaze of publicity. The council undertook a soil survey along the proposed western route, to determine broadly the soils involved and to highlight any potential problems. It also made an aerial survey.

Following the reorganisation of local government in 1975, Central region took over and made several efforts to persuade the Department to publish an order establishing the line of the bypass. Despite much support from my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Perth and Kinross (Mr. Fairbairn), who previously was the Member who represented Dunblane, no such action was forthcoming.

Instead, in 1977, Central regional council was asked to carry out a feasibility study of six or so alternative routes. The report of that study was submitted to the Department in September 1978. Despite persistent pressure, it took over two years before a site investigation was authorised by the Scottish Office, along the route that the council had identified as the best option, and which had been acknowledged as such by the Scottish Office in that letter of 1972.

The results of the investigation were submitted in May 1982. That was followed in August by slightly modified drawings of the council's preferred route. In November, the council's director of roads was informed that a further traffic study would be required, new design standards were to be introduced, and that a new computer programme had been introduced to evaluate road improvements. As a result, a completely new investigation was ordered covering the original routes, two new ones and—with the dogged persistence of which only civil servants seem capable — accompanied by a demand that the route through the middle of the town be investigated again. The results of that investigation have now been submitted to the Department.

My predecessor, the hon. and learned Member for Perth and Kinross, received a letter from my hon. Friend's predecessor in the Department, the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart), dated 18 April 1983, in which he said: we must ensure that we get value for money from our investment in new roads. My Department's road engineers are therefore seeking, with due urgency, a solution to the problem at Dunblane which will yield an acceptable return. An up-to-date study of traffic in and around Dunblane is an essential first step in this assessment process and Central Region, as our agent authority, have made a start on this work. The study should be completed and the results assessed by the end of the summer, and we should then be in a position to determine the preferred line for the bypass and put the necessary statutory procedures in train. That was the summer of 1983. It was in January 1984 that one of my constituents wrote to me, having received this reply, asking how long the summer of 1983 would be extended into the summer of 1984.

My hon. Friend was kind enough to reply to me on 17 February pointing out that the report prepared by Central regional council had been submitted to his Department and had identified several lines for a possible bypass. My hon. Friend said: we must now determine which line performs best, taking account of environmental as well as economic factors. To this end my Department is about to appoint Messrs. Babtic, Shaw and Morton, Consulting Engineers, to carry out environmental assessments of the various lines proposed in the report and make recommendations. This work will take about 6 months, and thereafter we will be in a position to decide on a preferred line. I note what you say about local preference for a western line but you will appreciate that until the results of the economic, environmental and engineering appraisals have been coordinated and considered, I cannot comment on that aspect. I can assure you, however, that once a line has been chosen my Department will publish draft orders with all possible speed. I am tempted to point out that when my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood was Minister he seemed to be satisfied with the Central regional survey and was able to promise a possible line of route by the summer of last year. Yet we now have a further survey and a further promise for the summer of 1984, which I sincerely hope will be kept.

I asked my hon. Friend the Minister in a written question on 14 March if he could tell me when he expected to publish the draft order and how many route surveys had been carried out since the project was first mooted. In view of the history which I have just outlined I was surprised to receive the answer that publication of the draft order was planned for the early summer of 1985 and that two surveys only had been carried out since the need for a bypass was accepted in principle by the Secretary of State.

While delay has been the characteristic feature of the discussions concerning the Dunblane bypass almost every other improvement on the A9 has proceeded with some speed. North of Perth and south of Stirling the road has been transformed beyond recognition. Between Stirling and Perth every town except Dunblane has been bypassed. It is scarcely to be wondered at that the population of the town feels that it has been deliberately discriminated against because of its audacity in opposing the Department's original proposal to drive a dual carriageway through the town. Indeed, I receive constant correspondence, which I am delighted to pass on to my hon. Friend, from constituents who tell me of the problems that they experience in that they gather not flowers in their gardens but hub caps and bits of heavy vehicles.

I am grateful to have the opportunity to bring the case of the Dunblane bypass before the House tonight. The history of delay and indecision is one with which nobody can be happy and I hope that in his reply tonight my hon. Friend can promise that at long last progress is about to take place and that the community can look forward to a definite date from which it will no longer have to contend with the kind of traffic that every other town has now been spared.

In the interim, my hon. Friend may feel able to do something to redress the position, which has been exacerbated by his Department refusing to give the Central regional council the authority to extend the speed limits beyond the current boundaries of Dunblane to take account of the nearby school and the children who are walking into the town, with all this heavy traffic travelling at speed. I particularly hope that he can guarantee, as his predecessors have done, that there is no question of the road going through the town being turned into a dual carriageway instead.

In Dunblane there is virtually unanimous support for the western route for a possible bypass. This was approved, as I said, by the Department back in 1972. According to my information, costings have been submitted to the Department showing that the eastern approach would be up to 50 per cent. more expensive, and the existing A9 route—which is out of the question—about 50 per cent. less. There is a further advantage in the western bypass route in that at a future date it would leave the Department with the option of bypassing Doune, thereby saving the cost of replacing the Scissors bridge over the Teith, which is considered to be substandard and would be a very expensive job indeed to carry out.

I also understand from my friends in the Central regional council that the western route has a positive rate of return. There would seem to have been some confusion in the answers that I have received on this matter. I am told that it scored a figure of nine, which though low, is apparently average by Scottish standards, and presumably rather higher than that scored by the Auchterarder bypass.

The Government have set out on a major programme of bypasses as compensation for their acceptance of the Armitage report, bringing heavier traffic on to our roads. The detrimental effects of heavy traffic on historic towns and places such as Dunblane are recognised. Is it too much to hope that a place can at last be found in the programme for this much delayed but much needed project?

1.27 am
The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Michael Ancram)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth) on securing this Adjournment debate and on raising a matter which I know is of considerable concern to him. I have been aware of that concern from the letters that he has written to me and the parliamentary questions that he has tabled. I appreciate that he speaks on behalf of his constituents when he talks of the anxiety that is felt over what has undoubtedly been a long time in the provision of a bypass. I am grateful for this opportunity to reply to the debate.

I must refer to the past because the perspective of the position in relation to this road depends greatly on what has gone before. I agree with my hon. Friend that the story effectively starts—although he referred to some earlier occasions—when the Conservative Government in 1972 accepted in principle that a bypass should be constructed to the west of Dunblane. Given the priority that was attached to other schemes in the overall reconstruction of the A9 and elsewhere in the trunk road system, an early start the Dunblane bypass was not indicated at that time.

While the existing A9 trunk road passes through Dunblane, it skirts the town centre and, in terms of traffic delay and environmental effects, it causes less disruption than, for example, the A9 through Perth or other roads such as the Al through Musselburgh and Tranent. It was, therefore, right for the Government to take the view that the more pressing cases should be tackled first.

The Government have, since 1972, and they remain, committed to the construction of a Dunblane bypass, and I use the word "bypass" advisedly. Now that the work has started on the bypass at Perth, I accept that there is a very strong case for carrying out the Dunblane scheme, which is the last major bypass on the A9, at the earliest opportunity.

The original proposal before 1972, as my hon. Friend pointed out, had been to construct a new road through the town, and by then about £4 million had already been spent on the construction of the dual carriageway up to Fourways roundabout. The existence of the dual carriageway meant that Dunblane did not present a major bottleneck for trunk road A9 traffic compared with other towns on the route. In fact, the trunk road through Dunblane coped fairly well with the traffic at that time, and — following the introduction of a local traffic management scheme in the mid-1970s — it still, to an extent, continues to do so. For that reason, a low priority was given to the scheme at that time.

My hon. Friend mentioned the bypass at Auchterarder and Aberuthven, which not so long ago I had the honour to open. I am sure that my hon. Friend recognises that those communities bypassed had a great need to be bypassed, as the A9 ran through them, indeed along the fronts of shops. In many ways, that was a more disruptive and, some might say, more dangerous condition than can be argued for Dunblane. For that reason, the Government, in assessing the priorities, decided that such communities should have priority for any bypasses. Therefore, the Dunblane bypass has taken more time than was envisaged when the principle was first accepted.

My hon. Friend talked about the western line bypass, and rightly pointed out that the Government have not been prepared to adopt that line. In 1972 the Secretary of State made a commitment to construct a bypass to the west of Dunblane, as proposed by Perth and Kinross county council in 1968 in its proposed amendments to the combined county development plan. In June 1977, the central regional council, as my hon. Friend said, was invited by the Scottish development department to undertake a feasibility study into the bypass. The regional council's report was submitted to my Department in March 1979, and examined four possible routes—two to the east, and two to the west of the town. One of the western routes was recommended by the regional council in that report.

The more sophisticated economic evaluation methods, which had not then been introduced into the Department's appraisal procedures—the so-called network evaluation from surveys and assignments, colloquially known as NESA— showed that the western line proposed by the regional council produced a negative result that was not acceptable in investment terms.

My hon. Friend mentioned that a positive result had been achieved in the assessment made by the regional council. In the evaluation made by that method by my Department, the result was negative, and that fact was made known to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Perth and Kinross (Mr. Fairbairn) in correspondence between him and my predecessor in the office I now hold. That negative result was not acceptable in investment terms, and I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees that it is essential to obtain the best possible investment of public funds. The information available until recently showed that the Dunblane bypass would not have been a sound investment. The money could have brought better returns elsewhere. I am sure that my hon. Friend appreciates that it was important that those priorities where a better return was available should be dealt with first.

My hon. Friend mentioned the fact that in 1983 the Government asked the regional council, as their agent, to conduct a traffic survey, because once the western line, recommended by the regional council in 1979, was found to be unacceptable, alternative solutions in terms of line and design had to be sought. An essential first step in that assessment process was an up-to-date study of traffic in and around Dunblane. The regional council was asked in April 1983 to undertake the traffic study and to report in September of that year. In fact, the report was not submitted to the Department until the end of January 1984.

The council's study report which was submitted to my Department in 1979 identified various possible alternative lines for a bypass. We now have available an up-to-date study of traffic in and around Dunblane. The Government must now determine which of those alternative lines is best in economic, environmental and engineering terms. For that reason, consulting engineers have been appointed to make a detailed assessment of the various possible lines identified in the previous surveys.

When the work was being put out, I thought that it would take about six months to complete, but it is now my view that if it is to be done properly it will take about a year to complete. This is not a delaying tactic. In the course of making the assessment after so much time has passed, I am trying to ensure that all the information and accuracy possible in such assessments is achieved. No environmental assessment of alternative lines has yet been carried out, nor has there been a detailed study of ground commissions that would enable the relative costs of the different routes to be compared properly. In considering the routes, it is important that we have the necessary information so that a proper decision can be taken at the end of the day on that basis.

The consulting engineers will have to satisfy themselves about the results of the earlier feasibility studies before they can make recommendations on the line and the design of a bypass which they may eventually be called upon to defend at a public local inquiry. I must stress that point to my hon. Friend, who knows as well as I do the difficulties that can be occasioned by inquiries of that sort if the evidence that is submitted by those who are trying to sustain it is not as full, complete and sustainable as it should be.

My hon. Friend asked about the general timing of the report. I have said that it will take about a year to complete. It is my hope that the consulting engineers will be in a position to report to me in about a year's time. Depending upon the force and the strength of the recommendations that they make, I would hope to be in a position to select a preferred line and to publish draft orders as quickly as possible after that in the early summer of 1985. My hon. Friend may feel that this is an undue time, but after all the time that has passed it is essential that the line that is chosen is properly assessed and that we are satisfied that the economic return on the investment is there in terms of the criteria that we work by, and that once the line is decided it is the most likely to be able to survive the rigours of the sort of public inquiry that might follow upon it.

My hon. Friend asked two specific questions. First, he asked about the speed limit, an issue which he has raised previously with my Department. The Queen Victoria school and the central region have asked my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, as the trunk road authority, to reduce the present 60 mph speed limit to 30 mph on the road that runs past the school. My Department's response was that such a change could not be agreed entirely, but the present 30 mph limit is to be extended northwards by about 200m so that the south entrance to the school falls within it. A necessary order for that extension is being prepared.

In addition, my Department has instructed that solid double white lines are to be painted upon the length of road fronting the school to prevent overtaking. "Slow" carriageway signs are to be painted on the road in two positions between the end of the dual carriageway and the B8033 junction. Extra school warning signs are to be erected. The submission that was made by both the school and the region was carefully considered, but the view was taken that the road beyond the 200m which I have mentioned was of a type that would mean that a speed limit of 30 mph was unlikely to be observed. It is a general rule in assessing such submissions that speed limits should not be imposed where the likelihood is that they will not be adhered to by road users. I hope that my hon. Friend will accept that what is being done will do something to reduce the fears of both the school and the community about that stretch of road.

My hon. Friend asked about the route through the centre of the town. When I said earlier that the principle of a bypass had been accepted, I used the word" advisedly". It is my intention that the solution that will be reached will be a bypassing one. I hope that he will accept that assurance in the manner in which it is intended.

I appreciate that the present route through the town presents problems for local inhabitants. The single carriageway section north of the Fourways roundabout is also a delaying factor for trunk road traffic. The Government will do everything possible to achieve an early start. Much will depend upon the public reaction to the draft orders when they are published in the summer of next year, and on the resources available.

If the assessments are carried out thoroughly so that firm and positive lines can be identified, and the environmental impact and other studies are successful, we shall achieve a faster conclusion than might otherwise be achieved.

It would be wrong for me to forecast a starting date for construction because we must await the outcome of the draft orders. However, I appreciate my hon. Friend's anxiety. I too wish to have a bypass for Dunblane—for the people who live there and for those who travel on the A9. It is an important construction which must be undertaken as soon as is practicable. But to rush procedures would not necessarily lead to the best solution. For the local community and for those who use the load, it is better to hasten slowly.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes to Two o'clock.