HC Deb 26 July 1985 vol 83 cc1435-41
The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Nicholas Ridley)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the bypass of Okehampton on the A30.

The House will know that earlier this year the Government's compulsory purchase orders for a route for the bypass to the south of the town were referred to a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament under the Statutory Orders (Special Procedure) Act 1945. That Committee, by a majority of four to two, recommended rejecting the orders, and proposed instead a route to the north of the town. This recommendation was contrary to that of the independent inspector, who held a 96-day public inquiry during which all the issues were exhaustively discussed. He endorsed the southern route which has been the route preferred by all successive Administrations since 1976. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment and I agreed with the inspector, that the balance of environmental and economic advantage lies in favour of the southern route, and we proceeded to make the orders.

One thing is clear—everyone is united about the need for a bypass, although I am fully aware of the strong and conflicting opinions which the route of the proposed bypass has aroused, both in Parliament and in the south-west of England. This issue must be resolved once and for all.

The Joint Committee believes that a route to the north could be constructed quickly. I must tell the House that it takes on average 13 years to plan and build a road.

Mr. Anthony Steen (South Hams)


Mr. Ridley

With the best will in the world and no difficulties arising, I doubt whether we could complete a northern route in much under eight or nine years. It could be much more if there were difficulties, or if the inspector was again to recommend the southern route. For the people of Okehampton and the people of Devon and Cornwall the long delay and the uncertainty would be intolerable when the southern route could be completed in three years.

Parliamentary Select Committees make reports to Parliament, and it is for Parliament to accept or reject them. In this case a procedure for doing this is laid down in the Statutory Orders (Special Procedure) Act. It provides in section 6 for a confirming Bill to be brought in. Accordingly, the Government will introduce such a Bill, at the earliest opportunity, to confirm the southern route.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Is it not an outrage—[HON. MEMBERS: "No".]—that the Secretary of State should announce such an insensitive and arrogant decision'? How can he possibly pretend that he can justify the destruction of an area of supreme natural beauty——

Mr. David Harris (St. Ives)


Mrs. Dunwoody

—which is a national asset, on the basis of needing to push ahead with a bypass because it will take 13 years to find an alternative route?

If work were started immediately — the right hon. Gentleman knows very well that the southern route cannot be started immediately because a Bill will have to pass through the Houses of Parliament—it would still take until 1988 to finish the requisite road. Will the right hon. Gentleman admit that if the northern route were started as quickly it would take only two more years to complete a route which would do no damage and which would be environmentally acceptable?

As the northern route has already been surveyed, all the preparatory work has been done and the environmental groups concerned have said that they would be anxious to speed the agreement of the planning procedures for the northern route, how can the Minister justify ignoring all the evidence and the views of the Joint Committee? He is saying, in effect, that the interests of the nation as a whole are of no concern to him and that only financial matters concern him. He should resign and do something constructive to protect transport in Britain.

Mr. Ridley

The hon. Lady has some explaining to do. On 3 September 1976, the then Labour Government issued a press notice which read: The preferred route passes to the south of Okehampton. If that was the view of her party then, she has to tell us why she has changed her mind. She will have an opportunity to do that when the confirming Bill comes forward. Secondly, my Department advises me that, if we were to go for a route to the north of the town, the inspector's report on the line order could be expected to be with the Department by 1939. The inspector's report on the compulsory purchases order might be with us by the end of 1991, assuming that there were no difficulties. It would then take three years to construct the road. The earliest completion date would be about 1994.

Mrs. Dunwoody

Absolute rubbish.

Mr. Ridley

If the inspector were to consider the route to the north at a public inquiry and report that the route should go to the south, as his predecessor did, it is highly likely that we should spend eight or nine years only to find ourselves in the same position without any route for Okehampton.

The hypocrisy of the Labour party sickens me. The bypass means jobs. There will not be jobs in Devon and Cornwall unless I get the bypass built. If the hon. Lady cares about the unemployed, she will be true to what she knows is the right decision.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I remind the House that this is a Back-Bench day. I ask hon. Members to put their questions briefly.

Mr. Peter Rost (Erewash)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that, if the Department of Transport had obeyed its own policy guidelines as laid out in paragraph 58 of the 1976 circular— no new route…should be constructed through a national park…unless", in effect, there is no "reasonable alternative" — the bypass could have been built along the northern route long ago? Further, will he take aboard the fact that by so arrogantly overruling his own policies and reversing a decision that had been carefully considered by a Joint Committee he is creating a constitutional precedent that will undoubtedly arouse a great deal of criticism in this place, in another place and outside? Have we not had enough banana skins in recent months, and have not inspectors and Departments come to wrong decisions before?

Mr. Ridley

I understand that my hon. Friend took the opposite view to mine in the Joint Committee. I must complete his quotation from the national park circular. It continues: Application of the policy to some parks does, however, give rise to particularly difficult considerations because of their geographical location. This is an example of just that. The Statutory Orders (Special Procedures) Act 1945 lays down the procedure for the report of a Joint Committee to be considered by Parliament. Therefore, it is not unconstitutional to follow the carefully laid down provisions in the Act. Furthermore, my hon. Friend may not be aware that, on 4 May 1949, the then Labour Government introduced a confirming Bill to alter the report of a Joint Committee on the Mid-Northamptonshire Water Board Order. There is nothing unique or unconstitutional about what the Government are doing.

Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Devonport)

Is it not a fact that the national parks are vested in this House and it is for the House to decide whether to accept the Minister's judgment, which many of us believe to be wrongly based in terms of its historical perspective and in terms of the estimate which he has given to achieve the northern route? Exaggerating his claim will not help his case when it comes to the House. Will he confirm that no Whip will be placed on Conservative Members and that the issue will be judged on its merits? Will he confirm also that there will be no attempt to impose a governmental view on what should be an environmental choice for all right hon. and hon. Members?

Mr. Ridley

I confirm that it is for Parliament to take a decision upon reports prepared by the Committees of Parliament. This issue can be resolved only by Parliament. Committees do not make decisions; they make recommendations to Parliament which, in the end, has to decide one way or another. We are giving Parliament an opportunity to do that. As to what guidance is given to my right hon. and hon. Friends, that is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Patronage Secretary. I shall be interested to hear what guidance the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) gives to his hon. Friends.

Sir Peter Mills (Torridge and Devon, West)

As the hon. Member whose constituency is affected, I congratulate my right hon. Friend and the Cabinet on their decision. I am sure that he will know that the people of Okehampton and Cornwall are delighted as well. This is a courageous decision and the right one in the circumstances. I ask him to urge the Government forward, enabling the Bill to have a speedy passage through Parliament, so that the sufferings of the people of Okehampton and Cornwall will be ended finally. The Leader of the Opposition came to the west country recently and said that there would be hundreds of thousands of new jobs under a Labour Government. It is extraordinary that the very action that would help unemployment and the economic situation in the south-west is now being frustrated by the Opposition and the alliance.

Mr. Ridley

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and I am sure that he is right that we must consider the interests of his constituents and the people of Devon and Cornwall. It might interest the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) to know that, when her Government consulted the people of Okehampton and its surrounding area in 1976 in a comprehensive questionnaire to which 1,030 people filled in the answers, 55 per cent. expressed themselves unquestionably in favour of the southern route. The people concerned, whom my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Sir P. Mills) represents so ably, are clearly in favour of the Government's decision.

Dr. David Clark (South Shields)

Does the Minister appreciate that, while we recognise the importance of jobs and the need for a bypass at Okehampton, his statement will be seen as shameful? He has come to the House on the last day of this term to make it and, for the sake of two years, he is prepared to desecrate one of our national parks. This is final proof of the Government's complete disregard of things environmental.

Mr. Ridley

The hon. Gentleman must check. I was willing to make the statement yesterday, but it was agreed between the usual channels, including his own usual channels, that I should make the statement today instead. I was determined to make a statement to the House rather than answer a written question, and it is hard to be hauled over the coals when I have taken the trouble to come here when the House is sitting.

The hon. Gentleman is constructing an argument on a false premise. He said that adopting the northern route will take two years longer, and his case and that of the right hon. Member for Devonport rests on that proposition. However, that is not true. The northern route would take eight years at least, and perhaps still longer. I have no intention of short-circuiting the proper procedures for consulting and for public inquiries, and I am sure that he would not wish me to do so. Are the Opposition suggesting that we would cheat the people of Okehampton of the opportunity of consultation on a northern route? There is no northern route, and we should have to start from scratch. I advise the hon. Gentleman to get a better argument before he comes to discuss the merits of this when we debate the confirming Bill.

Mr. Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the events in the Joint Committee, while within the letter of the original law, were not within the spirit of it, and that a small alteration to the proceedings of the House would stop a rehearing of a public inquiry, which is what took place on this occasion? I hope that my right hon. Friend will use whatever muscle he has to help that change take place.

Mr. Ridley

My hon. Friend is right. The orders were referred to the Joint Committee because it was proposed to take open space, not national parkland. The 1945 Act is relevant only where open space land is taken. It was held by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment that inadequate open space land could be offered in return for the land that was to be taken. The Joint Committee was asked to look not at national parks or the route of the bypass, but at the quality and quantity of the replacement land. Therefore, it greatly widened its remit —I am not criticising it—by going into the issue of where the bypass should be, as that had been determined by a public inquiry endorsed by my right hon. Friend and myself.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

Given that the Secretary of State knows that there is general agreement that something must be decided soon for the people of Okehampton and Cornwall, will he nevertheless accept that people are opposed to his attitude because he knows that the Government will change the procedures for planning inquiries in major legislation to be introduced in the coming Session? He knows that he is creating a precedent of breaking into national parks, which many people regard as extremely distasteful.

Will the right hon. Gentleman answer the question put to him by my right hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen)? In the knowledge that this is not a party political issue, will he confirm that there will not be a party-political, determined, steam-rollered vote on a matter of vital importance for jobs and the environment? This is a matter not of Government policy but of local government policy, and hon. Members should be left to decide freely on it. The Government should not be dictating what some of their Members should do on a decision with which they fundamentally disagree.

Mr. Ridley

I quite see why the hon. Gentleman does not want to whip the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon)—he has apologised to me for not being here—who is keen that the road should be built. I repeat that questions on what is done by my right hon. Friend the Patronage Secretary are not for me to respond to.

I take the hon. Gentleman to task on his suggestion that there is something improper about the proceedings, which are strictly in accordance with the 1945 Act. The decision was referred to Parliament when it was decided to put the matter before the Joint Committee. The procedure is laid out in the Act and all the Government are doing is scrupulously following procedure. As the high court of Parliament has now made this decision, nobody can complain. The democratic nature of what I am suggesting is patently clear and obvious. The House can decide by vote and that is the right way to settle the matter.

Mr. Harris

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his decision will be received with massive relief in Cornwall, not least in my constituency, which is the most westerly and remote in the south-west peninsula, because poor communications are the biggest problem that Cornwall faces in trying to attract jobs? Should not the so-called environmentalists, and those who misguidedly support them in the House on this issue, stop and think what enormous damage they are doing not just to Okehampton, which again this weekend will suffer its usual horrendous traffic jams, but to the whole economy of Cornwall, to every industry, to farming, to fishing and, not least, to the tourist trade?

Mr. Ridley

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend that this is a matter of vital importance to the local people of Okehampton, Devon and Cornwall. For the House to ride roughshod over their economic interests is tempting our tolerance too far. I hope that hon. Members who are not certain about this matter will take the opportunity of the recess to go down to Okehampton and discuss it with the people living in the south-west. I am sure that my hon. Friend can arrange for them to meet the people who are vitally affected by these decisions.

If we are at all serious in our desire to find more employment in any part of the kingdom, we must not stand in the way of doing away with impediments to the growth of business and the improvement of the tourist trade. The general economic position of the south-west is grievously threatened by the absence of this road. If jobs mean anything, they have to be provided by uncorking this bottleneck.

Many people, including the inspector who held the public inquiry, believe that the southern route for the road would do less damage to the environment than a northern route would. It is not as if there is a solid opinion on the environmental aspect. There are two views on that, too. I am certain that the balance of advantage lies in the route that the Government propose, and I hope that hon. Members will take heed of what local people want.

Mr. Steen

I think that the House knows that I have a sneaking admiration for my right hon. Friend and for the way in which he has handled the bus and aviation Bills. However, does he realise that he is wasting time by pushing for a route through the national park because his officials have said that that route can be built by 1988 whereas the northern route cannot he built by 1990? Will my right hon. Friend check during the recess with officials who are against the northern route to see whether they are right in saying that that route will take eight or nine years longer? Officials have made that claim, but experts who have been involved on work on other motorways and dual carriageways have said that there would be only a two-year difference between the two routes.

Will my right hon. Friend also please realise that if the southern route were built through the national park, a bottleneck would occur at the other end of the dual carriageway because there is only a single carriageway from Okehampton to Launceston? All that we shall do is to move the bottleneck to the other side of Okehampton.

Does the Secretary of State realise the damage that he will do to the Conservative party by uniting the environmental and conservation lobbies throughout Britain who will be determined that the southern route should not proceed? Does he really want to drive a coach and horses through his own side?

Mr. Ridley

We hope to complete the Launceston part of the road in roughly the same time scale as the southern bypass could be completed. If we went for a northern route for the bypass, there would be a long period when the only bit that was not proper double-track bypass would be the centre of Okehampton where the present road goes. That would produce chaos in the town as well as for those who are trying to pass through to Devon and Cornwall.

I have checked endlessly with all concerned and the times that I gave for the completion of the line order and the CPOs by 1991 is the fastest that my officials think that it could possibly go if all goes well. I must take my hon. Friend through this likelihood. An inspector of great repute, having considered the matter at great length and heard all the evidence over 96 days, has come down in favour of the southern route for environmental as well as economic reasons. Therefore, if another equally impartial and wise inspector were to consider the evidence again at a public inquiry into a northern route, it seems prima facie likely that he would come to the same conclusion as the first inspector. If that happened, we should have gone through six years or so and still no decision would have been taken and no possibility of taking a decision would exist. The matter has been put to the high court of Parliament and must be resolved by Parliament.

Mr. Gerrard Neale (Cornwall, North)

I thank and congratulate my right hon. Friend, whose decision will bring relief and reassurance to many local government organisations and other groups in the west country and particlarly in Cornwall. I have no doubt that in my constituency, as in other parts of the county, there will be horror among those who thought that they might support the alliance, and the prospective Liberal candidate for my constituency will be thunderstruck when he hears what the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) and the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) have said.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the extension of the dual carriageway from Whiddon Down to Okehampton takes several miles out of the national park as well as putting some back in? Will he also confirm that, if he had not proposed to introduce the Bill and had tried to accelerate the procedures on a northern route, there would have been an outcry, because all the people to the north would expect all their rights to be honoured and to have full consultation and a public inquiry? The time scale that my right hon. Friend puts on a northern route is too short rather than too long.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the RAC should be congratulated on sending a leaflet to all its members? I have an RAC leaflet sent to people planning to drive to Cornwall which says: Driving to Cornwall? The A30 bottleneck at Okehampton can mean long summer delays. Cornwall cannot tolerate that continuing hassle and the continuing burden on its tourist and other industries. I congratulate my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Ridley

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I look forward to hearing whether the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon) will be whipping the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen)——

Mr. Simon Hughes

He will not.

Mr. Ridley

—or whether it will be the other way round. We are told that it is an alliance, so presumably it will behave as an alliance. It will be interesting to see which way it breaks.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Neale) rightly says, the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) is trying to pontificate on what is in the interests of the people of Devon and Cornwall. It is worth finding out first what people think.

I agree with my hon. Friend that if we sought to accelarate the procedures in investigating a northern route we should attract the full ire of the environmental lobby and of the people who have interests on that route. That would be intolerable. Just because the environmental lobby has decided that it wants to sacrifice the nothern route, that does not mean that people who have interests on that route should not have their rights properly considered.

I have not seen the RAC leaflet that my hon. Friend mentioned, but I hope and pray that it will not be for too many more years that people have to queue for hours before proceeding to their holidays in Devon and Cornwall.