HC Deb 29 October 1986 vol 103 cc430-4

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

10.56 pm
Mr. Dennis Walters (Westbury)

Although to me the importance of the Warminster bypass is of almost unique and unrivalled importance—it is engraved on my heart — I am aware that my hon. Friend the Minister has many bypasses to contend with. No doubt they are all of equal importance to him and none is engraved on his heart.

The Warminster bypass saga has gone on for so long that it merits a debate in the House. I have held meetings about it with Ministers in different Governments since 1966. It suffered, as did many other projected routes, from changes in the road development plans of successive Governments, and I will not weary my hon. Friend and hon. Members who are listening to this important debate with a historical account of events since 1966.

In 1979 the bypass was firmly programmed and since that time I have had meetings with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) and my hon. Friends the Members for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker) and for Worcestershire, South (Mr. Spicer), all of whom have been Transport Ministers. I have not had a meeting with the present Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley), but we have corresponded on the subject. It is precisely because I found his last letter of 14 October in reply to my letter of 30 September quite unsatisfactory that I am raising the matter in this debate.

Throughout the latter part of 1984 I emphasised to my hon. Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South, who was the Minister for Transport at that time, the importance of an announcement being made about construction of the bypass not later than mid-December 1984. On 20 December, I received a letter from my hon. Friend, together with a press statement, announcing that construction work could start at about the end of 1985. I went to see him again in January 1985 and stressed how essential it was that there should be no delay after the statutory period for consultation had passed. There had been too many unfulfilled promises and local opinion had, understandably, been sceptical about assurances emanating from my hon. Friend's Department.

For the next six months I was in regular contact with my hon. Friend in the House of Commons and with his officials in the private office. I was repeatedly told that the final decision letter and line orders were being considered as top priority and confidently assured that the mid-May deadline would be met.

Although that was not the case, on 5 June 1985 my hon. Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South wrote to me stating that the further consultations about the route of the Warminster bypass had been successfully completed. He enclosed a copy of the press notice announcing that the bypass would be constructed incorporating the alternative route A put forward by the objectors.

Shortly after that, I was informed that the line orders had been made. The statutory challenge period would finish on 9 August 1985 and no objections were expected. Side road orders and compulsory purchase orders were also being made, and then advertised in the local papers with a six-week challenge period. Again, I was assured that no problems were anticipated over that. Supplementary side road orders were being looked at by the legal department and would be published in September with objections finishing at the end of October. Work would start in May 1986 with a two-year construction period envisaged.

When a legal challenge to the validity of the orders relating to the bypass was unexpectedly made, I was again assured that, although there might be a slight delay, it would he only slight as other statutory procedures had to be carried out which would be done at the same time.

I therefore found it surprising that in his letter of 10 September my hon. Friend the Minister suggested that the High Court action was entirely responsible for the delay. In that letter my hon. Friend concluded by saying: We hope to get work under way by around the turn of the year. Bearing in mind the history which I have been recounting, I did not much care for the use of the word "hope". Also, I felt that "around the turn of the year" opened up endless possibilities for further procrastination. My interpretation of "around the turn of the year" would be the end of December, early January. Did the Minister share my interpretation?

In order to clarify those points, I wrote to my hon. Friend on 30 September asking for a final and irrevocable date. The concluding sentence of his reply dated 14 October was as disappointing and non-committal as the one in the letter of 10 September. He said: We expect that the successful contractor will start work early in the New Year, unless really bad weather causes him to postpone his operations. I have been told by my hon. Friend that all the statutory procedures have been completed. What I want now, after 21 years of talk about the Warminster bypass, is a firm date from him when work on the bypass will start and a specific assurance that that date will not be changed. I do not think that in the circumstances it is unreasonable to ask for that.

11.4 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Peter Bottomley)

First, may I acknowledge the persistent efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Mr. Walters) on behalf of his constituents in relation to this much-needed bypass. There is no difference between me, my predecessors and him on that.

I have always tried to avoid giving assurances about dates when things would happen. Building and planning roads is very much like dinghy sailing. One can make mistakes or things can happen that blow one off course, and there are few ways of accelerating the process except by joining the construction of a road oneself. If it is of any comfort to my hon. Friend, I should say that the building of roads is normally completed before the planned date, while the planning of roads and going through the procedures often takes longer. There is a temptation for someone in my position always to give the best possible estimate and then have to disappoint an hon. Friend or a colleague in the Opposition when something intervenes.

I am well aware of the urgent need to provide relief to the residents of Warminster from the increasing nuisance, inconvenience and danger arising from the passage of unnecessary traffic through the town. I share my hon. Friend's wish that a bypass be provided at the earliest possible date. As he knows, the provision of bypasses is a top priority of the Government, but it is not practical to undertake the provision of all those required at the same time. We try to work out a system of priorities to ensure that the towns in greatest need receive their bypasses as soon as possible.

My hon. Friend will know that the bypass for Warminster was shown in the report "National Roads: England 1985", which was published in June that year, for a start of construction in the period up to March 1987. We intend to meet that commitment. I am confident that this can be achieved. As my hon. Friend knows, tenders for the construction of the Warminster bypass were invited in September this year and are due to be returned on 2 December. I am to award the contract by Christmas, so a start of work in January should he possible, depending upon the weather. I hope that that answers my hon. Friend's final question as to when we intend the work to start. I hope that that is near enough to the turn of the year. I recognise that this is not as early as my hon. Friend wished, but an earlier start is not possible.

My hon. Friend also knows that the scheme has had its share of difficulties, and he mentioned some of them. Draft orders were first published in November 1982. In the light of objections then received, various changes were made, leading to the publication of modified orders in July 1983. A public inquiry was held towards the end of that year. In response to representations made at the public inquiry, the inspector subsequently recommended that the route of the bypass should be amended to reduce its impact on Norton Bavant. That recommendation required careful consideration, and it was not until December 1984 that the decision of the Secretaries of State for the Environment and for Transport to adopt the revised route was announced.

Consultations then took place with those affected by the revised route. Objections were received, and it was June 1985 before the relevant order could be made. The associated side roads and compulsory purchase orders were made in August that year. New orders in respect of the alterations required to the existing road network in the vicinity of Norton Bavant, as a consequence of the change in the route, then had to be prepared and published. This was achieved before the end of the year, and the orders were subsequently made in May 1986.

Under normal circumstances, we would then have been able to proceed with the remaining preparatory work, to have final discussions with landowners and others and to invite tenders. If that had been possible, the work could have started in the autumn. Unfortunately, however, a local farmer, who was dissatisfied with the inspector's recommendation and the decision of the Secretaries of State over access to some of his fields after the bypass was built, decided to challenge in the High Court the validity of the side roads and compulsory purchase orders made a few months earlier. The making of this challenge effectively prevented the Department from completing the remaining preparatory work and, of course, the preparation and issue of invitations to contractors to tender for construction of the bypass. For the Department to have continued with such preparations would have been to attract, at best, accusations of arrogance. There is a long waiting list of cases to be heard in the High Court and the Department had to take its turn. It was not until July this year that the challenge came before the court. Fortunately, this was determined in the Department's favour, but the time taken up by waiting for the hearing could not be recovered.

Two months later the Department had completed the final preparatory stages and tenders were invited in September. The Department has done all that could be done, within the limitations imposed by the statutory procedures and the legal processes, to bring this scheme to fruition in time to allow a start of work before March next year. Work should start in January.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes past Eleven o'clock.