HC Deb 07 March 1988 vol 129 cc162-70 12.37 am

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

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

I am grateful for the opportunity to debate this matter. When I met the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton) face to face, it was like coming up against a brick wall. I mean that in no personal pejorative sense, but that was his response to the points that were put to him. I hope that I shall receive a more constructive response from him tonight.

The start of this sorry saga was on 19 May 1987, when Tory fortunes were flagging in the general election campaign. The Secretary of State for Scotland was desperate to make one specific pledge which he hoped would hit the headlines and rescue those flagging fortunes. The scheme that he hit on was to upgrade the main highway to England, the A74. It certainly hit the headlines, but the general election result showed that his party's fortunes in Scotland were beyond saving. The number of Tory seats was reduced by half.

On 20 May, the Glasgow Herald recorded the pledge to upgrade the A74 without any qualification whatsoever and welcomed it in its leader column, as we all did. Such a commitment to additional public expenditure by the Conservatives is very rare and, when it comes, it must certainly be welcomed. Everybody assumed that the Secretary of State meant that additional money would be provided for the A74, otherwise why make a statement about this new, great project? Without the pledge of additional funds it would have been a very hollow pledge indeed if the rest of a vital trunk road programme had to suffer as a result.

It now looks as though there was double talk and deceit when that promise was made. I invite the Under-Secretary of State and his adviser, the other Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth) —who has slunk in, as usual—to explain the position. It appears that no extra money had then been secured by the Secretary of State for the upgrading of the A74 and that, to say the least, the Secretary of State was being economical with the truth in his election promises. Alternatively, any hope or expectation that he had of extra money at the time was one of the main victims of subsequent cuts that the Scottish Office had to make.

Whatever the explanation, the sad truth began to become evident by December 1987, when officials of Strathclyde region were given details of postponements to a catalogue of road improvements. When I met the Under-Secretary of State we had one of the most barren dialogues, that it has ever been my misfortune to experience. On that occasion, and in his subsequent statement, he contended that the A74 upgrading would not be achieved at the expense of other programmes.

The hon. Gentleman based that statement on one simple argument. He said in his letter of 3 February that they were never more than the earliest possible starting dates. I understand and accept why he said that, but according to my understanding and that of Cumnock and Doon Valley district council and its officers, of Kyle and Carrick district council, and councillors of both political persuasions and none — although they seem to be drifting back to one—and, above all, of the chairperson of the Strathclyde regional council roads committee and all the officers concerned in the region, the dates given for Auchinleck and Cumnock, New Cumnock and Maybole were definite. In the case of the Girvan bypass, it was understood that the start merely awaited the beginning of the detailed feasibility study—like the feasibility study that the Minister tells me is now under way for the A74.

The Minister should know better than anyone. On 18 February Mr. Howitt, the deputy chief executive of Strathclyde regional council, wrote to the secretary of the Scottish Development Department listing delays to no fewer than 34 road schemes within the region. I am sure that the Minister will confirm that. Mr. Howitt said in his letter: arising out of discussions in the Trunk Road Programme which officials of the Department of Roads had with your officials during December 1987, the enclosed list showing previously understood start dates compared with what the new start dates are likely to be"— they are not provisional; there is no qualification; they are previously understood starting dates— was prepared and submitted to the Committee on 4 February. Mr. Howitt continued: At that meeting the Committee expressed its concern about any delay to the schemes and agreed to seek a response as a matter of urgency". In the list attached to the letter, which included the 34 schemes, the Cumnock-Auchinleck bypass was shown as due to start in May 1988—a definite start—and was then postponed until June 1991. The new Cumnock bypass is shown as delayed from August 1988 to May 1991, Maybole is shown as delayed from April 1990 to September 1992 and Girvan from September 1991 to September 1993. In addition, other vital schemes in south Ayrshire on the A77 south of Ballantrae and at Bennane Hill are also postponed for three and two years respectively.

One wonders what can cause such a wholesale postponement of road programmes, which were presumably carefully planned and designed to fit in with the cash available. What happened between June and December 1987? I know that in the case of the schemes in my constituency there have been no delays in statutory or other procedures. Indeed, Strathclyde region confirmed that the Cumnock-Auchinleck bypass was ready to go to tender. I hope that the Minister will confirm that that is the case. Therefore, that cannot be the reason for the delay. There is no delay in the statutory procedures in my constituency, and I suspect that that is the case with the other 34 schemes.

Has there been a sudden and unexpected reduction in the total money available for road construction? To get the answer I looked to the 1988 commentary on expenditure from 1990 to 1991. That confirms that, although the provision for 1988–89 for motorway and trunk roads was £129 million—about 6 per cent. below the previously planned level—the provision for 1989–90 and 1990–91 is planned to be £140 million in each year. That does not seem to warrant such a sudden and dramatic postponement of so many schemes already in the pipeline. Indeed, it should mean the reverse. That modest increase should allow one or two more schemes to go ahead, or it should allow an advancement of schemes rather than postponement.

Mr. Allan Stewart (Eastwood)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, north of the schemes that have been mentioned, the A77 Ayr road route is crucial, not only to his constituents, but to mine and to the constituents of the hon. Members for Glasgow, Rutherglen (Mr. McAvoy) and for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton), who are in the Chamber? Would it not be helpful if the Minister gave the House an indication of the position on the A77?

Mr. Foulkes

I should welcome that statement from the Minister. The Strathclyde list shows that the A77 Ayr route has been postponed from February 1990 to January 1991. That is not as big a postponement as some of the other schemes, particularly the Ayrshire bypasses, but it is an unfortunate postponement. I agree with the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart) that the Ayr road route is important for access to Ayrshire, from Ayrshire to the motorway system, and for access to Prestwick airport. I know that the hon. Gentleman would want to do everything he can to improve access to that airport.

I have given two possible reasons for postponement, but neither seems to have any validity. Therefore, the inescapable conclusion is that the schemes are being delayed to prepare for the A74 upgrading so that that can be paid for out of the normal roads programme. If other schemes were to be started now, they would be in progress when the A74 upgrading is due to start. Those schemes would have taken up too much of the available funds to allow the A74 upgrading to go ahead.

We know that the A74 improvement will cost about £200 million over 10 years. If any credence is to be given to pledges by the current Secretary of State at the election which we know will be held about three years from now, the A74 upgrading will have to be under way by then. If it is not, people will say, "You promised and nothing has happened."

I should make it clear—I think that I am speaking on behalf of all my hon. Friends — that we do not oppose the improvements to the A74. Indeed, we all welcome the Secretary of State's promise. However, we welcome it on the understanding that extra funds will he provided to pay for it, and not that the existing roads programme will be slashed.

On 6 February, in its main leader, the Glasgow Herald said: Our welcome last year was predicated on the belief that the upgrading of the A74 would be funded by new money". The leader added: Mr. Rifkind should come clean on his intentions. Will the M74 project attract additional funding or not? That is my key question to the Minister. We shall all study his answer carefully. As the same leader said: No one forced Mr. Rifkind to make his promise about the A74. He should redeem it without dipping into the rest of the roads budget. To do otherwise would devalue the currency in which politicians trade. At my meeting with the Minister I advanced the argument for the Ayrshire bypasses on the ground of road safety. His answer showed that there were more serious accidents and deaths on the A77—which bears out the point made by the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart)—than on the so-called killer road, the A74.

I also advanced the argument for environmental improvements in the towns concerned. I recently received additional evidence to support my case from Mr. Sievwright from Maybole. He has been corresponding with Strathclyde regional council about the juggernauts that go through the centre of Maybole. He has received confirmation that the recommended distance between the edge of a pavement and the wall of houses or shops should be at least 2 m to allow wheelchairs and prams to be pushed along. In one area of Maybole the pavement is 25 in wide, so people have to put prams and wheelchairs on the road to get up through the main street.

I also advanced the argument for the bypasses on the ground of improving the infrastructure of industrial development in an area which has the highest unemployment in Britain. I advanced all those arguments to support the need for the bypasses to be constructed on schedule, as promised. I understood from the Minister's comments that he readily accepted those arguments. Since then, the two district region have condemned the M councils in my area—I include Conservative councillors—and the inister for the delay. They all support me in the campaign to get him to stick to his promises. I have had letters and telephone calls from people in Girvan, Maybole, Cumnock, New Cumnock, and Auchinleck, including candidates in the district election, such as Helen Kelly and Ian Picken, in Girvan, who will be councillors after the next election. They have strongly argued for the Girvan bypass. Many people have asked me to press the Minister on this matter.

It is still not too late for the Minister and his boss to restore credibility to the Government. I sometimes wonder whether the boss is the Secretary of State or whether it is the wee Under-Secretary of State—the hon. Member for Stirling—who has been whispering in the ear of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West. The interesting question is who runs matters in the Scottish Office. It is still not too late for a Scottish Office Minister to restore some credibility to the Government.

I understand that the 1988–89 programme is not yet finalised. I hope that tonight the Minister will take some responsibility into his hands and confirm that the Ayrshire bypasses will go ahead as planned. If that does not happen, the whole House, like the leader in the Glasgow Herald —I am sorry if I quote from it regularly; I know that some people do not like it, but it was an exceptionally good leader—will smell a rat scurrying across the tarmac for cover. I hope that the Minister has some guts and courage and that he will bring back some credibility to the Government by restoring their pledges and bringing the Ayrshire bypasses into their proper place in the roads programme.

12.54 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton)

A public local inquiry into the A77 road project will be held, starting on 23 March, and progress will depend on the inquiry's outcome.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) on securing this Adjournment debate and on the spirited way in which he has put forward the interests of his constituents. The hon. Gentleman's representations on behalf of his constituents will be kept in mind when we consider the possible scheme starts in each financial year.

Strathclyde regional council is the Secretary of State's agent authority for trunk roads in Ayrshire, and its officials must, as a matter of necessity, be given broad indications of timing of trunk road schemes to enable them to schedule the preparatory work. These dates change from time to time; for example, because of difficulties over statutory procedures or following the kind of periodical review carried out at the end of last year. Given that Strathclyde and its predecessor county councils have acted as agents for many years, they well understand the qualifications that apply to any dates quoted and the variety of factors which can cause delays.

Mr. Foulkes


Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

If I may, I should like to continue because I have a great deal to answer in my speech.

As the hon. Gentleman has suggested, there may have been correspondence between professionals that did not mention all the conditions arid caveats, but the fact that the dates were never more than the earliest possible dates is well understood.

Mr. Foulkes

Will the Minister confirm that there have been no delays in the statutory or other procedures so far as the four Ayrshire bypasses are concerned?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

I accept that those procedures have gone forward, but I should also make clear to the hon. Gentleman precisely what I have already said—that the dates were never more than the earliest possible dates.

I have listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman said and have noted the points he has made in favour of advancing proposed trunk road bypasses in Ayrshire. The hon. Gentleman's problem is that he sees the trunk road programme in a very narrow context, whereas I, as the Minister responsible for trunk roads in Scotland, must of necessity consider the trunk road network in a wide national context. I do not for a moment criticise the hon. Gentleman for fighting for the interests of his constituents. Indeed, he would be derelict in his duty if he did not. What I do criticise is his refusal to get such matters in their proper perspective.

The hon. Gentleman well knows that the trunk road network is a network of national—I emphasise the word "national" — through routes. These are the routes for longer distance traffic and are therefore of more than regional importance. Important though local needs often are, there can be no argument that national interests must come first. Therefore, decisions on priorities for action on the trunk road network have to be taken on a wider than regional basis and it is beside the point to seek to make distinctions as to how well one region or sub-region compares with another in terms of the money spent on improving trunk roads.

Within the national context there is also the important matter of route priorities. Although the country has trunk roads traversing it in all directions, there is no doubt that some perform a more important function than others. Perhaps the most obvious of the various criteria which might together determine route priorities are traffic volumes. While I accept that some local sections of routes —for example, around large towns and cities—might be congested, again the situation must be seen in the context of the route as a whole rather than of a particular small part of it. The trunk routes through Ayrshire do not carry particularly high traffic volumes.

The hon. Gentleman made the point that the A77 through his constituency has an unusually high accident record, but the fact is that when fatal and serious injury figures are broken down between north and south Ayrshire, it becomes clear that the concentration of accidents—some 70 per cent. or more of the total— occurs north of Ayr towards Glasgow, not in the area of the towns which the hon. Gentleman seeks to have bypassed. While it is true that accidents on the A77 are more numerous than might be expected from the traffic flows, there does not appear to be a great problem on the part of the road which runs through the hon. Gentleman's constituency. This is not to say that I am unconcerned about accidents. On the contrary, they are an important part of the equation in determining priorities.

As I have said earlier, the other criteria that go to determine route priority include, in terms of industrial and economic strategy, for example, the north-east of Scotland, to which assumed priority has been given in recent years, and that will continue to be so because of considerations relating to the oil and fishing industries. The A75 is given a measure of priority because it is a designated Euroroute, part of a national and international network of through routes, and links to Ireland.

Tonight and in the past the hon. Gentleman has mentioned—and has made great play about it — the proposed upgrading of the A74 to motorway standard. That will connect the motorway network of central Scotland to the English motorway network. There is no doubt that the A74 is a strategic route, and that is why the Government have attached priority to its upgrading.

Mr. Foulkes

Where is the money coming from?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

I will deal with that in a moment.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the A74 is the main trunk route between England and Scotland. The hon. Gentleman likes to appear to discredit the initiative of the Secretary of State, even when my right hon. and learned Friend has the strongest support of the Scottish travelling public. The hon. Gentleman seeks to suggest that the upgrading of the A74 is the reason for changes in "earliest possible start dates"—that is his suggestion— for other proposed trunk road schemes in Scotland. I can understand his disappointment that bypass schemes in south Ayrshire have been put back. However, I would strongly emphasise that that has nothing to do with the upgrading of the A74 to motorway standards.

Mr. Foulkes

Will the Minister give way?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

No. Let me answer the argument.

It will not be until I get the results of three major feasibility studies covering the 60 miles or so to be upgraded—I expect those results around the end of the year—that I shall be able to plan the upgrading. The onset of the M74 schemes and their consequences for the Scottish forward programmes will be assessed in the light of the circumstances pertaining at the appropriate time. The regular reviews of the forward programmes that will take place will provide adequate scope for such assessment. Whether there will be extra funds for the M74 is a consideration that will be taken in the context of the annual public expenditure surveys.

Mr. Foulkes

If the Minister is seriously wanting us to believe that it is not the result of money being diverted to the A74 that the other bypasses are postponed, could he give the House precise reasons why they have been postponed, given that the Minister was aware of the capital programme available earlier in the year?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

The capital programme for this year is given on page 57 of the Scottish public expenditure paper and the hon. Gentleman can look that up.

Mr. Foulkes

I know; I quoted it.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

The hon. Gentleman quoted it wrong. He should look up that page to learn the correct figures.

The hon. Gentleman has had protracted correspondence with Scottish Office Ministers for many years. The dates that were given for the timing of proposed schemes were never more than the earliest possible dates — I emphasise the word "possible". Those dates have always been subject to the availability of finance, to the satisfactory completion of statutory procedures, which must provide for public consultation, and to the relative priority of the particular schemes against competing claims from the rest of the Scottish trunk road network.

The recent date changes that have upset the hon. Gentleman do not emanate from the influence of the M74 schemes, which are no more than vague shapes on the horizon.

In his letter to my right hon. and learned Friend on 29 December, the hon. Gentleman said: It is for Ministers to decide priorities within the overall programme. Before departing from a meeting with me, the hon. Gentleman put it to me that our priorities had surely not changed between about six months ago and the present time. I acknowledge that, as regards overall route priorities, that is correct. However, I point out the difficulty that comes about when so many of the road schemes that have been proposed across the country turn out, on close appraisal, to be worth while on economic, environmental or road safety grounds—sometimes on all three. Quite simply, we had far more schemes in the programme than could be accommodated in a short period of time.

Schemes have been postponed in many other regions of Scotland, and the hon. Gentleman should not imagine that his constituency is the only one that has suffered. The effects are felt across the length and breadth of Scotland. Schemes have had to be adjusted in as fair a manner as possible.

Mr. Foulkes


Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I will answer him. I have only four minutes left.

Let us consider finance. The hon. Gentleman may not think that element of the equation important. I agree that it would be wonderful if we could wave a magic wand and bypass every trunk road community in the country. That would be Utopia. However, from time immemorial demand has outstripped capacity, so difficult choices have had to be made within the resources available.

It has been suggested that the postponement of schemes in Strathclyde results from cuts in Government funds available for trunk roads. I am happy to have the opportunity to set the record straight tonight. It is a fact that, in this financial year, funds for trunk roads have grown to their highest level in real terms for many years. That has enabled a record number of new projects to start in this financial year, but the hon. Gentleman must remember that that creates an especially large commitment in forward years. I should still caution that trunk road funds are necessarily finite. More might have been available had it not been for the generous settlement last June on local authority current expenditure.

As the hon. Gentleman will have seen from our commentary, it has been necessary to hold trunk road spending for 1988–89 at its current level. That can be seen from page 57.

On south Ayrshire, I repeat the position stated in correspondence about the four bypasses. For New Cumnock and Cumnock-Auchinleck on the A76, draft line of road and side road orders have been published and the objections received have been resolved. Draft compulsory purchase orders for both schemes have yet to be published. The earliest possible start dates envisaged for both schemes is May 1991. As for the Maybole bypass, no draft orders have yet been published, but it is hoped to publish the draft road orders during the year. The earliest possible start date envisaged is August 1992. Finally, a feasibility study on a possible Girvan bypass is in preparation, and I do not wish to comment on it until it has been completed.

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the A77 Balsalloch to Balcreuchan scheme is seen as having priority in view of the slope stability problems adjacent to the A77. My Department has been making considerable efforts to resolve the sole outstanding objection to the scheme. It is hoped that the objection will be withdrawn shortly to allow the making of the statutory orders, negotiation of entry to land and preparation of the works contract, with a view to starting work by the autumn on this £4.2 million scheme.

With regard to the A76 Mauchlinc bypass, work on preliminary site investigation will start soon, and Strathclyde region, as agent, has been asked to prepare material for the draft statutory orders. Subject to the usual qualifications about availability of funds, completion of statutory procedures and relative priority in the network, the earliest possible start date envisaged is November 1992. In relation to the A77 Ayr road route, I have said that the inquiry will begin on 23 March.

In conclusion, I should report that, before this short debate, trunk road bypasses in Ayrshire have been the subject of prolonged exchanges with the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley. I give him credit for being a persistent Member on behalf of his constituents. I echo his disappointment that the commencement dates have had to be put back, but I urge him to try to see the matter in national perspective. The needs of his constituents have not been forgotten. All the points that he has made about schemes in his constituency and about trunk roads generally will be fully borne in mind as we come to consider the possible scheme starts in each financial year.

But, of course, there are other schemes in Ayrshire. The Government have accepted the case for a bypass of Ardrossan, Saltcoats and Stevenston and included the project in the forward trunk road programme. It is proposed to provide 6.4 km of dual carriageway at an estimated cost of about £15 million to relieve traffic congestion and improve the flow of trunk road—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Monday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at seven minutes past One o'clock.