§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. John M. Taylor.]1.51 am
§ Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)
I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the question of the A1 and the issues surrounding it, and I am grateful to the Minister for his presence at this rather late hour.
The Al, the great north road, has been the country's principal road for so long that it has been left behind in the motorway era. In the 1960s the combined width of the two carriageways at one point in Alnwick was barely loft. The years of piecemeal improvements have not produced a safe or adequate road. Indeed, in some places inadequate improvements have made it even more dangerous.
The problems are not confined to Northumberland. The notorious Yorkshire section of the Al will still not be up to motorway standards by the end of the century, and traffic from local communities will still be dicing with death if underpasses and proper junctions are not built to separate local traffic from fast traffic. The recent improvements at Stannington in Northumberland have cost lives because turning traffic has to wait in the middle of what motorists imagine is a motorway.
The 50 mile or so stretch of the Al in my constituency stands out for its inadequacy as one of the two main roads between England and Scotland. Virtually none of it is dual carriageway, except for a stretch that was built 40 years ago. New bypasses at Alnwick Berwick and other places are little more than country lanes and, as a result, lives have been lost. Seventeen people have been killed on the Alnwick bypass and its approaches since it was opened in 1970. Three people died in two accidents in the first two months after the Berwick bypass was opened.
Deaths and serious injuries continue. They may not come top of the grim league of national accident statistics, but to many local people they are particularly sickening because they would not have happened if this were a safer road. For most of the length of the Al in Northumberland, there are few opportunities for safe overtaking, yet long-distance car drivers find themselves stuck behind queues of heavy vehicles crawling up steep banks and around curves.
I have argued for many years that an increase in the number of dual carriageway sections would reduce accidents by allowing queues to clear, and I welcome the acceptance of this by the Department of Transport. We look forward to the planned dualling of a section south of Alnwick, but we need much more and the whole road, including the bypasses, ought to be dual carriageway. It is the best, indeed the only, all-weather route to Scotland and should be treated accordingly. I was therefore particularly interested in reports of studies now going on which involve both the Department of Transport and the Scottish Office. On 10 January, The Daily Telegraph claimed that the Departmentis seeking a new route for the Al across the English-Scottish border".It is difficult to imagine where that route could be, given the terrain. The Scottish Office is studying,all main roads south of Edinburghand an announcement on that is expected.
§ Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)
The hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that this report 845 from the Scottish Office about a road south of Edinburgh has been eagerly awaited for months. I have been able to obtain figures which show that 283 injuries and 25 deaths have occurred in accidents over a three-year period on the five-mile stretch of the Al in Scotland. Does he agree that the time has come to provide a dual carriageway for the missing link all the way from Musselburgh to Morpeth?
§ Mr. Beith
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. He and I share a great deal of experience of that road on both sides of the border, and that confirms us in the view that we have expressed.
What do these reports and studies by the Department of Transport and the Scottish Office mean to the A1 in Northumberland, which is a vital link between England and Scotland? I hope that the Minister can give some indication what is going on. The Al is not only an important communication route through Northumberland; an increasing number of people earn their living from it. The Government and local councils see service industries and tourism as vital elements in creating jobs in the north-east of England and in the borders. Why does the Department of Transport go out of its way to prevent people from doing so? It seems to be running an anti-small business policy that is in direct opposition to what everyone else is trying to do. The most obvious example is in its attitude to signs. It has taken us years of struggle to get official signposting of major local tourist attractions, such as the castles along our coast.
It has taken even longer to get a system of approved signs for main services and major businesses along the road, for the cost of which those businesses are paying. What about the small hotels, craft shops, cafes and bed and breakfast establishments? The existing schemes for approved signs are simply not tailored to their needs or to what they can reasonably afford, especially when setting up a new business. Often, they resort to a neat, unofficial roadside sign. The reaction of the Department of Transport is to send out its agents, the county council, on a sign swoop in the middle of the tourist season, demanding that signs be removed, and even taking them away themselves. This is not a safety-conscious and helpful exercise, in which officials recommend better positioning of signs and clearer lettering. It is the Big Brother approach—"We run this road from London, and what we say goes." That is the tone that the Department conveys in its attitude to unofficial signs.
If the business man owns the roadside land or is friendly with the farmer who does, he can bypass the Ministry of Transport by putting a sign in the field and getting planning permission from the council. The trouble is that, along a significant section of the Al in my constituency, the Government own most of the land, through the Greenwich hospital estates and the Ministry of Defence. In other cases, the farmer may not want to be involved, or may even be in competition with other businesses because he has a farm shop or does bed and breakfast himself, as he is not only entitled but encouraged to do under the Government's diversification proposals.
I plead with the Minister to have a more tolerant approach to unofficial signs that are neat, well positioned and useful to the passing motorist. I hope that he will not try to convince us that these signs cause accidents. The signs that do so are almost invariably the Department's 846 metal direction signs, which are often dangerously placed, obscure sidelines and are, in many cases, ridiculously large, and, in most cases, larger than those that are required in other countries. I ask the Minister to give us a break and send the sign squad packing. There are many more useful things that those people could be doing.
Another glaring example of the Department's destructive attitude to small businesses is the saga of the Brownieside refreshment caravan at North Charlton. Not all refreshment caravans are a good thing, and some councils need to use their planning and health plans to control them. Alnwick district council is furious over the Department's attempt to close two such caravans on either side of Alnwick. It knows that closure, because of the drivers' hours limitations, will mean more heavy vehicles in the town, and it is satisfied that the caravans are well sited. The Minister wrote to me on Friday to explain why he is so determined to put Mrs. Rhoda Ewart out of business at her caravan at the layby at North Charlton.
§ The Minister for Roads and Traffic (Mr. Peter Bottomley)
I shall respond to the hon. Gentleman's speech later, but I hope that he will withdraw, or at least internally regret, the suggestion that there is any kind of personal vendetta.
§ Mr. Beith
I did not suggest that there is. I am sure that if the Minister ever met Mrs. Ewart, he would be enthusiastically supporting her cause. I am saying that if he continues to pursue his policies, they will put people out of business.
Mrs. Ewart keeps the layby in which she has her business scrupulously clean and tidy. When I called there this morning, lorry drivers expressed amazement and disgust at the Minister's attitude. I think that he has been badly advised, and I suggest that he takes a look for himself. In his letter, he says, that visibility at the junction is "less than desirable". It is actually much better than average for the A1 and very much better for heavy vehicles than the difficult turning to the service area at North Charlton, which the Minister seems to think is safer.
I wish that the Department's officials would stop passing the buck to the county council, which is merely its agent, and which, if questioned, will always pass the buck straight back to the Department of Transport. Nobody seems to be prepared to take the responsibility. In his letter, the Minister claims to be acting on the county council's advice, but at a recent stormy meeting with Alwick district council, the Department of Transport's official, Mr. Poulson, took the lead. He was quoted as saying that the Secretary of State believes that these caravans increase the accident problem because they attract people. If there were no people, we would not need any roads. There is no record of any accidents caused by the caravans. It is on the sections of the road the Department of Transport officials have designed to be safe that the fatal accidents have happened, not where these refreshment caravans are. Once again, bureaucracy has taken over from a proper assessment of the needs of people on the spot.
I will give the Minister details by letter of the errors in the advice he has been given and I hope that he will look at the matter again. In doing so, I hope that he will bear out his intervention when he said that he is concerned that 847 there should not be an attack on any one business. If he looks at the matter again, I am sure that he will want to review the decision.
I plead with the Minister to reconsider his instructions that all litter bins should be removed from lay-bys, except those with special facilities. Many people travelling long journeys are not willing to keep banana skins, chip papers and other rubbish in their cars and the absence of litter bins is an invitation to careless dumping. Some of it causes serious problems for farmers when small polythene bags blow into fields in which cattle are grazing. As soon as one crosses the border into Scotland different rules seems to apply and litter bins are available. Why is there a difference in policy on either side of the border on the same road?
The once proud great north road is now out of date in relation to modern traffic speeds and modern road standards. The Department's attitude to the growth of small businesses along it is equally out of date and does not fit the climate of small business growth and tourism and certainly does not fit an enterprise culture. It is vital to both nations—England and Scotland—to the north-east and to the borders that we should have a great north road for the next century and that enterprise is given a chance to flourish alongside it. It should be a safe route and a corridor of success.
§ 2.1 am
§ The Minister for Roads and Traffic (Mr. Peter Bottomley)
The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) has shown what a pity it is that his party picked another person to lead it. I shall disagree with one or two of the things said by the hon. Gentleman, but he has shown that he can master his brief rather better than some of his colleagues and that he can speak in an engaging way, even though what he says is not always consistent with what he said five minutes before. He is a good constituency Member of Parliament and we would have liked to see him as the leader of his party, because he would have done it better. Good party leadership is good for the country.
I am not saying that the hon. Gentleman's party should return to partial government, because when it formed part of the Lib-Lab pact it was part of a gang that managed to halve national road spending in the five years from 1974–79. One of the reasons why fewer roads have been built than many would have liked to see—than even the last Labour Government would have liked to see—is that the economy was in such a mess that we had to wait for a change of Government to bring about growth in the economy and the improvements—with some difficulties—that have made it possible to increase the road spending programme.
I welcome what the hon. Gentleman said about the great north road. There is a great deal to be said for getting some good names back for our roads, and the great north road is one of the best, whether it is being used by an enormous amount of traffic or by a reasonable amount of traffic. Through Northumberland, the road is generally used by a reasonable amount of traffic. I am glad that there are joint studies between the Scottish Transport Department and the Department of Transport in England. We should have a route without discontinuity at the border. That is important as we move from the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed's constituency to the constituency of the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. 848 Home Robertson). I am sorry to see that there are no Scottish nationalist Members present to look after their constituents' interests.
§ Mr. Bottomley
I have already paid tribute to the hon. Member for East Lothian.
We look forward to the conclusions on the joint studies. It is too early to comment now.
The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed talked about dangers. The first part of his speech was about cutting casualties. The second part of his speech said that perceptions of road risks are not as important as signs and in the later part of his speech he seemed to be an enthusiast for informal signs by the side of the road. Even with what I gently call the "reasonable" traffic flows on the Al in Northumberland, he should accept that our policy of having reduced signing wherever possible is one of the reasons why Britain has the safest roads in relation to population, in the motorised world. Not only do we have the safest roads, but they have been becoming safer, faster.
I was pleased to see that the figures for the third quarter of 1988 show that the number of people killed or seriously injured has been reduced by 6 per cent. The same sort of improvement was achieved during the previous year even though traffic growth was 4 per cent. a year for each of the past two years.
I pay tribute to many motorists, but 95 per cent. of the crashes and collisions that take place, leading to 300,000 people a year being injured and 5,000 being killed, are in substantial part the result of human error. Many new roads are intrinsically much safer than those that they replace, but they are potentially risky during their first few months of use as motorists become used to them. Someone who has driven through a village or town at a relatively slow speed, being within a built-up area, will sometimes start to use a bypass as though it is a race track. There are accidents on race tracks, and sometimes accidents take place on new roads. Whenever I am involved in cutting a tape to mark the opening of a new road, I welcome its construction but advise users to exercise care and caution while they are getting used to the road's new features.
The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed half alluded to the fact that, on the Al in Northumberland, the: injury rate is about two thirds of the average for that type of road. Given the bypasses that have been built and some of the improvements that are planned, the rate is better than average, but that is not good enough. The numbers of those who die, those who are seriously injured and those who are slightly injured are too high. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has set a target of reducing the. number of those killed or seriously injured by one third by the year 2000.
The House will have the opportunity of considering a Bill that is to be promoted by the hon. Member for East Lothian. Without commenting on its merits, it will be one of the few occasions during the past three years when an hon. Member has introduced a Bill that is designed to improve adult safety. A measure was introduced last year dealing with child restraints in cars, and, with the building of new roads and adapting the behaviour of drivers, we are trying to reduce the number of casualties. That is often the reason for having new roads, but we recognise also the importance of environmental improvements that can be gained by taking through traffic out of residential areas. 849 New roads can often lead to more jobs. If we can change the economic geography of a region by introducing better communications, either by new roads or by rail, we can serve the local people better.
One advantage of having more than one highway authority is that there is more than one approach, which means that results can be compared. Litter bins have been removed from most trunk roads because road users do not confine the litter that they place in a bin to that which is generated during a journey. They tend to take with them boxes and plastic sacks, or beds, for example, and leave them lying around. The result is that polythene bags are to be found in many agricultural areas. They are blown by the wind and scattered over considerable distances. They are eyesores around a lay-by where litter bins are still to be found.
The experience that we have gained from pilot studies is that the amount of litter is less when litter bins are removed. That sounds like a paradox, but that is the evidence. It may be that, as we move through the 100 km of Northumberland on the A1, we shall find that there is more of a Scottish pattern. Perhaps the people of Scotland take less waste out of their houses to take in their cars to a lay-by than the people of England. Scottish people may not open the boot and dump many other items apart from the waste that has been generated during their journey, but it is always open to local authorities in England to embark on more amenity cleaning. If the hon. Members for Berwick-upon-Tweed or for East Lothian would like to have more information on litter bins, I shall happily send it to them.
When I came to the Department of Transport, there needed to be a traffic flow of about 18,000 vehicles a day before consideration would be given to dualling. I am pleased that, during my time, it has been possible to start considering it where there is a flow of about 11,000 vehicles a day. That does not mean that a road with such a flow will automatically be dualled. Consideration can be given to dualling, however, where there is a flow of that sort. It would be wrong to go for dualling at Alnwick, where the traffic flow is about 6,000 vehicles a day, or at another place on the A1, where the flow is below 4,000. Where we count flows of about 15,000 vehicles a day it is possible to consider dualling—on some stretches we already have it.
Where it is possible to have low-cost remedial measures, we take them. We are keen to find out where more local problems exist. The hon. Gentleman referred to the mis-siting of traffic signs. If we have not got it right, we shall reconsider. I ask the hon. Gentleman to let me or the regional office know about what he or the local council regards as a wrongly sited sign, such as where sight lines are obscured for no good reason. I shall ensure that such examples are looked into. That type of detailed knowledge is of value to us and it shows the merits of single-Member constituencies, as one person can take a keen interest in where signs are planted.
The hon. Gentleman's real point is that there are further opportunities for improving the great north road up through Northumberland. He will agree that there are opportunities further south as well. He spoke about the Al through Yorkshire. Nobody can be satisfied with the rate of improvement, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join my club and say that we should get the A1 improved 850 before we think of building an extension of the M11 to the Humber bridge and beyond, as an alternative route to Yorkshire. The A1 is the great north road, and must take priority. Although it is now all wider than 10 ft., it has a long way to go.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) spoke about the Al today. As it was not in a Lobby, I think that I can regard what he said as not totally confidential. He is keen for the Al in that part of the world to be improved. I know that Yorkshire Members are as well. I pay tribute to the staff of the Department of Transport in many regions who are trying to tackle the problems of the A1. I hope that the whole House agrees that it is important to try to get the priorities right. That does not necessarily mean spending all the money on getting the greatest traffic flows. We must get the right balance so that we get measurable benefits in terms of time saving for people who obey the speed limits.
We can give quantifiable relief to many people who are affected by through traffic. The growth of traffic during the past 40 years has meant that many villages and towns have been separated by a fairly constant flow of heavy traffic. That is the point that the hon. Gentleman was getting at. He spoke about saving lives. He and I are aware that, today, 14 families received a knock on the door from a policeman announcing that a father or mother, husband or wife, or son or daughter would not come home again because they had died in a road crash.
It is no comfort to learn that in France, for example, the figure would be nearly 30, and that in Germany it would be about 20, for the same population. Even if we are about the best in the world, there are dramatic improvements to be made. They will come, partly, by having better roads which allow people to make fewer mistakes and render the mistakes that are made less damaging than when there is competition and conflict in a built-up area or a narrow road.
I would like to put in a plea to local people when a road has been included in the roads programme. When the highway authority, whether the Department or the county, asks for public views, people should try to anticipate whether they think the road is necessary. If they think that it is, they should try to resolve—after proper consultation—which is the best route, so that the road can be built more quickly. We are trying to reduce the time between entry into the programme and public consultation by years, if at all possible. After public consultation, we can move forward to the draft order stage and get the necessary public inquiry through without undue delay. It is possible to bring forward the benefits of new roads, as the hon. Gentleman said, that is one way to save lives.
Northumberland is not the easiest county in which to build roads. The hon. Gentleman expressed some surprise at rumours that there might be a new route across the border. I hope that, where a new road is on the margin of being built as a dual carriageway, we can find ways of making some of the structures fit for a widened road so that, when extra traffic is generated, it is possible to expand the capacity of the road instead of being prevented from doing that because the structures were only planned for the 15 or 30 years that were easily foreseeable. However, that is not a promise that every structure will be built for a dual carriageway, but we must try to take into account Northumberland's topography.
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the way in which he made his speech. Life is not quite as simple in 851 roadside trading as is sometimes suggested. It is not necessarily sensible to allow a proliferation of signs for small businesses. I hope that the Department can continue to be flexible so that the rules which apply to a motorway carrying 120,000 vehicles a day are not necessarily applied to a road carrying 10,000 a day. We need some consistency in making road safety a priority.
If it is possible to find ways of meeting some of the needs that the hon. Gentleman has suggested should be met, either in terms of stopovers for lorry drivers or for signs for small businesses, I hope that we can play our part. In turn, I ask the hon. Gentleman to recognise that a forest of signs or lay-bys providing refreshments in a slightly unplanned way, is not necessarily the best way to serve the travelling public, whether in commercial vehicles or cars. It is not necessarily the best way to get the jobs which some refreshment sites can offer. The hon. Gentleman should continue to consult the county council and local councils to see whether there are better ways to make provision instead of testing the safety of any particular site as has happened in the past.
§ Mr. Beith
The Minister's confidence in the Government's ability to plan for people's refreshment requirements is politically inappropriate and not borne out by experience. Many people involved in roadside businesses who want signs, would be willing to co-operate 852 if the advice to them was, "Please put signs in a more sensible position and please only one sign." A strategic look at the A1, of a kind that the Minister has not referred to so far, will be necessary. Traffic flows on the A1 would increase greatly if it was of a quality to attract traffic off less suitable roads and if it stimulated the economic development which the area needs.
§ Mr. Bottomley
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. That is one of the reasons why I normally get it in the neck for saying that I do not intend to spend taxpayers' money to allow more people to give up their British Rail season tickets to commute into central London by car. It may also be one of the reasons why someone else will be answering the next Adjournment debate on transport matters. I can think of many good reasons for building roads in some very busy areas. However, to build them simply to allow more regular journeys into the centre by car is not terribly sensible.
We are very keen to look strategically at the Al in Northumberland. We have put forward additions to the roads programme, and they are likely to come one by one. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will welcome them.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at eighteen minutes past Two o'clock.