HC Deb 17 December 1990 vol 183 cc129-36

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

10.57 pm
Mr. David Sumberg (Bury, South)

We are constantly told that we live in a new, environmentally aware, era. You, Madam Deputy Speaker, would have to be far more persuasive than me to convince my constituents that that is so. They face several threats to their local environment, ranging from planned supermarkets to a takeover bid from Manchester city council. But undoubtedly the greatest threat to that local environment is a possible new motorway, weaving its way through the heart of my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Burt).

The news which came to light last summer that the Department of Transport, under its 1989 White Paper "Roads for Prosperity" was planning a motorway—the Greater Manchester western and northern relief road—to connect the M62 and M66 motorways was greeted with anger, and incredulity by my constituents. They greeted the news with anger, because the possible route—I stress that no final decision about the principle or detail of such a route has yet been taken—would cut through the beauties of the Croal Irwell valley which is so loved by walkers, ramblers and naturalists, would continue through some prime agricultural land and Stand golf club—a much used and popular sporting facility—proceed to destroy some lovely homes and gardens, and would finally damage and disrupt the commercial premises of the James Holstead group, the leading employers in my constituency and the largest manufacturers of PVC sheet vinyl flooring in the British Isles. Taken in toto, the proposed route represents an intolerable intrusion into the countryside, the leisure and sporting facilities and the home and business life of my constituency.

I accept that the proposals for the proposed route are still at the earliest stages of consultation and that alternatives, of which I am not aware, are being considered. I understand that the public's views will be taken into account and that, even if a relief road is constructed, that will not happen until after the approval of a full public inquiry, and that construction will not take place, subject to the public money then being available, until well into the next century. I accept all those valid points, but the possibility of such a proposal or of equally unsatisfactory alternatives has mobilised public opinion in my constituency and in that of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North right across the political divide.

I said that the news of a possible new motorway was greeted by my constituents with anger and incredulity. I have described the reasons for their anger. Their incredulity arises from the fact that the idea for the motorway seems to have been based on guesstimates by the Department of Transport. They are guesstimates about the amount of motorway traffic that there will be in 20 years' time; guesstimates of the effect, or lack of it, of the proposed widening to four lanes of the present M62; and guesstimates about the consequences of the planned completion of the M66 between Denton and Middleton. Guesstimates are all very well, but they do not justify the havoc that those proposals would cause for my constituents.

I want to pay tribute to my constituents who are doing so much to oppose the proposals and, in particular, to pay tribute to SWARM. That is not a collection of bees, although it comprises very busy people. SWARM stands for Stop the Whitefield and Radcliffe Motorway. It is an action group that has been formed to co-ordinate opposition to any relief road through my constituency. Its members have worked hard and long to alert public opinion, and I salute SWARM's diligent and dedicated officers: Ken Forman the chairman, Fiona Hanlon the secretary, Robin Gibson the treasurer, and Lorraine Palastrand the publicity officer. They, together with their fellow SWARM members, are owed a deep debt of public gratitude for what they are doing, and I am glad of this opportunity to place my thanks on the public record.

When putting my thanks on the public record, it is only right that I should thank my hon. Friend the Minister for Roads and Traffic for visiting my constituency at short notice over the summer to see for himself the area that will be damaged, and even destroyed, if the proposals ever see the light of day. However, my hon. Friend's welcome visit is not enough. My constituents and I want far more from him than that.

In the short term, we need clarification of when consultation and discussion with the public will take place. Rumour is about that it was planned for the spring of next year but that it has now been postponed until the autumn or even later in 1991, or possibly even in 1992. Signs have been given that any public inquiry, if it is needed, will not be held until 1995 at the earliest. Will my hon. Friend specifically and in terms confirm whether those dates are accurate? My constituents need some certainty in these matters.

Certainty is needed not just for peace of mind or for the planning of the campaign; it is needed for a practical and important reason. As my hon. Friend knows, once the proposal for a relief road became public knowledge, the effect on property values and house sales was little short of disastrous. Despite the fact that no decision has yet been made on any motorway route, despite the fact that any road will not be built for another 15 or 20 years, or perhaps never, a widespread housing blight has been created in the Whitefield and Radcliffe parts of my constituency.

I can do no better than to refer to one of the many letters that I have received from constituents, or, in this case, from their solicitors. They state: Our clients have asked us to write to you to confirm that they have had their house on the market, but purchasers have specifically withdrawn because of the prospect of the motorway proposals. Our clients are having to move for business reasons but are unable to do so because of the blight to which their property is subject. I appreciate that, until a specific route is announced by the Department of Transport, no legal entitlement for housing blight compensation exists. I appreciate, too, that, to avoid the situation that I have described, confidentiality of consultation with local authorities and others at the early stages is necessary because such proposals may never proceed. I appreciate also that the Department of Transport is not responsible for that breach of confidentiality. However—this is the important point—neither are any of my constituents, who now have to pay a very heavy price for the housing blight that has been created.

The Minister has told me that he will look sympathetically at the problems once the public consultation stage has been reached. I had hoped that he could have done that before that stage. However, if that is not legally possible, it is vital that we get on with the consultation exercise as quickly as possible so that some help can be given to those constituents who simply cannot sell their homes. In the short term, an announcement on those lines from the Minister would be most welcome, but, in the long term, an announcement that the proposal is to be abandoned completely would be even more welcome.

As one of the local newspapers circulating in my area put it, The environmental squalor such a scheme would cause, with stilted roads, destruction of property and the carving up of scarce green areas and recreational land, including two golf courses, is too nightmarish to contemplate. Bury already has more than its share of motorways. Because there is peak time chaos on one of the routes it is no excuse for heaping more motorways on those living in the area. Pollution inflicted by motor vehicles is well documented. It cannot continue at the present rate without poisoning the atmosphere to a dangerous level. Because one road is choked-up it does not follow another should be provided. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister, when he replies sooner or, probably, later, will lift the threat that now hangs over so much of my constituency.

11.8 pm

Mr. Alistair Burt (Bury, North)

My hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Sumberg) has allowed me a few minutes.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd)

Order. Has the hon. Member who has the Adjournment informed the Minister?

Mr. Sumberg

I have, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Madam Deputy Speaker

The hon. Member has not informed the Chair. It is courteous to inform the Chair of such an intervention. I am sure that he will do so in future.

Mr. Sumberg

I am very sorry, Madam Deputy Speaker. It was my error. Please forgive me.

Madam Deputy Speaker

It is Christmas. I call Mr. Alistair Burt.

Mr. Burt

I share the error of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Sumberg), Madam Deputy Speaker.

First, I thank my hon. Friend for allowing me some time at the end of his speech. I should like to associate myself with everything that he has said, much of which relates to my constituency as well as to his. Secondly, I thank those in my constituency who have already taken up the cudgels in the manner that he suggested has happened in his own. I thank those residents who have been involved in work, especially Mrs. Reay, Mrs. Foran and my two councillors, Des Eccleston and Sam Cohen for their work.

The proposed route of the new road in my constituency first enters the constituency close to Blackford bridge, which is the site of the busy main road between Bury and Manchester. Unless the road is in a tunnel at this point, it will presumably cross that main road by way of a viaduct, which would be highly visible, obviously intrusive, and massively detrimental to the surrounding housing, of which there is a great deal.

In common with my neighbour's constituency, it is then envisaged that the route will go through a golf course—in this case, through Bury golf club, which this year celebrates 100 years of existence and which is one of the finest playing courses in the north of England. The golf course outlook is well known by the Minister. Like my hon. Friend, I thank the Minister for taking the time to come to my constituency in the late summer to see the area for himself. He knows how beautiful it is and how much of a feature the golf course and open land is in Hollins and Unsworth. Even the most casual glance at a map will show what an oasis of green it is in a suburban landscape.

As then envisaged, the route will cross a road and head over fields, close to some properties, to join the existing M66 motorway and head out of my constituency. I share the concern of the villagers of Birch at the effect that it will have there.

As soon as the plans for the new motorway became known, in circumstances that I deplore, the concern of my constituents was obvious. Over 150 packed a small community centre in Hollins, and my postbag and surgery suggested their worries, which I share. Now is not the time or the place for a full debate of the issue; that will come at the full inquiry, but some pertinent questions will, I hope, dominate the arguments.

First, is the answer to congestion in urban areas always to build yet another road? Secondly, when will the great debate about road and rail in this country get a proper airing? I caution those who believe that rail is a simple answer to the problems of large-scale freight movement around the country; it is not. However, to my mind, the matter has never been properly and publicly addressed in such a way as to produce any consensus about the answer. We need to do that urgently—either to prove the claims for rail, to dismiss them or—most likely—to come to some agreement about the role of each which most ordinary straightforward people think acceptable. Thirdly, the problems of east-west traffic in this country cannot be treated as a series of isolated problems.

Perhaps we should consider the plight of my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South on a much bigger stage, taking into account the possibilities of a northern route across the Pennines, and a more southerly one away from Merseyside towards the main north-south routes, in each case upgrading existing roads.

All these are wider issues, but of particular concern to my constituents. The more narrow issues of their homes, fields, and leisure facilities—and the destruction of them—will rightly occupy them over the next few months. This is a proposal with few if any benefits for my constituents as a whole and none whatsoever for those directly affected. It will be strongly opposed as much by the constituents in my part of Bury as by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South and his constituents.

11.13 pm
The Minister for Roads and Traffic (Mr. Christopher Chope)

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Sumberg) on securing this important debate. I thank him and my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Burt) for their kind remarks about my visit to their constituencies this September, which was helpful in the context of the discussion on this road.

I am glad to have the opportunity this evening to explain Government policy on roads in general, and the latest position of the Greater Manchester western and northern relief road. It is fair to say that one cannot have a good quality environment, a good quality of life for our citizens and a prosperous community without effective communications. National trunk roads, as well as local roads, form a major element of that.

Major national roads serve the borough of Bury. The M62 motorway provides an important link across the Pennines. It connects the three conurbations of Merseyside, Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire, which in total comprise one fifth of the population of the United Kingdom. The route occcupies a fundamental place in our transportation network. Even on the isolated moorland section, the road carries over 70,000 vehicles every day of the year, and almost 30 per cent. of those are goods vehicles.

Just as important to the area is the M66 motorway to the east of Bury. At present, it provides a link between the A56 at Edenfield to the M62 at Middleton. On 11 March 1988, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced the go-ahead for the extension of the M66 motorway to Denton. This section, when built, will complete the eastern section of the Manchester outer ring road. The northern, western and southern sides are formed by the M62 and M63 motorways.

While the Manchester outer ring road is not a ring road in the true sense—two thirds of the 2.5 million people in the area live outside it—its job is every bit as important as that of the M62. Locally, it provides a route between the major centres of population in the Greater Manchester area. When it is completed, it will certainly make travel between Bury and Stockport easier, and there will be a route to Manchester airport which avoids the congestion at Worsley. As my hon. Friends will recognise, good communications between these districts are important, because without them business cannot prosper and areas cannot develop to their full potential.

While completion of the ring road might appear to be the answer to all the problems, one major drawback would still remain. Because the northern side of the ring road is provided by the M62 motorway, that piece of motorway to the south of Bury has to satisfy two discrete functions: as a long-distance through route and as a more local distributor. Not surprisingly, conditions on the road are poor: indeed, to describe them as dreadful would not be an overstatement. Delays, frustration, congestion and accidents are all too commonplace. It is a road which causes stress to those who use it.

Weekday traffic flows on the M62 between junction 20 at Rochdale and junction 16 average 100,000 vehicles, with almost 140,000 vehicles per day on the busiest sections. The high levels of traffic are the result of increased levels of economic activity and prosperity. As this part of the network is already congested, further forecast traffic growth is certain to make conditions worse. Traffic figures are predicted to grow by up to one third by the end of the 1990s, and could well double by 2020. While uncertainty is associated with forecasts for so long a period ahead—the Department prepares high and low forecasts to test both ends of the range—we cannot simply put our heads in the sand and hope that the forecast traffic will disappear. Indeed, many of today's road problems are attributable to the fact that politicians did just that in the past.

Congestion on parts of the M62 will become worse, and a responsible Government must respond to it. Congestion reduces the efficiency and reliability of road transport for industry and increases the cost to consumers. It is also bad for road safety. Congestion harms the environment, because slow-moving vehicles burn more fuel and hence give off greater quantities of harmful emissions. Against that background, the Government announced in the 1989 White Paper "Roads for Prosperity" a major expansion of the trunk road programme. Among the major new road schemes announced then was a proposal for the Greater Manchester western and northern relief road running from the M6 in Cheshire to the M62 and M66 east of Bury.

Before announcing the expansion of the road programme, the Government considered several ways of dealing with unacceptable levels of congestion, including the contribution that could be made by the railways, or, indeed, by other innovative ideas, such as the light rapid transit system soon to operate within the Greater Manchester area. We shall continue to invest heavily in public transport. Current investment is at record levels, but it is wishful thinking to believe that we can solve problems of congestion simply by investing more in public transport.

The vast differences in the scale and characteristics of the markets served by road and rail mean that even if rail traffic could be increased by 50 per cent., which would impose significant environmental penalties, road traffic would only be reduced by about 5 per cent., which is in line with an average year's growth. Public transport will not solve the needs of industry and business, or of people who use their cars regularly.

I fully understand my hon. Friends' anxiety about the effect of the Greater Manchester northern and western relief road within their constituencies. I commend them for the way in which they have spent so much time and effort on pursuing this concern on behalf of their constituents. As my hon. Friends know, our proposals for the sections of this scheme between the M56 and M66 are at the very first stage of what will necessarily be a lengthy process of development.

The initial investigations of options for any new road take place with minimal publicity. This is not because of a desire to deny anyone the opportunity to study and comment on what is being proposed: it is because, at this early, fact-finding stage, the consultants' investigations are extremely wide-ranging. Many options will be considered and eliminated in the search for a viable solution. To release details of routes or corridors under investigation can lead to widespread and unnecessary blight, for which there is no statutory remedy. As my hon. Friends have pointed out, that, sadly, is the present position with this relief road.

Our confidential consultations, which form a standard part of the fact-finding process, have led a leak of information. My hon. Friends and people in the area are well aware that that leak emanated from a local councillor who is the prospective Labour party candidate for Bury, South. Whatever the motives for the leak, it has done a great disservice to the community. It has led directly to the blighting of properties and to disruption within the community.

In assessing the options for dealing with traffic congestion, one of the obvious first steps is to look at improvements to the existing road. That is why we have done so. Without the new road, we should have to consider carefully closing several junctions on the M62. Although it would help the flow of traffic on the motorway, it would have a severe impact on the local road network. The area would suffer increasing congestion with worsening conditions for residents.

I should like to say something about the next stages in the development of the scheme. I was asked specifically when we could go out to public consultation. I can do no better than to say that it will be as soon as possible. I understand that the delay is causing frustrations, as a direct result of the premature disclosure of confidential information. However, it would be wholly wrong for the Department to publish proposals which have not been properly worked out, do not contain the best information based on detailed consultation which has taken place informally and confidentially, and which have not taken into account the various route options.

My hon. Friends will be pleased to hear that that is necessarily a large-scale and wide-ranging process. It means that we will not be able to publish the proposals for consultation before next spring. I must warn my hon. Friends that it may be later than that. It depends on the progress made in the interim. Once the proposals are produced for consultation, there will be ample opportunity for people to visit exhibitions, ask questions and present their views. I can reassure the House that no decision will be taken on any route to be advanced until public consultation has been held.

The consultation process is non-statutory and gives people an early opportunity to have a say in the development of the scheme. At a later stage, when orders are published, they will be able to exercise their statutory rights of objection. At that stage, the matter would be considered by an independent inspector at a local public inquiry.

I fully understand the concerns of local people that have been put to me so ably by my hon. Friends. I hope that they may be reassured as to the opportunities for public input into our proposals. A balance must be struck between the positive advantages that any new road offers for the relief of congestion and the impact of that road on the environment and the community. As time goes by. I hope that my hon. Friends become satisfied that we have got that balance right.

The issue of consultation relating to new road schemes is not a party political one. It might help if I reminded the House of the contents of the "Report on the Review of Highway Inquiry Procedures", published in April 1978 under the previous Labour Government. Paragraph 57 of the conclusions of that report states: It is nevertheless inevitable that the benefits of a new road will generally be more widely distributed, and thus less apparent, than its disadvantages. Thus, although the most careful consideration is given to the social and environmental effects in the immediate locality of a proposed new road it is hardly possible to build it at reasonable cost without causing inconvenience and disruption in its immediate vicinity. The Government is concerned that those who are affected in this way should be treated with the greatest possible fairness. An equitable and efficient public inquiry procedure is essential. That was the policy under the previous Labour Government, and it is our policy. We would not have had this debate and the people in my hon. Friends' constituencies would not be alarmed but for the premature disclosure of information that should never have been disclosed and which had been made available on a strictly confidential basis.

Mr. Terry Lewis (Worsley)

That is not true, and the Minister knows it.

Mr. Chope

The hon. Gentleman may barrack me, but he would be unable to persuade people in that area that their alarm has been caused by anything other than the irresponsible behaviour of someone who has strong political motives.

Mr. Lewis

The Minister knows how the information got out.

Madam Deputy Speaker


Mr. Chope

I am sorry that the debate should end on a note of acrimony, but that is a fair account of what has happened. The Department's best endeavours to proceed in an orderly and responsible fashion have been frustrated and thwarted by the irresponsible behaviour of one individual.

I assure my hon. Friends that we shall come forward as soon as possible for consultation on the proposals. At that and subsequent stages, I know that my hon. Friends will act as vigorously as they always do on behalf of their constituents' interests.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes past Eleven o'clock.