HC Deb 08 May 1991 vol 190 cc799-806

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

8.51 pm
Mr. Calum Macdonald (Western Isles)

Good communications are the key to economic progress. That is especially true the more remote and peripheral people are from the core, and therefore especially true in the Western isles. We need good communications both between us and the mainland, cut off as we are by the waters of the Minch, but also internally, between the various islands of the Hebridean chain.

The Western Isles council currently maintains a roads network of approximately 740 miles of adopted road, of which only 155 miles are of double track width. The remaining 585 miles are single-track and of extremely sub-standard foundation and alignment. That presents a huge problem for the development of good communications, and is therefore a major impediment to economic progress in the islands. I accept that it cannot all be tackled overnight or even over the next decade, and I want to make a plea this evening for a focused effort to tackle one crucial part of that road network, the main road running north and south through the Western Isles, which I shall refer to as the spinal route.

The spinal route runs from Ness in Lewis to Leverburgh in Harris; and then from Newton in North Uist to Ludag in South Uist, and from Eoligarry to Castlebay in Barra. Upgrading would ensure a good north-south road linking the island chain, serving the most populated areas in the Hebrides, including all five of the mainland ferry terminals. The strategic nature of the spinal route for future economic development and inter-island as well as mainland communication means that the benefits of upgrading will be widely spread and provide maximum value for money.

I do not propose to dwell on the inadequacies of the present road. The Minister is familiar with the islands from the days when his family used to own a sizeable chunk of them, and he and his brother were themselves familiar sights, tramping through the heather in their kilts. He knows full well the deplorable condition of the road network in the islands, particularly in the Uists, as do the officials from the Scottish Development Department who visited the islands last year to make a special report on this issue. To refresh his memory, however, I have provided him with some photos to peruse. What they depict are not isolated tracks in the most remote parts of the islands but sections of the main spinal route, the main economic thoroughfare of the Hebrides over which all trade and commerce have to pass.

Why is the road network so bad? Most roads in the Western isles have been developed from rough footpaths to cart tracks and then to vehicular carriageways by means of various layers of clay, stones and rocks being placed one on top of the other, with no attempt to remove the underlying layers of peat which, in places can be up to 3 m thick. That results in a road which floats on a peat foundation and which is therefore prone to excessive shrinkage, expansion and consequent deformation under even moderate traffic. In addition, climatic conditions contribute to extensive cracking and rutting.

I am assured by the engineering department of the Western Isles council that, if assessed on mainland criteria, over 50 per cent. of the island network would be classified as failed. In consequence, maintenance cycles have to be more regular on the islands than is the mainland norm. The problem, caused by inadequate peat foundations, is exacerbated by the roads being single-track, so large wheel loads in particular get concentrated in the same ruts.

That is the historial background to the problem. But over the past decade, the increasing tempo of trade by fish farming, agriculture under the programme of the Industrial Development Board and fishing has led to increased heavy lorry traffic on the roads. It is estimated also that the introduction of roll-on/roll-off ferries has led to a further 37 per cent. increase in heavy vehicles on island roads. Finally, thanks in large part to better promotion of the islands by Caledonian MacBrayne and by the tourist authorities, regular travelling tourist traffic and traffic from the ordinary travelling public has also increased enormously in the past decade.

There is no sign of a reduction in the trend. Indeed, if anything, it is expected to intensify with the construction of the Skye bridge with which the Minister will be familiar, and the hoped-for development of a vehicular ferry link across the sound of Harris. With a major multinational even now applying for planning permission to excavate an estimated 10 million tons of material annually from a new super quarry at Lingerbay, the heavy traffic pressure on the fragile and inadequate road network will continue unabated.

The local authority is working hard to upgrade the spinal route. One must remember that the first problem facing the local authority after local government reorganisation in the early 1970s was to establish vehicular links to all the permanently inhabited islands in the Hebrides. With the completion of the Vatersay causeway, that ambition has been realised. Since 1983, the Western Isles council has been devoting the bulk of its transport capital consent to upgrading the islands' single track roads. But such is the poor nature of those roads and the high cost of bringing material on to the isles that to upgrade a mile of road costs approximately £500,000. At the present rate of progress, therefore, with the existing capital consent, it will take until the year 2025 just to upgrade the main spinal route.

When he has studied the figures, and the case made by the islands council, I am sure that the Minister will agree this is simply unacceptable. It is a disgrace that a region of Scotland, considered sufficiently distinct and self-contained to merit its own separate local government, should look like entering the 21st century with its main north-south commercial road still single track in large parts. Surely it is a modest enough ambition for the spinal route to be fully double-tracked by the year 2000. My constituents do not ask for dual carriageways, they do not ask for motorways, they do not even ask to be latched on to the official trunk road network in Scotland. All they ask for is an end to the age of the passing place on the main public thoroughfare connecting all the outer islands.

There are those, of course, who still have the temerity to argue that we ask for too much and who like to point out that expenditure per head is higher in the islands than the Scottish average. But, of course, that is necessarily so, because there are more miles of road per capita in the islands than the Scottish average. In any case, per capita comparisons are entirely the wrong way to look at the matter.

Roads are one of the basic services provided by Government. In this, they are like education, health and social security. It would be unacceptable to argue that people living in the Scottish islands should expect significantly lower quality schooling, much poorer medical care or less social security provision than people elsewhere in Scotland. The Government rightly accept that they have a duty to provide a similar quality of provision across Scotland in all these areas. So it should be with roads and communications, a responsibility of Government so basic that even Adam Smith acknowledged it.

I therefore urge the Government to look hard at the case which the Western Isles council will be making this summer in its transport policy programme for 1991–95 and to adopt it as their target that the main spinal route through the Western Isles be upgraded to basic double-track standard by the year 2000—that is by the end of this century. That target is realistic, achievable, eminently reasonable and long overdue. I commend it to the Minister.

9.1 pm

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

I welcome the fact that the hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald) has raised the subject of roads in his constituency. I have a great affection for the whole of Scotland, but especially for the Western Isles. Their outstanding beauty is so striking that it reminds me of the words of the Canadian Boating song: From the lone schieling of the misty Island Mountains divide us, and the waste of seas, Yet still the blood is strong, the heart is Highland And we in dreams behold the Hebrides. For my part, as a Scots lowlander, I have many extremely happy memories of the Western Isles, which have some of the most magnificent scenery in the world, a scenery which more and more tourists are in the process of discovering. Indeed, many more tourists will go there once the Skye bridge is built in the years to come. All that will have implications for the employment prospects and for the way of life of the islanders.

I have listened carefully to everything that the hon. Gentleman said, and I congratulate him on the way in which he put his arguments. I realise that people in the Western Isles are concerned with the down-to-earth practicalities of life, so I am glad to say that I essentially agree with the case that the hon. Gentleman advanced on behalf of his constituency. I am sympathetic to his cause, which is to put an end to passing places, as I was to the building of the Vatersay causeway. We shall study the photographs that he has provided, the points that he has made and, of course, the transport policy programme of the Western Islands council as soon as it has been submitted.

Let me start by summarising the position on resources. With the exception of small amounts of capital expenditure which some authorities are able to finance from current revenue, capital expenditure which local authorities spend on roadworks must be covered by capital consents issued by the Secretary of State under section 94 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973. Of the £160 million capital consents issued under section 94 to Scottish regional and islands councils for expenditure on roads and transport in 1991–92, £5 million was allocated to the Western Islands council. Several points are worth emphasising about that £5 million figure.

First, on an expenditure per head of population basis, the Western Isles figure, £161, is more than five times higher than the average figure for Scotland as a whole, which is £31. Secondly, on the perhaps more appropriate comparison basis for a thinly populated rural area, the Western Isles allocation per kilometre of local road length, at £4,226, is also substantially higher than the Scotland figure of £3,311. Thirdly, the Western Isles' £5 million final allocation for 1991–92 was increased from the previous provisional figure of £4.8 million. That increase was made at a time when the resources available for capital allocations generally were severely limited. We were able to increase the allocation this year in this way, although four of the nine regions, and both the other islands councils, received no such increase. That is evidence of our concern about the position in the Western Isles and of our commitment to ensuring that resources are channelled where they are most needed.

The statistics that I have just quoted show objectively that we accept many of the points that the hon. Gentleman has made, and demonstrate our commitment to take action to overcome the particular problems in the islands. But the Scottish Office's practical concern has also been shown by the strenuous efforts that officials in the Scottish Office Environment Department have taken to apprise themselves of the particular conditions which apply in the Western Isles and the work which the Western Isles islands council is doing to meet the most pressing needs.

Last August, the Scottish Office's director of roads visited the islands, as the guest of the islands council, to inspect the authority's road network at first hand. This followed on a tour of inspection the previous year by a senior member of the roads directorate staff. In October 1990, the head of the Scottish Office's transport and local roads divisions also visited the islands, again on a visit kindly arranged by the islands council. I must at this point express my warmest thanks to the council, first for making the three visits possible, and secondly for ensuring that all the officials concerned were able, during intensive programmes, to see the full range of the problems facing the authority and the work done to overcome them. I know that these senior officials were able to penetrate parts of the road network which they normally would be unlikely to reach. I should also like to thank Convener Donald Macaulay for his personal welcome to me last summer, which was greatly appreciated.

I agree with the hon. Member for Western Isles that the Western Isles council faces particular difficulty in maintaining its roads. The main concerns are the proportion of single-track roads in the network, the high proportion of roads which are founded on peat, and the damage being caused to those roads as a result of the significantly increased volume of heavy goods vehicle traffic, and the weight of the vehicles using the roads.

From this point of view, the considerable improvement over the past 10 years in the ferry services provided by Caledonian MacBrayne Ltd. from the mainland to the Outer Isles has been a mixed blessing. Substantial levels of investment in new linkspans and new larger vessels to provide roll-on/roll-off ferries has brought about a significant change in the traffic levels and weights using roads which, anywhere else in Scotland, would not be looked on as acceptable.

On all occasions when Scottish Office officials have visited the islands, they have been very impressed by the programme of maintenance and improvement planned and being carried out by the islands council engineering team. We recognise that a substantial part of the council's road system runs beside the coast or through inland lochs with long causeways. Those sections of road are prone to damage in the storm conditions which are common in the islands and thus impose an additional burden on maintenance resources. The high proportion of single-track roads results in the speed of traffic being reduced, in an increased risk of accidents, in higher vehicle operating costs, and in access difficulties for large and heavy vehicles.

But the main difficulty, as I understand it, is that heavy vehicles which use roads floated on peat cause extensive cracking and rutting of the flexible road pavement. Such defects are expensive to repair, and the repairs need to be carried out very frequently. With the new roll-on/roll-off facilities at Castlebay, Lochboisdale, Lochmaddy and Tarbert as well as Stornoway, and with recent important commercial developments such as fish farming—which the hon. Gentleman mentioned—generating additional traffic, the proportion of heavy goods vehicles using both the primary and secondary routes on the islands has increased markedly. Even allowing for the larger lorries having more axles, a 38-tonne lorry causes over 40 times more damage than an eight-tonner.

The ideal solution to these peat-related problems would be to reconstruct the road network completely, particularly the main strategic roads. The peat foundation would be dug out and replaced with rockfill or other suitable material. Where that has been done, the resulting rebuilt roads require significantly less expenditure on repairs or improvement, as well as offer a much more acceptable ride for vehicles. When using roads in the Western Isles, one does not need to be an engineer to know whether the road is solidly based or floating on peat.

In the long run, the council and the Scottish Office accept that reconstructing roads on a hard base is undoubtedly the value-for-money approach to road engineering on the islands. The difficulty, however, is that such wholesale rebuilding of such an extensive network of roads would be prohibitively expensive. It would be quite out of line with the level of resources available now or likely to be available in the foreseeable future. The work therefore cannot be carried out overnight, or even over a few years; it has to be a very long-term programme. That is because the depth of peat on which the roads are floating in some areas is very considerable, and substantial excavation or use of considerable volumes of imported material would be required. What is necessary in the short term, and what the islands council is doing with considerable success, is to target the resources available to priority areas.

Hand in hand with carrying out major improvements such as rebuilding sections of road on a hard base, the council must maintain the other peat-based roads and ensure that the network condition overall is not allowed to deteriorate. Scottish Office officials were extremely impressed by the way in which the council has been programming, designing, constructing, maintaining and improving its road schemes. The council took a policy decision in 1985 that it would devote resources available in four years out of every five single-mindedly to maintaining and improving its primary road network.

In the fifth year, it has concentrated its resources on the top priority minor schemes. The effectiveness of a small operation with two or three engineers properly overseeing the work being done in detail has been very evident. I believe that the council has recently been able, for example, to procure 6 m two-track new road for about £0.5 million per mile and has completed at least 50 per cent. on Lewis and Harris and about 20 per cent. on the southern islands. That is a very competitive rate compared with elsewhere in Scotland, and it represents excellent value for money.

Road engineers on the council recognise that, even now, with the increased traffic levels that I have already described and the further increases which improved services may bring, the flows on the islands roads are and will be extraordinarily low. For example, fewer than 1,000 vehicles per day use the main inter-island route. The council is using modern highway design standards with the fullest permitted deviations for reasons of environment and economy, and without any question of reducing road safety. The islands council has recently built several new single-carriageway improvements on roads with low traffic. The engineers take a pragmatic approach to the use of design standards and are prepared to lower the standards without significantly reducing safety, enforced by reasons of topography, property or economy. That can result in reducing the sheer size of earthworks to a more sympathetic scale.

The Scottish Office roads directorate has congratulated the islands council on its approach, and considers that mainland authorities can learn much from that pragmatic approach to the design of low-traffic roads, including low cost, a good safety record and aesthetic appearance.

Let me refer, however, to matters financial rather than technical. I was very pleased that the Scottish Office was able to find additional resources in 1989–90 and 1990–91 to enable the Western Isles council to build the Vatersay causeway. The full cost of that project—£3.7 million, including additional reconstruction and resurfacing work on a number of single-track roads on Vatersay—was covered by additional capital allocations in those two years. That ensured—we believe this to be extremely important—that the rest of the council's roads programme was not prejudiced. Moreover, 50 per cent. of the eligible costs of the new causeway were met by grant from the European regional development fund, and a further 25 per cent. from the Scottish Office. The new causeway, opened last November, is real evidence of the Scottish Office's commitment to the promotion of development in rural and island areas, and to the maintenance of populations.

I know that, in the longer term, the council will want to consider whether it would be cost-effective to build causeways or bridges to the islands of Berneray, Eriskay and Scalpay. These possible projects, which would inevitably involve substantial expenditure, add to the pressure on resources available. The council must also consider investment in ferry services within the resources allocated to it. Inevitably, therefore, the council will have to take decisions on priorities in the light of the finance that is likely to be available.

I have acknowledged the problems facing the islands council, the impressive work being done by the council's staff to stretch the resources available to achieve maximum value for money, and the islanders' aspirations for the future.

I recognise that, at the present rate of investment, it may take more than 30 years to complete the work required on the inter-island main route, but I must emphasise that there is no bottomless bag of resources from which roads and transport expenditure, however systematically and efficiently organised, can be funded. The Government's policies are designed to create the conditions necessary for sustained economic growth. This necessarily involves restraining public expenditure to assist in the fight against inflation. We must therefore look at priorities for public expenditure across all services and in all areas very closely indeed.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State each year reaches a view on what proportion of the total resources available in the Scottish block can be devoted to different services. Roads and transport needs must be considered against other services such as education, social work, health and housing. Of the funds he decides to allocate to roads and transport, my right hon. Friend then has to determine how much should be issued to each authority. He is guided in this exercise by the transport policies and programmes documents drawn up by authorities, by their financial plans, and by such other information as my be available. We shall, in due course, study with great interest the council's proposals. Information may also come from reports of officials' visits to the authorities or from additional information submitted by the councils themselves.

It was because the Secretary of State had information from a variety of sources on the clear priority needs for investment in the Western Isles that he was able to agree to increase the Western Isles' final allocation for this year. The percentage increase was higher than for all but one other council in Scotland. That council was Tayside where resources were exceptionally required to replace the flood-damaged Caputh bridge.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the able way in which he has presented his case on behalf of his constituents. I promise him and the Western Isles council that we accept that there are particular problems in the Western Isles. On behalf of the Secretary of State and the Scottish Office, I give the undertaking that the needs of the Western Isles will be carefully, seriously and sympathetically considered against the claims of all other authorities. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for having drawn these matters to our attention tonight and for submitting additional evidence, which we shall study with the utmost care.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eighteen minutes past Nine o'clock.