§ Motion made, and Question proposal, That this House do now adjourn—[Mr. Conway.]1.32 am
§ Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)
It is my pleasure to rise, even at this early hour in the morning, to take advantage of the opportunity of the debate on the Adjournment to raise the very important subject of the need for a replacement road bridge at Kelso.
I am sorry that the Minister has been kept up until this late time in the night. The longer I am a Member of the House, the more committed I become to the need for a reform of its procedure. I am sure that many of my constituents, who will be anxious to follow the proceedings over the next half hour, will be puzzled about why we arrange our business in such a way that consideration is given to such an important subject at this untoward hour.
I know that the Minister is familiar with the Borders, and that he frequently visits the area. We are always pleased to see him, because he listens with great care to what is said to him, and the visits are always useful from our point of view. I know that he will be familiar with the town of Kelso. Kelso is, indeed, a very successful Border market town. It enjoys a high quality of life, and has a close-knit community. It is an almost perfect place in which to live and work.
However, in common with, I suppose, many similar historic towns in other parts of Scotland and the United Kingdom, Kelso is struggling to cope with the pressures and demands of 20th-century life in an environment designed to serve a bygone age. Of course, other communities are also suffering those problems. There are always increasingly acute problems facing communities which seek to reconcile the requirements of modern traffic flows, in particular, with inadequate internal town roads.
Kelso has a peculiar problem, because it is cut in half by the River Tweed. That problem does not face many other towns, certainly not Border towns. Of course, as a bisecting physical feature, the River Tweed is a partition which admittedly has some advantages. It provides one of the most attractive picture postcard settings throughout the length and breadth of Scotland, which is of considerable advantage to tourism.
But the Tweed separates 80 per cent. of the houses on the northern bank of the river from 60 per cent. of the jobs on the southern bank. That would be a big enough problem for a town which had a modern bridge to provide modern communications between the northern and the southern banks, but it is an intolerable problem as the only connection between the two halves of the town has to be made by means of a bridge, which was designed in 1799 and built between 1801 and 1804.
The bridge, with which I am sure the Minister is familiar, has a width between the parapets at the side of the road of 24 ft. That is made up of a 16 ft wide roadway and two 4 ft wide footpaths. All the utilities—the Borders regional council water and drainage facilities and services, Scottish Power, British Gas and British Telecom—have apparatus in the platform of the bridge.
Kelso bridge is included in the statutory list of buildings of special architectural and historic interest as a category A building. It is also scheduled as an ancient monument. That presents problems of its own, because no easy amendments or additions or alterations by way of a remedial structural 1144 extension can be contemplated against the background of that kind of importance. It was, of course, built and designed by Renay and it has a quality all of its own.
Way back in the 1920s, there were attempts to engage in works to strengthen the bridge. Cleaning and pointing work has been undertaken, and the inside faces of the parapets have been rendered from time to time. It is difficult, however, to do anything fundamental to increase the capacity of the bridge as it stands.
A proposal to increase the width of the bridge was included in the Roxburghshire county council development plan of 1958. After much controversy locally, objections to that suggestion were heard at a local public inquiry in 1962, at which it was decided that no change should be made.
To come nearer to the present, in 1980 both parapets had developed a distinct outward lean, and there was an observable amount of stone deterioration. Restoration had to be undertaken on the upstream side during 1981 and the downstream side in 1985. The work, which was similar on both sides, consisted of taking down the entire parapet and rebuilding plumb.
There was an accident in 1980. A vehicle collided with the downstream parapet, knocking a 27 ft length of cope and panel into the River Tweed. Remedial works were undertaken, but they were confined to rebuilding the dislodged section with salvaged stone augmented with new stone as necessary.
Parapets on old stone arch bridges were never designed structurally to contain the vehicles that now use them. They were built, sometimes in an ornamental style, to prevent pedestrians and farm animals from accidentally falling from the arch. Such parapets are unable to provide the same standard of containment as that recommended now for new bridges.
The old bridge carries at peak hours about 12,000 vehicles a day. That is the peak flow figure. The last reading that I have been able to find for average flows—it was taken in 1994—is that the bridge is carrying 9,650 vehicles a day. There has been an increase of about 7 per cent. since that reading, which was taken some 12 months ago.
These figures are extremely high for such a type and design of bridge. That is the view of the local people. There is significant concern about the risk of further personal injury or death as a result of accidents that could happen on the bridge.
I have had a heavy postbag from local mums, who fear running the gauntlet of the 4 ft pathway, especially when there are advancing heavy goods vehicles, with prams, toddlers and children. They have to use the bridge, as it is the only way of crossing daily from one side of the river to the other. These women make the crossing with their hearts in their mouths and their courage in their hands. They get their heads down, and sometimes they run, literally for their lives.
If that is true of young mums, it is true too of elderly people and cyclists. It is becoming true also of heavy goods vehicle drivers. All these people are concerned about safety, and all are finding that conditions are worsening and becoming much more difficult to contend with.
The problem is not confined to potential injury to life and limb. The closure of the bridge, for whatever reason it had to be contemplated, would require a detour of about 19 1145 miles to Mertoun bridge, or 20 miles in the other direction to Coldstream. That is not an acceptable degree of potential disruption in modern circumstances.
The burden of my remarks is that local people have been waiting too long for remedial action to deal with the problem. The first recommendation that I have found was made in 1967. The A698 Kelso relief road scheme was originally recommended by a technical working party. It was approved by the old Roxburghshire county council and Kelso town council. That was nearly 30 years ago.
As the Minister is aware, the current scheme, which has been developed by the present roads authority—Borders regional council—has now been included in the roads and transportation committee report. It is known as the TPP—the transport policies programme. The scheme in that report involves the section of the relief road from the north end of Bullet Loan at its junction with Shedden Park road via the new bridge over the River Tweed at Crown point, and via the former railway line to join the Jedburgh road at Wallaceneuk.
Following a detailed traffic study of that proposal in 1988, it has been confirmed that that scheme would be of tremendous benefit to the historic hinterland and centre of Kelso, as it would occasion a considerable reduction of traffic on certain routes, including a decrease of up to 65 per cent. on the existing bridge, which, as I have said, has problems with width, safety and high traffic flows. The Minister will know, as he made urgent inquiries about it at the time, as we all did, that an accident occurred recently on the bridge, resulting in a fire tender going through the parapet and the driver of the tender being tragically killed.
In order to make progress, the scheme that the regional council has put together will require help to enable it to be sustained within the time scale envisaged by the current council capital programme. As the Minister is aware, the regional council applied to the Secretary of State for consent to develop. An environmental statement, a compulsory purchase order and side roads orders were also forwarded, and the Secretary of State has now given consent for all those proposals.
However, the cost of the project represents a very high proportion of the capital allocation for roads and transportation over the period of construction. In relation to the scheme, the regional council has requested that the Secretary of State take special heed of the proposed expenditure by increasing the council's capital allocation over the period in order to permit the project to proceed at a reasonable pace without deferring unduly other schemes within the five-year rolling capital programme.
On 7 July, I received a written answer to a question in which I asked the Secretary of Statewhen he expects to be able to approve the necessary capital consents to enable a start to he made on the new road bridge for Kelso.The reply contained the statement:The Government set annual block allocations for capital expenditure on roads and transport and any proposals contained in councils' financial plans will be given careful consideration,".—[Official Report, 7 July 1994; Vol. 246, c. 273.]That is a form of words that the council has been receiving in response to increasingly urgent requests for information about the Kelso bridge and relief road scheme for too long now. The provisional allocations of capital consents for 1994–95 and 1995–96 do not give any indication that that any additional section 94 consent is to be allocated, or is to be allocated in the near future. That is a matter of some concern.
1146 Quite simply, the problem is that the project is too big for the annual programme of capital spending to be accommodated easily. The project is expensive. It will cost about £8 million, and ancillary work must be carried out to the associated road network at either end of the bypass and the bridge. Environmental considerations, in any major structure built across Scotland's premier salmon river, must be paramount.
There are complications about the way in which the project has to be mounted. The design standards have to meet modern road requirements, and they must recognise the high quality of the surrounding environment. The cost is high because standards cannot be compromised.
As the Minister will know, the scheme will take 18 months to two years to complete. The council cannot commit borrowing consent into future financial years. With a capital spending programme on roads of £5 million a year, plus or minus a little, the council simply cannot find £8 million over a two-year period without severely prejudicing or ceasing all other expenditure on roads for two years. Clearly, that is not a realistic possibility, and the Government must accept that.
It seems that the answer lies in the hands of Ministers, who have the power to allow a temporary hump in capital consents over the necessary two or three-year period so that the project may be committed and built. The delay is now becoming intolerable and unacceptable. We are not talking about enormous amounts of money in terms of the total public expenditure spend on roads in Scotland. The Government have done exercises to enable the Borders region to do similar capital projects such as the Melrose bypass.
I am making an urgent plea tonight for the Minister to give fresh consideration to the issue so that the necessary capital consents can be found for the bridge to be built without any further delay.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) on securing this debate about the need for a new Kelso bridge. It is nice to see the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) present to support the hon. Gentleman.
I am well aware of the strength of local feeling about the need for the project to proceed, and I believe that the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire has made a persuasive case tonight. It has been useful to have the matter aired. The hon. Gentleman has made a well-reasoned case for the project, and has drawn the subject forcibly to our attention. He can be assured that we will give it careful and sympathetic consideration when deciding future roads and transport capital allocation levels generally and, in particular, for Borders regional council.
Before focusing on the specific project at Kelso, I think that it would be helpful if I were to explain the Scottish Office's role in relation to the local authority capital expenditure roads and transport programme. Let me make it clear first what our role is not about. When we came to power in 1979, we took the decision to disengage substantially from detailed involvement in local authority decision-making. As a result, neither Ministers nor 1147 Scottish Office officials are normally involved in the detailed decision-making process about individual local roads and transport projects.
Our role is, in fact, twofold: first, to determine the broad overall level of capital consent resources which can be made available for local roads and transport projects; secondly, to take decisions about how that total is to be distributed to meet the competing claims of the 12 regional and islands councils. That process involves a general consideration of the council's transport, policies and programme documents and financial plans. Those documents set out the proposals for roads and other projects in their area over the next five years. The documents are updated annually by way of programme supplements.
Careful consideration is given to particular projects which are drawn to our attention. Account is taken of the resources available, but at the end of the process a block consent is issued to each roads and transport authority. It seems entirely right that the authority should decide its own priorities.
It should be remembered that these resources are not limited to the advisory allocation which is notified to them each year. Authorities are free to add to their allocation in a number of ways. They can switch resources from other capital programmes. They can use receipts from the disposal of assets. They can transfer funding for capital projects from their current expenditure budget. They may be able to attract private finance.
By these means, councils, including Borders regional council, have substantial resources at their disposal to enable them to proceed with projects to which they attach priority. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that it is not for me, or any other member of the Government, to tell the council what it should or should not be deciding on the capital projects.
As regards Borders regional council's roads and transport capital allocations, I should emphasise that there is no automatic right to a particular share of the available resources to enable authorities to undertake capital expenditure. As I have said, financial plans are considered afresh each year, and we shall certainly consider with great care what the hon. Gentleman has said tonight.
As regards the particular levels of capital consent, it is fair to point out that the amount of consent issued to the council has remained at a steady level, despite this being a period of restraint on public expenditure. Indeed, the provisional allocations announced indicate a modest increase in the level for 1996–97 of some £400,000. That equates to a percentage increase of approximately 10 per cent.
There is therefore no substance to the claims that have apparently been made locally that the authority's roads and transport allocation has been reduced. Also, supplementary allocations have been made where possible, with a particularly generous one issued to Borders last year. I accept that the allocations issued are below the levels included in the council's plans, but councils cannot always expect to have all their wishes met against a background of tight expenditure control.
The 1994–95 level of £4.2 million equates to expenditure per head of some £40. That is the third highest 1148 level of all the regions in Scotland. The regional average for expenditure per head in Scotland is £33—considerably lower.
It is also worth emphasising that, wherever possible, each year, if further resources become available through underspending by authorities in the previous year, we will give careful consideration to issuing supplementary allocations for appropriate projects. As I mentioned, last year Borders received an additional £670,000–£270,000 for bridge strengthening and repair and £400,000 for road improvements. Its share of the supplementary allocations issued for roads and transport was more than three times its annual share of the core consent.
Allocations have been issued for this year, and there is no reserve available which could be drawn on now. While I cannot give the hon. Member any guarantee about the availability of supplementary consent in the current year, should the opportunity arise, the needs of the Borders will be considered most carefully before any decisions are made.
I would also add that any supplementary allocation which might become available for 1994-95 would not in itself solve the funding problems which Borders regional council seems to face in financing the Kelso bridge and bypass project, although it would make a start.
§ Mr. Kirkwood
The problem will get worse before it gets better. After 1996, a larger number of smaller unitary authorities will all face this problem with capital consents. Their annual level of capital spend just cannot cope with a project the size of £8 million. If one is running a budget of £5 million capital, one will never get to the stage of achieving the necessary phased finance for an £8 million project. Are the Government prepared in principle to address the problem?
§ Lord James Douglas-Hamilton
I have already told the hon. Gentleman that we will consider most carefully Kelso's case for a new bridge and bypass. We will look at it sympathetically in the framework of what is possible. If there is a possibility of a supplementary allocation, the points that he has made will most certainly be borne in mind.
As for the merits of the case, the hon. Gentleman made a persuasive case. We have received a number of representations, including one from the Fire Brigades Union and another from the community council. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that there was a fatal accident inquiry in 1993.
The matter was also discussed between my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and Lord Minto earlier this year, and the case for increased resources was considered carefully at that time. Traffic flows now average about 9,500 per day, and I believe that on one day the traffic flow peaked at more than 12,000 vehicles in the relevant 24-hour period, which is very relevant.
As regards the region's plans for a Kelso bypass and a new bridge, the necessary planning consents have been obtained and that is an important step forward. Planning procedures necessary for the project mean that, under the regulations governing development, the council had to publicise its proposals, and Borders submitted its notice of intention for the proposed bypass on 14 December 1990. Fourteen objections were received following the statutory advertisement.
1149 The Secretary of State concluded that there were no grounds which justified him requiring the regional council to submit a formal planning application, and a clearance letter was issued on 21 August 1992. Planning consent is therefore deemed to have been granted. My right hon. Friend's decision is final, and he has no further procedural involvement in the matter.
The proposed bypass would, I understand, be built on the south and east sides of Kelso. It would run from the Jedburgh road, some 200 m west of the Wallaceneuk farm access, to Shedden Park road at its junction with Bullet Loan. The greater part of its route follows the line of the former railway along the south side of the River Tweed. A new bridge over the Tweed would be built south east of Bullet Loan. The existing road would be improved, five lengths of road and one private means of access would be stopped up, and one new means of access would be provided.
The latest plan we have to hand from the council indicates a projected spend over three years of £1.4 million, £2.7 million and £1.3 million for each of the three years—a total of some £6.4 million. I understand that the latest estimate for the project which the council received has now risen to about £7.4 million, and that an additional project linking the bypass to the road network will cost a further £0.5 million. I recognise that those are considerable sums, and that Borders will have some programming difficulties in accommodating such a proportionally large scheme.
1150 I understand that the council is now committed to progressing phase 3 of the Melrose bypass via Newstead—a project estimated to cost more than £2 million. It of course remains open to the council to spread the construction phase over a longer time span than previously planned, although I appreciate that there may be constraints, given the nature of the construction contracts for such projects.
We will give the case for additional consent serious thought within the context of the forthcoming public expenditure round, and in the distribution of capital allocations next year. I also emphasise that it is entirely for Borders regional council to decide on its own priorities, and therefore the projects it wishes to take forward.
As to the future, when reorganisation takes effect, there is no reason why Borders regional council should be disadvantaged in terms of its capital allocation levels—indeed, it should be in a strong position to state its case. Careful consideration will be given in the forthcoming period to the system of capital allocations to operate from—
§ The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MADAM DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.
§ Adjourned accordingly at two minutes past Two o'clock