HC Deb 01 February 1995 vol 253 cc1046-55 1.30 pm
Mr. Peter Luff (Worcester)

Do you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, know the first two verses of one of my favourite poems? Yes. I remember Adlestrop— The name, because one afternoon Of heat the express-train drew up there Unwontedly. It was late June. The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat. No one left and no one came On the bare platform. What I saw Was Adlestrop—only the name. Edward Thomas drew up at Adlestrop on the line from Oxford to Worcester, on a journey on the "Old Worse and Worse", or Oxford Worcester and Wolverhampton Railway to give it its more accurate name. Had he continued his journey just a few more miles, one of his most evocative contributions to poetry could have been very different: Yes. I remember Wyre Piddle—the name … Well, actually, it could not. The Great Western Railway, which in 1917 owned the "Old Worse and Worse", could not come to terms with the village's name, preferring the more anodyne "Wyre Halt". Sadly, little sign of Adlestrop now remains, and of Wyre Halt no trace is visible. But Wyre Piddle is as famous as Adlestrop, although probably for the wrong reasons. It is a case of once heard, never forgotten.

Sometimes, embarrassing or unfortunate names are shed by those to whom they belong. One thinks of Marion Morrison, better known as John Wayne. Whoever heard of a cowboy called Marion? Would Big Daddy, the all-in wrestler, have been taken quite as seriously had he been loyal to his given name—Shirley Crabtree? Would Elton John have been the phenomenon that he was and remains as just plain old Reg Dwight?

Wyre Piddle is proud of its name. Indeed, it has given the village a real advantage here in the House and at the Department of Transport as successive hon. Members representing the village, including my hon. Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South (Mr. Spicer), have lobbied for its long-overdue bypass.

Its name is celebrated in one local poem, attributed by some to one of my illustrious predecessors, Sir Gerald Nabarro: Upton Snodsbury, Tibberton and Crowle Wyre Piddle, North Piddle and Piddle-in-the-hole". The name of Piddle-in-the-hole is no more, although I believe that land there was once farmed by the grandfather of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Further and Higher Education.

North Piddle lies on no main road and need not detain us today, but a little further south, on the same Piddle Brook, lies Wyre Piddle itself. Prehistoric men buried their dead here. It features in the Domesday book as the rather more discreet Wyre Pidele. It is not a large village, but neither is it small, with 386 electors. Its perfect church, with its early Norman chancel arch, is situated on a bank above the Avon, flowing from Stratford to its junction with the Severn.

It is little wonder that the situation has inspired artists because the view across to Bredon hill, itself the subject of poetry by A.E. Housman, is captivating. Writing in 1949, L.T.C. Rolt, in his book "Worcestershire", said: Just below the village of Wyre Piddle is Wyre Lock with its curious diamond-shaped chamber, and here again the natural scene and human handiwork conspire together to reward the river traveller with a sight that no lover of England can easily forget. Over the outspread lock-beams a silver reach curves away between level water meadows, bordered by ranks of willow, which lead the eye towards the middle distance where, in perfect contrast to this level landscape, the glorious fourteenth century tower of Pershore soars upward, a benediction in stone. The scene is reminiscent of the view of Salisbury from another Avon". Although the village still has several black and white houses, typical of Worcestershire, many are crumbling from vibrations generated by heavy traffic in the narrow main road. Structural problems are only one of the many reasons for the urgent construction of a road that will bring only benefit to my constituents and motorists alike.

The construction of a bypass will affect few businesses. We have an excellent pub in the village, the Anchor, situated between the main road and the Avon. It is a real local, but those coming from further afield to sample its charms—and its fine beer—will still be able to gain access from both directions, thanks to the design and route of the proposed new road. I know that one garage will lose passing trade, but I understand that the owner accepts that, and local authorities are attempting to minimise the impact.

The bypass will affect not just Wyre Piddle. We must not forget the plucky villagers of Upper Moor. That hamlet, with just 36 electors, is situated on the Evesham side of Wyre Piddle. Original plans for the bypass did not include Upper Moor. I am delighted that the lobbying skills of the villagers, who count among their number a literary agent and a BBC radio presenter, have led the county council to the wise conclusion that the bypass should relieve them, too. That was a wise decision by the county council, not just for the sake of my constituents but for the sake of all road users. The road at that point is particularly hazardous because a long bend conceals the houses of Upper Moor. A fatal accident occurred there recently and there would be many more if the bypass terminated between there and Wyre Piddle. Upper Moor residents feel that they are often overlooked. It is a pleasure to ensure that they are not overlooked in today's debate.

The road through Wyre Piddle is the old B4084, recently reclassified as the A4538. It forms part of the so-called Pershore corridor, and is a crucial link between the M5 at junction 6, north Worcester and Evesham. There it connects with the A435, currently the subject of a major improvement—the Norton Lenchwick bypass—by the Department of Transport, linking up to Redditch and junction 3 of the M42, and the A46 to Stratford, Warwick, the M40, Coventry and the M6.

Small additional works will be needed in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South just outside Evesham, at the so-called "Squires Link" to the A435 and the Evesham bypass when the Wyre Piddle bypass is built.

Mr. Michael Spicer (Worcestershire, South)

Does my hon. Friend recall that when Doctor Foster went to Gloucester He stepped in a piddle right up to his middle"? The word that he has cleverly played on has now become "puddle".

My hon. Friend is right to say that we need a bypass around Wyre Piddle. As he said, I first raised this subject 20 years ago. Does he accept that it is particularly necessary for my constituency because of the pressure that it will take off traffic going through Pershore? Will he, at some point in his speech, refer to the fact that there is a pecking order for bypasses in our county and that Broadway has now reached the top of the pecking order? That should not be prejudiced and although the need for a Wyre Piddle bypass must be accepted, we must first go ahead with the Broadway bypass.

Mr. Luff

I am delighted to endorse what my hon. Friend said. I hope to return to precisely those points later in my speech.

The county council said in its July 1994 bid for transport supplementary grant: The present road network includes two broadly parallel routes between Worcester and Evesham, namely A44 and A4538 (formerly B4084). For particular journeys one route is more attractive than the other, but overall traffic volumes are similar on the two routes. In a public consultation exercise in early 1992, which examined the traffic problems and strategy for the Pershore corridor as a whole, various options for relieving traffic congestion in that part of Worcestershire were floated. It is fair to say that some of those options aroused considerable public anger. For example, concern focused on a proposal to build viaducts and bridges across the meadows and the Avon to relieve traffic problems in Pershore and Wyre Piddle.

That consultation produced a clear consensus that the best strategy was to stick with the long-established plans to bypass Wyre Piddle to the north and build a short western bypass, which would enable Pershore's problems to be addressed, at least in part. This debate is about the northern, and more substantial, road but I will return to the western route.

In March 1994, a further public consultation was held on possible routes for the northern road. Again, it produced a clear consensus, subsequently endorsed by Hereford and Worcester county council.

Not surprisingly, local people have had their suspicions about the county council's real intentions. The road has been discussed for a long time and need for it is growing daily. The earliest date on which construction can realistically begin is early 1997, but the approach adopted by the county has commanded my complete confidence, and I pay tribute to the work done by Dr. Martin Heyes, whom I still think of as the county engineer but who now rejoices in the title, "Director of Environmental Services". I pay tribute to his staff—of course, it is easy for me to do so when they have come out in support of the route that my constituents and I favour. In its document produced t o support the March 1994 consultation, the county summed up the situation. It said: The existing route is of sub-standard width and poor alignment and falls short of standards required to carry the future predicted traffic on the A4538. The centre of Wyre Piddle is a conservation area and there is a worsening environmental situation in an otherwise very pleasant village, caused particularly by heavy vehicles and growing congestion. To the east, the hamlet of Upper Moor suffers similarly with houses which front the road enduring noise and vibration. Direct access on to the A4538 is at times difficult and dangerous for those houses which abut the carriageway. That is a slightly dry way of putting it, to say the least. The existing main road through Wyre Piddle carries on average 12,850 vehicles a day. The predicted flows in the bypass design year of 2013 are between 17,250 and 14,750 vehicles on the bypass, with another 5,000 vehicles using the village itself. Such traffic is simply unsustainable without the bypass.

At the village war memorial the road narrows and turns towards the village hall. The bypass committee says that the road is already carrying up to 30 large refuse lorries per hour to the major landfill site to the north. It will not be long before two trucks meet head on or a car finds that there is not enough room to pass without mounting the pavement and killing a pedestrian. There is a serious accident just waiting to happen.

If an accident does not occur in the village itself, it will occur at one of the two railway bridges at either end of the village or in Upper Moor as a resident's car seeks to join the main road and is hit by a speeding driver, or a driver, despairing of ever getting on to the main road at the war memorial, takes a risk that does not pay off.

The county council has kindly provided me with the 10-year accident record for Wyre Piddle and Upper Moor. The words "failed to negotiate bend" feature more than once. In this 10-year period there have been 33 accidents, 12 of them serious, 61 vehicles have been involved and there have been 49 casualties. Mercifully, there has been only one fatality—at Upper Moor when a 16-year-old pedestrian was knocked down by a car in December 1993.

Every month that the bypass is delayed we are putting at risk the lives of more pedestrians, residents and other drivers. Leaving to one side the environmental issues, the benefits to Pershore and the need to cope with traffic to and from the newly widened M5, there is an overwhelming case for the road on safety grounds alone.

The road is increasingly dangerous not just because of volume but because of speed of traffic. The 30 mph limit through Wyre Piddle is widely flouted. The county council is in dialogue with the parish council and its chairman, Mr. Gary Robinson. The parish council has enthusiastically pushed the case for the road for more years than any of us care to remember. It knows that traffic calming and management measures are not a solution, but just a temporary palliative.

I am grateful to the Minster's officials for the help that I have received from them in explaining to the parish council the possibilities for traffic calming and speed limit enforcement. I hope that in the years until the new road is built some new measures can be introduced, but they will never be a substitute for the northern Wyre Piddle bypass.

The Minister will have heard me mention the railway through Wyre Piddle on a number of occasions. Engineered by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, it still offers a fine service to Oxford and London from the Worcester and Pershore stations in my constituency, which also serve the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South, and from Evesham, which is just along the line. Early morning InterCity 125s act as alarm clocks for residents of Wyre Piddle whose homes are close to the line. Wyre Halt may have closed, but the Pershore and Evesham stations are close by—at least if one has access to a car.

Investment in new rolling stock has recently transformed the line. The better, more frequent services have resulted in a large increase in passenger traffic, sufficient to ensure that, for the first time in living memory, the railway covers its operating costs. I should like to see still more investment in the line, even though it would probably mean the end of the fine semaphore signals at Worcester Shrub Hill. New signalling and a few passing loops, well short of full redualling of that now single-track line, could increase volumes substantially.

Is that an alternative to the northern Wyre Piddle bypass? I think not. Traffic is being generated from the M5, from Evesham and the Cotswolds, from the landfill site and from the proposed new chicken farm on Throckmorton airfield—a disgraceful decision, but that is another story; perhaps for another Adjournment debate. More money is needed for the railway and it would bring real benefits. It would bring more mobility to my constituents who do not have cars—and there are many of them—but I fear that investing in the railway would have only a very slight effect on traffic volumes in Wyre Piddle.

We must also set the Wyre Piddle bypass in the context of the county's wider transport priorities—as my hon. Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South has asked me to do—and that will also give me a chance to thank the Minister for a wise decision by his Department.

The Worcester western bypass was, until the announcement before Christmas by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, the county's top priority. The confirmation that the road will begin to be built around the turn of the year, subject to the outcome of a public inquiry, has brought enormous relief to my constituents in Worcester. The attractive shopping centre of St. Johns will be able to breathe again as all the M5 to Hereford traffic moves to the new road. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for the way in which he listened to the bipartisan pleas about that road.

The Broadway bypass on the A44 was the other major scheme for which the county bid unsuccessfully last year. It now moves to the top of the priority list, closely followed by the Bordesley bypass on the A441 and Wyre Piddle.

However, we must not lose sight of the Wyre Piddle western bypass. Although the northern road will help enormously, I cannot let this opportunity pass without reminding the Minister that we regard the western road, which I have discussed with him in the past, as being of strategic significance too. The county's transport supplementary grant bid last year stated: the benefits to the village will not be maximised until the Wyre Piddle Western by-pass is also constructed. That road would form a link between the B4083 from Pershore to the A4538 itself. It would maximise the benefit of the Wyre Piddle northern road to Pershore and bring local benefits. Those local benefits have led the Department to reject even supplementary credit approvals for the road, and that in turn has led to the loss of a generous private sector contribution to the cost of the road. I hope that I can persuade the Minister to reflect again on the western road, and sanction its construction before too long.

The Wyre Piddle bypass has never been closer to completion. Compulsory purchase orders could be made this autumn. Assuming a public inquiry is necessary—I believe it may not be—there is no reason why a decision could not be made by the Secretary of State on the planning issues next October, with tenders requested at about Christmas 1996. Construction could then begin in January or February 1997.

It would be the culmination of a campaign, probably spanning decades, begun by Sir Gerald Nabarro, conducted by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South and continued energetically by my predecessor, Lord Walker.

Wyre Piddle is moving up everyone's priority list, as today's debate shows, but just at our moment of victory, is the cup to be dashed from our lips? The tide seems to be turning against new road building. Will that tide sweep away the Wyre Piddle bypass and hundreds of equally important schemes up and down the country?

The first enemy of such schemes seems to be the Royal Commission on environmental pollution and its report on transport and the environment which was published on 26 October last year. Its radical proposals were seen as one of the most comprehensive attacks on road building ever made by any establishment body. Its press release made the point time and again: the report identifies as major adverse effects of the present transport system … the impact of road building. a road building programme which, although spending more money that ever before, would not stop congestion getting worse. Resources should be switched from road-building to public transport. A continuing spiral of further road building leading to further traffic growth would not be sustainable. So it goes on. Alarm bells began to ring in Wyre Piddle and in similar villages and communities around the country, but worse was to come.

Shortly before Christmas, a new acronym struck further fear into the residents of Wyre Piddle. This time it was SACTRA—the Standing Advisory Committee on Trunk Road Assessment. Published with the apparent endorsement of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, its central conclusion was probably that it is possible for the provision of extra road capacity to induce extra traffic". At that point I wrote to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State seeking reassurances that the Government's guarded welcome for the report did not spell trouble for Wyre Piddle. It is important to record another of SACTRA's conclusions: there is still need to consider additions to road capacity where they are environmentally and economically justified. The essence of the case that I have made today is that the Wyre Piddle bypass will not generate new traffic and that it is environmentally and economically justified.

I recognise that the concerns about the rising tide of opposition to new road building will be echoed up and down the country. That is one of the reasons why I have sought this debate today and why I am so grateful that it has been granted.

Wyre Piddle may bring a smile to the lips, but its problems are very real. They stand as examples of the problems of many rural communities that are apprehensive that they may have missed the opportunity of the bypass for which they, like Wyre Piddle and Upper Moor, have been working and campaigning for so long. This debate gives the Minister an opportunity to reassure not just Wyre Piddle, but many other communities too.

My hon. Friend the Minster has to say two things today to reassure my constituents—and I hope those of many other hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South in relation to the Broadway bypass. First, he should confirm that recent apparent changes in the Government's policy on road building have not changed the case for the Wyre Piddle bypass in any respect, and that the Wyre Piddle bypass and others like it will not generate new traffic, but rather relieve intolerable situations for the communities through which the traffic currently passes.

Secondly, I hope that my hon. Friend will confirm that the Wyre Piddle northern bypass remains eligible for transport supplementary grant. Its £4 million cost is not large compared with the cost of major motorway schemes, but the benefits that it will bring will be enormous. I hope that the Minister will recognise that county councils have quite a backlog of such schemes, which are widely supported by the public.

As massive spending on motorways seems set to be scaled down, perhaps the Minister can tell me that not all the money saved will go back to the Chief Secretary but that some of it will go to small schemes such as the Wyre Piddle bypass. In other words, far from threatening Wyre Piddle, perhaps SACTRA and the rest will advance such schemes.

This debate has provided an opportunity for the Government to reassure many thousands of our fellow citizens who are crying out for bypasses that they need not despair: that the Government are still on their side. I hope that my hon. Friend will seize it when he replies.

1.49 pm
The Minister for Transport in London (Mr. Steve Norris)

My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Luff) will understand that, by the very nature of these debates, the more he talks, the less I am able to answer. If I cannot cover all his points in the time available, I shall write to him about them.

My hon. Friend spoke of Wyre Piddle moving up the national agenda. That, like the phrase about the Minister being a part-time dentist, struck me as the sort of remark that will go down in history as one of the least apt ever.

My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester has pursued this bypass assiduously. He came to see me last October to discuss chiefly the Worcester western bypass but he also mentioned the virtues of this scheme. I took careful note of what he had to say, as I have on this occasion.

I welcome my hon. Friend's explanation of the value of the scheme. He ably demonstrated that it is one of those bypass projects that it is universally accepted we should undertake.

My hon. Friend asked whether the recent royal commission or SACTRA reports would impinge on the scheme. There are of course many ways of dealing with the problems of congestion and pollution on our roads. There is much to be said for integrating transport solutions, centred on the provision of good public transport as well as the use of the private car. There may be alternatives to transporting goods by road—rail and water, where appropriate. But there will always remain traffic problems of this sort, which can be dealt with only by means of a bypass.

A cursory look at the map will show why the Wyre Piddle proposition is perfectly robust. I should like to say a word about the transport supplementary grant system first, however. It is the Department's main grant towards the cost of capital expenditure on local authority roads. Every July, local highway authorities make their bids for this capital expenditure for the following year. The Secretary of State then considers those plans and makes his announcement in December.

In determining how much of an authority's proposed expenditure to accept, the Secretary of State has to consider the extent to which the roads that would benefit are of more than local importance, and the extent to which people living or working in an authority's area would be relieved of the effects of heavy through traffic.

There is no upper financial limit for TSG, but the scope for funding more than a few very large schemes is restricted by the availability of resources and the need for a balanced national distribution. Grant is not paid for schemes that cost less, individually, than £2 million. These will be included in programmes of work funded with block allocations of credit approvals, covering all forms of transport infrastructure.

Schemes are not usually accepted for TSG until the settlement for the year in which their main works contract is due to start. Neither is TSG usually intended to be paid in support of expenditure on design costs, land acquisition or advanced works. For large schemes of great strategic importance with particularly high expenditure in advance of their main works, however, the Department has the option of providing support by means of credit approval.

It is obviously not possible to pay all the TSG for which local authorities bid. Whether a scheme is accepted in a particular year depends on the extent to which it would help to meet the Secretary of State's objectives, on its economic and environmental benefits, and on its merits compared with those of all the other schemes proposed for acceptance by the 108 highway authorities in the same settlement.

Authorities do not receive a fixed share of TSG each year and there is no such thing as a minimum amount that can be guaranteed. However, contractual commitments on previously accepted schemes have a first call—provided any cost increases have been justified and satisfactory progress has been maintained.

I am happy to reassure my hon. Friend that the Wyre Piddle scheme is eligible for TSG. As he amply demonstrated, it would bring much needed relief to a community suffering from the unwelcome impact of traffic that is not, in the main, locally generated. I shall not, however, be able to take a fully informed view before the county council submits a detailed bid for TSG. Despite the now familiar anti-road hysteria, often stoked up by people who appear to have little else to contribute, I am well aware that many communities are only too glad to have a bypass to make their lives safer and more peaceful.

I should give my hon. Friend some idea of the difficulties that we face. This year, we received bids from highway authorities for TSG for about 80 eligible major schemes—seven times more than we could afford. As ever, many good candidates have had to be left out, and it was impossible to avoid disappointing several highway authorities.

In each of the past three years, we have made it clear in the annual guidance that we issue to local authorities that in view of the scarcity of public resources it would be exceptional for any authority to have more than one new major scheme accepted for TSG in a single settlement. That is why, in a year when only 25 new schemes succeeded in getting TSG, I was pleased that we could give approval for the Worcester western bypass scheme, the county's top priority.

I come next to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South (Mr. Spicer). It is correct that one of the important considerations that we shall have to take into account will be the county council's priorities in respect of TSG approvals. I note what my hon. Friend said about Broadway. I was grateful to him for acknowledging, in that context, that Wyre Piddle may not be top of the county's list. That is, however, a matter for the county itself.

Mr. Luff

May I urge my hon. Friend to negotiate robustly with the Treasury this time around? If there is to be a reduction in motorway building, perhaps a few more bids from county councils will succeed instead.

Mr. Norris

I have promised my hon. Friend that, in my negotiations with the Treasury, Wyre Piddle will never be far from my mind. No doubt he will be able to make his own representations to my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor in due course.

Another factor that my hon. Friend should bear in mind is the forecast date for the start of construction. I am advised that planning permission has not yet been secured for the scheme, and the necessary draft orders under the Highways Act have not yet been published. To consider the scheme for TSG in 1996–97 we would have to be confident that a start to construction in that year was likely. The county council will need to make good progress on the statutory procedures if that goal is to be achieved.

As my hon. Friend knows, we carefully considered the case for grant for the western bypass, but we concluded that it was not a road of more than local importance and hence did not qualify. The Department does not support expenditure on local roads generally; they are the responsibility of local highway authorities, which receive funding from the Department of the Environment for the upkeep of such roads. Hereford and Worcester county council may, if it wants to, use some of the resources that we allocate for minor works under the local transport capital settlement for the western bypass, but the money is unlikely to be sufficient for the purpose.

I quite understand the concern that my hon. Friend has expressed. I hope that he will appreciate that his representations have been listened to sympathetically and have borne fruit. We are prepared to consider the scheme for transport supplementary grant. It meets our criteria, and nothing in recent reports has rendered it less likely to be eligible. There are real questions about the extent to which bids for grant exceed the grants that are available. Indeed, it was ever thus. Financing is, therefore, by no means automatic. Approvals are generally granted only in the year in which the scheme is likely to start. There is some further work to be done in that regard in relation to the scheme.

I hope that my reply has been helpful to my hon. Friend. Given the crucial role of the county council in determining what should be its priorities for expenditure, it might be useful if my hon. Friends the Members for Worcester and for Worcestershire, South and their constituents direct their principal concerns to the county council. It is the council which—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)

Order. We must move on to the next debate.

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