HC Deb 29 July 1997 vol 299 cc248-56

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

10.15 pm
Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)

The debate—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Order. Will Members leaving the Chamber do so quickly and quietly, please?

Mr. Home Robertson

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The debate is primarily about road safety on the A1, but, before speaking about that, I must mention the tragic deaths of two young children crossing the B 1348 from Seton Sands holiday centre on Saturday. That makes the point that road safety must be our overall concern in all aspects of transport planning. The accident was tragic, and there may well be a point that needs to be addressed on that spot, too.

It is extremely disappointing to have to come to the House tonight to repeat the case for dualling the remaining single carriageway sections of the A1 trunk road. The local case in East Lothian, the borders and Northumberland has been made conclusively on the fundamental grounds of safety and economic impact, and the national case for completing that missing link in the United Kingdom's strategic highway network is blindingly obvious.

I have been involved in the A1 Safelink campaign for nearly 10 years, and it was my understanding that the debate about whether to dual the A1 had been concluded in 1992, when Malcolm Rifkind and Lord James Douglas-Hamilton accepted the overwhelming weight of the argument and the unanimous pressure of public opinion on both sides of the border.

The debate had moved on to questions of funding and phasing, because the Government at that time and all other parties, both political and non-political, had accepted that the road had to be upgraded. So it is disappointing, to put it mildly, to run into unexpected problems with another Minister, this time from my own party.

The Government have announced a review of all major road schemes. Mysteriously, the Scottish Office has gone much further than both the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions and the Welsh Office, by imposing a comprehensive 12-month moratorium which has stopped the next phase of dualling between Haddington and Dunbar, which should be going out to tender now, for construction next year.

That delay is very bad news, and it will almost certainly cost lives. What on earth is there to be reviewed? The A1 has been reviewed to a standstill, with reams of surveys and reports since 1989—and it all leads to the same inevitable conclusion. We have a severely congested and extremely dangerous single-carriageway bottleneck in the national dual-carriageway network, and the only solution is a phased dualling programme to complete the link between Haddington and Morpeth.

I had a meeting with my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary on 2 July, together with a delegation from East Lothian council and the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood). My hon. Friend told us that the review was not a Treasury-driven exercise and that it was to be a genuine reassessment of transport priorities. Fair enough—the Labour Government were elected with a specific commitment to review a number of programmes. However, we have not stopped building hospitals just because we are reviewing the private finance initiative system and we have not imposed a moratorium on water and sewerage projects while we review the Scottish water quangos—of course not. I do not understand why there should be a moratorium on the roads programme.

The other territorial transport Departments are approaching their highways reviews according to sensible pragmatic criteria. When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales announced the Welsh roads review in a written reply on 3 July, he said: The review will consider afresh all schemes currently in the Welsh roads programme with the exception of the A55 dualling across Anglesey. In that case, I have decided that the strategic importance of the improvement is so great that it must proceed without delay".—[Official Report, 3 July 1997; Vol. 297, c. 218.] I fully accept the strategic importance of traffic to and from Ireland via Holyhead, but I put it to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary that the strategic importance of traffic between Scotland and the east of England is just as great.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Home Robertson

Very briefly.

Mr. Beith

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for joining me and a delegation to English Transport Ministers about the English section of the road. Does he agree that as the A1 is also an important European route, it is absurd that we have to toil to persuade Ministers even to recognise that dualling projects already in the pipeline should go ahead?

Mr. Home Robertson

I am grateful to the right hon. Member. I was about to move on to the way in which the review is being approached south of the border.

When the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Murphy), the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire and I met the Minister of Transport and the Minister for Roads in England last week, we were advised that the English review was split into two categories, with a comprehensive reappraisal for projects where there is any reasonable doubt, and an accelerated review, which was completed yesterday in very short order, for developments where a detailed review would be a waste of time and money.

I must put it to the Scottish Office again tonight that we could save a lot of aggravation and money, and probably several lives, too, if we were to adopt a similar accelerated review arrangement for projects such as the Haddington-Dunbar section of the A1.

At this stage, I should give a brief summary of the case for the phased completion of the A1 east coast highway. From 1978 to 1983, the whole of the Scottish section of the A1 was in my constituency, and I became increasingly worried about the toll of accidents and the increasing volume of traffic on a road that still followed the line of the ancient Great North road. There was much correspondence with the Scottish Office about specific accident black spots.

By 1988, it was painfully obvious that we needed a co-ordinated approach to the problem from both sides of the border. We are not talking just about a local road south from Edinburgh to the borders and a local road north to Berwick-upon-Tweed from Newcastle upon Tyne. We are talking about one of the two major trunk roads linking Scotland and England.

I convened a meeting of the four hon. Members concerned, the seven local authorities and a wide range of other interests, which led to a detailed technical report produced by the three local highways authorities in 1989. That report was submitted to the Scottish Office and the then Department of Transport, and, after some fairly vigorous debates, including a massive public petition and powerful backing from the Edinburgh Evening News and the Newcastle Journal, the then Government accepted the case for completing the A1 link.

The Scottish Office has made a very good start by upgrading the road between Tranent and Haddington, and by completing all the preliminary procedures for the next section to Dunbar ready for work to start next year. Indeed, the first bridge has already been built, but today it looks depressingly like a bridge to nowhere. I hope that it does not remain like that for much longer.

I put on record my personal thanks to the Scottish Office staff and, perhaps surprisingly, to Lord James Douglas-Hamilton, the former Minister with responsibility for Scottish roads, for the excellent work that has been done, and for the two small sections that are under construction further south in my constituency and that of the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire, who I hope will be able to take part in the debate briefly. Lord James took a long time to grasp the case for the A1—that was so on other issues as well—but when he did accept the case, he certainly got on with the job in style.

Meanwhile, the volume of traffic is still increasing and the road will get even more congested as the economy improves and trade between Scotland and other parts of the European Union increases because the A1 is the main Euro-route to the east coast ports. Perhaps because of that, there is an abnormally high proportion of commercial traffic on the road.

Mr. Alasdair Morgan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Home Robertson

Very briefly, please.

Mr. Morgan

I totally accept the case for the A1 dualling, both on safety and strategic grounds. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that an equal case can be made for the A75, which is on a strategic Euro-route from Northern Ireland to western Europe? We are waiting not only for dualling, but for the drawing up of a route action plan and for the action that would follow from that plan.

Mr. Home Robertson

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's anxiety about the road in his part of the world. He must make his own case in his own way. The point is made that we need a different type of review of priorities for roads in Scotland.

I was referring to the proportion of heavy goods vehicles on the A1. The abnormally high proportion of commercial traffic on that road tends to accumulate into convoys; and not just little convoys. These days, convoys of 60 to 70 vehicles are not uncommon on the single carriageway section of the A1. The situation gets far worse with even slower traffic such as caravans in summer time, exceptional loads, farm vehicles and traffic diverting from the A68 and other routes in severe winter weather.

It does not take much to bring the whole road to a standstill: that happens quite frequently nowadays. When it is at a standstill or very slow-moving, reckless attempts are made to overtake. All too often, that leads to violent, head-on collisions. There were 828 casualties, including 42 deaths, on the single carriageway sections of the A1 on both sides of the border between 1992 and 1995.

We do not need a review to analyse the situation: it is a severely congested bottleneck in the national highway system which will remain a running sore until it is dualled. There is no other way of resolving the problem, because there is nowhere else for the traffic to go. I should love to see more freight carried by rail, but it would be barmy to suggest that lorries should tranship their loads on to railway wagons between Prestonpans and Morpeth: it is just not feasible.

Speaking of lorry traffic, the Minister may know that I was a volunteer driver on Edinburgh Direct Aid convoys to Bosnia during the war there, and I found it rather embarrassing that one can drive from south of Ljubljana in Slovenia to Morpeth in Northumberland on dual carriageway roads, but Europe seems to come to an end when the road degenerates into an overloaded country track near the Scottish border. Foreign visitors must think that they are approaching a third-world country when they get to north Northumberland.

The economic case and the road safety case for completing the A1 are conclusive and overwhelming. The Government have inherited a phased scheme for upgrading the road, which specifically includes a fully prepared project for the section between Haddington and Dunbar, with £40 million in the budget to pay for it. We now face the threat of a delay of at least 12 months while the Scottish Office goes through the motions of reviewing the project again. That is absolutely dire news for everybody who has to use the road, and in particular for my constituents in the Dunbar area

There is worse to come, because a massive new landfill site will start operating this autumn just east of Dunbar. The Oxwellmains site will take all Edinburgh's domestic rubbish. Happily, most of that material will be transported by rail, but the Minister confirmed in a written reply on 17 July that the dump will generate 400 more lorry movements each week, which is 800 each-way journeys, on the single carriageway between Haddington and Dunbar, including the long, slow haul up Pencraig Hill.

East Lothian Council reluctantly gave planning consent for that road traffic on the understanding that the road was about to be dualled, and the Secretary of State has just amended the Lothian structure plan to confirm that dualling "is now in hand". Well, apparently it will not be in hand for at least another year, and I put it to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary that he is adding insult to injury for my constituents and for many other people by stopping the upgrading of the road and sending convoys of trucks with rubbish from his constituency in Edinburgh to aggravate the congestion on the A1 in East Lothian. If the road is not to be dualled in short order, perhaps consent for road haulage to that dump should be suspended until the road is dualled.

Obviously the principal issues are traffic management and road safety, but there is also the small matter of keeping promises. I have been fighting for a safe A1 road for years, and I am not going to stop now that we have a Labour Government. I told my constituents before the election that the phased dualling of the A1 would not be delayed by Labour's roads review. When I made that statement, I was not speaking off the cuff; I was confident that I had authority from the relevant members of the shadow Cabinet to say that the A1 was one of a handful of roads that did not need to be reviewed again.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), who was then shadow Secretary of State for Transport, wrote on 1 August 1994: I have made it clear that the moratorium should not stop progress on some much needed schemes. Amongst those falling into this category I have specified … dualling the A1 between Morpeth and the border (Scottish roads being outside my brief). You can rest assured of my support—I have already explained this to George who shares my view". That was a reference to my right hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Robertson), then shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, who wrote to me on 29 August 1994 to confirm that, as far as I am concerned from Berwick-on-Tweed northwards dualling is a major priority on the grounds of communication and safety". My right hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith), then shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, wrote in similar terms in 1994, and, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Anniesland (Mr. Dewar), now Secretary of State for Scotland, had written to me at length as long ago as September 1991 to state his support for the completion of the dualling of the A1, I felt that I was on safe ground.

I repeat the case for the A1 and to remind my hon. Friend the Minister that clear assurances were given before the general election. I have already had a meeting with him in the Department, as well as private discussions, and I very much regret having to raise the matter in this way. This is one of those cases in which duty to constituents has to take precedence over party loyalty.

I make a final appeal to the Minister to conduct the Scottish roads review according to the same criteria as those applied in England and Wales. By all means let us have a full review of roads schemes where there is any doubt or controversy, but in cases such as the next phase of the A1, where there is neither doubt nor controversy, he should allow an accelerated review to avoid an expensive and disruptive delay which would certainly cost lives.

10.31 pm
Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) and the Minister for allowing me two minutes to speak in the debate.

I pay sincere tribute to my hon. Friend and constituent the Member for East Lothian, who took the lead in co-ordinating the Safelink campaign, of which I have been aware for 10 years. He deserves the credit for the considerable impact of that campaign, which was the single most important factor that led the Government in 1992 to accept the principle of dualling the road from Edinburgh to Newcastle in due course. He is therefore right to feel disappointed. He is also courageous, in that he has not spared the Labour Government's blushes, and has put his constituents' interests first tonight.

The problem is not local to East Lothian, but international. It has impact south of the border and in Berwickshire. The A1 is a European route, and for that reason, if for no other, it deserves special treatment, as is given to the A55 in the Wales review and to some English roads in the accelerated review. The hon. Member has made a powerful case over 10 years. I shall be disappointed if he does not get better consideration from the Minister tonight than he has had from Ministers since the general election. He deserves better, as do people in the Borders and south of the border.

10.33 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Malcolm Chisholm)

I join the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) in acknowledging the zeal and tenacity of my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) in his continued efforts to secure the upgrading of the A1. I welcome the opportunity to set out what has been done and to reiterate the Government's commitment and approach to the development of an integrated transport system in Scotland.

My hon. Friend's efforts have been remarkably successful. Since 1991, about £55 million has been spent on five new construction projects on the A1, the latest being the dualling of the Tranent to Haddington section, which was opened to traffic in November last year. Two further dualling schemes are under construction: Oswald Dean to Innerwick, and Lemington to Howburn, at a combined cost of more than £7 million.

The movements of lorries carrying waste to which my hon. Friend referred will be allowed only when the road improvements associated with the former scheme have been carried out. The vast majority of movements of waste will be, and indeed ought to be, by rail, and any changes to the consent are purely a matter for East Lothian council.

A route accident plan has been carried out over the past few years, costing a total of £180,000 to date. The plan has provided a number of engineering measures, such as junction improvements, signing and lining and the introduction of speed cameras. All those measures have resulted in a dramatic reduction in the accident rate on the route, particularly within the Scottish borders area. There is, of course, no room for complacency, but accident statistics show that the average accident rate on the A1 is now half the rate for trunk roads.

Further schemes are being prepared. Four minor schemes, for all of which draft statutory orders have been published, will continue. A major scheme between Haddington and Dunbar—to which my hon. Friend referred—has been the subject of a public local inquiry, whose report is awaited. Further procedural work on the scheme will, in common with other major schemes, be suspended to await the outcome of the review of the trunk road programme that I announced on 19 June.

The review is an important part of our approach to the development of an integrated transport system in Scotland. The trunk road programme inherited from the previous Government was not soundly based, and was unaffordable given the significant reductions made by them to roads expenditure over recent years.

Since announcing the Government's plans to conduct a review of priorities on the trunk road network, I have had the pleasure of hearing views, and learning about priorities, in relation to potential schemes in constituencies across Scotland. Only this afternoon, I met my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. Browne) to discuss the A77/M77. I have also had meetings with others to discuss a number of schemes, including schemes involving the A830, the A96 and the A75. In fact, I think I could say that I have received more representations on roads than on any other subject since I became a Minister, although I deal with local government, housing and many other controversial matters.

My hon. Friend mentioned the decision of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales in relation to the A55. That decision clearly reflects his judgment in regard to all the factors that were relevant to the case, but let me establish what seems to me to be a simple fact and a fundamental difference. In Scotland, no one road stands out as everyone's No. 1 priority. It is different in Wales.

Mr. Alasdair Morgan

I doubt whether the people in south and central Wales would see the A55 as a strategic priority.

Does the Minister agree that the dualling of the A55 has a severe effect on the traffic through Stranraer? Freight hauliers operating through Stranraer have already admitted that they are losing traffic to the north Wales route.

Mr. Chisholm

I do not want to be dragged into a debate about Welsh roads. I have quite enough to be going on with in regard to Scottish roads.

I have noted all the views that have been presented to me, but it is clear that the continued pressure for progress on all those routes—set against a background of the mismatch between the expectations that the previous Government encouraged, and the public expenditure plans that we inherited from them—underlines the need for a review of priorities.

My hon. Friend rightly said that it was not Treasury-driven, but the simple fact is that the previous Government's sums did not add up, and we must replace their make-believe road programme with a real one. Before any scheme is implemented in the future, it will have to demonstrate its viability against the criteria of accessibility, safety, economy, environmental impact and integration with other transport plans. It must be recognised that the previous policies of predicting traffic growth and providing roads to meet such predictions are, in the long term, financially, socially and environmentally unsustainable.

Mr. Home Robertson

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Chisholm

I will take some interventions later, but, because there were two speeches, I should like to make some progress—I have a great deal of material to cover.

At an appropriate stage of the review, we will seek the views of a wide range of bodies including the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, local authorities, the Confederation of British Industry and other transport and environmental interest groups on revised criteria for setting priorities. We shall aim to reach decisions on priorities as soon as possible.

Until then, work will continue on a number of major schemes that are already under construction and on the A75 the Glen and the A828 Creagan bridge schemes, which are at such an advanced stage of preparation that work was due to start on them this financial year. Even the scheme to complete the M8 motorway, which was scheduled for this year's programme, is being reviewed, although the advanced stage of tendering requires an early decision on whether it should proceed on that timetable or be deferred for consideration as part of the main review process.

No further statutory procedural work will be carried out on any of the remaining major schemes in the trunk roads programme inherited by this Government. The programme of minor schemes that deliver cost-effective safety improvements and the trunk road maintenance programme will not be affected by the review.

Mr. Home Robertson

My hon. Friend mentioned the M74: the A74 is already a dual carriageway, so to upgrade that to motorway standard is to ice the cake. My specific question is, what has happened to the money that was in the budget for the next phase of dualling for the A1? We understood that money was allocated and committed for the next phase of work between Dunbar and Haddington—obviously not the full £40 million, but the first bit of it at least. What has happened to that money? What is to be done with it during the 12-month delay?

Mr. Chisholm

Clearly, a lot of work needs to be done on the roads programme. This year, for example, there were massive cuts in the work for minor roads improvements, and we could easily spend all the money on that—I am not saying that we will, because final decisions have yet to be made about next year's budget. The money will be in the transport budget and I am sure my hon. Friend will agree that there is much work that can be done under that budget.

The dualling of the Haddington to Dunbar scheme will be examined within the context of the review. I know that my hon. Friend would like the Government to make an exception, and our reasons for not doing so do not imply any discrimination or prejudice against the scheme. The Government have a clear obligation to ensure that the review treats all roads in the same way. To make exceptions would seriously prejudice the conduct, validity and outcome of the review. We have departed from that approach in only one case—the long-term plans for the Kincardine bridge—because of the special nature of the operational concerns that arise.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has given an assurance that preparatory work within the Scottish Office will continue on the Haddington to Dunbar scheme, with the aim of allowing it to proceed without unnecessary delay should it be identified by the review as a priority. That work will cover issues that may arise as a result of the public local inquiry. In programming terms, there will inevitably be a delay in publishing the decision letter resulting from that inquiry and the confirming of the draft orders should that be the approved way forward. The preparation work within the Scottish Office will, however, aim to minimise that delay should the outcome of the review favour the early implementation of the scheme.

I can confirm the indication given to my hon. Friend that we consider that it remains a possibility that work could begin on the scheme in the next financial year, if it is confirmed as a top priority in the review.

As for finance, I have made it clear that the inherited roads programme was simply unsustainable. It would therefore be quite wrong to make assumptions regarding allocation of funds to major projects in coming years, or to anticipate the outcome of future public expenditure decisions and priorities. I am sure that my hon. Friend fully supports the Government's initiative in developing a coherent, affordable and environmentally sustainable roads strategy for Scotland, which will contribute to a properly integrated transport policy.

I stress that the review is not founded on an automatic assumption about cutting public expenditure on roads. For many people, especially in rural areas, the car is, and will continue to be, an essential form of transport. It is vital, however, that an integrated transport strategy is developed to offer the public real choices and protect the environment. The Government intend that the review will produce a future programme that is environmentally and financially sustainable, and integrated with our wider policies to reduce traffic growth and manage transport and traffic more effectively. Clear criteria for setting priorities for long-term road planning will result, and the application of those criteria will enable us to plan a roads programme based on an up-to-date assessment of Scotland's needs.

I hope that my hon. Friend will recognise that the fair and correct course of action is to review the A1 within that context. I am sure that he will continue to remind us of the serious claims of the A1, of which I am also well aware.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fifteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.