HL Deb 10 November 1959 vol 219 cc467-79

2.44 p.m.

LORD WISE rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what action they are now proposing to take to expedite the provision of a by-pass road at King's Lynn and to improve road travelling facilities for the rural, industrial and holiday traffic in Norfolk generally; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. Last Wednesday we discussed at length a Motion by my noble friend Lord Lucas of Chilworth on the question of road and rail communications, and I feel that perhaps I should not be troubling your Lordships now with a Motion which deals with matters which might be thought to be only on a county or parochial level. But in tabling my Motion it was thought that if I had raised this point last Wednesday it would have been lost in the general debate, and the matter which I have to bring forward is of some importance to a great number of people in East Anglia.

In concluding his speech, my noble friend made reference to the intention of the Government regarding future road and rail facilities as outlined in the gracious Speech. I would call to my aid that paragraph which tells us that the Government, in order to develop a sound system of communications throughout the country, will press forward with their policy of building new highways and improving existing roads. The intention of the Government by this reference seems clear. It is not limited to the main arteries of traffic or to the great trunk roads or the new motorways, but embraces the roads of our rural areas, our main county and secondary roads and, where needed, new roads to be constructed or existing roads improved. There is room for much improvement in many of our local county roads. On this basis I seek the indulgence of your Lordships for a reasonably short time in calling the attention of the Government and your Lordships to the transport difficulties which have arisen and increased in the area covered by my Motion. Some of your Lordships may have similar problems in your own districts, and my moving this Motion may encourage you to bring these problems before the House on another occasion.

There is another reason which I think will excuse my trespass on the time of your Lordships. It is a belief I hold that it is our duty not only to concern ourselves with great international and national problems which are brought to our notice for consideration and sometimes solution, but to spare some time in dealing with matters which may on sight appear to those who are not immediately concerned with them to be of minor importance. Everyday problems of a comparatively simple nature may assume larger proportions for those people who are directly in contact with and are affected by their impact. It redounds to our credit as a democracy, in my view, that whether the difficulty be small or large, appropriate consideration for its solution can be given by the Crown, the law or by Parliament. Your Lordships' House will lose nothing of its prestige, dignity or value in our national life by consideration of what I have to put before you this afternoon, and, with your goodwill, I will proceed.

It is on record that the question of the King's Lynn by-pass has been raised in your Lordship's House before both by the noble Earl, Lord Albemarle, and by me. But since questions were put to the Government and answered, traffic conditions in this town and neighbourhood have progressively worsened. It may be said that this fact is common to most districts, but I am encouraged to bring the matter before your Lordships because we now have a new Government, with a new Minister, who may have new intentions and new thoughts in order to cater for our national needs. Therefore I think we are entitled to ask the Government what action is to be taken to expedite the position of this long-delayed and now urgent necessity and amenity. I believe it has been programmed to commence between 1961 and 1975. The year 1975 is a long way off, and unless we can make a start within a reasonable time we shall still have to wait many years for the improvement which is so necessary. It is obvious that the construction of a new motorway is more spectacular and of greater interest (as was shown only on Sunday last) than the provision of a by-pass around a country town, however great and acute the need for the latter may be.

King's Lynn and the difficulties of passing through the town by road may be known to many of your Lordships but not to others. In order to support my application, I will briefly describe the present circumstances. Its railway station, into which run lines from four different directions, is a dead end; there are no through trains. That, I know, is applicable to many of our stations, but it creates a difficulty, so far as I am concerned, in this application. There are three level crossings in the town and all trains entering King's Lynn station have to run over a level crossing about 200 yards outside the station, and repeat this operation on leaving. In addition, shunting in connection with the docks, manure works and sugar beet factory, all fairly large concerns, as well as main line shunting, takes place over this crossing. For long periods therefore, during the day and night the level crossing gates, which are still man-operated, have to be closed. Within my own knowledge, for nearly fifty years consideration has been given to the possibility of constructing a road bridge over this crossing. It might have been accomplished many years ago at a reasonable cost, but now the adjoining land has been developed any such scheme of building a bridge at this point would be costly and no doubt difficult. It is a pity, perhaps, that those responsible in the many years past did not have the foresight to construct bypass roads around many of our cities and towns, which would have avoided many of the difficulties that are now with us.

Not only has the volume of road traffic through King's Lynn been increased by natural means, but the closing of a long length of the Midland and Great Northern Joint Railway from Lincolnshire to North Norfolk has drawn more private and commercial traffic on to the roads of the town and district. There is exceptionally heavy week-end traffic during the summer months from the Midlands to the coastal towns and villages of North and East Norfolk. In passing through King's Lynn, sonic of this traffic may be held up at each of the three level crossings, and on a summer's evening it is no uncommon sight to see a queue of cars, bumper to bumper, stretching for three or four miles outside the town. Those of your Lordships who know the position of Sandringham will realise the length of this particular queue when I tell you that I have myself seen it extending from King's Lynn nearly to Sandringham.

Hold-ups at the level crossings also seriously affect local and private business traffic, and in the course of a year thousands of man-hours must be lost waiting for trains to pass and the gates to open. To minimise this, and to endeavour to keep traffic moving, it is proposed that a by-pass should be constructed. I understand that it will be just outside the town, will extend for five miles, and will go round King's Lynn on three sides. It will connect up with seven main roads. For costing purposes, it will be divided apparently into two sections, one being the responsibility of the Government and the other that of the Norfolk County Council subject, I expect, to a 75 per cent. Government grant. It is, of course, obvious that although the road will be in two sections, it must be constructed as one. Traffic census figures will shortly be available for the consideration of the Ministers, and when these are produced I feel they will substantiate the case for immediate consideration, approval and commencement of the scheme. I believe that a few minor alterations are likely to be carried out immediately, but these will make no impact whatever upon the main problem.

Perhaps I may digress for a moment from my main point. A few days ago I was driving between Newmarket and Royston, and I noticed that at the small village of Whittleford, where there is a level crossing at the station on the main line from Liverpool Street to Cambridge, a new road was being constructed, obviously as a by-pass, to cross the railway by means of a bridge. The rail and road traffic at that spot cannot bear comparison with that at King's Lynn, and if ministerial approval has been given to that project, a similar favour might reasonably be conferred upon the road users in Norfolk. Newmarket is no more important than King's Lynn. It is true to say that we have, over a period of years, made considerable contribution to the Road Fund, as indeed have motor vehicle owners in other rural areas, and we should therefore be glad to receive a similar benefit as has been conferred upon another rural district.

My Lords, I come now to the second portion of my Motion. This arises by reason of the closing of the Midland and Great Northern Joint Railway, to which I have already referred, and the earlier closing of another branch line in my own district. If I restrict my disapproval of the action of the authorities concerned in closing the Midland and Great Northern Joint Railway to the one word, "regrettable" it does not represent at all what I really feel about the matter, and the manner in which it was apparently conceived and carried out. People who live in rural areas, and who do not own cars or other conveyances, must rely upon train or bus services to undertake their business, family or social commitments. I understand that when this branch line was closed arrangements were made for adequate bus facilities to be provided in exchange. It is now proposed that these services should be curtailed. Already some villages in that district have only one return bus a week. This proposal is causing much concern among the inhabitants of the areas affected, and meetings have been held by local authorities, chambers of commerce and others, at which expression of opposition and regret have been registered. I believe that resolutions have been sent to the Government by these bodies.

The closing of railways and the curtailment of bus services are adversely affecting the trade and prosperity of the country towns and creating difficulties as regards goods deliveries. I am informed that since the closing of the railway the delivery of goods has been much delayed. National and monopoly undertakings should not be governed entirely by financial or economic considerations, and when the question of service to the public arises, as it so often does, then in my opinion the interest of those who by force of circumstances must depend upon the efficiency of that service should not pass unnoticed. This does not appear to be the case in the incidents which I have quoted; and if the Minister has any authority and influence in the matter I hope he will be able to bring these to bear in the interest of those who otherwise may suffer much inconvenience and loss.

In conclusion, I would tell your Lordships that I suffer in no way by the non-provision of a by-pass at King's Lynn, or by the curtailment of road and rail services in North Norfolk. I have tried to put before your Lordships a fairly stated case in the interests of those amongst whom it is my pleasure and privilege to live. Their needs are such that they cannot be treated as being without any degree of priority or early consideration. I therefore speak here in your Lordships' House on their behalf, and in the hope that the Minister will be able to issue some statement which will show to the people of North Norfolk that their needs are being considered and that action will be taken. I beg to move for Papers.

3.10 p.m.


My Lords, perhaps I may for a few minutes endeavour to reinforce the strong plea which the noble Lord, Lord Wise, has made for those who suffer from the at present inadequate communication in that part of the world. The noble Lord is particularly qualified to voice the opinions of his neighbours, as no one in that part of the world has a greater agrarian experience than himself, although I am sure that many of your Lordships have been to the East Coast for your holidays and must know it as well as we do.

I would point out that in the old days Norfolk was always thought of as an island because of the amount of water that surrounded it, almost on all sides. The progress of drainage has meant that the roads crossing the watery spaces or the rivers are few in number, and they have to enter that part of the world through what I might call "gates"—the gates, of course, being the bridges. The bridges over the Ouse and at Downham Market admit all the traffic, not only from the West Midlands but from the north—those people who want to come down to our more salubrious parts—and also from the south west; they all have to come through those "gates". This town has tried and failed to accommodate this, at times, very heavy traffic, and the traffic that comes has nothing to do with the town. If your Lordships look at the road system of Norfolk and the coastline, you will see that we are a cul de sac, and we have not, as other counties have, graceful roads aiming at distinct points of popular interest. Our road system is higgledy-piggledy, so to speak, and does not maintain a general direction for any length of time.

In regard to the second part of the noble Lord's Motion, it seems to me that, a nationalised service having been withdrawn, the Government have not realised that it has left the people of that part of the world dependent on an old-fashioned road system, very narrow roads, some of them badly kept up, which do not and cannot accommodate the traffic that now wants to come to our parts. If a nationalised service is withdrawn, it would appear that in its place at least something should be provided. More should be given to be spent on lengths of trunk roads to help out the county councils, who in future will have only the block grant and who at present can find only enough money—indeed, not enough as it is—for their "domestic" system of roads. They do need from the centre some help in this dilemma, which has arisen through the withdrawal of a nationalised service. There are two things. There is the improving of the roads and the encouraging of the private bus companies, which, as your Lordships have heard, have curtailed their services. They should be encouraged to spend money on new buses and encouraged to resurrect a system of communications which can be of use to the people.

In regard to King's Lynn itself, I will liken it to our old friend the cattle bridge, which prevents certain people from going across it. The "cattle bridges" in this case are the railway crossings; and, as the noble Lord has said, they prevent a great mass of people from gaining access to where they want to go without having to pass through that very narrow-streeted town. The other part of the "cattle bridge" is the hard metal road which invariably goes to one side of it. That is what we want. With those few words, I ask the benevolence of the Front Bench to look at this question again, because I am quite sure that something should be done to make life easier for those who are resident there, and also for those—many of them dragging a great big caravan behind with their family in it—wishing to reach the destinations where we are very glad to welcome them.

3.7 p.m.


My Lords, as the list of speakers is so short may I crave the indulgence of the House to intervene in this debate for a few minutes? The noble Lord, Lord Wise, has admitted that the question which is raised in his Motion is one that applies not only to Norfolk but to the whole country, and therefore it is a question that involves some very fundamental principles in regard to road transport.

What I want to say includes a comment upon the attitude of mind that is very prevalent at the present moment in high official circles with regard to the whole question of motor transport in this country and the matter of speed and facilities in general. I know that I am an old reactionary, but I believe that bypasses are better than race-courses, and I think that the expenditure of the money we are proposing to spend, which we are called upon to spend, on these monstrous highways, flyovers, and the rest of it, which are so much in the public eye, and which are illustrated in an exhibition in another place at the present moment, is wasteful and unnecessary; and it will not really solve any rational problem whatever. It is true that there are many motorists—I am sure a minority, but still a very pervading minority—who have a complex, an urgency complex: they have the itch for speed for its own sake. I feel that public money ought not to be spent in such vast quantities in order to cater for that type of motorist.

I know that there is a problem, but when the noble Lord, Lord Wise, talks about saving man-hours, what does he mean? What does anyone mean when that kind of language is used? Whose man-hours are saved, and to what extent are they saved? Will anyone tell me that the future of British industry depends upon saving split seconds of time? To me that seems to be a great illusion. I know that on the roads there is a great deal of congestion caused by traffic of a commercial character which ought to go on the railways and which certainly ought to be diverted to the railways. Apart from that, what is this question of time and speed in relation to public facilities? The real problem is not in the roads and in the quickness with which motorists can travel; the problem is that of pricking the blisters at each end, and we are, comparatively speaking, doing practically nothing to relieve the whole source of this problem of traffic congestion.

I suggest that it is possible to spend the money more usefully in developing alternative routes, not only by building by-passes but by modernising and linking up roadways in such a way as to provide all that any rational person could want in order to get from place to place in this country. I feel perfectly sure about that. I frequently travel from London to the South Coast and back, and I think I could safely undertake to say that, apart from the main roads to Brighton, Hastings or Folkestone, it would be possible to provide at least four alternative routes by a little linking up and modernising at a fraction of the money that we are going to spend upon these "race-courses". I firmly believe that, and I think that that ought to be done.

When I speak of an illusion, I am reminded of an incident only a week or two ago when I was travelling from Brighton to London. In front of us was a busy little car which, judging from the confetti one saw about the car itself, obviously contained a honeymoon couple. It was nosing in and out, catching up wherever it could, just like some of the motor cyclists do, in and out all over the place, nervously anxious to get in front of everybody else. I do not know whether in any circumstances a honeymoon is really necessary, but I am perfectly sure that the amenities of the honeymoon have nothing whatsoever to do with the amenities of the road. From what I saw of the couple as we passed them, they were beginning to enjoy those amenities long before they reached London. But the point is that when we got, I think, to Putney Bridge—at any rate to one of the bridges—with all their trouble and anxiety to get in front of everybody their car was only immediately in front of us. What did they save? Of course they were stopped by traffic lights as they came near to London, but if they had got through all the time, how much time would they have saved? It is quite an illusion. There was an article in the News Chronicle only yesterday in which young motor-cyclists were quoted, expressing their views about the amenities of the road. They were talking glibly about 80 to 100 miles an hour and more, with pillion riders on their motor-cycles. Is it proposed to finance that from public funds to the extent of millions and millions of pounds?

I suggest that that is nonsense and that it would be a good idea to probe into the subject. I know it is not an easy one. I do not want to be unrealistic; I know that the problem does exist. But I think that we could appoint our experts and get the help of people who know the problem better than I could possibly know it from a technical point of view, to find out how far it would be possible not to drive these, to me at any rate, from an æsthetic point of view, unsightly roads from London to Birmingham and elsewhere upon the pretext that it makes an enormous difference to British industry. I do not believe that it makes anything of the kind. I think that there should be a system of road transport in which it is possible to control traffic and to cut it down to a reasonable level of speed. I think that 80 to 100 m.p.h. is an unreasonable level and ought not to be tolerated in our imagination when we are discussing a problem such as has been raised in a local way by my noble friend Lord Wise.

3.25 p.m.


My Lords, may I channel your minds away from the honeymooners over Putney Bridge back to the small area of Norfolk? The greatest talking point in Norfolk over the past 15 months or so has been, as the noble Lord, Lord Wise, has said, the closing of the M. & G.N. line. I do not wish to jump into the controversy whether or not that was a good or a wise thing to do, but merely to state two facts that arise from it: first, that adequate provision must be made for the traffic that used to be on the railway and which is now turned on to the roads; and secondly, that the main road from the East Coast to the Midlands must be made into a really modern and effective roadway.

I should like to pay tribute to the amount of work that has been done on modernising the A.47, but I would urge Her Majesty's Government to see that the rest of it is modernised as soon as possible. There is one particular place that I have in mind near Wendling where there are six vicious bends that follow one after the other, yet apparently no remedy seems to have been forthcoming. This must be the worst stretch of road between Norwich and King's Lynn, and I hope that Her Majesty's Government will see that more attention is given to it in the near future. I have often thought that it would be possible to encourage traffic to use the other alternative route to the Midlands via Thetford and Downham Market. It is an excellent road. This could well be done if traffic were encouraged to use it by signposting.

We in Norfolk have seen many improvements carried out on the roads just lately. I should like to congratulate not only the Government but also the Norfolk County Council on the work that they have done in this respect, and, indeed, to thank them for making the roads that much safer and that much better. I must confess that I cannot agree with all that has been done. I find it difficult to understand why practically every road improvement that is carried out always stops short at a bad bend. It seems a strange state of affairs when one endeavours to take the bends out of the roads, that the improvements always stop short at the bend. It is also the fact that nine out of ten new roads that are made across fields always have a bend put in them. I do not know whether it will be possible in the future for more care to be taken when new roads are built that they should at least be built straight.

When there is so much anxiety over the building of new roads and when money to build them is so hard to come by, it is difficult to find any form of justification for the type of road that has recently been built across Seething aerodrome. I shall be grateful if the noble Lord who is going to reply—I do not expect that he can reply to this point to-day—will look into the matter and give me some reasons for it. Seething aerodrome is an old and disused aerodrome, with over six miles of concrete roadway on it. Somebody has recently seen fit to drive another roadway across it. The point is that this new roadway is about three-quarters of a mile long and runs fairly parallel to an existing runway. The new road is five yards wide, and the runway is 50 yards wide. The new road twists and turns, and the runway is absolutely dead straight. I can see no justification for having spent money on a brand new roadway when there is a perfectly good runway by its side which might well have been used, and when the money which has been spent on this new roadway could well have been spent on getting rid of the hazards on other main roads which exist in Norfolk. This new roadway, in any event, is going to be used by very few people indeed.

There is one point which I feel would greatly simplify and ease travel over the roads in Norfolk—and I believe this does not apply only to Norfolk. Certainly it will apply very much more strongly in future, and I feel that it deserves at least the consideration of the noble Lord's Department. I refer to the location of bus stops. It is a very odd thing that in our part of the world practically every country bus stop is located on either a corner or a cross roads. This, needless to say, is exceedingly dangerous for everyone, and not least for the people using the buses. It seems to me that the motto of those whose job it is to place bus stops is, "If in doubt, choose a bend". It is a point which I personally feel could be a very serious one, because in our part of the world almost every bus stop is on a bend.

It could justly be said that the bus service in Norfolk is but fair, but it is a matter on which it is considerably easier to criticise than to suggest or give advice for its improvement. I appreciate that these services must be run economically, but I believe that Her Majesty's Government bear some onus of responsibility to see that rural areas are adequately and properly provided with public transport. Particularly is this so when, as the noble Lord, Lord Wise, has said, so many railways have recently been closed down. Numbers of people used those railways, and though they may not have been economic in their use they were at least useful and at times vital to those using them. A situation in which the population are without adequate alternative transport is one which should be remedied as far as possible. There are many villages without any form of transport and some which have buses only once a week or once a month.

I should like also to ask the noble Lord who is to reply whether any serious thought is being given to the hazards of the winter, because in our climate snow, while it is not continuous, is certainly commonplace; and it is a curious thing that in Norfolk whenever there is a snowstorm the traffic situation is plunged into complete chaos. If we get more than about two inches of snow traffic virtually stops. I remember that two years ago there was what was called a "freeze-up" for two weeks and buses could hardly get to their destinations. Farmers were taking their milk on trailers and villagers were cut off from electricity and telephones. The Post Office even refused to take any telegrams for delivery there because they could not get them through. In this country, where snow is a commonplace, it does seem that we should have some effective means of dealing with it. I would ask the noble Earl whether it is not possible for us to learn from other countries whose winters are considerably harder than ours and see whether we cannot make some provision, such as modern snow-ploughs, to counteract this trouble and to keep traffic moving during the winter.

One final subject I would mention is the inevitable plea for signposting, particularly signposting of smaller roads. In Norfolk we have our full quota of small roads and it is not only the visitors who get lost; that happens even to those who live in the area. I remember once coming up to four crossroads and looking at a signpost which bore five arms. There was one arm for each road and the name of the village to which I was hoping to get was on the fifth arm, which pointed straight across an open field. That is not very commonplace and I believe it has been put right; but it is a common fallacy that road signposting is now very good. In general it is, but there are many places where it leaves a great deal to be desired.