HL Deb 26 January 1966 vol 272 cc98-105

3.50 p.m.


My Lords, with your Lordships' permission, I should like to read a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government in answer to a Question about the Oxford Development Plan. The Statement is as follows:

"I am to-day sending to the Oxford City Council the list of modifications I propose to make.

"Honourable Members will recall that in 1962, following an inquiry at large into the question of relief roads for Oxford, my predecessor reached the conclusion that an inner relief road through Christ Church Meadow was the right solution, and invited the City Council to amend their development plan accordingly. This they did; and one of my inspectors has conducted an inquiry into their proposals.

"At this inquiry, there was strong opposition to the Council's road proposals, and in particular to the Meadow section of the relief road. It was argued that there should be a complete reassessment of the Oxford road problems and that the effect of traffic restrictions in the centre should be examined before the alignment of the relief road was settled. The inspector accepted these criticisms, and recommended that the whole plan be rejected and sent back to the city for further study.

"I can see the force of these arguments. But the longer I reflected on my inspector's report the more clearly I realised how disastrous it would be to accept a purely negative conclusion which would set the City back to the beginning of their work and leave nothing to stand against the rising tide of traffic chaos in Oxford. Moreover, I could not accept my inspector's appraisal that, given restriction on through-traffic in the City centre, it could well be found (and here I quote his words) that a relief road is not required at all, or, if it is required, that its main function will be to cater for through-traffic. Indeed, I have little reason to doubt that further examination will confirm the need for one, and may well show that the Meadow line is still the most efficient traffic route. And if it did I would not accept the view put forward by so many objectors at the inquiry that the preservation of the Meadow must override all other considerations.

"I determined, therefore, to find a practicable interim way between acceptance of the City Council's plan and the total rejection recommended by my inspector; and I am proposing to approve, with minor modifications, the Council's proposals for the redevelopment of St. Ebbe's, thus allowing this urgent work to go forward. I am satisfied that this can be done without prejudicing any likely solution to the relief road problem; and that it will carry with it some incidental relief to the traffic congestion at Carfax and in The High.

"On the other hand, I propose to delete from the town map the relief road scheme; and to invite the City Council to appoint consultants to make a comparative examination of possible routes for the relief road across the Meadow and further South, their cost and effect on property, and the extent and nature of the schemes of traffic and environmental management each will entail. One of the main objects will be to show how the disturbance caused by motor traffic in The High and the University precinct can be reduced to acceptable levels.

"In short, what I am proposing will enable the Council to press on with their plans for immediate redevelopment, while allowing more time for the preparation of a final and comprehensive road and traffic plan for Oxford.

"I have consulted my right honourable friend the Minister of Transport, who is in complete agreement with the proposals I am making."

3.55 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure that everyone is most grateful to the noble Lord for repeating for us this long and detailed Statement. It will, of course, have to be studied with great care by many people, and I have no doubt that it will be. But to my mind much the most significant point about this Statement is the extreme divergence of conclusions between the Minister and his inspector. One cannot make up one's own mind as to which of the two is right until one has read the inspector's report. I, as a Christ Church man, naturally welcome the fact that the death sentence passed upon Christ Church Meadow has been temporarily suspended. May I ask the noble Lord whether the inspector's report will be published? I imagine that it will be.


My Lords, my information is that copies of the report are being placed on deposit in the places where the original proposals were put on deposit. That appears in a paragraph of the decision letter. I am not sure whether copies of the report are being sent with copies of the decision letter or whether they are not, but the report will certainly he available.


My Lords, I am much obliged. Can we take it that one of the places of deposit in this case will be your Lordships' House?


My Lords, I hope so.


My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether he is aware that there are several references in the Minister's Statement which are warmly welcome, notably his appreciation of the City Council's difficulties if the recommendations of his inspector were fully accepted. But as he has now decided to reject at least two important recommendations, I should greatly like to endorse the plea of the noble Lord, Lord Newton, that the report should not only be published but also, if possible, be made available to a much wider section of the public. Secondly, I should like to ask whether the Government are now prepared to afford time at an early date for a full debate on the whole subject of the Oxford planning and redevelopment.


My Lords, as regards the report, I have noted what my noble friend said and what has been said by noble Lords opposite. I can only assure the House that I will see that copies are made available in the most convenient form. This is not particularly light literature. It is a long report, and necessarily so, and I do not think that it will become a best seller outside Oxford. Cambridge is terribly blind to these things!


My Lords, may I, in agreement with the two noble Lords who have intervened, express considerable disappointment at some of the information which the Minister has given to us? Let me disclose at once that I was one of the witnesses on behalf of the University at the inquiry, which was conducted with great patience and care by the inspector of the Minister. Does the Minister recall that the great objection to this proposed road was not merely on æsthetic grounds, because of what it did to the Meadow, but because, in the view of those who objected to it, it involved thoroughly bad planning, not least in St. Ebbe's itself? Does the Minister recall that the City Council would probably never have included its proposals for St. Ebbe's had it not been told by the previous Administration (this is a case where Her Majesty's Government can blame the previous Administration) to prepare a plan including this road? The noble Lord will recall that the Minister said he could not adopt so negative a conclusion as that of his inspector. As one who has given some study to the question of town planning, may I express the view that probably, had he accepted his inspector's proposal, we should have got a right solution rather more quickly? Having said that, may I say how much I welcome the fact that the greatest disaster has been averted? Does the noble Lord recall that, whatever may have been the position in the past, this proposal has been condemned by the greatest authorities, both on planning and on traffic grounds, not only in this country but throughout the world?


My Lords, as one who has played some part in this controversy, may I ask the Minister—


May I answer the other points first? I find it difficult to remember everything. Of course I looked at the inspector's report, in fact I read it, and I noted with pleasure the very distinguished witnesses who were called on this matter, including among them the noble Lord, Lord Conesford. I can assure him that I agree that every conceivable argument was used on both sides; that is what I recall about it. I suggest that this is much too complicated a matter to try to deal with at the end of a Statement such as this.

I am sorry I did not answer the second part of my noble friend's question. I am afraid it is not my business to allot Government time in this House, but no doubt suitable steps will be taken since it seems that there is a good deal of interest in this matter, not only among those who studied at Christ Church, but among quite a number of other people —including those who are concerned with Oxford traffic, which is quite critical.


My Lords, as one who has played some part in this controversy since February 13, 1957, may I say this? I am sure your Lordships will have in mind the memorable debate in your Lordships' House in which, with no dissentient voice, the scheme for a road through Christ Church Meadow was roundly condemned. Do I understand from the Minister that this senseless and stupid piece of road traffic planning has been taken out of the Plan, and that somebody has now been given the task of finding another line for a relief road which does not go through Christ Church Meadow? I think I follow the Minister up to that point. Does this mean that, at some time in the dim and distant future, Oxford is to have another public inquiry to confirm or condemn another line which has been prepared by another inspector?


My Lords, I have not the detailed knowledge and recollection of the noble Lord on these matters, and I am well aware of his interest in them. As to the question of another public inquiry, that must depend on the objections which are made to the proposals. The proposals themselves are not yet complete because the Minister's decision is not the abolition of the suggestion of a road through the meadows, but there is to be an examination of that suggestion, which it is hoped to arrange with the collaboration of the Oxford City Council, which is the traffic authority, and with the advice of consultants. It is therefore not a complete disappearance of the meadow road. It is another "temporary lock-out"—or, to look at it another way, the idea has been suspended and should be ranked in what I notice a newspaper called the other day the provisional murders rate list.


That may be so, my Lords, but the noble Lord has not answered my question. From his great knowledge of town and country planning—which is far greater than I can ever hope to have—he will know that once one has taken a certain line out of a plan and has substituted another line, there must be a further public inquiry. Therefore, the Government now intend that there should be another public inquiry, which I believe will be the third or the fourth. If past history is any guide to future progress, I suspect that this will delay the whole matter for another ten years.

I agree with the noble Lord—and this was the illuminating part of the Statement which he made—that this should not prevent the development of the St. Ebbe's area of Oxford. There was nothing to prevent that development twenty-five years ago if the City Council had sufficient intelligence—which they never have had, because they set their hearts on having a road through Christ Church Meadow.


My Lords, may I first declare my interest? I was educated at New College, and therefore I am against my noble friends who were educated at Christ Church. Having said that, and having had something to do with this dispute in the past, I would say now that it has gone on much too long, and it is disgraceful that all the various interests at Oxford should have prevented a sensible solution to the traffic situation. May I suggest to the Government that they have no more inquiries, but that they tell the Minister to get on with it and decide it, I have confidence in that because he, too, was educated at New College.


My Lords, I would not seek to add to the list of persons in whom the noble Lord may have confidence on that account, but I entirely agree with what he says, as does my right honourable friend. I think that my right honourable friend's proper and legitimate impatience about the matter appeared from the Statement which I read. It is on that account that he is allowing the St. Ebbe's proposals, which are very extensive, to begin. There is also a provision about a road through St. Ebbe's which is timed for the next year or two, and I hope that the arrangement about St. Ebbe's will allow the authorities concerned to proceed with some very urgent work there and that that will provide the measure of relief—and I agree that it is only a measure—which my right honourable friend the Minister anticipates.

As for the merits of the matter, may I suggest again that there are acute differences of opinion about this? They involve certain comparisons of incomparables, as is usual in matters of these kinds, and I am sure we cannot discuss them now; it would be much better to find some other opportunity. I have not tried to avoid any question. If I have not answered everything, it is because it is occasionally difficult to differentiate between questions and arguments.


My Lords, I feel that the House will want to debate this matter on some occasion, but at the moment we seem to be engaged among ourselves in a dispute almost as long as the dispute over the road itself. As one who was educated at New College but who was a don at Christ Church, may I say that in this matter I think we have gone about as far as we can this afternoon.


My Lords, my noble friend Lord Eccles referred to my interest, and he rightly reminded us that both the Minister and he himself were at New College. I would remind my noble friend that the present Minister is probably more sympathetic to interests at Christ Church than was my noble friend.