HL Deb 29 January 1969 vol 298 cc1163-7

2.35 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

[The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government why the Borough Council of Chipping Norton has been permitted to demolish certain houses in New Street and the Market Place.]


My Lords, I apologise to the House for the length of the Answer I shall give. Oxfordshire County Council, with the support of Chipping Norton Borough Council, want to widen New Street at its junction with Market Place, because a relief road to take through-traffic, which is the ultimate solution for Chipping Norton's traffic problems, cannot be ready for some years, and in the meantime there is a danger to pedestrians. But this corner is a pleasant part of the townscape, although only one of the houses to be demolished is listed as being of special architectural or historic interest. The question thus arose whether it would be right for my right honourable friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government to use his ministerial powers to interfere with the actions of local government in this matter.

In considering this, he had to have regard to the intentions of the Oxfordshire County Council. They had not at first any plan for the conservation of Chipping Norton. My right honourable friend waited, before deciding whether to intervene over these houses, until the County Council stated, as they have now done, their intention of undertaking a proper conservation study of Chipping Norton this year. My right honourable friend has accordingly decided not to intervene. In the letter sent to the County Council on January 2, 1969, of which I am sending the noble Lord a copy, my right honourable friend noted the readiness of the County Council to undertake the study, and he has asked that in any redevelopment consequent upon the widening, special care should be taken to preserve the character of this historic Cotswold town.


My Lords, would not my noble friend think it desirable that the Minister should have the results of these studies available before making up his mind?


My Lords, I think there is no question that the Oxfordshire County Council are capable of doing a good study, and once they had begun it that seemed to my right honourable friend to be sufficient. The House should bear in mind that there is a concrete day-by-day risk to pedestrians, particularly for women with prams, on account of the very narrow pavement.


My Lords, would it not be more logical to have the study of the town undertaken before the demolition of houses takes place, rather than to demolish the houses before the survey? Is not this a classical example of stealing the horse before the stable door is closed?


My Lords, it might be more logical in a perfect world, but it was never suggested that such a study could be completed before a decision was taken on this particular road-widening. I would remind the noble Lord that the houses have been empty for some years and are deteriorating, and we were not prepared to face the risk of a serious accident while waiting for the completion of the study.


My Lords, the noble Lord referred to the risk of a serious accident. Has there been any accident there—because this situation has existed for at least fifty years, has it not?


My Lords, I understand that there has not been a serious accident on that hilly corner, but I would point out that traffic has increased somewhat in the last fifty years. Personally, I would not be prepared to undertake the responsibility for the prolongation of such a situation until there was an accident before taking action.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that there is intense local feeling on this matter? Would not the Government be prepared to advise that the only proper solution is to complete the by-passing of Chipping Norton, especially where the through-road from Oxford to Worcester is concerned?


My Lords, as I said in my original reply, that is the only proper solution; but unfortunately it is a somewhat long-term solution and in the meantime the risk was unacceptable.


My Lords, on the question of traffic accidents, may I ask the noble Lord whether he is aware that over the last six years there have been three slight accidents—that is, one slight accident for every two years?


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Viscount for his intervention. I did say that there had been no serious accidents.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that in the view of many traffic experts the widening of this road is likely to increase rather than diminish the risk of accidents? Secondly, may I ask him this question: Did not the Royal Fine Art Commission, as long ago as 1967, advise all the authorities concerned that the historic core of this town should not be the subject of such alteration until at least a long-term plan for the town centre and its conservation had been prepared? Does the noble Lord appreciate that what is now being done is entirely contrary to the views of the Royal Fine Art Commission?


My Lords, I was not aware that traffic experts had held that this widening would increase the risk. Such was not the view of the highways authority responsible for the avoidance of accidents. On the second question, of course it is desirable that nothing should be touched in any of our historic towns until a full plan has beer drawn up for the preservation of that town but, unfortunately, in the real world planning authorities have to take things in order and I, for one, am glad that they are taking Chipping Norton this year.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether, in view of the opinions expressed in all parts of the House by all Parties, he will consider reviewing the situation again?


My Lords, I will bring the views expressed by noble Lords to the attention of my right honourable friend, but, as I said in my original Answer, he has conveyed to the County Council the fact that he will not be intervening in their decision on the matter.


My Lords, could the noble Lord give a few or more details about the study to be undertaken? Is it to be done by an outside body or by people connected with the Oxfordshire County Council?


My Lords, it is to be undertaken by the Oxfordshire County Council. I expect that it will be in a form something like the study of Witney, no doubt known to the noble Duke, which the Council have already undertaken.


My Lords, although only one house in this row is distinguished architecturally, surely the other houses are distinguished by the fact that they are occupied by people. Would the Ministry of Housing and Local Government try to persuade the Ministry of Transport that towns are really for living in and not for driving through; and will the Government try to avoid subsidising the tearing out of the middle of towns for the speeding of through-traffic?


My Lords, the houses in question are not actually occupied by people: they are standing empty and are semi-derelict. On the general question, I have the greatest sympathy with what my noble friend said, and so, I know, does the Minister of Transport. But while we wait for the by-pass —we must wait occasionally for bypasses—it is sometimes necessary to undertake small demolitions for the sake of safety, even in pretty old towns like Chipping Norton.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that, according to the Oxfordshire County Council themselves, 80 per cent. of the 7,000 vehicles a day passing through this town constitute through-traffic? Does he not realise that to enable them to travel a little faster through a part of this town will do nothing but bring destruction, without increasing public safety?


My Lords, we have had a good long talk about this matter now. I do not think that this action will enable traffic to travel any faster. This is a right-angle bend and we are just widening it, above all in the interests of pedestrians.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that there is good opinion that this will not help the traffic situation in Chipping Norton? There will remain bottlenecks on approaches to the town from all sides.


My Lords, at the risk of being tedious, I should emphasise once again that this is being done not to speed through-traffic but to avoid a concrete risk to life and limb of pedestrians, especially women with prams, on the extremely narrow pavements.

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