Preston by-Pass (Closure)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 28 January 1959.

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Photo of Mr Thomas Brown Mr Thomas Brown , Ince 12:00, 28 January 1959

Mr. Speaker seeing that Question Time has elapsed, I desire to ask your guidance on a matter of vital—

Photo of Mr William Williams Mr William Williams , Manchester Openshaw

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I thought that as you were looking in my direction for a supplementary question, Question Time was not quite over.

Photo of Mr William Morrison Mr William Morrison , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

I looked in the hon. Member's direction, but I directed my voice to the hon. Member for Ince (Mr. Brown).

Photo of Mr Thomas Brown Mr Thomas Brown , Ince

I want to ask a very important question about a matter that is causing grave concern in the County of Lancaster, and about which there are Questions on the Order Paper. Is the Minister of Transport prepared to make a statement about the collapse of the Preston by-pass?

Photo of Mr William Morrison Mr William Morrison , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

But for the hon. Member's intervention, I would, by now, have called on the right hon. Gentleman to answer Question No. 54, and other Questions that deal with this matter.

The following Questions stood upon the Order Paper:

Photo of Mr Charles Howell Mr Charles Howell , Birmingham, Perry Barr

To ask the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation what damage has been done to the new Preston by-pass during the recent bad weather; what will be the cost of repairs: and if he will make a statement.


TO ask the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation when it is anticipated the Preston by-pass will be reopened; and if he will institute an inquiry into the cause of the deterioration in the motorway which required its closure so soon after its opening.

Photo of Mr Jo Grimond Mr Jo Grimond , Orkney and Shetland

To ask the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation if he will make a statement on the closing of M6, the Preston by-pass; how long it is likely to be closed; and how much the repairs are estimated to cost.


To ask the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation if he will make a statement on the result of his investigation into the closing of the Preston motorway.

Photo of Mr Eric Johnson Mr Eric Johnson , Manchester, Blackley

TO ask the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation if he has considered the report made to him on the damage caused by frost to the Preston by-pass; and if he will make a statement.

Photo of Mr George Strauss Mr George Strauss , Lambeth Vauxhall

TO ask the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation whether he has yet received the report on the broken surface patches that have developed on the Preston motorway; and if he will make a statement.

Photo of Mr John Peyton Mr John Peyton , Yeovil

TO ask the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation if he will make a statement on the causes and extent of the damage to the Preston motorway.

Photo of Mr Thomas Brown Mr Thomas Brown , Ince

To ask the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation why the Preston by-pass road, which cost the nation approximately £4,000,000, collapsed within 47 days of its coming into use; whether he is satisfied that the specifications were carried out strictly; and if he will make a statement as soon as possible.

Photo of Mr Harold Watkinson Mr Harold Watkinson , Woking

With permission, Sir, I will now answer Question Nos. 54, 57, 58, 62, 65, 68, 76 and 81 together.

The construction of the Preston bypass was carried out by the Lancashire County Council, acting as the Ministry's agent, to a design which was approved by my engineers. On 20th January frost damage was found to have affected about 1 per cent, of the carriageway surface. Closure would not normally have taken place, but, taking account of the height of the embankments and the high speeds permissible on this motorway, the road was temporarily closed on the advice of the Lancashire County Police.

I immediately instructed the technical and administrative officers concerned in the Department to review the position and I have also seen the agent authority I am circulating in the OFFICIAL REPORT a note summarising the advice that I have received.

The immediate cause of the trouble is an excess moisture content under portions of the road's surface. Possible causes and methods of dealing with this situation are set out in the note referred to.

The type of construction employed has been used with complete success on many occasions elsewhere. The rate of construction and completion dates for the road were a matter for the agent authority, but I want to make it quite plain that I fully support it in the course which it pursued.

Any lessons to be learnt from this experience are being studied urgently. Repairs are being carried out as quickly as possible, but the date when the road can be reopened to traffic depends entirely on weather conditions from now on.

Photo of Mr Thomas Brown Mr Thomas Brown , Ince

I have two questions to ask, Sir. First, is it true that in November and December, 1957, a report was sent to the right hon. Gentleman's Department complaining about the mixing of the aggregate for the lower stratum of ballast put into the roadway? Secondly, what truth is there in the statement that appeared in the Press on 23rd January to the effect that officials at Whitehall—I believe in the Minister's Department—issued instructions to the Lancashire County Council—and I have a copy of them here—to adopt a policy of "hush-hush" and "do not give any information to the people who are making inquiries"?

Photo of Mr Harold Watkinson Mr Harold Watkinson , Woking

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman was foiled before.

No discussions took place with the Department on the aggregate, shale or anything else used in the road—in the sense of it being wrong or imperfect. Naturally, discussions took place in 1954 and 1955, when the road was first projected. I want to make it quite plain that as far as my present researches have gone—and they have been very extensive—I see no reason to impute any blame to anybody at all. I think that both the county council and the contractors did their best in very difficult weather conditions.

As to the second part of the hon. Gentleman's question, I do not know what document it is that he refers to, but no instructions have been issued by the Ministry to the county council at all

Photo of Mr Eric Johnson Mr Eric Johnson , Manchester, Blackley

Is it not the fact that this type of frost damage that has occurred on the Preston by-pass is something commonly experienced on motor roads in Germany in every single year?

Photo of Mr Harold Watkinson Mr Harold Watkinson , Woking

That is so. Both the autobahnen and the Alaska Highway, to give two examples, have been extensively damaged by frost. In fairness to the county council, which is the agent in this matter—and which, incidentally, should have an interest to hon. Members opposite, perhaps, more than to me—I should say that this is an extremely minor piece of damage. Similar damage has occurred on other roads during these recent keen frosts and, rather naturally, no notice whatever taken of it.

Photo of Mr George Strauss Mr George Strauss , Lambeth Vauxhall

Is the Minister aware that the House and the country have been profoundly shocked by this occurrence? It may well be that no one is specifically to blame, but in view of the recent opening of the road, with all its surrounding circumstances, it really is essential that there should be a proper, independent inquiry as to the cause of this trouble, because it may be that the technicians of the Department, or the county council, or the other people involved who are reporting to him were themselves responsible.

Therefore, will the right hon. Gentleman set up an independent inquiry to find out who, if anyone, was responsible for this? Can the right hon. Gentleman also tell us the approximate cost of repairing the failure? Thirdly, can we have an assurance that similar difficulties will not arise in the building of the London-Birmingham motorway?

Photo of Mr Harold Watkinson Mr Harold Watkinson , Woking

As to the general tenor of the right hon. Gentleman's question, he had better read the report that I shall circulate. It is quite factual, and certainly does not call for any form of public inquiry. The London-Birmingham motorway is, in any case, being constructed to quite a different specification, but with every motorway—and I wish to make this quite plain—or any other road, if the work is to be pushed forward, as it is the country's wish that it should be, in difficult conditions, some problems are bound to arise. All I say is that because the Lancashire County Council pushed forward with the work I entirely support what it did. If it ran some slight risks, I think that it was fully justified in doing so.

Photo of Mr George Strauss Mr George Strauss , Lambeth Vauxhall

It has been alleged in the Press, and statements have been made by the contractors and other people—I do not know with what truth—that this trouble would not have arisen had it not been for the fact that the work was pushed on unduly, employing systems that were slighly cheaper—false economy. Further, can the Minister say whether the report was, in fact, drawn up by the people who were responsible for the making of the road?

Photo of Mr Harold Watkinson Mr Harold Watkinson , Woking

I am very glad that the right hon. Gentleman raised his first point, because I think it is very important. It is most important to make it clear that at all times all the relevant dates—the five months' extension of the completion date—were decided freely by the Lancashire County Council in its own right, as agent, and without consultation with the Ministry. All I say is that I fully support the county council, because I think that it was right to press on, despite the difficulties.

As to the second point, whether cheap forms of construction were used, the Ministry was deeply concerned in discussing the method of construction fully with Lancashire County Council, as I have said, as far back as 1954, because this road needs an embankment 60 ft. high in places, and there must be some contingent risk of settlement. So a flexible form of construction was agreed by all the parties concerned to be the right one.

I think that the last point the right hon. Gentleman made was about the people who have reported. Well, I have seen everybody who is concerned with the road, a very large number of people. As I say, the report I am circulating is purely factual. In my view, it sets out the position quite clearly, and it does not in any sense call for any form of public inquiry.

Photo of Mr John Peyton Mr John Peyton , Yeovil

Does my right hon. Friend realise that a great many people will feel great sympathy with him in what is undoubtedly a big personal disappointment? Does he also realise that the fuller and franker the disclosure made of any facts now revealed by his subsequent inquiry the more confidence will be restored?

Photo of Mr Harold Watkinson Mr Harold Watkinson , Woking

I can admit to disappointment, but not to dismay, because, as I said, I do think that if we are to have a road programme which is pressed on in the kind of climate we have in Britain we must not be dismayed if, occasionally, we meet difficulties. Indeed, they must be a challenge to press on.

Photo of Mr Jo Grimond Mr Jo Grimond , Orkney and Shetland

However often we hear the Government's view that frost is something un-British, and that it should not matter if the country has to suffer from the results of frost, may I ask whether this inquiry will investigate the general principles of road building, because in all parts of the country we suffer a great deal of damage annually from frost on the roads? Will it, for instance, take into account that we should be justified in spending extra money on roads of concrete, apart from the particular problem of this by-pass?

Photo of Mr Harold Watkinson Mr Harold Watkinson , Woking

I think that the hon. Gentleman had better read the report, which sets out all these facts quite factually. It shows quite clearly, as I said before, that no blame rests on those who built this road, except, as I say, that they pressed forward in extreme difficulties, perhaps taking a slight risk. In that, as I have said, they have my full support.

Photo of Mrs Barbara Castle Mrs Barbara Castle , Blackburn

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that in the Blackburn Evening Telegraph of 23rd January the chairman of Lancashire County Council went publicly on record to the effect that the county surveyor, Mr. Drake, told the Ministry that, because of the nature of the soil and the settlement that was bound to take place, rather more drainage should be put in on the motorway than was usual and that the Ministry did not see that point? It says that the county surveyor emphasised that the Ministry was taking an undue risk. In view of this very serious allegation, and other suggestions that there has been political pressure by the Minister to speed ahead unwisely, ought there not to be an independent inquiry so that we can see that the mistakes are not repeated elsewhere?

Photo of Mr Harold Watkinson Mr Harold Watkinson , Woking

I understand that the chairman of Lancashire County Council was reported in later editions of the newspapers as saying that he was not correctly reported in that statement. However, be that as it may, I have seen him this morning, and Mr. Drake, the chief engineer, and I am quite satisfied that no discussions took place with the Ministry specifically about extra drainage since 1954 when the general question of drainage was discussed between the Ministry and Lancashire; and that was a year and a half before the road itself was even authorised.

As to the second point, the date fixed by Lancashire for completion of this road was November. The opening ceremony took place in December. Therefore, there was certainly no pressure on Lancashire.

Photo of Mr Ernest Davies Mr Ernest Davies , Enfield East

The Minister keeps saying that no consultations took place with his Ministry. Is it not a fact that, first, he stated that Lancashire County Council acts as agent to the Ministry, and, secondly, that there are Ministry representatives who supervise construction of the road and that there is constant contact between the Ministry officials on the spot and the Lancashire County Council? Surely there must have been some miscalculation somewhere. New drains are now being put in, we understand. It is quite clear that there has been miscalculation on the specifications in this case. That being so, are not my right hon. and hon. Friends justified in pressing for an independent inquiry?

Photo of Mr Harold Watkinson Mr Harold Watkinson , Woking

I do not think the hon. Gentleman has quite studied the proper relationships, which are set out in the Trunk Roads Act. Under that Act the local authority selected by the Ministry as agent becomes the operating authority for the road and is fully empowered to take all decisions about all matters, once specifications are settled and contract terms are agreed. Of course, the Ministry's local divisional road engineer keeps an eye on the job and helps wherever he can, but he has, perhaps, several counties to look after, and he is in no sense the agent for building the road.

As to the general issue, hon. Members had better study the extremely factual report, which has been seen by all concerned, and is a factual record of the position. If they will judge it impartially they will see that what I have said about it is absolutely correct, that no blame imputes to anybody, except, perhaps, to the weather—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]—and that no public inquiry is justified.

Several Hon. Members:


Photo of Mr William Morrison Mr William Morrison , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

Order. Hon. Members ought to look at the answer which is to be circulated.

Photo of Sir Arthur Harvey Sir Arthur Harvey , Macclesfield

On a point of order. The hon. Member for Ince (Mr. T. Brown), in the process of asking his supplementary question, referred to a document. In fairness to hon. Members on this side of the House, ought not that document to be laid on the Table so that we can see what it contains?

Photo of Mr William Morrison Mr William Morrison , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

No mention was made, I think, of a State document of any sort.

Following is the note:

1. Origin of the projectIn June, 1955, the Lancashire County Council was invited to act as my agent for the design and preparation of contract details for the Preston By-pass.

In May, 1956, the County Council was authorised to enter into the contract for the construction of the work. Construction on the site started on 12th June, 1956, and the road was opened to traffic on 5th December, 1958.

2. Administrative and contractual arrangementsThe Lancashire County Council, as the Minister's agent authority under Section 6(1) of the Trunk Roads Act 1936, were asked to be responsible for the construction of the Preston By-pass. As agent authority they were responsible for the design of the road and for letting the contract. The Lancashire County Surveyor was the engineer under the contract and through his representatives on the site he had the duty of watching and supervising the construction of the works on behalf of the Lancashire County Council, who are the principals in the contract. The design and the specification of the scheme were approved by the Minister's engineers.

3. Carriage way designThe carriageway design is in accordance with the Department's general standard specification which includes clauses for flexible types of construction as well as for rigid, i.e. concrete, construction.It was clear from preliminary site investigation that soil conditions would be poor and care would be needed in preparing foundations. Bearing this in mind and with the high embankments required in places the County Surveyor's proposal for flexible construction was agreed. This particular form of flexible construction has been used in Lancashire since 1952 without reports of failure.The design adopted comprised a thin layer of ashes on the formation and on this a sub-base of compacted colliery shale of varying thickness dependent on the quality of the ground. The base consisted of pre-mixed water-bound macadam 9 inches thick and the surface construction was 2½ inches of tarmacadam with a temporary running surface of cold asphalt ¾ inch thick. The laying of this temporary surface was in accordance with past practice in view of the usual risk of settlement of embankment work. Flush marginal strips in concrete 12 inches wide by 12 inches deep were laid along each edge of carriageway to give support to the layers of the carriageway construction and to define the sides of the road.

4. Subsequent developmentsAs stated above, the road was completed and opened to traffic on 5th December, 1958. Severe frosts occurred early in January when temperatures as low as 27 degrees of frost were recorded. The average temperature for the first three weeks of the month was, in fact, the lowest for 47 years. Following an exceptionally rapid thaw on the night of 17th-18th January defects were observed on the 20th January on some areas of carriageway. The County Police considered conditions were dangerous for high speed traffic and it was decided, on their advice, to close the motorway on the morning of 21st January. Investigations showed that there were about 15 areas of varying size where some deformation and crazing of the surface had occurred. In a few other places there had been local disintegration in small patches. The total area affected at present is about 3,000 square yards in a total area of motorway carriageway of about 280,000 square yards.

5. Result of investigation to dateSeveral trial holes have been opened up in the damaged portions and excess moisture has been found lying in the tarmacadam base course, in the waterbound macadam and in the top of the shale from which it was seeping slowly at the edges of the carriageway. There has also been seepage from the ash layer overlaying the clay formation but it is not clear whether this is associated with the condition of the upper layers.From the preliminary investigation it appears that most of the excess moisture in the ash layer has been held in from the construction period and that the excess moisture in the upper layers was probably partly trapped during construction though some may have entered through the surface.It seems likely from a first examination, which has been hampered by further conditions of frost, that the surface defects which have occurred were due to the presence of this excess moisture in the base courses which also showed at the top of the shale. Final conclusions cannot be drawn until there has been a period of continuous thaw.

6. Remedial measuresThe first and most urgent task is to drain the places where there is excess moisture and this will be done by a system of longitudinal rubble drains along most of the length of each edge of each carriageway, connected to the existing drainage system. Provision will be made for draining the upper courses in places by cutting slots in the concrete marginal strips. This will be followed by the reinstatement of the base and surfacing where it has failed.