Orders of the Day — Road Communications, South-West

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 14th December 1964.

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

10.21 p.m.

Photo of Mr Peter Bessell Mr Peter Bessell , Bodmin

It is recognised by almost everyone that there is no hope of achieving prosperity in the West Country on anything like the scale which is enjoyed by the inhabitants of the South-East, the Midlands and the North until there are good road communications to the South-West from those areas. If anyone is in doubt about conditions in the South-West, the current unemployment figures must remove those doubts. It may be appropriate to quote them at the outset so that the House will appreciate the urgency of the project which we are about to debate.

The figures published on 9th November were as follows: national unemployment, 1·5 per cent.; the South-West, that is to say, Gloucester, Somerset, Dorset, Wiltshire, Devon and Cornwall, 1·7 per cent.; Devon and Cornwall only, 3·1 per cent.; Devon only, 2·7 per cent.; Cornwall only, 4·2 per cent. In short, the further west we travel, the more acute the problem becomes.

In Cornwall there is a much more damaging feature than these figures reveal, namely, depopulation. During the past 100 years the population of Cornwall has remained almost static. I have an old hunting map in my office which shows the population of Cornwall in 1870 as 339,000. The figure today is 339,000.

A third factor is the comparatively low wage standards and the fear of losing permanent employment, a possibility which is a source of constant anxiety to a large proportion of the working population. I know myself of instances of skilled workers who are earning little more than £10 a week for a 40-hour week and who are compelled to work long overtime hours in order to take home sufficient money for the necessities of life.

In this age of prosperity this situation cannot be allowed to continue and the only hope of cure lies in a network of fast roads to the South-West which will provide a new incentive for light industrial development of the kind which will not disturb the natural beauty of Devon and Cornwall. Furthermore, the tourist season, upon which so much of the economy of the two counties depends, is being gravely hampered by bad roads to the South-West. We are all familiar with stories of holiday traffic jams around Honiton and Exeter, for they are recounted with monotonous regularity through the period June to September on radio, television and in the Press. What is less often told is the story of traffic moving sluggishly for hours on end on either side of Honiton and Exeter and extending as far as Andover in the east, Bristol in the north and Penzance or Land's End in the south-west.

Knowledge of these conditions has also deterred many British light industries from moving to the West Country. Equally, it has prevented overseas investment. During the past seven years, I have on four occasions managed to interest American and Canadian industrialists in setting up industries in Cornwall to the extent of persuading them to visit the Duchy where development land and a first-class labour force are readily available. In each case they have turned down the area because of the cost of transporting the finished goods to the centres where they will be sold to the home market or exported.

In one case an American corporation made arrangements on the Continent of Europe whereby we lost a very useful export industry. Another has located its plant in London. In a third case no final decision has been reached by the American directors. In the fourth instance, two small factories were built in Cornwall, but only because a group of West Country business men, including my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe) and myself, were prepared to put up 50 per cent. of the capital on condition that the factories were located in the West Country. Our experience has shown that the cost of transportation is as high as these and other potential investors and developers feared.

I will not dwell on the past tonight, or attempt to apportion blame for this condition of things. I hope that this can be a constructive debate unmarred by attempts to make party points. Equally, I recognise that it is not realistic to ask the Government to embark on a massive road-building scheme, including two additional motorways, at a time when the national economy is stretched very near its limit. Another point, though, which should be borne in mind is the Government's avowed intention to take steps to relieve pressure in the South-East and to spread industry and employment to other areas. The South-West is an ideal reception area for this redistribution, but it is no more than a pipe dream until the road conditions have been created which will make this possible.

On 24th February this year, the former Minister of Transport issued a statement on road improvements in the South-West, the main point being that a promise was given that a survey is to be made for a new dual carriageway road from the M.5 motorway terminus at East Brent to the proposed Exeter outer bypass; secondly, that work and surveys were in hand for improvements to the A.38 between Exeter and Plymouth to make this a dual carriageway. The former Minister made it clear that he considered that the main arterial road should follow a line from Bristol via Taunton and Exeter to Plymouth, or roughly that of the A.38 via the Tamar Bridge and thence Penzance. I have no quarrel with that, for it would effectively link the South-West with the national motorway network and provide a faster route between Cornwall and London than the most popular ones at the moment, namely, the A.38 to Exeter, the A.30 to east of Honiton and either the A.303 or the A.30 to Staines and London.

It is not often realised that the route to London via Honiton, Shepton Mallet and Bath and then to London via the A.4 is less than 10 miles longer than the conventional routes which I have mentioned. Therefore, by regarding the A.38 as the line to be followed, traffic to and from London via the new M.4 as well as to and from the Midlands and North-West might be adequately served. Ideally, of course there should be a motorway direct from Staines to Exeter converging with another from East Brent to Exeter and thereon to Plymouth and through to the far West. However, that is something for the future, and it is my anxiety tonight to remain within the limits of what is possible.

I have only one complaint regarding the former Minister's proposals, and it is that a dual carriageway between East Brent and Exeter and Plymouth will barely meet the current demand and will be obsolete at the present rate of traffic growth within 10 years, and he did not give at that time a specific promise of a motorway. It is clear that this should be constructed as a motorway now, for it is true to say that an all-purpose dual carriageway will be far more expensive to convert to a motorway later.

It is also important to realise that, apart from works costing above £2 million, which provide a total of an additional seven miles of dual carriageway between Exeter and Plymouth—a distance of 43 miles with very little dual carriageway at present—to be completed by the end of 1965, there was no undertaking of any kind whatsoever as to when work would commence on the main construction work of making this a dual carriageway for its whole distance. Nor was any undertaking given as to when work would begin on the new road from East Brent to Exeter.

The statement of the former Minister gave several undertakings as far as surveys were concerned, and what is needed now is an undertaking that those surveys will be acted upon as quickly as they are completed, together with some indication as to when this is likely to be.

Before putting four specific questions to the Parliamentary Secretary, I should like to make one further point. I have concentrated tonight upon the A.38 chiefly because of the economic considerations, but also because this route will serve the highly developed resort areas of South Devon as well as Plymouth, South-East Cornwall and the whole of Cornwall to the west of Bodmin. Nevertheless, it would be folly not to develop the A.30 from Exeter to Launceston and Bodmin via Okehampton. If this is not done simultaneously with the redevelopment of the A.38, I believe that the tendency will be for a large area of North Devon and North Cornwall to be completely neglected. Conditions in those areas might be worsened, because there would be natural migration of existing industry towards the new arterial road and it would have the effect of destroying hope of future development in this large sector of Devon and Cornwall.

These, then, as I see it, are the four realistic requests—no, pleas—which I make to the Joint Parliamentary Secretary tonight and on which, I believe, every hon. Member representing constituencies in Devon and Cornwall will hope to receive assurances, although I cannot see that many of them are present. First, will the Joint Parliamentary Secretary undertake that his right hon. Friend the Minister will re-examine the proposals for a new dual-carriageway road from the East Brent spur to Exeter, with a view to ensuring that this stretch will form a motorway from the outset? Can he say whether work will be commenced upon it as soon as the survey is completed?

Secondly, will the hon. Gentleman give an undertaking that expenditure will be authorised for making the whole of the A.38 into a dual carriageway from Exeter to Plymouth immediately the surveys are completed? Thirdly, will he undertake to have a survey made of the A.30 between Exeter and Launceston with a view to putting work in hand on that road simultaneously with the reconstruction of the A.38 between Exeter and Plymouth?

Finally, will the Joint Parliamentary Secretary undertake to treat the whole problem of road communication to the South-West as a matter of extreme urgency and not to wait upon the report of the proposed economic regional planning council for the South-West, as, clearly, massive evidence is available as to the need and the most suitable routes which has not, to my knowledge, been contradicted by any responsible person or authority?

Had time permitted, I should have liked to couple with my remarks observations on rail closures and civil airports in the South-West, for it is difficult to discuss one aspect of transport alone. I should like also to have touched upon other vital road improvements in Cornwall, about which the minds of many people, including myself, are greatly exercised.

Nevertheless, I have felt it wise tonight to confine myself to the matters of greatest need in the hope and belief that no Minister of Transport can fail to give satisfactory replies to the points I have raised if his Government have a genuine concern for the future of Devon and Cornwall. By keeping within the bounds of reality, I have asked for no more than the necessities of existence for the people of south-western England and the facilities which would offer real hope for the future development and prosperity of Devon and Cornwall.

10.33 p.m.

Photo of Mr Edward Du Cann Mr Edward Du Cann , Taunton

I am glad to speak extremely briefly in support of what the hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. Bessell) has said. I know that the hon. Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Wilkins) also wishes to intervene and I shall be short. Many of us, on the back benches and from other places, have acted together in an endeavour to impress upon Governments in the past our points of view and it is very pleasant that, in an all-party sense, we should be doing the same tonight.

There is no doubt that progress has been made, as the hon. Member for Bodmin in his wholly admirable speech has said. Progress is being made down the A.38 west of Exeter and now we have the survey for the new road between East Brent and Exeter. That is all very good. There is, however, one thing that I want quickly to say to the Joint Parliamentary Secretary in his new appointment. All of us who have had the responsibility of negotiating one way or another with the Ministry of Transport over the years believe that the Department thoroughly and totally misunderstands our problem in the West. The Ministry thinks that it is a holiday problem only. Believe me, that is not so. The kind of volume of traffic which we now get on A38 during the winter months is equivalent to the volume of summer traffic that we were getting just a few years ago.

In sum, I warmly endorse the four requests made by the hon. Member for Bodmin and I hope that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will be able, in general, to give us an assurance tonight that the sort of progress that we began—which in my opinion was not enough but which, it is vital, should continue to be made for the economic health of the South-West—will continue under the new Administration.

10.35 p.m.

Photo of Mr William Wilkins Mr William Wilkins , Bristol South

I shall take only two minutes—I have been advised to take only one—to support the plea of the hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. Bessell). This is almost a hardy annual now, and every new Member from a constituency in the South-West raises it, including the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann). I rise because although, as I say, I support the plea, and I know there is great need for road improvement—dual carriageways, and so on—down to the South-West, I have one reservation. I am coming more and more to the conclusion—and I believe that the Ministry of Transport will have to face this as a probable question of priorities—that the problem arises in what I call the bottlenecks on the roads at places such as Highbridge and towns such as Taunton, down to Exeter, and that the major problem of keeping the traffic moving is to find a way to pass the traffic rapidly either through or around the towns. This is, I believe, the first priority, before we think of dual carriageways, such as have been mentioned.

I should like to make a long speech on this matter and on the need to give far more attention to the needs of the South-West, and the A.38 in particular, than has been done in the past. This last summer, I remind my hon. Friend, at Exeter, where there is the lengthy by-pass, which it was thought would solve all our road traffic problems, there were the biggest hold ups ever—12 miles of them, or even longer, at certain times. I hope that, as we are letting my hon. Friend off very lightly tonight, he will give serious attention to our needs.

10.36 p.m.

Photo of Mr Stephen Swingler Mr Stephen Swingler , Newcastle-under-Lyme

My hon. Friend may think that he is letting me off lightly, but I think one can be a little too generous on the Adjournment, and as I have let three hon. Members get into the debate, they must realise that with the time factor this makes things a little difficult.

If the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) thinks that because under his Government things in the South-west were to be treated as simply a tourist problem, that is to continue under the present Govern- ment,he has another think coming, because we are taking action straight away to deal with this problem. One of the actions was announced by the Secretary of State for Economic Affairs last week. We are establishing a regional planning board, whose job it will be to look into some of the problems quite rightly mentioned by the hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. Bessell), as unemployment, and the need for development in the part of the country he represents. That will be a part of the job to be undertaken by the board and the regional planning council.

I say straight away that so far as we are concerned we accept and support the regional survey which was commissioned in June, 1964, by a joint committee of the interested local authorities, the four western counties of Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and Somerset, and the county boroughs of Exeter and Plymouth. We shall endeavour to carry out the message of the committee's report when it is received. I understand that that report for this survey mentioned by the hon. Member for Bodmin will be ready by the end of next February. Obviously the information it contains will be of considerable use to the South-West Regional Planning Board and Council, when these have been set up, which will happen very shortly. I want to assure the House and the hon. Gentleman that our road plans for the South-West are not being held up in any way by this survey or by the establishment of the machinery for regional planning, but that they will go ahead.

I shall do my best in the short time available to answer specific points the hon. Gentleman raised. As he has said, and is generally agreed, the improvement of the A.38 must be first priority for the region. The motorway network planned so far will extend into the South-West region as far as East Brent on the A.38 in Somerset. That is planned as the terminal point of the M.5 motorway, a motorway which at present is only open for a 26-miles stretch leading south from Birmingham, but which will be by the early 'seventies with the London-South Wales motorway, the M.4, the main route to the South-West both from the Midlands and from the London area and eastern England. Incidentally, when the hon. Gentleman talks about a motorway from London to the South-West, he must not overlook the fact that there is to be a motorway from London to Basingstoke, about which an announcement was made very recently.

South of East Brent we are well aware that the existing A.38 is inadequate, and my Department has started work to determine the best means of bringing the 50-mile stretch between East Brent and Exeter up to a decent standard. A survey is now in progress to determine the line of a new road here, including its design and the necessary statutory orders, to replace the existing A.38. This will solve the problem of by-passing the main towns on this stretch of the A.38. The new road will include the £2 million by-pass of Cullompton, due to start in 1965.

I cannot say tonight whether the new road will be built as a continuation of the motorway, or whether it will be built as an all-purpose road to broadly equivalent standards. I emphasise "broadly equivalent standards". It will be of the standard of a motorway, but whether it will have the prohibitions and so on that are necessary for motorways has not yet been decided. We will have to decide that on the basis of the initial results of the survey now going on.

The Cullompton by-pass will be built with full "grade-separation"—that is, fly-overs and under-passes where it crosses other roads, and space necessary for hard shoulders so that it can easily be incorporated should it subsequently be decided to build the whole road as a motorway.

Tonight I cannot make any firm commitment as to the precise date for the start of the construction of this, but the start of the survey is an important step forward, and we can be reasonably sure that this new road will be started in the early 'seventies. So much for the A.38 as far as Exeter.

I turn now to what the hon. Gentleman has to say about the area south-west of Exeter. The A.38 here is less heavily loaded with traffic, and there is at the moment no proposal for constructing a motorway. However, we are conscious of the fact that the A.38 is inadequate between Exeter and Plymouth, and as an immediate measure more than £2 million is being spent on improvements to this stretch of road. The improvements which we are carrying out are those which can be carried out quickly without the need for statutory orders. Most of this work is in hand and will be completed in the next two years, and there will then be a total of about 7 miles of dual carriageway between Exeter and Plymouth.

Further ahead, we already have in the programme for 1967–68 a 3½ mile long by-pass for Plympton, just east of Plymouth, and the Devon County Council, as the agent authority, is now undertaking surveys to establish the line of the road where other by-passes are required, notably at Chudleigh and Ivy-bridge. Our aim is to bring the A.38 between Exeter and Plymouth wholly up to dual carriageway standard, and these plans cover everything that can be done physically on the A.38 in the short term and provide the essential basis for whatever longer term programme of work may be considered possible in the near future.

I turn now to the other main trunk road west of Exeter, mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, the A.30. He asked whether the Minister would authorise expenditure for the widening and improvement of the A.30 between Exeter and Launceston. As the hon. Gentleman knows, this road is not so heavily trafficked as the A.38, but we recognise that it provides an alternative route to Bodmin, and the hon. Gentleman therefore has a great interest in the road. The plan for this stretch of road is to carry out improvements progressively at the points where they are most needed. Schemes for widening and re-aligning this road at Whiddon Down and Ramsley Hill costing about £106,000 altogether are already in progress, and other schemes will be started as soon as entry to the land can be obtained. Further schemes will be added year by year as the funds become available.

These, then, are our plans for major improvements to the roads to which the hon. Member has drawn attention this evening. He will appreciate that this Administration have had only a short time in which to survey the situation, and we do not expect that these plans will seem adequate to all hon. Members who are concerned with this part of the world. I am afraid that there is hardly a Member of the House who feels that enough is being spent on the roads in his constituency at the moment. The fact is that the road programme is not large enough to bring our roads up to modern standards as quickly as we would wish. But I must point out to the House that the scale of the road programme is effectively limited now, as before, by other urgent claims on the resources for public investment, especially new construction, housing, hospitals, schools, and similar projects. At the moment the road programme is absorbing about 14 per cent. of total public service investment, compared with only 3 per cent. nine years ago. For the next five years public investment on the main roads of England and Wales will exceed £1,000 million. This is already committed.

Even this scale of expenditure, however, will certainly not suffice to carry out more than the most urgently needed schemes in all parts of the country. We are therefore compelled to operate a system of national priorities and choose those schemes—on the basis of the information we have from all over the country—which will give relief to the roads where conditions are worst. In this connection, the establishment of the regional planning councils and regional planning boards will, I hope, assist us considerably in getting our priorities right and ensuring that all parts of the country are considered in a balanced way.

Certainly proposals for improvements to roads in the South-West will be treated on this basis, and we will allocate as much money as we can to this region, having regard to its needs in relation to those of other parts of the country.

Photo of Mr Edward Du Cann Mr Edward Du Cann , Taunton

I am sure we all appreciate the fair way in which the Minister is putting the general point for the whole country. He will appreciate that we appreciate that many of the plans and works in the South-West to which he has referred were introduced by the previous Administration. We appreciate, too, that he requires time to look at the matter, but will he appreciate the single point that many of us feel that, party considerations apart——

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

Order. This is becoming too much like a second speech.

Photo of Mr Edward Du Cann Mr Edward Du Cann , Taunton

Many of us feel that the West has not had a square deal. Will the Minister continue to bear that point in mind?

Photo of Mr Stephen Swingler Mr Stephen Swingler , Newcastle-under-Lyme

The right hon. Gentleman should not speak too much and too long about the deficiencies that we have inherited from the Administration which was in power for 13 years. We have been in power for only a short time in which to survey the situation and to undertake some reorganisation, and already, as I have said, we are introducing new machinery of regional planning in order precisely to find out the facts and create a better balance all over the country, so as to relate the roads programme more to the needs of employment and development of the regions. This machinery is not yet in operation, but I feel certain that when the surveys have been done and these planning boards are in operation we shall achieve better results.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes to Eleven o'clock.