I want to start this debate with a very simple proposition. It is that the Greater Manchester area wants to make travel easier for its 2·7 million inhabitants. I hope that the House and the Minister will feel that this is a very simple and sensible case. I can assure the Minister that those 2·7 million inhabitants take that point of view.
In an area of 50 square miles we believe that this can be done by building an underground rail link between two main line stations—Piccadilly and Victoria. By connecting with the electric rail system at both these stations some 50 miles of fast no-change travel can be opened up right through from Bolton, Bury, Radcliffe and Prestwich in the north, to Stockport, Cheadle Hulme, Wilmslow and Alderly Edge in the south. This is the first step. Eventually an east-west route could be made connecting Altrincham and Urmston with Glossop, Marple and Hyde. I am certain that many of my hon. Friends in the constituences of the Greater Manchester area will confirm my belief that this is a very sensible approach to the problems of modern transport.
Almost two months ago the Minister for Transport wrote to the leader of the Greater Manchester Council about the project. The letter was a bitter disappointment, because it revealed that the council's allocation of transport supplementary grant and key sector borrowing powers for 1975–76 would be insufficient to allow a start to be made on the project in the coming financial year. The letter was also received with very great disappointment by the leaders of the Conservative and Liberal groups on the council.
It was disappointing not only because of the decision it contained but because it was such an inadequate answer to the case that the council had made for Picc-Vic. It said merely that the scheme required a very large investment, that it would take five years to build and that
it is at the margin of acceptability.
The Minister did not indicate the criteria on which he judged Picc-Vic to be marginal, nor did he adequately explain the basis of his approach, which dictates that a large scheme like Picc-Vic, which produces benefits only at the end of the construction period, must be ruled out in favour of smaller lumps of investment producing a quicker return but without a guarantee of greater benefit in the long run.
The proposals for improving the Greater Manchester rail system and the Piccadilly—Victoria scheme are of the greatest importance to the 2·7 million inhabitants of Greater Manchester, to the economy of the area and also to the North-West as a whole. Our great industrial cities have grown up around communications and unless these are kept up to date our prosperity is threatened.
The character of the city centre is changing. There is much greater concentration on region-serving functions, such as major shopping and professional activities. We rightly pride ourselves that outside London we are the largest banking and insurance centre. We are an important cultural and entertainment centre. We can rightly claim further education facilities equal to anything else in Western Europe. The increasing concentration on region-serving functions emphasises most forcibly the need for a satisfactory level of accessibility to this regional centre.
Manchester decided in the early 1960s that its transportation policy must put the emphasis on public transport and not on new road building. In my opinion and the opinion of many of my hon. Friends representing constituencies in the Greater Manchester area, the oil crisis and everything else that has happened since 1970 confirms the soundness of this decision.
The scheme to improve the local railways and put in a central tunnel link replaced an earlier proposal for the Manchester rapid transit scheme. Picc-Vic was recommended by a Government-sponsored transportation study which began in 1966. The House gave statutory powers in 1972, and the scheme has now been fully designed and prepared. This debate arises because of the great importance we attach to this proposal and the fact that Government support seems to have vanished at the starting post.
Not only hon. Members but our constituents understand our present economic difficulties and the need to restrict expenditure. What we cannot understand is that the Government are not giving any clear backing to the scheme for the future when the economic climate improves. Without that clear backing, how are we to plan our transportation system? If we mean what we say about supporting public transport and comprehensive policies the Government should give an assurance that the improvement of our run-down local rail system and the construction of the central Manchester link is a recognised part of national policy.
Frankly, there is a feeling in the area that the policy of successive Governments on local railways has been obstructed by Civil Service red tape and a hidden departmental bias towards roads. How else are we to explain the fact that over the last five years hardly one penny of Government grant for public transport schemes has been made available in Greater Manchester when other conurbations have had their schemes approved? How else are we to explain the fact that in the transport programme and policy decisions Greater Manchester gets the lowest grant allocation per head of any metropolitan area, although it has this great backlog to make up because of the decision years ago to go for public transport rather than roads? How are we to explain the fact that the transportation grant per head in London, which pays nothing towards its local rail system, is almost double that for Greater Manchester? How are we to explain the fact that the White Paper on Public Expenditure shows motorway construction, in real terms, continuing to rise and highway construction expenditure continuing at over £600 million a year, in real terms, while public transport investment for conurbations remains at a little over £100 million?
How long shall we continue to say that we back public transport and then spend many times more on roads? How long shall we continue, nationally, to lag behind the local authorities, such as the Greater Manchester Council, in their attitudes on this vital question? If a major conurbation authority such as Greater Manchester is determined to invest in public transport, surely the Government should be giving clear backing and not sitting on the fence?
I greatly appreciate the fact that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport has agreed to visit Greater Manchester next week. I hope that he will look at our appalling railway inheritance for himself, and that when he conducts a series of discussions with members and officials of the Greater Manchester Council he will be able to show that the Government mean what they say about public transport. I also hope that he will give assurances that the Picc-Vic project has the support of the Government and that the scheme will be sanctioned to start within the lifetime of this Parliament. Even if we have to accept a short delay because of the economic crisis, I hope that the Minister will ensure that a fair share of national funds will be made available for rail improvements, based on the Picc-Vic scheme, so that Manchester may begin to make up some of the ground it has lost over the long years of planning and discussion.