I am glad to have the opportunity of raising the matter of the public participation procedure with regard to motorway and major trunk route planning. My researches reveal that this is the first time that the House has had the opportunity of discussing these procedures, which have been in force since the autumn of 1973.
I shall immediately declare a constituency interest, which I know the Minister fully appreciates. Pudsey lies, proudly I would say, between the great conurbations of Leeds and Bradford, and it is currently affected by three major motorway or trunk route developments. The first is the Airedale motorway, which was planned in advance of the consultation procedure. This motorway would, if accepted, lead to depositing traffic on the A657 trunk route which runs north-west to south-east through my constituency. The second is the Shipley-Leeds link road, for which the consultation procedure has now finished and which would augment the A657 route. The third and probably the most significant is for the Kirkhamgate-Dishforth motorway, whose proposed western routes would bisect my constituency from north to south.
It is no exaggeration to say that, if all these routes were implemented, my constituents would be crucified by concrete from top to bottom. In addition, the remaining green belt between the cities of Leeds and Bradford would be destroyed, and also the 800-year old village of Calverley, pleasantly situated on the wooded slopes of Airedale, would be adjacent to a major motorway-trunk route interchange and would be overshadowed by a 100-foot-high motorway viaduct.
These are somewhat emotional terms. I do not think that there is any more emotive issue today than the location of motorways and major trunk routes. This is inevitable, because the population generarlly has a very enhanced appreciation of its environment, and we all wish that to be so. To no section of the population does this apply more strongly than people living in densely populated areas or urban development, such as the industrial parts of West Yorkshire. Secondly, it is very laudable that the public require greater consultation and that there is a thirst for more involvement in the making of decisions so obviously affecting the areas in which they live.
The present procedure for consultation was laid down after due consultation by the Department of the Environment in Roads Circular No. 30/73, issued by the Department in September 1973. It provides for a consultation statement that will
(i) provide basic information about the traffic needs the scheme is intended to satisfy;
(ii) provide descriptions of the alternative routes or methods of improvement to be considered;
(iii) assess the effectiveness of the alternatives in meeting these needs;
(iv) state estimated costs;
(v) give such engineering details as the approximate location of junctions and (if available) types of junctions…
(vi) indicate where roads are likely to be in cutting or on embankment; and
(vii) cover any other factors on which there is material relevant to the choice (this may include information about the consequence of the alternatives on properties in terms of the approximate number seriously affected and the approximate number which might have to be demolished; information about the broad environmental effects of the alternatives…".
These are some of the issues that have to be covered in a consultation statement. The responsibility for carrying through the consultation procedure rests with the road construction units of the Department of the Environment located in the regions concerned. The prime purpose of the RCUs is to build roads. They are primarily staffed with designers, civil engineers and contractors, who prepare and let contracts and oversee them. Very good they are at that. All of us will wish to pay tribute to the constructions they have carried out, particularly the M62. Although engineering skill may be common to these construction units throughout the country, I suggest that consultation procedures vary and that the quality of these procedures varies.
I shall give an example. I have a document, prepared by the North-West Road Construction Unit, which deals with the Calder Valley motorway—M6–M61. This document is very elaborate and deals with a motorway link of 10 to 13 miles at an approximate cost of £30 million to £40 million. It deals fully with the technical case. It contains a map of the routes and shows that detail clearly. It also lists in great detail the various factors involved in the roads including—this is important—the environmental considerations that would be at risk in the selection of any of the alternative routes proposed. It is a large and substantial document.
At the same time, the North-East Road Construction Unit produced a consultation document for the Pudsey-Dish-forth motorway, running 38 to 40 miles and involving a cost of £90 million to £96 million. It is an extremely modest document, and I suspect that the hon. Gentleman would agree with that. It deals only slightly with the case and also shows a fairly simple artist's impression of the area in which the routes or corridors might lie. It does not deal in detail with environmental considerations on each of the routes proposed, and when we come to the technical data, such as traffic information, it lamely states that a traffic survey was conducted in autumn 1973, but that as the analysis of traffic data is a lengthy procedure, full details are not available at present.
In the matter of consultation, where we require to have facts, particularly about traffic and environment, the standards of consultation between these two construction units clearly vary. In my view, the document dealing with the Kirkhamgate-Dishforth link is hardly appropriate for the purposes for which it has been designed. My first point is that the standards of consultation documents vary, whereas the needs of the population do not, as the needs of areas do not. We should have the same standard of services generally in consultation documents.
Secondly, all areas where planning procedures are involved should have the full facts in which a planned proposal is set, and those facts should be disclosed in the consultation document. Obviously, there are simple facts, such as traffic data, which might be expressed instead of total units by category of vehicle, heavy vehicles versus cars or light vehicles, or long distance vehicles versus commuter traffic, so that members of the public could participate more fully. More important facts that should be disclosed are the broad road plans for the region.
My contention is that the other consultation exercises that are proceeding do not really link up with the motorway proposal. They do not illustrate the traffic route proposals joining the Airedale route to Leeds, although it is an integral part of the same environment. Nor, indeed, do the local highway authority proposals go into this document to demonstrate the roads that would be required to provide the radial links into Bradford, for example, on completion of the Airedale motorway, if that is selected. We are in danger of having piecemeal consultation, and my area, which is not unique, does not have a chance of seeing the, full road developments being prepared, which may come forward piece by piece.
The public must not be fobbed off by a bit-by-bit arrangement which may be convenient to the Ministry, but whose implementation must be seen in total before a considered and a knowledgeable view can be taken by those whose participation is involved. In my judgment, the confused public will get angry and there are regrettable signs that it is getting angry. The Airedale inquiry has, most regrettably, been disrupted by tactics on behalf of certain objectors. I am sure that I speak for all my right hon. and hon. Friends, including my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Mr. Fox), when I say that this kind of behaviour at a ministerial inquiry can only damage the cause of those who seek intelligent discussion of these problems. It certainly does not advance the worthy cause of public participation.
But confusion is evident. It is not helped by the method of consultation, because that method is a sample method. The Department of the Environment seeks a sample of the opinion of the population affected and therefore the scale of the print order, the consultation exercise and the period over which it takes place are relatively slender and slight, although I am grateful that the Minister has kindly agreed that, in the case of these two projects, there should be an extended period of consultation and more questionnaires available. But a sample study would surely be cheaper if more orthodox market research procedures were used and would cost considerably less than the £40,000 expended so far on the Pudsey-Dishforth consultation.
The consultation document is headed "We need your views." The local population must be excused for believing that everyone has the right to be consulted and that participation should be full rather than selective. The public has been concerned about inaccuracies and distortions in the maps and about local amenities being omitted, and so on. For example, agricultural land is shown only in certain grades. The major drawback concerns the precise locations.
Would not my hon. Friend agree that the quality of agricultural land is an important factor? Also important are the quality of village communities and the landscapes surrounding them. It is insensitive of the Ministry to produce a consultation document showing a corridor through which the motorway could pass going directly through a village. That is bound to engender a lot of feeling within that community against the motorway being planned in any way.
I am grateful. Clearly, in areas like Lower Wharfedale and Nidderdale, areas of outstanding beauty, the problem of rural environment is as great as my problem of urban environment.
The road construction unit is unwilling to disclose the full facts before the inquiry, as many correspondents have found, Thus, at the inquiry stage it has a substantial advantage, because the representatives of the Department are professionally skilled and better organised than intelligent other objectors.
Can the needs case really be fully argued? There is some doubt of that, although the Minister has been helpful on the matter in a recent letter to me. The problem of confusion is reflected in decisions taken recently by the two major authorities involved in my area. The Leeds Metropolitan City Council, after full discussion of the motorway proposals, has felt that no decision could be taken on a recommended route as the needs case was inadequate, whereas the West Yorkshire Council Council, the highway authority, after full discussion on the same facts, supported the west of Leeds route.
I believe that the consultation procedure deserves re-examination by the Department and I want to make the following helpful suggestions. First, I believe that a RCU should not be charged with the consultation exercise. It is not its real job, and it would prefer to get on with the job of construction. In a debate yesterday in another place on the Community Land Bill there was reference to the importance of local inquiries in matters affecting local authorities and land. I suggest that the subject of inquiries is so important mat perhaps the Department could have specialist units to handle the consultation proceedings and inquiries.
A full picture of road planning is urgently required to enable the public to participate sensibly in consultation procedures. Again, the facts must be of a uniformly high standard. After all, there is massive public money at stake in the motorway proposals and this means that rational rather than emotional arguments must prevail. This cannot be so unless the full picture is disclosed, together with the full facts.
Alternative routes must be genuine, but if the RCU has a preference, it should disclose it at the consultation stage and let those involved have the opportunity to argue convincingly against it, if they wish. The highway authority should disclose the consequential plans for routes and traffic management at the same time as the consultation for motorways and major roads.
We all want more open government and our constituents demand it. I invite the Minister, before pronouncing on the Pudsey-Dishforth motorway proposal, to come to my constituency and see the cause of our anxiety. My constituents, who stand to lose so much from this proposal, ask for full and frank discussion of all the relevant facts and fuller and fairer consideration of their environmental consequences. I trust that the hon. Gentleman will advise the Secretary of State that this is what my constituents deserve and that until that happens, the motorway proposal and the planning procedures should be shelved.
I have listened with interest to the points raised by the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Shaw). Although we have not previously had a debate on this subject, I frequently have discussions about the problem with hon. Members. Hon. Members may find it helpful if I outline the background to the present public consultation procedure as it has not been discussed in the House for a long time.
Public participation in road planning is a relatively recent development and has generated a lot of interest. It was introduced by the Department under the previous administration two years ago, following increasing pressure from the public for earlier involvement in the planning of road schemes.
The public have had the opportunity for many years to comment on and object to the final line of a road when this has been developed and published as a firm proposal. This can, and often does, lead to a public inquiry at which the whole subject can be fully aired. Public participation or, as I prefer to call it, public consultation, in no way detracts from people's rights at this stage. It provides an additional earlier opportunity for the views of those concerned to be taken into account.
Consultation is undertaken at a relatively early stage in the development of a road scheme when a decision has to be taken on a preferred alignment to be worked up in more detail. This could be two or three years before the public inquiry. Once a number of feasible alternative routes for the road have been identified, we undertake a consultation exercise in the area concerned and seek the views of local councils, the public and interested local and national organisations on the different alignments. This is supported by the widest possible publicity, public exhibitions and the distribution of explanatory literature throughout the area. All the comments received are then taken into account before any decision is taken on which route should be preferred.
This new procedure has been generally welcomed as providing a forum for debate on the issues involved. The Department has now undertaken about 60 of these exercises and Ministers have announced decisions on 18 of them. I hope that our techniques have developed with experience and will go on developing. We make considerable efforts to describe the options as clearly and simply as possible, but it is not easy to draw the right balance between going into too much detail, which can be confusing to many people, and pruning down the information too severely in the interests of clarity.
We are always learning from our experience and we welcome any comments and suggestions from the public on how we could improve our procedures. We are undertaking some small-scale research into the effectiveness of our consultation methods and, though it is still too early to have reached any conclusions, the fact that we are carrying out these studies is a clear indication of our wish to clarify and improve our existing procedures.
A consultation exercise on a road scheme should not be regarded as a referendum. The comments of the public and their representatives are of course very important in deciding what we should do, but we must bear in mind other important factors, particularly environmental considerations, engineering points and, in the present economic climate, the general cost-effectiveness of the scheme.
We also hope to obtain the highest possible response from the area, though on some occasions the number of comments received has been disappointingly low. We try to tell people about the exercise by advertisements and through the medium of the local Press, but mainly through the distribution of our explanatory booklets. These are usually available at our public exhibitions as well as at council offices and such places as libraries and post offices.
The booklets contain questionnaires on which people can make their comments on the scheme. In some cases where the road scheme affects relatively few people fairly directly—such as in the case of a bypass of a small town—we are now delivering copies of the booklet to every house in the area. This ensures that everyone is fully aware of the exercise and of the issues involved, and it appears to generate a greater interest. But obviously we cannot afford to do that when the number of people involved is very high.
It is important to emphasise, however, that consultation is very much a two-way process; that it is a medium for informing people of the possible route alignments being considered as much as seeking their views on them. The previous lack of information on the progress of a scheme until the relatively late public inquiry stage was a cause of widespread public concern and was one of the main factors leading to the introduction of public consultation.
Perhaps I may deal briefly with the arguments about random sampling, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Pudsey. Though I accept that there are some attractions in the suggestion made by the Hon. Member that we should change our system to one based on random sampling, I do not consider that on road planning it could by itself be as effective as in the marketing field.
There are a number of factors that incline me to this view. First, it cannot be an acceptable substitite for the present system for informing people in the area affected by the Department's proposals. Secondly, it does not give the same opportunity for the many people with views on the road scheme to put them forward. Finally, it cannot cater for the very important contribution that local amenity groups currently play in the decision process. Moreover, there is some evidence that the consultation exercises produce an adequate reflection of the views of the community. But I am always open to new ideas on public consultation and we shall bear the hon. Member's views in mind—though the idea would add to the costs we already incur, and these are already fairly high, in carrying out these exercises.
I turn now to the national view of schemes and the suggestion that we do not give a complete picture of all consultation exercises relating to motorway and trunk road improvements in his area. The improvements we are proposing to make on a national scale are given in publications such as "Roads in England". This publication gives the strategy that has been examined by each new Transport Minister and each new Government. I am sure that further information about individual schemes can be obtained from either the regions, or from the Department.
It would be ideal to have everyone together for a fortnight's seminar and to give them all the details. I shall attempt to deal with the response we get. We are trying to get all the non-vocal people to express their points of view. Those who are able to express their objections already take full advantage of the opportunity to do so.
The cost of these exercises has inevitably come under criticism, but we cannot have democracy on the cheap. Overall, I think that the money is well spent in producing more acceptable solutions, and in any case it represents only a very small proportion of the overall cost of a scheme.
The costs of course vary with the size and complexity of the scheme, but, as a rough guide, one concerned with a major link road some tens of miles long could cost between £20,000 and £40,000, whilst one for a small bypass could cost £1,000–£2,000. These costs cover mounting the exhibition, the printing and distribution of booklets, hiring of halls, publicity and the cost of the staff involved. One of the very great problems is that we have a highly trained staff which has to be able to look after the public and explain matters. It is quite costly and other work has to be interrupted to enable the staff to do this.
I attended an exhibition in Berwick-upon-Tweed on the town bypass earlier this year. I was very impressed with the work put into producing an effective exercise and exhibition and I know from many remarks made to me that the people of Berwick appreciated the efforts. They had never before been consulted like this by officialdom, and it was very nice that people were tentatively taking steps towards making decisions about their own community.
The hon. Member for Pudsey is, of course, particularly concerned with two current consultation exercises that affect his constituency. These are the proposed route between Yorkshire and the North-East, known as Kirkhamgate-Dishforth and the Shipley-Thackley-Leeds link. Inevitably, each has generated a lot of interest, and the Department agreed to give more time—until the end of September—for consideration of the complex issues involved in the Kirkhamgate-Dishforth route.
The consultation period extended over four months. I hope that this extra period meets the wishes of those concerned in the area. While we had an encouraging public response, with over 7,500 completed questionnaires and a considerable volume of correspondence, this final figure should be compared with the total of 60,000 booklets apparently taken up by the public out of the 80,000 booklets printed by the Department.
We are very aware of the clash between the conflicting requirements of giving people sufficient time to comment on proposals and the need to arrive at an early decision in order to minimise the planning blight and uncertainty that these exercises cause, and my Department is now actively assessing the comments received. With a complicated scheme of this nature, that will inevitably take some time.
One of the complications of the Kirkhamgate-Dishforth exercise related to the number of consultative booklets available in the area and their distribution in the area. The Department had originally printed 50,000, which on past experience we expected to be sufficient. The demand for them was very great, and we were not able to meet some requests for bulk supplies of the booklet. I had correspondence with the hon. Member about that. We arranged for extra booklets. The Department printed an additional 30,000 booklets, thus making a total of 80,000 available to the public. There is no reason why our questionnaire could not be completed by more than one person, or a particular viewpoint be put forward.
I accept that there has been some criticism of this consultative document. It is always very difficult to strike the right balance between providing enough information to enable the public to form a view, and keeping the document sufficiently concise to be interesting and clear. Inevitably, there will be too little detail for some and too much for others. This is a very difficult point, but I shall look at the two booklets mentioned by the hon. Member and see why there is a difference.
These exercises cause a lot of work for the Department and inevitably cause some delay in the preparation of a road scheme. They can also cause blight and uncertainty in the area concerned, and this sometimes causes very great anxiety and raises a number of controversial issues. But against that there are the important advantages of making the public aware of the Department's thoughts on a road proposal at an early stage and providing an opportunity to influence the outcome. We are always trying to improve our procedures, and though I am fully aware that they are not yet perfect, I hope that on balance our consultation exercises are recognised as providing an effective and democratic addition to the process of road design.
I hope that I have managed to explain that we are very concerned about getting the message over to people. First, we want them to know early that there is a road proposed in the area. We hope that we shall continue to improve our procedures—perhaps even further as a result of the hon. Member raising the matter in the House—and in that way make people a little more satisfied.
It is never possible to please everyone. Most people want the road to be over the hill from them, with a spur road leading to them. But we need roads and I hope that we can build them with as little inconvenience—