I am very glad to have the opportunity before the House rises for the Summer Recess to look at some of the problems confronting road users in Northumberland and the local authorities in dealing with the difficulties.
Northumberland is a county of small and scattered population. It is the sixth largest in area but it has the lowest population density—only one person per five acres. This may give us a pleasant sense of having room to move, but it imposes on the ratepayers the heavy burden of maintaining the enormous mileage of roads through the county. That mileage must be maintained through the very severe winter conditions, which is an added difficulty.
These roads are not just local roads. Many serve as trunk roads for long-distance traffic between England and Scotland. However, only three have trunk road status and as such are fully financed by the Ministry of Transport. Only one of these—the A1—runs through north Northumberland, which is the subject of the debate today. The rest depend, to a large extent, on local ratepayers' resources. They are very extensive in mileage and expensive to maintain because of the heavy use by traffic passing through the county.
On the question of the A1, I warmly welcome the clear and specific commitment which the Government gave in their White Paper on roads five months ago that bypasses must be provided for towns and villages on the A1 north of Newcastle—"notably Berwick-on-Tweed". I welcomed that commitment at the time, and I know that it is still a commitment which the Minister seeks to honour. I shall ask him for some specific times and assurances when he answers today.
Some of the work of bypassing communities on the Al has already been done. I was with the Under-Secretary when he opened the bypass at Warenford in rather better weather conditions than those we are enjoying now, and in the pleasant surroundings of Northumberland. I took him on that day to see how urgently a bypass was needed at Belford where so many frightening and tragic accidents have occurred because of the heavy vehicles coming down the steep bank in the town. The route for the Belford bypass has been selected, but work is not due to begin until well into 1980.
In a letter to me in May the Minister promised to try to improve on this starting time, and I hope that he will be able to speed things up. He said that some of the procedures might take longer than first expected. The financial commitment to the bypass makes it possible to go ahead earlier than late 1980, providing the legal side of things can be dealt with reasonably quickly.
Work is already proceeding at Felton, and I hope that the Minister can give us an approximate date for the completion of this bypass and an indication when the hard-pressed people of Felton can expect some relief from the heavy traffic which grinds up the steep main village street.
Of course the biggest project is the bypass for Berwick itself. The town of Berwick is now strangled with traffic. Anyone who goes there in the holiday season will see it at its very worst. The most intense traffic is jammed for long periods through the streets, having to pass through an extremely narrow arch which is part of the town wall, and in which vehicles periodically get stuck. This causes considerable damage to an ancient monument and long disruptions and delays to traffic. It must be remembered that I am talking about the A1, the country's first-named and primary road—the main route between England and Scotland. It is also the road which pours all its heavy traffic into the centre of the small historic town of Berwick.
I am very concerned that this bypass project should be kept up to schedule. I am particularly anxious that a possible delay may have arisen because of the failure to agree between the Department of the Environment and the Northumberland county council about the link road which is needed from the Tweedmouth trading estate to the bypass and which will bypass the village of East Ord. There is so much concern about this link road in Northumberland that the county council has felt it necessary to lodge a holding objection to the route which has been chosen for the bypass. This difficulty must be resolved quickly and in my view there is one easy way to resolve it—that is, by the Department of Transport building the link road as part of the bypass project.
Let me explain why this should be done. This link road is needed to connect the bypass with the Tweedmouth trading estate which generates a great deal of the heavy traffic that will use the bypass. The Tweedmouth trading estate contains many factories, including a large factory which distributes food in large quantities in refrigerated vehicles both at home and for export. I hope that the Minister gets his frozen pastry from Berwick-upon-Tweed, but if he does it will come in a heavy vehicle that will want to use the new bypass.
The estate contains a regional lorry park. It also contains maltsters and in the barley season there is an enormous traffic of heavy vehicles carrying barley from farms all over the region. If the link road is not built the whole of that traffic from the trading estate and the town on to the bypass will go through the village of East Ord. That village, far from benefiting from the bypass, will have the commercial traffic through its narrow streets multiplied at least three times over.
The people of East Ord, having with a measure of reluctance accepted that their environment and the local peace will be disrupted in the wider interest by the building of a bypass very close to them, will feel indignant if, far from being able to see some net benefit, they finish up very much the worse off, with their own village street filled with traffic which is not there now but which in future will go that way from the trading estate to the bypass.
The borough council at Berwick firmly believes that this link road was intended to be part of the scheme when it accepted the chosen route. I was present when the hon. Member for Glasgow, Kelvingrove (Mr. Carmichael), then a Minister in the Department of the Environment, came up and opened an exhibition of the bypass plans. We had many discussions at the time. Everybody went away that day thinking that the Tweedmouth trading estate link would be part of the bypass scheme. This influenced people's attitude to the choice of routes. I am sure that it influenced the attitude of the borough council and the attitude of potential objectors in East Ord, who felt that the route, for all its other difficulties, was acceptable as long as there was a separate way for traffic to get from the trading estate to the bypass.
The county council points out that in financial terms it will cost the Department very little extra to build this road rather than to leave it as a county road. From the point of view of those involved locally, the idea of leaving it to be built subsequently as a county road is unacceptable. It will have to find a place in an already crowded pool of county projects, to which I shall refer in a moment.
In the Department's own terms, the additional cost of going ahead with this link road now would not be very great. If the road is not built, a great deal of money—at least £70,000—would have to be spent on the existing road through East Ord to enable it to take heavy construction traffic while the bypass is being built. That is not an attractive prospect even in the short term, for the people in the village. In addition to that money which would have to be spent, the Government would contribute about £210,000 if the link was built as a county road. Therefore, why not get on with the job now?
There is a further factor. The county council has already spent £100,000 without any Government support building a regional lorry park in Tweedmouth, as requested by the Government. I think that it is right that the council should have gone ahead with this important project, but that project also depends upon access to the bypass. Since the county has carried out this work expecting that it would be Government-aided. and since it has done this so far out of its own resources, I think that it strengthens the case for tackling the link road as a Department of Transport project, integral, as it is, to the bypass. We would not need the link road if it were not for the bypass being built. However, construction of the bypass makes it essential.
I ask the Minister to re-examine the matter and to give the go-ahead to a vital link and to ensure that it does not delay the Berwick bypass. Nobody could criticise people in East Ord if they decide to object to the chosen route and thereby cause delay, having decided that their own village will suffer so badly. I should be appalled if this important project to which the Minister and his Department attach priority were delayed or jeopardised over this issue when the amount of money involved from the Department's point of view is not very large.
While I am dealing with the issue of Berwick and its bypass, perhaps I should mention the problems of pedestrians. Roads are not just for motorists but present severe problems to pedestrians who must get across the roads. I ask the Minister to try to do so some day on the A1, on the road just beyond the arch which I have described at Castle-gate in Berwick, or to imagine an elderly person on his way to hospital trying to do so. There is a desperate need at that point for pedestrian crossing facilities.
Year after year pleas from me and from the borough council have not been accepted. I was pleased to be given a reply from the Minister on 21st July indicating that he had asked for a full report and was prepared to re-examine the matter. I gather that the need for a refuge or island for the pedestrians has now been accepted by most of those concerned. That would go some way to help—but why not go the whole way and have a proper pedestrian crossing?
People who live in places with problems such as I have outlined—whether in Berwick, on Tweedmouth or anywhere else in the country—get frustrated when they are told that there are mysterious criteria reposing in the Department of Transport in London which determine that people can get across the road quite satisfactorily without pedestrian crossings. The fact is that they cannot and that they need that kind of help.
Let me turn from the specific improvements and bypasses for which general plans have already been laid to the general standard of the A1. There are some matters which I should like to draw to the Minister's attention. Even with these bypasses, is the A1 between Alit-wick and the border a safe and adequate road for the kind of traffic which it carries? I do not believe it is. Thousands of motorists, local and visitors, agree with me. The trouble is that it carries a lot of heavy traffic. It is augmented at this time of the year by a large number of caravans, and all this traffic is reduced to a crawl on the steep banks which are part of that road.
With only a single carriageway in each direction, the car driver finds that he has no chance of overtaking these long convoys of slow-moving vehicles. Even when he comes to one of the longer straight stretches, which have been improved and on which the Department has spent a great deal of money, he finds that he is not very much better off. If there is even steady intermittent traffic in the opposite direction—not heavy traffic, but periodic cars coming in the opposite direction—he has no chance of overtaking them. The cars coming towards that motorist are coming fast, and if he has six heavy vehicles and four caravans in front of him, he needs a very long stretch of clear road indeed to be able to overtake in safety.
After five, 10 or 15 miles of crawling along at 20 miles an hour, the frustration builds up and the motorist takes a chance. That is how serious accidents happen. The motorist gets fed up with being stuck behind all that traffic and pulls out when he should not do so. He takes a chance, he thinks "I can get past these first six vehicles", he finds no space opening up in the convoy—and that is where the dangers and accidents occur. I would not like to count the near-misses I have seen when this kind of desperate overtaking brings a car into the wrong carriageway in the path of a fast-moving vehicle.
From just south of Alnwick through to Scotland there are no dual carriageway sections at all. The whole of the A1 is a single-carriageway road, and at times it is just a steep and winding country lane. Even where it has been improved and the Department has put resources into it, the result is still a road on which it is not safe to overtake unless traffic in the opposite direction is mysteriously absent.
I recognise that dual carriageway all the way may be more than we can afford at present. In any case, I would be reluctant to see a lot of good farmland taken up for improvements on that scale throughout the county. I have much more modest suggestions which could improve the A1 by creating opportunities for safe overtaking. What we could have more of are crawler lanes in the uphill direction on some of these steep banks to give cars a chance to get past the slow, heavy convoys. I note that a crawler lane is part of one section of the proposed Berwick bypass, but there are other places south of Berwick where this is also needed.
The Minister answered a Written Question from me yesterday on this issue. I asked him whether he would
revise the design standards for the improvements of the Al north of Morpeth so as to ensure that sufficient opportunities exist for motorists to overtake heavy vehicles and caravans in safety.
The Minister replied:
I consider that the design standards for the proposed improvements on the Al to the north of Morpeth provide sufficient opportunities for motorists to overtake heavy vehicles and caravans in safety."—[Official Report, 2nd August 1978; Vol. 955, c 349.]
I hope that the Minister is speaking of the proposed improvements because I do not believe that the improvements made so far have that effect.
It is disappointing and frustrating to see that when a lot of money has been spent improving a road, the result is something which is still unsafe. I take it that the Minister was referring to what he is proposing to put into the Berwick bypass and not to the other sections, but even if the bypass provides more opportunities for overtaking, we shall still have 30 or 40 miles of road where these opportunities do not exist. I ask the Minister to look again at the feasibility of putting in additional lanes at a few selected places to give the motorist a chance to get past.
My second suggestion is that the road markings should be reviewed. At present, the effective width of an improved carriageway is reduced by a 3 ft. strip on either side which is marked off by a white line. A few of the drivers of heavy vehicles pull in over this white line and allow cars to overtake without crossing the centre of the road. That is helpful because it is possible for a car to get past a lorry on any of the improved sections if the lorry pulls over the inner white line. However, most drivers seem to think that this strip is some sort of hard shoulder and that they should stick to the centre of the lane.
Why waste six feet of good road surface which could be used to facilitate overtaking? Surely if drivers of heavy vehicles realised that they could pull over to this section without having to slow appreciably, they would be more willing to do so. Is it necessary to mark off so wide a section of properly surfaced and maintained carriageway so that it serves no purpose at all and we end up with vehicles travelling in the mid-point of their lanes and ensuring that any motorist who overtakes must encroach on the opposite lane? At present, motorists have to wait 15 miles or so until they find a safe gap or encroach dangerously in the path of an oncoming vehicle.
Some of the old sections of improved road, such as those just north of Morpeth, have the old system of three separate, slightly narrower lanes. There has been criticism of that system and it is suggested that it causes accidents and dangers, but I am beginning to wonder whether that claim is justified and whether the three lane marking does not give at least some chance of overtaking. In some places where the A1 has been improved on the modern basis, the Department might just as well not have bothered because the effect is still that we have a road on which it is not safe to overtake. However neatly the edges may be maintained, however smart the white line looks and however impressive this width of carriageway appears, one cannot pass a line of heavy vehicles without the risk of hitting an approaching vehicle.
One of the consequences of the convoys that build up on the A1 is that cars and heavy vehicles are transferring to the A697, the road which goes from Morpeth to Scotland. This is not a Department road and is not maintained to the same standard. It depends on the stretched resources of the county council, yet it carries as much traffic as does the A68 trunk road. There are at least two villages that are urgent cases for community bypasses in the sense that the Government use those words, and others are not far behind.
The narrow main street of Longfram-lington is a nightmare for those who live in the village and have to cross the road as heavy vehicles go through at considerable speed. Powburn is a similar case. There is a sharp bend and the village vividly remembers how one family woke up to find a heavy wagon in its sitting room. The lorry ploughed right through the front of the house. Bypasses are suggested for both these villages in the county transport programme, but there is no date for the work to start. The situation in those villages is desperate and I beg the Minister to recognise that and to help Northumberland to deal with it.
There are other places where the A697 is extremely dangerous, including the stretch leading north out of Wooler and the stretch through Milfield village. They also require attention. I hope that in the Minister's general assessment of Northumberland's road needs, he will take account of the considerable additional heavy through traffic which is using that road.
I want to divert the Minister's attention from the hill country to the problems of the town of Amble because there is a serious problem of road access to the town and all our efforts to build up industry in that unemployment blackspot are weakened by the appalling road communications which depend on twisting country lanes and which bring heavy traffic through narrow streets in Broomhill and Red Row. The alternative road access via Warkworth is even worse, as the Minister will know if he has been that way, because it is already a narrow, twisting country route and is in a particularly bad state because of the disruption that is being caused by the sewerage scheme there.
There is a golden opportunity to get decent road access to Amble. It is presented by opencast coal mining which is taking place on a very big scale in the area through which any new road would have to pass. The whole of the area south of Amble is a scene of major opencast coal working and the communities in that area are having to put up with a great deal. They are making a major contribution to the country's energy resources and are paying a price for it.
The opencast work leads to road diversions and rebuilding of roads to which the National Coal Board contributes. It would be a tragedy if the opportunity is not taken to build a decent road to Amble which could link up with the Northumberland spine road. Amble has been beyond the end of the road for far too long and I hope that the Minister will put his weight behind a major improvement now that we have the chance to do it. For heaven's sake, let us make use of the resources that will be available. Let us not simply tinker around with the existing road system at a time when we have to do something anyway and when there are resources available from the NCB which can be matched with anything the county and the Department can do.
It would be a great mistake if this opportunity is not seized. If we get proper road access to Amble, the industrial development and the trading estate there will take off in a way that it has not been able to do before. I am convinced, from many years of experience, that poor communications are one of the great drawbacks to our efforts to help that town.
Another problem of which the Minister will be aware is bridges. The county has a serious problem in the number of old bridges which are listed buildings and with which the Department of the Environment is concerned. There are 44 bridges which are listed buildings which still carry traffic in Northumberland and another 660 traffic-carrying bridges are more than 100 years old.
The classic case is the Twizell Bridge on the increasingly busy road from Berwick to the central borders via Cornhill. That road gets busier every year and the bridge, having been built 500 years ago, was obviously not designed with modern traffic in mind. It is very narrow and is set at an extremely bad angle to the road. It is a scheduled monument and very beautiful bridge and a weight limit has had to be imposed upon it. The detours for heavy vehicles are on ludicrously unsuitable roads. The county council has a project in its programme to build a new bridge and to divert the road, leaving the old bridge standing. This clearly needs the Department's blessing and I hope that, in view of the Governments' interest in the old bridge as an historic monument, that blessing will be readily forthcoming.
Northumberland has serious problems of road maintenance. Last winter, more than £1 million had to be spent to deal with winter conditions. We sometimes feel that although problems in Scotland and the West Country are recognised, we have very bad winters and a terrain that makes dealing with them difficult, but we get left out of consideration.
Scotland, Devon and Cornwall have had special Government help to deal with last winter's problems. Northumberland has very bad winter conditions and exactly the same problems, but we have had no help. The county is having to shoulder an extremely heavy burden without the help that has been offered to other areas. We had the snow and the frost, too. In the February snow storms, every available resource had to be channelled into keeping the main roads open and we had to pay for all the damage that was caused. The failure of the Government to channel some help to Northumberland is a source of deep resentment.
There has also been resentment in Northumberland over the years because so much of the road improvement work has been concentrated in the south-east of the county. Now that the problems of the roads in the north are beginning to be recognised, I hope that the Minister will understand what a heavy burden Northumberland has to face for a county with such a small population.
I suggest that a proper development of Government policy would be to concentrate on the projects that I have outlined. That approach would be directed towards separating heavy traffic from the community. I understand that that is something that the Government wish to do. It would be directed towards increasing road safety. It would be directed towards a fairer distribution of national resources. I believe that my suggestions would be cost effective. That has not been true of some of the road improvements that we have seen in the past. There have been massive improvements to many existing dual carriageways, but we have had improvements that have not made the road that much safer.
The Minister knows Northumberland and I know that he likes visiting it. He has experienced some of the conditions for himself. I hope that he will recognise Northumberland's needs and help it to meet them.
It is pleasant to have even a short debate about Northumberland, especially at this time of the year when our thoughts are turning away from the House towards our holidays. Northumberland is a lovely part of the country. I am sure that the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) is deeply fond of it, and so am I.
The hon. Gentleman has gone over the road problems with a fine toothcomb. Scarcely one problem has not caught his eye. I shall attempt to deal with them in more or less the same sequence that he used.
First, I turn the attention of the House to the A1 that runs through Northumberland from north to south. There have been many improvements, large and small, carried out on the A1 north of Newcastle to make it a better and safer road. Over the past 10 years about 14 of the 32 miles between Alnwick and the county boundary have been improved at a cost of over £4·5 million.
The hon. Gentleman will recall attending with me the opening of the Warenford improvement. That is typical of the sort of improvement that has made a considerable difference to not only those who travel along the Al but those who live in the villages along that route.
Warenford is an attractive village but it experienced 31 accidents over the eight years before the improvement was made. No fewer than four accidents resulted in fatalities and five resulted in serious injuries. I am glad to say that since the bypass has come into being there have been no accidents in the vicinity of the village. That is a considerable benefit.
I shall say something about bypasses in the context of the hon. Gentleman's remarks, including safety. It has to be said that many bad stretches of road remain that go through many villages and towns and that these are being dealt with.
The accident record of the A1 north of Newcastle is rather better than that of most comparable roads in other parts of the country. I accept that within that broad average there are some black spots. The hon. Gentleman referred to some of the black spots. I shall deal with the by-passses to avoid the black spots.
Further improvements are now in train and will continue over the next five years. They will result in 28 miles of improved single carriageway out of a total of 32 miles. That is a high proportion and it shows the priority that we attach to improving conditions on the A1.
The hon. Gentleman was scathing about our approach to dualling the A1. He felt that much more of that work should be done. I understand his feelings. However, as he said, economic justification is required. In ensuring that we spend money wisely, we must carefully consider the standard of road that we are providing. It is probably better to provide more bypasses by making a few of them single carriageway although I accept that single carriageway roads are an inferior solution. However, that is probably a better approach than constructing fewer bypasses but of a higher standard. That is the problem that the Government have to face.
The hon. Gentleman made a number of cogent comments about safety conditions for drivers on the A1. In particular, he referred to crawler lanes and road marking. He was right in supposing that yesterday I was referring to proposed schemes on the A1 rather than existing improvements. I can tell him that there will be a crawler lane provided as part of the Berwick bypass, with which he is especially concerned. There is a particularly steep gradient at one point. It is the Department's policy to provide crawler lanes on steep gradients where necessary when dealing with single carriageway roads. That is something to which we give careful attention.
I totally accept the hon. Gentleman's argument that to the layman changes of road marking may seem small improvements. If the road continues to be a single carriageway, there is still the problem of overtaking, especially when there is a large amount of traffic consisting of caravans as well as large lorries. I take the Ion. Gentleman's point about 3ft. widths. I shall look into that. Obviously the reasons for such markings are largely those of safety.
The hon. Gentleman should remember that the Warenford bypass is a road that has no bends. It is not true to say that we need not have bothered because the improvement has been so small. We now have a straight road and it is possible to overtake when traffic conditions allow. Before the improvement was made it was not possible to overtake, even if there was no other traffic, because of the sharp bends in the old road. There has been considerable improvement for the driver let alone those who live in Warenford.
I am delighted that we had the Warenford improvement. It is now a straight stretch of road and there is some chance of overtaking. I criticise expenditure in those cases where there is created no new alignment but where the surface is improved, the carriageway is slightly improved and white lines are painted on more or less the existing alignment. Sometimes that work is done by the hon. Gentleman's Department. In many instances it is the only sort of marginal improvement that the county can make. In such instances money is spent on small improvements to the existing carriageway. We should reconsider whether we are getting value for money by making such improvement.
I understand the hon. Gentleman's argument. He raises an interesting point and I shall ask my officials to give it consideration, especially as it applies to parts of the Al with which he is concerned. I shall ask my officials to let me have a justification for our present policy as well as asking them to give consideration to the alternative policy that he has suggested.
I turn to the bypasses on which we are rightly concentrating. The hon. Gentleman asked me whether I could give any further information on timing. I wrote to him recently about the Belford bypass and gave him the latest information. I cannot improve on that today. It still looks as though it will be late 1980 before work starts on the scheme. It will be roughly October 1980 before we start work on the Alnwick bypass. Those bypasses will take roughly two years to complete. That is the present timing. It is difficult to see how we can improve on that but if that is humanly possible we shall do so. The bypasses enjoy a high priority in our work load. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that my officials are giving the two bypasses the requisite attention.
The Felton bypass is now getting steadily under way. We hope that it will be open to traffic at the end of 1980 or the beginning of 1981. The bypasses are pretty well on target given all the procedures that they have to go through.
I turn to the Berwick bypass. Formal proposals for the Al bypass, which will bypass Tweedmouth, Scremerton and East Ord, were published earlier this year by the Department. The proposed route, which was chosen overwhelmingly by the public, the local authorities and the amenity societies following public participation, will substantially reduce the congestion and environmental damage that Berwick has suffered. Public exhibition of the plans illustrate the proposals. The exhibition was at the town hall in June.
The bypass will be 5¾ miles long. It will have a two-lane carriageway with a third crawler lane where necessary for slow-moving traffic. No houses will be demolished because the new route passes through mainly open farmland. The effects of severance will be kept to a minimum. Landscaping will be carried out where necessary to make the road fit into its surroundings. The site of the proposed bridge over the Tweed is the least conspicuous of the alternatives that were considered at the time of public participation. Copies of the draft order showing the proposals are now available for inspection. It is known that it is likely that there will be objections to the side road orders for the bypass.
The Berwick borough council considers that the proposals should include a bypass for East Ord, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, on the A698. That road runs from Berwick across country to Coldstream. The A698 is a principal road and as such is the responsibility of the county council as the local highway authority.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will accept that it does not really matter whether the road is built by the county council or by the Government. The financing is little different in either case. If it is built by the Government, financing is 100 per cent. by the Government. If it is financed by the county council, 90 per cent. or so of the money will come from the Government through the rate support grant and the transport supplementary grant. We are not talking about great differences in finance.
This is a principal road and the responsibility of the county council. It should build this connecting road. I urge the county council to give it a high priority and we shall look at it sympathetically. If the county council gives it high priority in its next transport policies and programme we shall ensure that funds are available for it. It is important for the county council to decide on the priority that it will give that road. We shall not hold it back financially. That means that the road can be built as soon as possible.
What matters to the people is that the bypass will be built. They are not concerned about who builds it. The county council has already agreed its transport policies and programme on the assumption that the road will be built as part of the bypass. That assumption was made by many people when they agreed to the original route. If we know that the road is to be built as part of the bypass there will be no objections to the scheme. But if it has to go back into the melting pot of next year's county programme people are bound to wonder whether they should allow the bypass to proceed.
It is odd that the county council should have assumed that the Government would build this road. It is a county road. It always has been. Except as part of a major trunking exercise there is no question of the Government building or improving roads which are the responsibility of a county council.
The scheme need not go back to the melting pot. There is plenty of time for the scheme to be developed to fit in with the building of the Berwick bypass. There is no reason why the two should not be built simultaneously.
It is a question of the county council giving it the correct priority. We urge it to give the road high priority. We shall treat it sympathetically if the county council decides to give it a reasonable priority so that it can be built almost simultaneously. I am sure that with co-operation between the county and ourselves this can be achieved.
But we must operate within the existing framework of legislation which gives county councils responsibilities for certain roads and the Government responsibility for others. If we were to alter that in one case we should be inundated with similar proposals for the Government to build bits of road throughout the country. We must stick to existing responsibilities. I am surprised that the county should have thought otherwise. It is possible for sensible progress to be made. I shall instruct my officials to work to that end.
The hon. Member also mentioned town centre congestion, which must be examined separately. There is a case for a co-ordinated approach over a longer term towards the problems of the protection of the historic buildings in Berwick and those of local traffic circulation.
A working party drawn from the Department of the Environment, the county council and the Berwick-upon-Tweed borough council has been considering these problems and has prepared a first draft report which sets out conclusions and recommendations. The final report is likely to be produced as a working document.
The hon. Member also mentioned a few local roads. He mentioned the Long-framlington bypass and the Powburn bypass. These are the responsibility of the county council, which is the highway authority. It is for it to determine the priorities that it attaches to these roads as part of its overall approach to transport in Northumberland. I cannot say more than that about those two roads.
As the hon. Member said Twizell Bridge was built 500 years ago when it was not expected that it would have to cope with the traffic which now uses it. The bridge has deteriorated. It has been necessary to restrict its use to vehicles weighing less than five tons. This causes long diversions. It is for the county to determine the need for a replacement bridge in the context of its transport policies and programme. We shall look at this matter sympathetically if the county council decides that it should be given priority.
The hon. Member also mentioned the problems of Amble. Those problems are different from those about which we have been talking. It involves access to the town. I was interested in what the hon. Member had to say about this. I should like to consider the matter at greater length.
Part of the problem arises from the new facility which the Ministry of Defence is constructing at Amble. I understand that the Ministry intends to provide for the building of an access road to that station which will solve the problem. I shall consider the matter more fully when I have the opportunity.
The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed also mentioned the pedestrian crossing at Castlegate. In a letter of 21st July I indicated to him that there would be an examination of the case for a pedestrian crossing. In the meantime my Department has authorised pedestrian refuges. They should help people to cross that road in safety. But I shall examine the case for a pedestrian crossing carefully.
The hon. Member also raised the question of the general treatment of the county because of its small population and high mileage of trunk and local roads. That gives the county an unusual characteristic compared with other counties, but that characteristic helps the county. The transport supplementary grant is related to the size of the population. The smaller the population, the lower the threshold for the grant. Grant is given above the threshold and therefore the county receives a larger grant. Northumberland benefits from the construction of the transport supplementary grant. In the last year the TSG allocation was £2·3 million, at November 1977 prices. That figure was higher than the corresponding figure for other comparable shire counties.
When we receive the submission for transport supplementary grant for the next financial year we shall bear in mind the hon. Member's remarks when examining proposals for Northumberland.
The hon. Member is right to say that maintenance is a special problem in Northumberland because of its northern latitude and because there is such a high proportion of roads in relation to local resources. We have cut maintenance nationally in the last three or four years within the public expenditure restraint policies. But now the amount of money spent on maintenance has stabilised and it should not be reduced further. It is probable that in certain counties expenditure might increase in the next few years. We expect expenditure on trunk roads to be increased in the next two or three years. More money will therefore be available for maintenance. I know that Northumberland always gives maintenance a high priority when it is preparing its transport plans, and I believe that to be right, given the amount of road surface it has to look after.
I think that I have covered all of the points that the hon. Member made. If there is anything that I have not covered I shall write to him about it, but I think that what I have said indicates that we attach a high priority to Northumberland's problems, and that we also recognise the special nature of those problems.