Northern Relief Road (Birmingham)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 14th July 1989.

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Photo of Richard Shepherd Richard Shepherd , Aldridge-Brownhills 2:30 pm, 14th July 1989

I should like to express some of the concerns of my constituents and more general concerns about the recent proposals of the Department of Transport in respect of the Birmingham northern relief route, the Birmingham north orbital route or, as some of us believe it to be, the new M6. Those concerns can best be summed up by citing a letter from two of my constituents, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, who live in Hednesford road, Brownhills. It is one of many letters that I have received on the subject, and it indentifies the general concern about the initiatives announced by the Government. It states: Dear Mr. Shepherd,It was in May, 1984 that we were first informed of the new proposed Road, our house was in line on four out of the five proposed routes, which is the Chasewater variation route, so it was quite a shock.My wife and I purchased our home in 1976, we were very happy with it liking the design, location and the friendliness of the people and neighbours of the area, we thought we were very lucky.We both had good jobs and set about planning and vastly improving the property, patio window, large bay window, all double glazing, fitted kitchen, all Regency Design plaster moulding throughout, landscaped garden etc. so when we heard that we may lose our home, naturally we were very upset.But, worse than anything has been the waiting, and the last 5 years have been the worst of our lives, all the enjoyment has gone out of our home, due to the fact that we can no longer make any plans not knowing about the future, and how long we have here, making us feel very insecure.So you can imagine how we felt when we received a letter from the Department of Transport 2 weeks ago, saying that a decision has still not been reached on the route, and then to read in the local press on Friday evening that it may take another 5/6 years before we know due to the fact that a toll road is now being considered, is just too much, there is a limit to what one can endure.After the Enquiry ended last September, we were promised of a decision in about 6 months time, of which we were patiently awaiting, to be expected to have to live through another 5/6 years like we have through the last 5 is quite unthinkable.All we are asking Mr. Shepherd for both ourselves and all our neighbours is for them to please, please make up their minds so that we can get on with our lives once again, and to save all the misery and unhappiness that we are experiencing through all the uncertainty. As the Minister will know, such anxiety and much more followed the Secretary of State's announcement by way of a written answer on 22 May to launch a Green Paper entitled "New Roads by New Means". He said that he proposed to hold a competition for the private sector to finance, design, build and operate a road which would serve broadly the same purposes as would be served by the published proposals for the Birmingham northern relief road. This road will be effectively the new M6 bypassing Birmingham.

On the same day as the Secretary of State's written answer to that parliamentary question he wrote to me enclosing a copy. The West Midlands regional office of highways at Five Ways tower also wrote that same day to members of the public advising them of the proposed competition and saying that in the circumstances it would be inappropriate to take decisions on the Featherstone to Coleshill north orbital route until the competition had taken place.

I stress that the delay explicit in the decision-making procedure is caused by the decision to defer until completion of the competition. I also stress that the release of information was arranged by the Secretary of State and the Minister of State without any consultation or inquiry involving local Members of Parliament as to the appropriateness of singling out this new M6 for a competition. Inasmuch as their predecessors had sought and in some respects accepted the views of their colleagues who were affected by the new M6, I deeply regret the Minister's decision to eschew consultation.

I do not believe that this was intentional arrogance. Rather, it was the casual indifference of a functionary. It was insensitivity, not deliberate arrogance, but I ask the Secretary of State and the Minister of State to reflect on the nature of representative government. To consult is not merely a courtesy; it is a way of seeking consent or acquiescence, and it is proper and right.

The conception of what I call the new M6 around Birmingham has been protracted. It was in August 1978 that the Department's road programme and highways policy division first issued a planning brief to the west midlands regional office instructing it to begin preparation of two schemes aimed at a new north orbital route to relieve the severely overloaded section of the M6 passing through the northern part of the west midlands conurbation. The schemes related, respectively, to a section planned to run from Essington—M6—to Bassetts PoleA38—and to another to run from Bassetts Pole to Dunton. The brief was to examine not only new route solutions but an improvement of existing roads, and it assumed that a high standard dual two-lane all-purpose route would be provided.

The then Parliamentary Under-Secretary announced in a press release dated 9 August 1978 the addition of both schemes into the trunk road preparation pool. In 1980, the two schemes were included in the 1984 onwards reserve list. In the 1983 roads White Paper they were identified as dual three-lane standard roads, and the Bassetts Pole to Dunton scheme was extended to the M42/M6 near Coleshill. Further examination of the schemes led the Department to the conclusion that, to provide as much relief to the M6 as possible, the volumes of traffic that would use the new route would require a dual three-lane route to motorway standard. On that basis, the Department proceeded to public consultation in 1984.

At preview meetings held in Birmingham on 8 May 1984, the director of transport in the regional office presented proposals for what had by then become known as the northern relief route. The following day, 9 May, the Department issued a press release announcing a public consultation exercise on the route. Separate consultation documents for the two schemes were distributed to households in the area.

The documents presented five feasible alternative routes which had been identified between Essington and Bassetts Pole and two between Bassetts Pole and Coleshill. They also included an assessment of the impact of each route, and questionnaires to be completed by 20 July 1984. All the route options could take land and required the demolition of housing and other property. All options would also have effects on land and property remaining close by, in terms of noise, depreciation, severance and so on, during and after construction.

Public exhibitions of the proposals were held from 17 May to 9 June 1984 at a number of local points. Representatives of the Department and of the consulting engineers were in attendance to explain the alternatives and to answer questions. The total attendance at these exhibitions was 6,400, and 6,278 questionnaires were returned. Responses were also received from a number of public bodies. No consensus emerged from the consultation exercise. The response of residents was to reject all routes or to opt for the ones furthest from their homes. The Secretary of State for the EnvironmentNIMBY—would well appreciate the natural response that most of us have to development.

Opinion among public bodies was divided. The regional office was in the process of analysing the public response when the then Minister of State visited the area in October 1984. Each local Member of Parliament affected by the scheme took up the matter and one of my hon. Friends raised it in an Adjournment debate on 4 December 1984. In his reply to that debate, the Under-Secretary said that he was conscious of the fact that the uncertainty about the new route created anxiety among those living in the area and could lead to a certain degree of blighting of property. For that reason, he said that the Department was anxious to reach as early a decision as possible and to make an announcement in the early part of 1985.

The then Minister of State paid another visit to the area on 12 July this year—I wish that the present Minister of State had done the same. It was not, however, until 11 March 1986, when the then Minister with responsibility for roads and traffic met local Members of Parliament, that the decision became known that the preferred route was broadly in line with the green—Chasewater—and yellow options which had been considered at the public consultation stage.

The Department announced the decision in a press release on 12 March 1986. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary wrote to me enclosing an advance copy of the press release on that date. It reiterated the urgent need for a new road. Paragraph 2 said: the main aim of the new road is to provide urgently needed relief to the heavily overloaded sections of the M6 where it passes through the West Midlands conurbation. It went on to note that the M6 plays a vital role in the national road network but that it had become the victim of its own success". This meant, and means, that it is one of the most heavily used sections of our motorway system. By 1980, average daily flows had already exceeded 110,000 vehicles in places, and peak flows of over 130,000 vehicles a day had been recorded. That is for a road with a design capacity of about 70,000 vehicles a day. The percentage of heavy goods vehicles was 30, which was exceptionally high. In other words, the M6 at certain times is near collapse in the Birmingham section. Anyone who uses the section knows how desperate the situation is. It is made even worse by essential road works and the level of accidents which occur.

The Department noted the growth of traffic levels and recorded that by the design year for the scheme there would he more than 200,000 vehicles per day in the north-west/south-east corridor through the region. A large percentage of the traffic passes through the conurbation or is long-distance traffic which has its origin or destination within it. It is the nature of this corridor traffic which leads many of us to believe that the north Birmingham relief road will become effectively an integral part of a continuous flow of traffic along the M6 from the north-west to the south-east. Hence it is commonly referred to as the new M6. The announcement of the preferred route brought into effect the blight provisions of section 192(1)(f) of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971.

The press release also advised that, depending on the time taken to get through the statutory stages and on the availability of funds, work on the scheme would commence in 1991 and that the new road could be open to traffic in 1993. By the time of the planning inspectorate's press release of 8 March 1988, subject to completion of the necessary statutory procedures construction could still start in 1991, but would take about three years to complete. Presumably that means an opening at some time in 1994.

The press release envisaged publication of the draft line orders in mid-1987. In the event, it was September of that year. On 8 March it was announced that there would be a public inquiry between 24 May and 23 September 1988. The inspector, Mr. Kavanagh, reported to the Departments of the Environment and of Transport before Easter of this year.

On 18 May, the Secretary of State published his White Paper entitled "Roads for Prosperity", with no reference to the Birmingham north orbital route. On 22 May, in a flurry of activity, he published his Green Paper entitled "New Roads by New Means", which dealt with bringing in private finance. Again, that did not mention the Birmingham, northern relief route. Characteristically, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State sent a letter dated that same day, which included his planted parliamentary question and his written response, which was to the effect that there is to be a competition for the finance, design, construction and operation of a private road, which would serve broadly the same purposes as would be served by the published proposals for the Birmingham northern relief road. This, for want of a better term, new road proposal would not be confined to the preferred route identified by the previous Secretary of State.

The thought that there is a possibility that a new motorway may be constructed somewhere, don't know where, don't know when, is a curious end piece to the hard-won acquiescence on an identified preferred route. Indeed, the Government have already spent about £10 million of our money on specialist firms and consultants, principally Sir Owen Williams and Partners.

The Minister claims that this work is not abortive. He will make this information available to private commercial firms—not to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker nor to me, nor to the general public who paid for these reports, but he will make it available to private commercial interests. Further, the Secretary of State thinks that it would be inappropriate to take decisions on the presently proposed draft scheme and orders until this "sometime future" competition—date unknown, legislative basis uncertain—has taken place. Homes and lives have been blighted, as recognised by the Department having already paid out £2·3 million, and there are more payments in the pipeline. All this is for a road that we are now led to understand may not be even approximately where its preferred route has been the subject of public inquiry.

I regret that the Minister's advocacy has caused both great uncertainty, with the possibility of a wider shadow of blight extending from Brownhills to Lichfield, and raised the spectre of delay. If I have understood his judgment, it is that somewhere in a corridor running from about Essington to Coleshill there may be a toll motorway. This toll motorway, if it is to meet earlier projections, should be in operation in 1994. It will be about 30 miles long and will have 12 junctions if it is to meet some of the purpose of the presently understood route. Being a private motorway, it will under present legislation require a private Bill or the hybrid Bill procedure. There have been private Bill promoters who can testify that this procedure can involve considerable delay.

To meet that difficulty the Government have decided on the introduction of a new procedure by way of amendment to the Highways Act 1980. The Secretary of State will legislate for the new M6 to be a private road. At least, that was the position until about 4.45 pm yesterday when, in another flurry of activity, the Department responded to a letter written some time ago. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who unfortunately cannot be here today, wrote to me, and I shall quote his letter as it has some bearing on the debate. It said: You have expressed in the strongest terms your own concern, and the representations you have received from your constituents, about the route which any privately financed Birmingham northern relief road should take and about the need to avoid delay—indeed, you are moving an Adjournment debate on the subject tomorrow. Having considered and reflected on these representations, I am writing to you to set out my conclusions. No discussion, no consultation—my right hon. Friend found himself in a hole and had to send a letter at 4.45 pm on the day before the debate.

The letter continued: As you know, my original intention had been to leave it open to bidders to propose their own route, for a road serving broadly the same purposes as the public sector proposal which we put to the public inquiry. The aim was to give the private sector maximum flexibility to propose routes which might offer better solutions than the original route; after all, one of the main advantages of involving the private sector in the provisions of roads is to make use of their innovative ideas and skills. Nevertheless, you have made it very clear to me that, after much work on the part of all concerned, the present route has achieved a good degree of consensus; and you have persuaded me that it would be too damaging and disruptive to leave bidders the freedom to propose wholly new routes. That is two months after the Government had already created great uncertainty and anxiety. It continued: I therefore now propose to meet your concerns by requiring bidders to make proposals which broadly follow the line of the route originally proposed by my Department to the public inquiry. They may not propose entirely new routes. Bidders will of course produce their own designs and will have freedom to propose variations or improvements to the route. These will be considered at the public inquiry, along with all other aspects of the successful tenderer's proposals. It will be open to objectors to propose alternative routes or variations, just as they were able to do at the inquiry into the Department's original proposals. The Inspector will have to consider proposals and objections on their merits, and I will examine the Inspector's report in the light of all the relevant considerations.I am able to meet your concerns about the route because of the special circumstances of the BNRR which you have made so clear to me. Private sector promoters will have greater freedom to propose routes in most other competitions, because there will not be an existing proposal at a fairly advanced stage of preparation. The decision on the route for the BNRR does not therefore set a precedent or compromise the underlying policy.I appreciate and share your concern about timing of the BNRR"— hallelujah. My aim is not to delay the scheme as a result of the private sector competition. The original publicly financed road was not due to open to traffic anyway until the mid-1990s, and that was subject to considerable uncertainty. That was slippage already. It continued: Similar uncertainties apply to a privately financed scheme, and indeed to all major road schemes. Subject to these uncertainties, I would expect a private financed scheme to be able broadly to match the former projected opening date of the mid-1990s. To reinforce the point, I shall ask bidders to make proposals on the basis of an opening date in 1995. For our part, we shall proceed as fast as possible. This month we are issuing background material to potential bidders, and next month a formal invitation to tenderers to pre-quality will be placed in the EC Journal. I do not want to delay the House, but in that flurry of correspondence I also received a letter from my hon. Friend the Minister for Roads and Traffic, responding on behalf of my hon. Friend the Minister for Public Transport. It is important to some of my constituents because it raises the question of awarding some of the costs of successful objectors. I shall quote it because it is important to put it on the record. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for signing the letter in time for me to receive it before the debate. It said: Thank you for your letter of 16 June to Michael Portillo. It is the Department's practice following a decision on an inquiry to award qualified successful objectors some or all of their costs depending on the degree of success. A qualified objector is one with an interest in the land affected such as owner lessee or occupier.Where a decision is made to abandon the proposals entirely objectors' costs are dealt with immediately. In cases where it is intended that fresh proposals will be taken forward, the assessment of costs is usually deferred until the final decision has been taken.In the case of the Birmingham Northern Relief Road it was announced that a decision following the inquiry would be deferred until the private finance competition has taken place. Award of objectors' costs will be considered once the decision on the inquiry has been announced.If as a result of the competition it is decided to implement proposals other than those taken to the inquiry, claims for costs will be invited from qualified objectors.Objectors' costs cover all reasonable costs incurred in preparing and presenting the case at the inquiry—including such items as travelling expenses. Many citizens' action groups, having a genuine concern for their environment and locality, cannot meet the criteria set out in that letter, despite the fact that they may have incurred considerable costs. Some individuals may even be dead by the time that the matter of costs is considered.

My intention is not to review the proposals for new road finance or to attack them. None of us finds it particularly difficult to accept the principle that, in the case of new roads such as the corridor between Birmingham and Manchester announced in the Green Paper, one must canvass all possible alternatives for their financing and construction. However, the northern relief road has already been 10 years in preparation, from its preparatory and initial stages through to the public inquiry. We shall have a difficult problem in political terms in convincing local residents—particularly given that there has been no improvement to Aldridge-Brownhills' roads infrastructure for 25 years, despite its population increasing from 35,000 to nearly 92,000—that they are now confronted by the possibility of a toll road that will toll part of a continuous M6, from the north-west to the south-east. There is also the issue of the 12 junctions, which I am sure my hon. Friend the Minister is considering carefully.

The sequence of announcements has given rise to the belief locally that a deal has been cobbled up with national construction companies such as Tarmac, which have convinced the Ministry that the quick kill method of introducing the concept to the public is to take over a project in which citizens have already invested £10 million and whose public inquiry they also financed. All of that is being thrown up in the air in a curious way. In a debate only the other week, my hon. Friend the Minister said, as I understood him, that the matter merits no significant debate. Therefore, we must countenance either new legislation or the use of the private Member's Bill or hybrid Bill procedure. It is difficult to understand how that does not imply delay, particularly when a Europeanwide competition is also involved.

I have tried to express some of the frustrations that are felt in connection with that matter. What function can we perform as Members of Parliament when a Secretary of State and a Minister of State do not think it is worth even consulting local Members of Parliament and of continuing a tradition established by their predecessors in seeking such advice? This Adjournment debate is indicative of the insensitivity of senior Ministers, who did not even feel that it was worth troubling local residents or their elected representatives in respect of a tremendously important decision.