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Northern Relief Road (Birmingham)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:53 pm on 14th July 1989.

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Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 2:53 pm, 14th July 1989

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) on securing the debate and on the basically fair way in which he conveyed his views and the concerns and interests of his constituents. My hon. Friend will not be surprised if I totally reject any words of his that might be taken as criticism either of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State or of my hon. Friend the Minister for Public Transport.

Single Member constituencies make it possible for people's interests to be forcefully presented. If there is one thing to be said about my hon. Friend, it is that he never puts forward his views in any other way. If he has a view worth expressing, he presents it in a manner that ensures that all hear it clearly. That is demonstrated by the response of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in the letter that my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills read out.

I am grateful also for my hon. Friend's kind remarks about the letter on successful objectors' costs. It is important to come to the House of Commons not with some goodies to distract attention, but to try to provide information so that hon. Members can make their speeches in the light of known information rather than do a magician's act.

I now refer to the general point about "New Roads by New Means"—the private funding, design, even private operating opportunities. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has rightly been congratulated on his mainly successful attempts so far to remove unnecessay obstacles to private sector involvement. My hon. Friend, with his west midlands constituency, will know that we would not have had canals if it had been up to the Treasury and the Department of Transport to provide them. Also, we would not have had railways, so many ports, or airports if it had been up to central Government. On many occasions, central Government are even more conservative than I am. In looking for private sector involvement, we have made great strides forward. The Channel tunnel is perhaps the biggest private sector scheme in the world at the moment. I would not spend too much time talking about the Dartford to Thurrock bridge, which is to provide extra capacity linking the M25 across the Thames.

When my right hon. Friend wanted to bring forward new opportunties for private sector involvement, he could have said, "We will not start even looking at any scheme if it has been in the roads programme." That would probably have meant that there would be no private sector involvement, in addition to the ones that we have in different forms at the moment, for about 13 years. I do not think that anyone would want that.

My hon. Friend's main criticism is that the Department was unable to consult him and our hon. Friends who represent the other parts of what we might call the new M6. If that has caused offence, I apologise. It was probably correct to try to treat the House of Commons as a whole in putting forward the proposal. My hon. Friend said also that the Department and its Ministers claim some credit for the modification of what my right hon. Friend called the purist view, instead of allowing private sector competitors to range far and wide and create a great deal of extra uncertainty. In a press notice and in a letter to my hon. Friend, my right hon. Friend said that the bidders will be expected to stick to pretty well the line, the route and the function of the new M6 as we put it to inquiry.

I emphasise the point that my hon. Friend read from the letter from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. We hope that there will not be much unnecessary extra delay. I hope that no one listening to the debate or reading reports of it afterwards will assume that road schemes run like clockwork anyway. The nearest analogy that I can think of is a dinghy race things can only go wrong, and there is no normal way of accelerating, although we will do the best we can on the M40. My hon. Friend the Minister of State is doing all he can to try to make sure that we learn the lessons. We will all learn lessons from my hon. Friend's speech and from his constituents' concern.

As time moves on, many of the apprehensions that have rightly been expressed will turn out not to have foundation. Notification of the European competition is in the official journal. People will then qualify for the tendering process. That should not provide, as the cliché goes, an ongoing continuing delay situation. It should be a one-off—a notice that, if one wants to come in, that is fine.

I refer those who are interested in this subject to the working party on private finance in the construction industry sector group of the National Economic Development Office and the paper entitled "Private Participation in Infrastructure Projects" by R. S. Dobson. It refers to some of the problems that the private sector faces and what kind of action plan would move things forward. It would be in the interests of the private sector who wish to bid and also in the interests of my hon. Friend's constituents to read it.

I place on record quietly but firmly that nothing that we are doing is at the behest or in the interests of a particular construction firm. People may have had their doubts, but they are not correct. On the two other occasions when people have had bright ideas in the construction industry, we have gone out to tender, and on each occasion the people who first had a good idea were not the ones who won the tender competition. There is no given right for people to say that the intellectual property or idea they may have had in the first place, which may or may not duplicate other things in this or in other countries, necessarily gives them the right to win a large contract or to get the advantage of a parliamentary procedure, which, as my hon. Friend said, could be under general legislation or a hybrid Bill. What matters is that we meet the interests of travellers while meeting the interests of local people during the period of uncertainty.

The blight and the delay connected with various road schemes cause me concern. My hon. Friend and his parliamentary neighbours share that concern. Future plans will be introduced without unnecessary delay. When the history of the Birmingham northern relief road, or the new M6, is written, I think we shall find that the movement towards the provision of private finance is a plus rather than a minus and that, because of my hon. Friend's work, and that of others like him, there will be relatively little extra delay. His constituents will therefore be grateful for the representations that my hon. Friend has made on their behalf in the House and to the Departmentof Transport.