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M4 Route, South Gloucestershire

Volume 656: debated on Monday 19 March 1962

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. Whitelaw.]

9.50 p.m.

As my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport will be aware, this debate arises from the considerable controversy which has made itself felt in my constituency over the proposed routing of the M.4 between Tormarton—near the edge of the Cotswold escarpment—and Almondsbury, where a junction is to be provided with the M.5 running from Birmingham to Bristol.

I have had voluminous correspondence with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport and it is largely as a result of this that this debate has arisen. I regret that my right hon. Friend has not been able to attend in person to reply to the debate. I have, however, had a very courteous letter from him in explanation, which, of course, I fully accept. But I would emphasise that it is solely with my right hon. Friend that I am at odds and that I have no quarrel of any sort with my hon. Friend.

As my hon. Friend knows, the basic cause of the dispute is the pronounced sweep to the south which this proposed route takes after leaving Tormarton, to skirt the built-up area north of Bristol, and around Downend and Mangotsfield, before turning north again to Almondsbury. This is entirely in Gloucestershire and most of it is in my constituency. Since there appears to be a good alternative by a virtually straight route between these two places across open country, which would result in a saving of about 1¼ miles of motorway, it is not surprising that the merits of my right hon. Friend's proposals are not immediately apparent to myself or my constituents.

Regarding engineering requirements, I have made it clear throughout that I profess to no expertise whatever and that I am very willing to be convinced by my hon. Friend either that his proposals are the best available or that they have such advantages that they outweigh the apparent disadvantages. So far, however, my right hon. Friend has wholly failed to convince me on this matter.

Since I applied for this debate I understand that the Warmley Rural District Council has resolved formally to maintain its objection and, as a result, there will be a public inquiry which, of course, will be the proper forum at which to discuss the merits of the various alternative routes. All I will say for the present is that, as I understand it, the statutory provisions which are now contained in the Highways Act, 1959, require the Minister to invite and consider objections and representations on the publication of his scheme. My right hon. Friend is obliged to hold a public inquiry if the objectors include local authorities—for which purpose a parish council is not included—or, in other words, local authorities of the status of county districts and upwards.

Where this does not happen my right hon. Friend has the complete discretion in deciding whether or not to hold a public inquiry. No doubt, as a general proposition, county district councils are the proper bodies to decide whether their localities are sufficiently affected to justify a demand for a public inquiry. But it certainly does not follow—and I hope that my hon. Friend will bear this strongly in mind—that, if no county district or larger local authority formally objects, other objections or representants should be dismissed as irrelevant or without importance. In planning a motor route limitations of both gradient and curvature can have the effect of producing repercussions over a wide area if there are alterations. It certainly does not follow that, because the representatives of a particular village affected have been unable to gain sufficient support in the rural district council, that implies a decision on merits. A final decision of a rural district council in these circumstances may just as well depend on the fear of repercussions elsewhere which, by the nature of these things, are bound to be not very precise at this stage, as upon any contention that the objections of a village or parish council Whose views have not been supported are groundless.

Secondly, it inevitably happens at times, and it has happened in this case, that the proposed route traverses the boundary between two county districts, so that the inhabitants directly affected are inevitably less strongly represented in either of the county districts than they would be if they all lived in the same county district. If, therefore, these statutory provisions to which I have referred are to provide the safeguard which Parliament evidently intended them to provide in the interests of the public at large, then it is of the utmost importance that objections, even if they do not come from local authorities in this sense, should be considered seriously and as matters of importance.

I am bound to say that I have not formed the impression from this correspondence with the Minister that this has been the case, and this is not an impression which has been in any way shaken by re-reading this correspondence over the weekend in preparation for this debate. In particular, figures as to cost have been given without revealing, as has subsequently transpired, that there has in fact been no costing of alternative routes. Nor does it appear, in dismissing a suggestion for a shorter route on the ground that there would be an increased capital cost for bridging, that any consideration has been given to the saving in maintenance costs resulting from a much smaller total area of road surface.

One or two of my right hon. Friend's replies really appear so wide of the mark that it shakes one's confidence in the whole of the approach of the Ministry and its thoroughness in considering these matters. It was seriously suggested, for instance, that the addition of a mile and a half to the total distance from London to Bristol would encourage people to use the existing route from Chippenham to Bristol where they would leave the M.4. To anyone who knows the road from Chippenham to Bristol that is absolute nonsense.

Of course, it may well be that my right hon. Friend's failure to make a convincing case may not arise from the lack of merit of his case or from unwillingness. It may well arise purely from inability to make the case. Certainly some of the remarks in these letters make one wonder what they are trying to express. In one letter, for example, my right hon. Friend, apparently nettled by some of the comments of my constituents on some of his proposals, wrote as follows:
"At that stage I have your constituent's detailed arguments in support of my proposals. These were countered by somewhat abusive letters which scarcely even attempted to counter facts with facts."
I naturally replied that I was sorry he found it necessary to counter my constituent's arguments with abusive letters, but I am not sure that it was a reply that was very well appreciated.

Trivial as this incident, is I think it discloses a certain woolliness of thought that has run through the whole of this correspondence that can hardly add to one's confidence in the thoroughness of the Ministry in dealing with matters for which it is responsible.

There is a second aspect of this matter which, to my mind, is much more important than the purely technical and economic problems of road construction. This is the planning aspect. It is perfectly true to say that the route of this road has been shown on the Gloucestershire development plan since, I believe, 1953. It is also true to say that probably the majority of the houses in the neighbourhood have been built since then, and it may be said, therefore, that they were built or bought with knowledge. I took the view that the residents had no grounds for complaint, until I interviewed members of the committee which the residents concerned had set up, and then I had second thoughts.

It being Ten o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. McLaren.]

It seemed to me at that stage that there was serious planning objections to this route. In the first plaice it does not seem on the face of it very sensible to go out of one's way to bring a major motorway into a built-up area, and this view was very forcefully confirmed in the subsequent inquiry into the amendments to the Gloucestershire development plan. The area planning officer, giving evidence, said that

"had the planning authorities known in the past what they now know about the M.1 they would not have routed the M.4 along its present line."
A similar statement was made by the county planning officer, though I am not absolutely certain that this was made actually at the inquiry or whether it was made publicly in some other context. However, it is his recorded view that the experience now available from the M.1 indicates that it would be unwise in the future to site residential development within 200 yards of a motorway. This is, of course, a figure which contrasts very strikingly with the matter of 50 to 100 ft. which are the distances between some of the houses affected in my constituency and the proposed route.

Of course, one could argue that the planning authorities were themselves at fault in allowing this to have happened, but even if that were so there is no possible argument in favour of perpetuating that fault by adhering to this route if another route which does not have these disadvantages is available. What those who blame the planning authorities are saying—and I think that my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend are saying this—is that two wrongs make a right, that having once messed up the development plan one can go on and make it worse simply because somebody else is not prepared to look at the position as it now is, as opposed to what it was when they originally thought of this route. And, of course, it can be argued, as I know it is being argued, that if we offer land for building close to this motorway we should undoubtedly get somebody to build on it and somebody would buy the houses, just as we would get people to buy slum property, but it does not follow that it is in the public interest to build the houses and it certainly does not follow that it is the duty of a local planning authority to condone development of this nature.

However this may be, I suggest that some regard should be had to the expert views of planning officers, particularly of the status of a county planning officer. They undoubtedly have and must have a very considerable knowledge and experience of planning matters if they are to reach that position at all, and in this case both the county planning officer and the area planning officer have held their positions for a considerable number of years and must, therefore, have, added to their general knowledge, a particular knowledge of the locality, its peculiarities and its needs.

I find disturbing the cursory manner in which my right hon. Friend dismisses evidence of this nature. Writing to me on 2nd January of this year he stated:
"For example, the County Planning Officer is entitled to his views about reserving belts of road on each side of a motorway: his views are, however, not necessarily generally accepted."
To this I replied to the effect that although there might well be other people who held contrary views they were not likely, in my opinion, to carry much weight if they remained anonymous. Again, I had a reply from my right hon. Friend, this time dated 20th February:
"You twice quote the views of the County Planning Officer. So far as I am aware he merely advanced a personal opinion, which is not at all the same thing as publicly admitting conclusions drawn from experience. I do not accept his contention, nor do I regard it as authoritative, and I certainly do not feel any obligation to refute every chance remark an individual may make."
But I think that it should be noted that even if the county planning officer did not make this remark at the public inquiry when giving evidence, his deputy did, and to ignore planning evidence of this nature and calibre seems to me to raise very serious issues.

In a number of planning debates in the House and in discussions elsewhere I and a number of other hon. Members, notably my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes), have repeatedly expressed a fear that the real threat to proper planning was lack of coordination and consultation between my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government, who is nominally responsible, and my right hon. Friends the Minister of Transport and the President of the Board of Trade who to a large extent determine the pattern of planning which the Minister of Housing and Local Government has to follow. What determines where people live is where they work—the location of industry—and though it may be said that new roads follow the existing location of industry to some extent, it can equally be said that the location of new industry follows the existing roads. As I said in the House the other night, to argue which comes first is like arguing about the chicken and the egg.

However that may be, what is abundantly clear is that we shall not have sound planning unless there is the closest consultation between these three Departments in particular, and perhaps to a less extent, with the Minister of Power. My right hon. Friend's attitude in this matter proves quite clearly that this consultation is not taking place. Although this is an Adjournment debate on a matter primarily of local importance, I hope that the wider issues will not be lost sight of and that it will be appreciated that this is further evidence of the urgent need of a permanent committee of the Cabinet to deal with matters of planning and to ensure that consultation and co-ordination take place, and to let it be seen by the public that they in fact take place.

At this point I want to refer to my right hon. Friend's representations or attitude towards the objections made to this route by the county district councils. There is no doubt whatever that a good deal of effort has been devoted to putting my right hon. Friend's case in the hope that these objections will be withdrawn and that consequently there will be no need to have a public inquiry. My right hon. Friend's explanation of this, which again I quote from a letter is:
"I am not trying to bully them"—
that is the county districts—
"but to explain the complete significance of my proposals."
I do not object to that, but I strongly object to my right hon. Friend's method of doing it.

After the Mangotsfield Urban District Council which, incidentally is not in my constituency, had decided, by the exercise of the chairman's casting vote, not to proceed with its objection, it was suggested by my right hon. Friend that a deputation from the Ministry of Transport should visit the Warmley Rural District Council with this object in view. The chairman of the Warmley Council immediately rang me up at my home in Gloucestershire and it was mutually agreed—I cannot remember who suggested it first—that I should attend.

My right hon. Friend's reaction, and again I quote from a letter, dated 9th February, was that he had:
"instructed his officials to tell the Council that there is no objection to your attendance provided that you will undertake to respect the confidential nature of the proceedings."
Although I am not normally very enamoured of any meeting of this sort being behind closed doors, to the exclusion of the Press or the public unless there are good reasons for it, I should probably have not been unduly concerned had it merely been a suggestion of a private meeting. The question of respecting confidence seems to me to have a quite different suggestion or implication, and I therefore wrote to my right hon. Friend seeking clarification. I wrote these words, which I think are important:
"Finally, I am not at all sure what you mean by 'respecting the confidential nature' of the proposed meeting … on the merits of the various routes proposed, I remain wholly open to conviction. If I am convinced that the Ministry's proposals are the best, but cannot express my convictions and the reasons for them outside the meeting, I certainly cannot fulfil my duties as an M.P., or be of any help to your Department. Similarly, if I am not convinced, I have every intention of continuing to give every support to my constituents, and I really cannot bind myself to an undertaking not to disclose the reasons why I am unconvinced. And, of course, I could not possibly undertake not to refer to the arguments put forward by your officials in any proceedings that may arise thereafter in the House. Such undertakings, in my view, are wholly inconsistent with the duties of a Member of Parliament. If you do not feel that in these circumstances the meeting can be held unless the R.D.C. withdraw their invitation to me … perhaps you will let me know as soon as possible."
Again, I got a letter which reminds me of those examination papers which one had when young when one thought one had written a magnificent essay, but which were found to have written across the bottom "Read the Question". I got a letter which did not advert to what I was asking at all. The reply was:
"I find it difficult to understand the position you are taking. If you are invited to a meeting which the parties concerned have agreed should be private, surely, you can respect that without any inconsistency."
The use of the word "private", I submit, is something quite different from the use of the word "confidential". What possible grounds can there be for such secrecy? It wholly escapes me, and I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to enlighten me.

This is a public matter which involves enormous sums of public money, and it is a matter of very considerable anxiety locally in my constituency. Members of a rural district council, just as much as Members of the House of Commons, have to carry their constituents with them, and that they should be precluded from using arguments in order to do so is, to my mind, contrary to the whole system of public administration which we have built up.

It is only two years ago that Parliament clearly indicated its dislike for this sort of thing by passing the Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act, which was followed by a circular issued by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government—Circular 21/61, dated 17th May, 1961—which clearly requested the local authorities—perhaps that is not a strong enough word; adjured local authorities—to regard this question of admission of the public as a matter of general implication, and that they should be excluded only when the reasons for doing so were overwhelming.

There are no possible reasons why in this case the public and the Press should have been excluded, and, moreover, the whole thing was so very silly. What happened was that the chairman of the rural district council, who is a better democrat than my right hon. Friend, explained quite clearly to the representatives of the Ministry that he was having none of this at all, and it was then mutually agreed that there was nothing secret or confidential about it. A statement was issued to the Press; indeed, I am not certain that members of the Press were not present. What I do know is that a verbatim report was taken, and that I was one of the first recipients of a copy.

The whole thing is absolutely futile, and I hope that my hon. Friend, if he cannot explain the idiosyncracies of my right hon. Friend—and I have a good deal of sympathy with him in that matter—will at least give me an assurance that this sort of thing will not happen again. I know that back-benchers are regarded by Government Departments as people of very little importance. In some respects they may be right, but we represent between 50,000 and 60,000 people who are important, and I for one do not intend to be fobbed off with nonsense of this description.

I want to say a word—I do not apologise to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary for going beyond time—not about the issues with regard to this public inquiry but about its procedure. On a number of occasions, I have in another capacity attended inquiries held on behalf of the Ministry of Transport. Almost invariably they start by a statement by the inspector, who is not one of the panel employed by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government that the representatives of the Ministry are there to answer technical questions but they are not to be cross-examined and they can refuse to answer any question which they choose. I have been to inquiries where we have witnessed the farce of counsel asking questions perhaps for twenty minutes on end with no reply at all until eventually the representative of the Minister gets bored and answers.

This may be, strictly legally, a public inquiry as supported by a decision of the Court of Appeal in 1939, but it is wholly contrary to Franks. I will not bore my hon. Friend at this late hour by reading it to him myself, but I would refer him to the Franks Report beginning at paragraph 314 which is headed "Evidence of Government Departments", and particularly to what is said in paragraphs 316 and 317. My hon. Friend will see that this is wholly contrary to the recommendation of the Franks Committee. Therefore, I ask him to give an assurance that in future public inquiries held on behalf of his Ministry will conform to Franks, and that this will apply especially to the inquiry in question.

I conclude by reminding my hon. Friend of the issues that emerge. First, there is the necessity for really seriously considering objections and representations, as long as they are not obviously frivolous, from ordinary people who are not necessarily local authorities. Otherwise, whatever the wording of the Act may be, its spirit is not being fulfilled—the spirit of the Parliamentary decision to provide and write into an Act safeguards for private persons in matters of this sort.

Secondly, there is the urgent necessity for securing proper consultation and cooperation in planning matters between my hon. Friend's Ministry, the Board of Trade and the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, and for ensuring that this co-operation is seen to be secured.

Thirdly, I hope that I shall have some assurance that the policy of the Government remains that which is laid down in the circular to which I have referred—that matters of this sort shall be discussed in public as a general rule and that public and Press will be excluded only when there are overwhelming reasons to that effect, and not the other way round, although I confess that, even if the policy was reversed, in this case the reasons for the presence of the Press and the public seem to be overwhelming.

Finally, there is the question of the conduct of public inquiries, in respect of which I again hope that I shall have an assurance that any future public inquiries conducted on behalf of the Ministry of Transport will be in accordance with Franks and that this will apply in particular to the public inquiry into the route of the M.4 as it affects my constituents.

10.19 p.m.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, South (Mr. Corfield) began what has proved to be quite a long speech by remarking on the absence of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport. But he went on to say that he understood why my right hon. Friend could not be present and acknowledged a letter from my right hon. Friend, which he described as courteous, apologising for his absence. It is worth putting on record that, in this letter, my right hon. Friend made the not unreasonable point that, with three Parliamentary Secretaries in his Department, it might possibly be expected and, indeed, accepted by hon. Members that occasionally the Minister might be excused from personal attendance at the Box.

This case bids fair to become a classic in the annals in the Ministry of Transport. If ever it were necessary to show the sort of frustrations and difficulties that we are up against in trying to get the motorway network built, this is that case. I want to describe as briefly as I can the history of this matter because, when we are criticised, as we often are, by hon. Members opposite, by my hon. Friends, by bodies outside like the R.A.C., the A.A., the Roads Campaign Council and others, for dragging our feet and being slow in getting on with building motorways; when it is said, as it often is, that, despite the passage of time and the expenditure of large sums of money, we still have only just under 150 miles of motorway and it will be another three or four years before we have the network completed, then, to balance the account one needs to take cognisance of the sort of experience which we have had in this case.

We are talking about the London-South Wales Motorway, which will run from London right down to the Severn Bridge and across into South Wales. The Severn Bridge is being built now, and should be ready by 1966. It will cost the taxpayer about £16 million. The section of the motorway with which my hon. Friend is concerned is about 11½ miles long. This section and the approach section of the motorway up to the bridge are timed to start in 1963 and to be completed in 1966 at the time that the bridge is finished.

It was as long ago as 1951 that knowledge of this particular section of the motorway first became public. In the development plan of 1951, this line was drawn and, thereafter, under the Statute, the line was protected. At Downend, the area to which my hon. Friend has referred, development for the building of houses was permitted by the county planning authority up to this line, which had been protected, and this building took place after 1953. One is entitled to assume that people who bought or acquired or built houses in this immediate vicinity, if they had made the normal researches that any prudent person would have done, would have discovered that a motorway was to be built at the end of their back gardens.

Part of this area is in the domain of the Mangotsfield Urban District Council and part in that of the Warmley Rural District Council, and the total section we are concerned with is 2½ miles. The motorway will run to the north of the housing development I have described. Part of it will be on an embankment above the level of the back gardens of these houses, and part of it in a cutting below the level of the back gardens, The nearest property is in three streets—Church Lane, Trident Close and Four Acre Crescent. The motorway there will be about 20 feet from the end of the gardens.

I emphasise that our plans do not provide for any acquisition of the houses or of their gardens. The local people claim—and they are very vociferous about it—that there will be substantial damage to their amenities. All I can say, with respect to them, is that this is something which they should have thought about when they bought their properties back in 1953 or subsequently. I should also add that my right hon. Friend's Landscape Advisory Committee, which is a very well qualified body, has examined these proposals and has concluded that no substantial damage to amenities will occur at all.

I would like to turn to the position of the local councils. As my hon. Friend has said, the Highways Act gives certain local authorities the power to lodge objections to a motorway scheme. In this case there are five—the Gloucestershire County Council, the Mangotsfield Urban District Council and the Thornbury, Sodbury and Warmley Rural District Councils. Only one of those councils has lodged an objection to the proposal. Gloucestershire is happy. We have heard that the Mangotsfield Urban District Council has not lodged an objection and two of the rural district councils are happy, but Warmley is not. On 30th November, only ten days before the objection period expired, Warmley Rural District Council told us that it had an objection.

The history is interesting. In 1951, Warmley approved the development plan for Gloucestershire in principle. In 1959, the Gloucestershire County Council circulated draft engineering details of the motorway. On 11th September, Warmley acknowledged them and made no comment. In 1960, the quinquennial review of the development plan took place and the maps attached to it were approved by the Warmley Rural District Council. In April, 1961, a public inquiry took place into the review of the development plan. Warmley offered no objection.

I cannot give way, for time is now too short.

In September, 1961, a draft scheme for the motorway was published and on 31st October we received a letter from Warmley Council saying that it had no objection. On 30th November, exactly a month later, and, as I have said, only ten days before the objection period expired, we had another letter from Warmley saying that it had an objection. Of course, we wanted to discuss that with the council and that was why we had the meeting to which my hon. Friend referred. We wanted to find out in a private meeting what were the reasons which, after this long history of no objection, suddenly made this council, which now has the power completely to block this scheme for a long time, make this extraordinary volte face and say that it had an objection.

We have now asked the council whether it really meant that it wanted to object and it has said that it did and confirmed it. So we have to have a public inquiry. Whatever we would like to do, and however fast we want to move, we have to have a public inquiry—

—simply because the council has lodged an objection and we are forced to it.

It is no good my hon. Friend saying in one breath that that is what Parliament has said if, at the same time, he and many others complain about the slow speed at which the motorways are built. We will have a public inquiry. My right hon. Friend will set up a public inquiry just as quickly as he can. He will ask the inspector to submit his report just as quickly as he can. He will acknowledge that report and come to a decision about it as quickly as he can. Warmley will have its public inquiry.

And the taxpayer will have to pay for it.

The taxpayer will have to pay for it. I am obliged to the hon. Member.

This is the sort of thing we have to put up with. If we do not get a public inquiry as quickly as we would like, there is an overwhelming risk that the Severn Bridge will be finished while the connecting roads will not be ready. I remind my hon. Friend and his constituents that when the time comes, and if it comes—

It is no good my hon. Friend saying that we should have started earlier. We started in 1951. It is now eleven years later and I do not know what more we could have done, or how much more quickly we could have moved.

I must warn my hon. Friend that I would not be surprised if many motorists, the R.A.C., the A.A. and many others in the Bristol area had something to say to the Warmley Rural District Council for slowing up this matter. I make it absolutely clear that my right hon. Friend is determined to do what he is statutorily bound to do—to hold a public inquiry. We shall give Warmley Council and the residents of Warmley every opportunity to put their case, but it is our clear intention that we want to get the motorway built.

We will go into all these matters at a public inquiry and I can assure my hon. Friend that all the points which he has raised will be fully and satisfactorily answered. I must warn him that the risk is that we will now be seriously delayed in carrying through this important and expensive scheme just because one rural district council, covering a couple of miles, feels that, after having agreed all the way through since 1951, it must now change its tune and have a public inquiry.

Public inquiries were never intended for this sort of thing. They were intended for major schemes such as that which we had in Leicestershire.

The Question having been proposed at Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Ten o'clock.