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Stowmarket—Needham Market Bypass
20 October 1971
Volume 823

8.40 p.m.

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I am raising this evening a question which is of pure constituency interest and, therefore, other hon. Members may not want to speak about it, but at this hour it means that there will be an opportunity for other subjects to be raised on the Adjournment.

I want to raise the question of the completion of the bypass on the A45 round Stowmarket, Needham Market and Claydon, a distance of 10 to 11 miles. I am doing this at the first opportunity after the Minister's announcement of his acceptance of a scheme after what my constituents and I feel is great and unnecessary delay.

Perhaps I should recapitulate the story. In the 1950s I took a delegation from the Stowmarket Urban District Council to the Ministry of Transport to see the then Parliamentary Secretary, the present Lord Nugent of Guildford now in another place. It was not about a bypass. In the 1950s, everybody realised that the main road through Stowmarket was congested and too narrow and that a relief road was necessary, and this was discussed. There have since been many changes of mind and planning. No one seems to have realised until recently the importance of having a dual carriageway from the West to the East; from Birmingham right through to the Port of Felixstowe. Over the years, especially in the 1960s, there have been outline schemes as the idea of a bypass for Stowmarket developed. It was then decided to go further and to include Needham Market. That plan seemed to be going ahead when someone had the idea of extending it still further round Great Blakenham and even round the village of Claydon, which was then growing. Claydon is only three miles from the town of Ipswich. This is where we got into great difficulties, because Claydon is not an easy place round which to make a bypass.

I wrote to the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Park (Mr. Mulley) saying that I would have to raise—not personally against him in any way—the conduct of his Ministry when he was the Minister in the last Labour Government. He acknowledged my letter and said that owing to this debate being early, it might not be possible for him to be here. I quite understand.

The reason was that the Eastern Construction Unit stationed at Bedford—part of the Department of the Environment, as it is now called, not the Ministry of Transport—produced the biggest cockeyed scheme which has ever been seen for running a bypass—an overhead road through the village of Claydon which would have been at the level of people's bedrooms. This naturally caused a tremendous outcry from the villagers of Claydon. They were concerned not only about their houses which were affected, but about being overlooked in their back gardens, the noise, and everything else. As far as I can ascertain, this was the first case of an overhead road being built through a village, although they have been built in urban districts. The right hon. Member for Sheffield, Park, as Minister, was wrong to endorse and allow this scheme to come forward. It would have disrupted the well-being of many people's lives and property.

The East Suffolk County Council was never happy with this line through Claydon, but wanted another route which was termed the "river route". The council was told by the Ministry that it would cost more, and under the hard-hearted Labour Government people's needs and well-being were not considered at all.

When this scheme came into final form, nearly every man and woman in the area put in objections, and an inquiry was fixed to be held in the early part of September last year, 1970. It follows, therefore, that my right hon. Friend, and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State who is to reply to the debate tonight, cannot be held responsible for this scheme, or for what happened before. When they assumed office on that great day in June last year this inquiry was fixed, and the scheme had been set out.

I gave evidence against the Ministry's scheme, and in favour of the river route, as did many other people in Claydon and the neighbouring areas. A local county councillor, Mr. Mills, working under tremendous difficulties and pressure of time, produced an even wider route round the village. It had a lot of merit, but it was a good deal more expensive than the river route. The upshot was that the inspector upheld the river route, and I am informed that his decision was known in about February of this year.

This is where I am afraid I must attach some blame to the present Minister, not so much to him personally, but to his Department, for a general slackening off in progress. The etiquette of the House is to blame a Minister for what happens in his Department, and the fault lies in failing to realise that the Ministry's first scheme was useless and would not be accepted by the Inspector, in not getting on with working out the necessary assessments if the river route were accepted, and particularly because the Suffolk and Norfolk River Board was not informed about the importance of the river route two or three years earlier so that it could do soundings of water levels, and so on, to discover whether that route would be appropriate. It was not until the last days of September of this year, more than a year after the inquiry was held, that my right hon. Friend was able to announce that the river route line had been chosen.

During the year since the inquiry I have, both officially and unofficially, pressed the matter with Ministers concerned. I had always been given to understand that as soon as the line was fixed, and the Minister had announced it, construction would start in 1972, and I had assumed, not unnaturally, that that would be in the spring of 1972. After all, that would be 18 months from the time of the inquiry.

As I said earlier, the previous Minister of Transport was, I think, in grave fault in allowing this scheme for Claydon to be put forward, but what I want to stress is the fact that there are great traffic difficulties in Stowmarket and Needham Market and there is tremendous resentment because the scheme for Claydon put back the solving of these difficulties and made the inquiry last for so long.

I should like to know whether my right hon. Friend has reactivated the whole of the Eastern Construction Unit at Bedford, and whether there is someone in authority there who understands modern construction methods and the kind of roads that we need in this industrial age. I should like to quote a classic bad example of what was done a little further along the A45 towards Bury St. Edmunds. A few years ago a bypass with many bends was constructed round the village of Woolpit, and because they did not provide a dual carriageway one often has difficulty in passing a slow moving heavy lorry.

That is the past. Time slips by and I am enough of a realist to know that what has happened cannot be rectified. What we want to know is when the road will be finished. The situation is made all the worse for the local people by the fine and rapid development of the Felixstowe Docks and the new container lorries, both foreign and British, which go along the A45 carrying goods to the, and from the, Felixstowe Docks. The docks are to double their tonnage from 2,500,000 to 5 million by the end of 1973.

The Minister, I am glad to say, visited the docks a few months ago and announced Government aid for about half the extension, so that £4 million will be granted for this scheme. But will the road be finished by the time of the expansion of the docks? That is not all. After 1973, if the tonnage demands it, as is likely, there are plans for even further extensions.

I return to the hub of the question, which is the town of Stowmarket. The A45 through Stowmarket is so narrow that if two container lorries face each other to pass, one has to mount the pavement, at the risk of the lives of pedestrians. There have been accidents and property has been damaged. One is constantly reading newspaper reports to that effect. One example is when in early September of this year a man who had put up a new shop blind and plate glass window had his money wasted because a lorry with an overhanging load mounted the pavement and smashed it all.

I have been in touch with the Stowmarket U.D.C. which complains that the weight of traffic is breaking up the surface of the existing carriageway in Stowmarket. The unevenness of the road is deplorable and there are constant complaints about it. Regular requests for remedial work are, naturally, forwarded to the county council, but no amount of maintenance work will overcome the problem. The very uneven surface of the carriageway is dangerous to pedestrians when they are crossing a road. It is dangerous to road users generally and it constitutes a major hazard to cyclists and motor-cyclists.

When a road is badly pitted, water collects at the kerbside in wet weather and cannot drain away properly. In winter months standing water freezes, as we know, and this makes for an additional hazard to pedestrians and vehicles. Pedestrians are further inconvenienced when using the pavements in wet weather because filthy water and slush collect in the roadway and vehicles cannot avoid spraying people on the footways in narrow sections of the streets.

I should like my hon. Friend to draw the attention of the Secretary of State for the Environment to the dust, dirt and noise which are created by heavy traffic and which are rapidly destroying the environment and amenities in the conservation area which covers the centres of Stowmarket and Needham Market.

Stowmarket Council does not underestimate the problems of land acquisition in a scheme of this size, but it is felt that the district valuer should be requested to make as early a start as possible on the negotiations for the purchase of the northern section of the road through Stowmarket and the south of Needham Market where there are no great problems with the new selected line.

I could give the Parliamentary Secretary letters from doctors about how this is affecting the health of people living on this route, so close to the traffic in these narrow streets. If they do their houses up, all their clean new paintwork soon looks as though it had been up for years because of the dirt that is thrown at it.

I have received a copy today of a telegram sent by the chambers of trade of Stowmarket and Needham Market to the Minister for Transport Industries, urging him to use every endeavour to get on with this bypass. This is what the local people, putting it very mildly—they express it in far stronger language to me—say has been happening. I give this Government the fullest marks, compared with the sleepiness of the Labour Government, for recognising the importance of a west-east road like the A45 in particular for our whole new economic development.

What is also worrying us—although we are pleased to see this—is that schemes are now going ahead for bypasses around Cambridge, Newmarket and Bury St. Edmunds, whereas, in the late fifties or early sixties, they were never thought of as being necessary compared with Stowmarket. Now, we seem to be behind all the others. What has gone wrong in the Ministry that our place has been usurped by these others? Nothing less than a crash programme is required for this bypass if we are not to have crashes in these towns and villages. I am certain that, if it were an operation of war, it could be done very quickly.

There are now very nasty rumours around in the county that no start will be made until 1973. I hope that the Minister will deny this and say that a start will be made next year, as we have all been led to expect. There may be delay in getting some of the designs out in his own Department or at Bedford. Let them not be behind those for these other bypasses. I am sure that, if his Department cannot get out these designs for bridges and so on, our East Suffolk County Council would be delighted to help out.

It is also important to know what type of contract this will be. Will it be for completion within one year—that is what I would like to see—or a year and a half? Either of these will be at a fixed price. But might it drift on for two years? That would mean that prices were adjusted to cost a lot more. I hope that that does not happen.

Tomorrow, we start our final debate on whether we are to enter the Common Market. If we are, no part of England is better situated than East Anglia and the hinterland of Felixstowe for the increased export of our goods to the Six. If we go in, as I said, I am sure that Felixstowe will expand its tonnage beyond 5 million.

Much of the increase of this traffic will be in these long container lorries. I was delighted to see that my right hon. Friend said the other day that he wants to keep these containers more on the main roads. This is important, because they are so slowed up through Stowmarket that many of them are taking the short cut across B and C roads, to the detriment of other villages.

A bypass round Trimley and Felixstowe is now being built straight down to the docks. I recall going to the Ministry with my hon. Friend the Member for Sudbury and Woodbridge (Mr. Stainton)—we did not get much response at that time—to point out that the A45 from Ipswich to Felixstowe should be made a trunk road so as to bring it under the Ministry of Transport. This has been done and we welcome it, but what will be the position of Ipswich when this bypass is built, within one and a half miles of its outskirts on the west and before the Felixstowe section starts in the east?

At present these big vehicles are going into the town of Ipswich, along Norwich Road, practically into the centre of the town, turning into Valley Road, which is no more than a relief road, although it is called the Ipswich Bypass. That is a misnomer. It is not even dual carriageway for the greater part of its length and already it is the cause of tremendous blockages and delays.

Nobody is doing more than my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Money), who deplores that through illness he is unable to be here to support me tonight, in his energy and enthusiasm to get something done about this problem. I hope the Minister will bear in mind what he and I have been saying—that we should not, by building one by-pass, cause a worse jam elsewhere.

Much delay happened under the Labour Government. The Conservative Government have recognised the need for this road, from the west to the east, particularly to cope with container lorries. The present state of affairs is having a terrible effect on people's lives and calls for urgent action and an immediate programme.

We feel strongly that we have been pushed to the bottom of the queue. How or why we do not know. Other bypasses have gone ahead and we have been left behind. Many people are suffering from this traffic congestion. It is vital, in the interests of the economic life of the country as well as to alleviate their suffering, that all possible efforts are made to see that the bypass of which I have spoken is started quickly and brought into use equally quickly.

9.8 p.m.

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I wish at the outset to thank my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Eye (Sir H. Harrison) for the courteous way in which he has taken the trouble to appraise me personally of this problem and of his views about it, not only tonight but on earlier occasions.

I am sure that he will accept my general assurance that as one of the Ministers responsible for the road programme, I am immensely sympathetic to the difficulties which confront all people who are faced with traffic congestion, the weight of growing traffic and the increased size of lorries near their doorsteps.

This is one of the reasons why we are giving great consideration to this matter and why we announced in our major road programme for the next decade measures for relieving traffic congestion in historic towns as well as our awareness of the need to ensure first-class highways to all ports in this country.

In general terms, therefore, I am extremely sympathetic to the plea made by my hon. and gallant Friend, though it is a plea which regrettably is made from one end of the country to the other. There are endless examples of congestion of one sort or another. It is our detemination to do everything we can as soon as possible to eliminate them.

I welcome the opportunity which my hon. and gallant Friend has given me in this short debate to tell a simple story which illustrates the time that is spent in thoroughly assessing the road proposals published by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, and the sort of flexibility which is necessary—though it is essential, within that flexibility, that a certain amount of time is involved if we are seriously to consider the outcome of the consultations that take place.

The plans for the A45 to bypass Stow-market and Needham Market are part now of the major improvement of the A45 trunk road between the Midlands and the East Coast, and we published them as part of our proposals for the decade in my right hon. Friend's announcement on 23rd June. There is not the slightest doubt that one of the reasons which influenced us in the context of this road, the A45, was our clear awareness of the growing container traffic which now, on an ever increasing scale, goes back and forth to Felixstowe.

Concentrating on the lengths on which congestion is worst, we are now progressing schemes as urgently as possible for bypassing not only Stowmarket, Needham Market and Claydon but also Bury St. Edmunds, Newmarket and Cambridge, which means that not only is my hon. and gallant Friend's constituency involved but also the constituencies of my right hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire (Mr. Pym) and my hon. Friends the Members for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Eldon Griffiths), for Sudbury and Woodbridge (Mr. Stainton) and for Ipswich (Mr. Money).

The specific question of the bypass for Ipswich must wait till we have in our possession the current Land Use Transportation Study for that area, which will enable us to make progress there.

It may be helpful, though not, I regret, as helpful as my hon. and gallant Friend would wish, if, before coming to the immediate questions which he has raised, I give the dates which we envisage for the construction of the A45 bypasses. It is estimated that the bypass for Bury St. Edmunds will start in the spring of 1972, with a completion date some two years later, in the spring of 1974. It is expected that the Newmarket bypass will start in the summer of 1973, also with a two-year contract period, taking us to the summer of 1975. The Cambridge northern bypass is estimated to start early in 1974, with a two-year period up to early 1976. The Stowmarket bypass is scheduled to start in the spring of 1973, with a contract period running into 1975 or 1976.

My hon. and gallant Friend will know that Stowmarket, Needham Market and Claydon are to be bypassed together, with a continuous 9½ mile length of new trunk road. The history of this set of proposals has been well rehearsed and is very familiar to my hon. and gallant Friend. They were published at the end of February, 1970, as draft Orders, with the purpose of determining the route for this road and the manner in which the side roads associated with it would be affected. Undoubtedly, my hon. and gallant Friend has cause to point out that that was a long time ago. However, as he told us, the initial proposals attracted a great deal of public interest and no small measure of public criticism.

There was a large volume of objection, particularly from the people of Claydon. These objections stemmed from our proposal to route the road, as my hon. and gallant Friend said, on an embankment through part of the western edge of the village of Claydon, which at that time seemed the best way of relieving the village main street without impinging on the nearby River Gipping.

When the three months for the lodging of objections ended, that is, by 27th May, 1970, each objection was carefully assessed. Visits were made to some objectors with a view to explaining the proposals more fully, and letters were sent to others clarifying points which they had made to us. A public meeting was held at Claydon attended by about 300 local residents, at which the scheme could be explained in full detail.

It is worth making the point that it did not seem appropriate at that time to split this 9½-mile section; it held together, and there seemed no convenient way in which it could be built in parts.

Having considered the number and weight of objections, my right hon. Friend the then Minister of Transport decided that there should be a public inquiry at which the matter could be fully discussed. My hon. and gallant Friend was kind enough to say that perhaps there is not so much responsibility on my right hon. Friend as would have been the case if this had been a responsibility of the present Government for a longer period, and I do not think that he would wish me to add to the comments which he made about the change of Government.

The decision to hold the public inquiry was announced on 15th July and a date at the beginning of September, 1970 was fixed.

It was no small task to prepare for the inquiry. A number of alternative routes had by then been suggested by objectors to the draft Orders. Each of the routes had to be evaluated, and those affected by them had to be notified. As a result, about 2,000 people were involved, in that they had either objected to the Minister's original proposals or were affected in one way or another by one of the alternative routes put forward subsequently.

The public inquiry opened on 8th September and lasted for two weeks. It was conducted, as is the normal practice, by an independent inspector. Much evidence and counter-evidence suggested the continuation of one route or another and the adoption of alternative routes—whatever commended itself to individual objectors.

In his report at the end of last October, the inspector recommended that my right hon. Friend should confirm the route by passing Stowmarket and Needham Market, but that he should modify the route near Claydon to incorporate an alternative, known as the river route, put forward by the East Suffolk County Council with considerable local support. The river route, as its name implies, would take the road closer to the river—in fact, it would involve a small diversion of the river—to take the heavy traffic further from the main part of the village, at a cost that is not so heavy as was estimated in our original calculations.

However, the river route had attracted a certain amount of criticism at the public inquiry. It affected businesses and other properties not affected by the initial consultation and the initial routes that were published. My right hon. Friend therefore very properly took the view that persons so affected by the new proposals, as opposed to the old proposals, which by then had been thoroughly ventilated, should have a further opportunity to put their views to him before he reached a decision.

The inspector's report was therefore published on 26th February this year, and each person directly affected by the river route was individually asked for his or her comments on the inspector's recommendation. There was a Press announcement and a request for any comments which others not directly affected might want to make. The statutory bodies involved, the local authorities and the Government Departments, were also consulted. As the river route necessitates a diversion of the River Gipping, the East Suffolk and Norfolk River Authority in particular was consulted. I am sure that my hon. and gallant Friend will agree that that was an essential step in view of the danger of increasing the already present risk of flooding in the Gipping Valley.

The River Authority then had to carry out an exhaustive survey of possible flood levels which might result from the roadworks, and at our requests calculated an acceptable design for the waterways through the bridges to overcome any possibility of damage to land and properties. It was an intricate task, taking several months, and it was only in September that the River Authority was able to give its final favourable answer. There has been no delay since that conclusion was reached.

Having already carefully assessed the reactions to the inspector's report, my right hon. Friend decided to accept the recommendation, and on 24th September his decisions were conveyed to those concerned and announced in the Press. But unfortunately, because the route has been changed, a considerable amount of the preliminary engineering design work has had to be revised. The bypass had been designed as one continuous whole, without there being any point at which it would have been practicable to divide the northern, Stowmarket and Needham Market, part from its southern continuation near Claydon. Nor are the engineering reassessments confined to the river route as an alteration to one part has repercussion on adjacent lengths.

The design of the bridges and earthworks on new highways must take account of the precise soil conditions in the area directly affected. In this connection, it is worth mentioning that the original soil survey on the Order proposals revealed that further data on subsoil strata, particularly at the northern end of the route, would be required before constructional details could be finalised.

It would have been inappropriate for us to have carried out a soil survey on the river route or a supplementary survey on the northern part of the scheme before a final decision was made. I can understand my hon. and gallant Friend saying, "But as there was difficulty, through public protests and alternatives being considered, would it not have been possible to have done a lot of exploratory work before final decisions were taken?" If one were looking at one scheme in isolation—if, for example, one were looking at wartime needs, where total need to achieve results at any cost was acceptable—I could understand that argument, but my Department is involved in some 2,000 road schemes, most of which are in some way or other the subject of objections. If we were to spend a great deal of time examining and working out detailed costs of all the alternatives before decisions were made, this would have a major effect on the speed of the road programme. That would be counter-productive to my hon. and gallant Friend's eloquent plea that we should get on with the job.

I was referring to the need for the additional soil survey required because of the change of route. The report on soil conditions is due to be received from our contractor at the end of this year. As soon as this information is available, the bridge and earthwork designs can be finalised. This is a big job and I am afraid that the Department will not, therefore, be in a position to invite tenders for construction of the bypass before the end of 1972. I am glad to be able to confirm that the target starting date for the bypass is the spring of 1973. It will be a two or three-year contract. The form of the contract must be dependent upon the results of the soil investigation, and if the contract is in excess of two years, price variation provisions will apply. It is fair to point out, so that we may allay any anxieties of his constituents, that this is a trunk road and that the cost is borne not by the local authorities but by the national Exchequer.

My hon. and gallant Friend used the word "delay" in connection with the building of this new road. I could not deny that the processes through which we go must involve delay. I ask him, however, to be assured that the delay is part of the process not only of building a road but of ensuring that the best public interest is served. It may well be that a different route should have been published in the first place. In the way of things it is reasonable to expect that we shall not get every route right first time, but, given that we do get one wrong, it is better that we should be flexible enough to start again in order to meet the legitimate anxieties of constituents of hon. Members and not go, simply for the sake of speed, blindly ahead with the original route we had chosen.

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I would like a little clarification. My hon. Friend says that it may be a year before this goes out to tender. The Department is getting these soil surveys. When he comes to look at these and at the planning in more detail In the next few months, will he consider whether the work could not be done within a two-year contract rather than that it should spread over three years? This would give great assurance to many of my constituents.

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I assure my hon. and gallant Friend, having had all the delays involved in the scheme, justifiable as they are, that, when we get down to the business of building the road, we shall try to see whether it is possible to make up time. I give him that assurance. Without in any way committing the Department on the outcome of my right hon. Friend's decision, I will ensure that we look carefully to see whether there are ways in which we can come within the two-year contract period.

This has been a particularly interesting debate because it has thrown up some of the problems we are confronted with and, I hope, the sympathetic way in which we try to overcome them. It has also been interesting because it has reflected public interest in one of the main roads we have highlighted as part of our national policy and one in which a great deal of environmental protection will ensue from the work we have in mind.