Skip to main content

Picc-Vic Railway, Manchester

Volume 886: debated on Thursday 13 February 1975

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

11.31 p.m.

I want to start this debate with a very simple proposition. It is that the Greater Manchester area wants to make travel easier for its 2·7 million inhabitants. I hope that the House and the Minister will feel that this is a very simple and sensible case. I can assure the Minister that those 2·7 million inhabitants take that point of view.

In an area of 50 square miles we believe that this can be done by building an underground rail link between two main line stations—Piccadilly and Victoria. By connecting with the electric rail system at both these stations some 50 miles of fast no-change travel can be opened up right through from Bolton, Bury, Radcliffe and Prestwich in the north, to Stockport, Cheadle Hulme, Wilmslow and Alderly Edge in the south. This is the first step. Eventually an east-west route could be made connecting Altrincham and Urmston with Glossop, Marple and Hyde. I am certain that many of my hon. Friends in the constituences of the Greater Manchester area will confirm my belief that this is a very sensible approach to the problems of modern transport.

Almost two months ago the Minister for Transport wrote to the leader of the Greater Manchester Council about the project. The letter was a bitter disappointment, because it revealed that the council's allocation of transport supplementary grant and key sector borrowing powers for 1975–76 would be insufficient to allow a start to be made on the project in the coming financial year. The letter was also received with very great disappointment by the leaders of the Conservative and Liberal groups on the council.

It was disappointing not only because of the decision it contained but because it was such an inadequate answer to the case that the council had made for Picc-Vic. It said merely that the scheme required a very large investment, that it would take five years to build and that
"it is at the margin of acceptability."
The Minister did not indicate the criteria on which he judged Picc-Vic to be marginal, nor did he adequately explain the basis of his approach, which dictates that a large scheme like Picc-Vic, which produces benefits only at the end of the construction period, must be ruled out in favour of smaller lumps of investment producing a quicker return but without a guarantee of greater benefit in the long run.

The proposals for improving the Greater Manchester rail system and the Piccadilly—Victoria scheme are of the greatest importance to the 2·7 million inhabitants of Greater Manchester, to the economy of the area and also to the North-West as a whole. Our great industrial cities have grown up around communications and unless these are kept up to date our prosperity is threatened.

The character of the city centre is changing. There is much greater concentration on region-serving functions, such as major shopping and professional activities. We rightly pride ourselves that outside London we are the largest banking and insurance centre. We are an important cultural and entertainment centre. We can rightly claim further education facilities equal to anything else in Western Europe. The increasing concentration on region-serving functions emphasises most forcibly the need for a satisfactory level of accessibility to this regional centre.

Manchester decided in the early 1960s that its transportation policy must put the emphasis on public transport and not on new road building. In my opinion and the opinion of many of my hon. Friends representing constituencies in the Greater Manchester area, the oil crisis and everything else that has happened since 1970 confirms the soundness of this decision.

The scheme to improve the local railways and put in a central tunnel link replaced an earlier proposal for the Manchester rapid transit scheme. Picc-Vic was recommended by a Government-sponsored transportation study which began in 1966. The House gave statutory powers in 1972, and the scheme has now been fully designed and prepared. This debate arises because of the great importance we attach to this proposal and the fact that Government support seems to have vanished at the starting post.

Not only hon. Members but our constituents understand our present economic difficulties and the need to restrict expenditure. What we cannot understand is that the Government are not giving any clear backing to the scheme for the future when the economic climate improves. Without that clear backing, how are we to plan our transportation system? If we mean what we say about supporting public transport and comprehensive policies the Government should give an assurance that the improvement of our run-down local rail system and the construction of the central Manchester link is a recognised part of national policy.

Frankly, there is a feeling in the area that the policy of successive Governments on local railways has been obstructed by Civil Service red tape and a hidden departmental bias towards roads. How else are we to explain the fact that over the last five years hardly one penny of Government grant for public transport schemes has been made available in Greater Manchester when other conurbations have had their schemes approved? How else are we to explain the fact that in the transport programme and policy decisions Greater Manchester gets the lowest grant allocation per head of any metropolitan area, although it has this great backlog to make up because of the decision years ago to go for public transport rather than roads? How are we to explain the fact that the transportation grant per head in London, which pays nothing towards its local rail system, is almost double that for Greater Manchester? How are we to explain the fact that the White Paper on Public Expenditure shows motorway construction, in real terms, continuing to rise and highway construction expenditure continuing at over £600 million a year, in real terms, while public transport investment for conurbations remains at a little over £100 million?

How long shall we continue to say that we back public transport and then spend many times more on roads? How long shall we continue, nationally, to lag behind the local authorities, such as the Greater Manchester Council, in their attitudes on this vital question? If a major conurbation authority such as Greater Manchester is determined to invest in public transport, surely the Government should be giving clear backing and not sitting on the fence?

I greatly appreciate the fact that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport has agreed to visit Greater Manchester next week. I hope that he will look at our appalling railway inheritance for himself, and that when he conducts a series of discussions with members and officials of the Greater Manchester Council he will be able to show that the Government mean what they say about public transport. I also hope that he will give assurances that the Picc-Vic project has the support of the Government and that the scheme will be sanctioned to start within the lifetime of this Parliament. Even if we have to accept a short delay because of the economic crisis, I hope that the Minister will ensure that a fair share of national funds will be made available for rail improvements, based on the Picc-Vic scheme, so that Manchester may begin to make up some of the ground it has lost over the long years of planning and discussion.

11.42 p.m.

As a Member for Bolton, I intervene in the debate because Picc-Vic is not simply a rail project but a transportation artery upon which the economic and social life of my constituency could well depend. We are concerned not only that my right hon. Friend the Minister has refused permission to proceed in 1975 but that no date has been given for the initiation of the scheme. Our town plan is at the least, delayed by the uncertainty, if not placed in jeopardy, as is the office building that we intended to carry out, to take advantage of the central Manchester office survey, which indicated that 22 per cent. of the firms interviewed would move out of the city centre, some of them, presumably, to Bolton. Our entire transportation strategy and miscellaneous projects arising therefrom are also in jeopardy.

What concerns me also is that the borough is becoming more and more a wasteland of desolate cleared sites awaiting transportation projects which never seem to materialise. When I entered the House I had to ask the Department of the Environment for money to help rescue tenants and residents whose homes had been jeopardised by a road scheme which will not come into being until next year at the earliest. On the interchange development of the Picc-Vic scheme, for example, almost 12 acres of central development land now lie sterile, without financial return to the ratepayers, in a year when rates are soaring.

In the midst of an oil crisis, has my right hon. Friend considered how much traffic could be moved from the private motor car to the rail system if the go-ahead were given? Did he consider how many roads will have to be extended, renewed and developed if the project is not allowed to go ahead?

I remind my right hon. Friend that the Strategic Plan for the North-West emphasised that the crying need of the region generally was for the improvement of the quality of life. Because of the wider bearing of the project on the social and economic life of my constituency, I challenge my right hon. Friend to visit Bolton, to see the situation at first hand and discuss the wider implications and effects of his decision.

11.45 p.m.

I intervene in this debate on behalf of my constituency which, with that of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, East (Mr. Young) provides the northern link for the Picc-Vic scheme. The Bury link of the Picc-Vic scheme is more than a mere road/rail link interchange. It is the linchpin for local plans that have been discussed and devised over many years. Let no one assume that this is just a question of a tunnel in the middle of Manchester. It is a question of whether the second most important city conurbation in the country should have a comprehensive transport policy related to the needs of the whole community.

My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Moss Side (Mr. Hatton) has placed a comprehensive case before the Minister. I stress that it is not just Manchester that is concerned about the scheme. My constituency of Bury and Radcliffe is completely identified with and gives full support to the Picc-Vic project. My local authority's town centre development plans, car-parking provisions, patterns of movement and land usage are completely integrated with the Picc-Vic proposal, and several important local projects in Bury are held up awaiting its progress.

My town cannot wait much longer. It cannot wait, as the Government say, "until the oil flows". We need to know now when finance will be available for this once-in-a-century project. According to the latest figures the Bury area has the greatest population growth in the North-West. The Picc-Vic scheme to us is what the Manchester Ship Canal was to Manchester in its day. Our prosperity as a viable constituency is at stake, and I urge the Minister to make a firm commitment.

11.47 p.m.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Moss Side (Mr. Hatton) for raising, this subject, which I know is of great interest to the people of Greater Manchester and, indeed, elsewhere. That interest is underlined by the large attendance in the House at this late hour on a Thursday night.

As my hon. Friend said, I have accepted an invitation from Greater Manchester Council to spend the whole of next Wednesday in Manchester seeing the programme which has been devised and having intensive talks. So I have anticipated the request of my hon. Friends the Members for Bolton, East (Mr. Young) and Bury and Radcliffe (Mr. White) to visit the area to see for myself what is involved.

I cannot give way. Three hon. Members have spoken, which is unusual in an Adjournment debate, and I have only 12 minutes in which to answer all the questions that have been raised.

I shall give more detailed figures at a more convenient time, but I shall deal briefly with the suggestion that the Government are not supporting public transport and are still spending all their money on roads. According to the paper on public expenditure which has just been produced, on public transport—railways primarily—we are spending, at November 1973 prices, £495 million, against £370 million for roads, of which £50 million is for maintenance. I hope that no one would argue that we should not maintain our roads. Local transport expenditure is £293 million for new road construction, car parks, and so on, against £296 million for public transport. If maintenance for over 200,000 miles of roads is added, it puts the figure at £578 million, but, again, no one would argue that we should ignore the maintenance of our large network of roads.

First, I make it clear that I have not told the Greater Manchester Council that it cannot build the Picc-Vic tunnel. I can understand that it would like me to make the decision, but it is not for me to do so. Under local government reorganisation, we have set up new local authorities and the House has approved, in the Local Government Act 1974—passed under the Conservative Government—a new system of grants for local transport which are based on total programmes of expenditure, not individual schemes. Within the overall programme, it is for local authorities to decide where their priorities lie and to choose between the competing demands of road investment and maintenance and improvements to public transport.

I accept that, in the figures I was able to announce for 1975–76, I was not able to make such provision for the Picc-Vic scheme as a whole to be taken in the next financial year. But the House must understand that, under the new system of transport grants, it is not possible for me to indicate a date in the future when it might be possible, because, to a large extent, the decision depends on Manchester's own priorities as well as on the possibility of the Government being able to increase that total amount of transport expenditure for the country as a whole.

I understand the natural concern of Manchester to improve its transport system, as the Picc-Vic scheme indicates. Many other parts of the country also have schemes that they would like to have, and it is just not possible at the moment to see how they can all be accommodated. My problem lies in trying to allocate scarce national resources between the 46 counties, and for the next four or five years those resources will be very limited.

The forecasts published in the public expenditure White Paper provide for no growth in local transport expenditure at all. Indeed, if bus subsidies are included, there is a fall over the five-year period. Next year's local transport expenditure has to be at the same level as this year's, apart from special and unprecedented assistance for public transport's revenue position.

It is against this background that I have had to consider Greater Manchester's transport expenditure for next year. In this first year of the transport supplement grant, we have had enormous problems arising from the existing commitments which had been made and projects started under the old system, whereby each scheme was separately approved for grant.

Of the money for the transport supplement grant this year, 90 per cent of the total expenditure available was already committed; indeed, 93 per cent of the grant is committed to schemes from previous years, leaving a total of only £85 million for new expenditure, only £24 million of which lay above the threshold under the complicated scheme we inherited, attracting grant of £17 million.

If the whole of this had been given to Manchester, it would not have been enough to ensure that it could begin the Picc-Vic scheme. While it is true that Manchester's share, taken on a per capita basis with other counties, is low, this is because it did not have the continuing commitments that some other counties had. As far as I was able, I made some compensation, in that for new projects, Manchester has a very much higher share than any other metropolitan county, with an average of £3 per head as against the national average of £1·80 per head. Indeed, Manchester has the highest per capita amount for new expenditure of any county bar one, and still has the highest of the metropolitan counties.

It is true that under the old system the Picc-Vic scheme would have been approved as a whole, but in essence it is not just one scheme. It is not only a case of building the tunnel; it is also very important to upgrade the railway system that would go towards the tunnel.

On the figures that Manchester submitted, £62 million was for the tunnel and £70 million for the upgrading. On Manchester's own evidence, the greater benefit will come from the upgrading of the railway links rather than through the use of the tunnel, because a great amount of the traffic will be from the north or south to the centre of Manchester. In the 1975–76 figures there is a sum which we believe will permit Manchester to begin the upgrading of the railway system. This would immediately benefit those—an increasing number, I hope—who use the railway for their travel-to-work and business journeys.

Therefore, we are not unaware of the importance of the scheme, and within the very limited sums available a modest beginning could be made in 1975. I hope that we shall be able to discuss problems of this kind with the Greater Manchester Council next week. My hon. Friend the Member for Moss Side, from his distinguished record of over 20 years in Manchester local government, will know that I shall want to listen most carefully to what Manchester say. I attach great importance to next week's visit.

However, I never believe in making easy promises which cannot be fulfilled for a number of years, and I must say, therefore, that the background nationally is not good. It appears from the public expenditure surevy that over the next five years £3,500 million will be available for local transport expenditure, apart from subsidies for bus and rail services and expenditure on major roads in new towns. Of that amount, about £2,000 million will he absorbed by capital expenditure on schemes already begun, and by ongoing expenditure on items such as road maintenance, lighting and road safety. That leaves, although it sounds a lot of money, only £1,500 million for new projects—only £6 per head.

The Picc-Vic project would cost £10 per head at current prices and, although I know that Manchester does not stress its roads, it has got in a bid for £100 million on public transport interchanges and roads—another £7 per head. That makes a demand of £17 per head against the national average of £6.

That is the nature of the problem. It represents one-sixth of the total local transport expenditure likely to be available for the whole country over the next five years. It may be possible—although there are difficulties about this—to find alternative ways of financing the project. I shall be happy to discuss them with the Greater Manchester Council. But at the end of the day, however it is financed, it is a call on national resources and it has to be accommodated within the total available nationally for local transport expenditure.

However, I assure my hon. Friends that I want to be as helpful as possible, because I realise the importance placed on the project in Manchester. It represents an imaginative attempt to solve the city's problems by the use of public transport, but, in the light of local government expenditure and the nation's economic difficulties, it would be wrong to think that Manchester could pre-empt so large a proportion of the money available for the nation's transport system, because, unhappily, the situation in Manchester is to be found in other parts of the country.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Twelve o'clock midnight.