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Kingsway Tunnel Approach Road, Wallasey

Volume 931: debated on Tuesday 3 May 1977

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

12.21 a.m.

I am grateful to the House for allowing me the opportunity to raise the subject of compensation for residents whose homes adjoin the Kingsway Tunnel approach road in Wallasey.

I should like to outline a little of the history behind this approach road. Many hon. Members will know that there are two tunnels under the River Mersey—the Queensway Tunnel between Birkenhead and Liverpool and the Kingsway Tunnel between Wirral and Liverpool. They link the Wirral peninsula to the Liverpool city centre.

The Birkenhead tunnel was built many years ago and does not concern me in this debate. The Kingsway Tunnel was built more recently and is a much-needed and much-appreciated facility, even though we have many worries about the increasing tolls that we have to pay to use it.

The tunnel approach road and the first tube of the tunnel were built and open to public transportation in 1971. The second tube of the tunnel was opened in February 1974. What differentiates the Wallasey tunnel from the Birkenhead tunnel is that it has two separate tubes that can be used independently. The Birkenhead tunnel has a dual carriageway with no barrier between the traffic and many more bends. It consequently carries far more risk for large vehicles.

Since both tubes of the Wallasey tunnel were opened in 1974, all heavy articulated traffic—chemical tankers and the like—is diverted whenever possible through the Wallasey tunnel rather than travelling through the Birkenhead tunnel. That did not happen until 1974, even though the tunnel approach road was completed in 1971, at the same time as the first tube of the tunnel.

Turning to the geography of the case, the tunnel approach road links the M53 through the Wirral with the tunnel under the Mersey. The motorway ceases, by definition, at the Bidston Moss interchange, junction No. 1, a mile or so from the tunnel openings. It is this distance of approach road that concerns me. It is covered by the Mersey Tunnel Act 1975 and not by the Highways Act 1959.

If I may simplify many books of law, the tunnel approach road is not defined as a highway under the 1959 Act. That is where the problem commences. The road and its surrounds are not maintained at public expense as defined by the 1959 Act. They come under the Merseyside County Council's tunnel contract.

A number of constituents are affected by the problem. Their homes are adjacent to the tunnel approach road. Several of them in Norwood Road have had their lives disrupted by the noise, fumes and dirt—and, more recently, danger—because they are not properly protected from the traffic. Some have living-room windows as close as 20 feet or six metres from the approach carriageway which takes traffic from the M53 to the tunnel for Liverpool. Although there is a 40 mph restriction on the approach road at that point, I regret that much of the traffic does not slow down. Drivers think that they are still on the motorway because the approach road is similar to the M53 which they have just left.

A constituent wrote to me to say:
"It is impossible to sit in our living room without being assailed by a deafening noise of engines. At peak periods I believe it reaches the level of Concorde. Even heavy sleepers have been awakened by the continual flow of traffic—particularly the heavy goods vehicles."
I have a sheaf of letters which express similar sentiments. Suffice to say that not only noise, dirt and fumes disrupt my constituents' lives. There is now also a danger.

Last year an articulated lorry was involved in an accident at the closest point of these homes to the tunnel approach road. The lorry broke down the fence of No. 136 Norwood Road. In January a Jaguar entered the garden of a house further down the road. The fences of the gardens are within two or three metres of the approach road.

No young family with a child dare to let their child play in the back garden. In the hot summer weather, families have to sit in their front gardens which are away from the road. But that affords no privacy. The children cannot play, and there is a continual danger.

Not only are the lives of the residents of Norwood Road disrupted. Those of the residents of Geneva Road are also affected. Their problems are different. They are closer to the entry and exit of the new Kingsway Tunnel, just above the place where drivers have to use their brakes and gears. That results in an intolerable noise day and night. Although the road is high above the entrance to the tunnel, the fumes and noise rise.

A constituent, who has passed away since the first complaints, had a visit from his specialist at home. He was appalled at the level of fumes in my constituents bedroom. That is a constant complaint of every constituent to whom I have spoken.

The natural reaction to these conditions is to ask about compensation and protection from these dangers. Under similar circumstances residents have turned to the Land Compensation Act 1973, but that provides compensation only for owner-occupiers in certain circumstances. Most of the residents in the area are private tenants. We have not been able to persuade the landlords to claim on their behalf. None of the residents knew about the terms of the Act until it was too late. They became aware of them after the time by which they should have put in a claim—22nd June 1975. They have missed out on any compensation available under that Act.

The barriers along the road side are totally insufficient to protect the homes from danger, even when and where they exist. The real irony is that there is a gasworks on the other side of the tunnel approach road which goes away from the tunnel. There is a special thick wall to protect the piping part of the gasworks. I can probably explain it most clearly if I say: protection for pipes, since 1971; protection for people, absolutely none. That seems to sum up the way in which the Merseyside County Council has approached the whole aspect of compensating residents in my constituency for the problems they face.

We noted that the Land Compensation Act could help only one of about 40 households. In the petition forms which I have, there are signatures of 150 people, all of whom are saying that they must have some help. I have raised this matter in Questions in the House, and I have looked carefully at the Noise Insulation Regulations 1975 to see in what way they might help my constituents who live day and night with the problem.

I can only say that there is a real problem, because there are two types of case that can be helped by the Noise Insulation Regulations 1975. These are clearly defined relating to the date on which the highway was first opened to the public. The Minister will know that if the highway was opened to the public after 16th October 1972 the Noise Insulation Regulations make it mandatory upon the local highway authority concerned—in this case Merseyside County Council—to carry out the requirements of the regulations. That is in Regulation 3 of the 1975 regulations.

However, my poor constituents happen to have had their road opened in 1971, although the onset of heavy traffic was first experienced only when it was diverted to the tunnel approach road for Wallasey in 1974. Therefore, the road comes under the discretionary powers of the Merseyside County Council for giving compensation. Being in a very tight financial situation, the Merseyside County Council, although it started a survey way back in 1974, now says that there is no way in which it can give compensation to these residents.

I find the whole matter thoroughly disappointing and thoroughly disagreeable. I have looked at a number of different ways by which we might solve the problem that the residents face. As I say, the Merseyside County Council has declined to use the provisions of Regulation 4(1) and 4(2) and Regulation 5(1), which is the permissive clause, but there is absolutely no doubt that the homes of which I am speaking qualify on level of noise, from the squeal of tyres or simply from vehicles thundering along. If a few pollution density checks were included, they would qualify in that respect, too.

The Minister has only to go and stand inside one of these houses, with all windows and doors closed, in the kitchen where one is supposed to be preparing food, to appreciate what I mean about the stench of exhaust fumes that comes into the homes. We have disruption of normal life and dirt that entails additional household costs. Plants do not grow in the gardens any more, as they used to do. Bedrooms have had to be moved to the front of the houses in order to enable people to get some sleep, and more and more of these residents have from time to time had to be prescribed pills and tranquillisers in order to give them some sleep. Still nothing can be done because the Merseyside County Council says that it cannot move at present.

The people concerned are even more aggrieved because the M53 has a nearby spur road in my constituency to Moreton. The homes there are substantially further away from the M53 spur road, but because it is a motorway approach they are covered by the Acts I have mentioned. The homes have been insulated and residents have been protected. Yet the people of whom I am speaking are in a far worse situation and they are not being properly protected.

We ask for two things to be done. First, I must thank the Minister for his helpful letter of last November. Since then we have been proceeding to see in which way we can best solve this problem. First, the Merseyside County Council must erect proper walls and safety barriers alongside the road near all the endangered homes. That will not stop the fumes, noise and dirt in any way. Only full insulation can do that. Therefore, I have a request of the Government to which I hope they will accede. I ask them to amend the crucial date of 16th October 1972 in Regulation 3 which prevents my constituents from being able to claim compensation, the road having been finished before that date. However, it was not carrying anything like the level of traffic that was diverted to it when the second tube of the tunnel was opened in 1974.

I hope that the Minister will be able to help in this special situation, because in the homes in question chest diseases have been worsening, nerves have become wrecked and I gather that one marriage has broken down. The doctor told me that he thought that much of the background stemmed from the onset of stress in the past couple of years because of continual noise and inability to sleep.

It is a quirk of fate that the tunnel approach road, less than a quarter of a mile of it, has residents who are totally unprotected. The very legislation that all parties agreed upon in 1973, reiterated in the 1975 regulations, has just the right and proper protection for those whose homes adjoin the major carriageways that I have mentioned. I hope that the Minister can help.

12.36 a.m.

The hon. Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker) has raised some important questions concerning her constituents that she has pursued for a long time. Such matters involve the problems of noise, fumes, vibration, safety, privacy, real inconvenience and many instances of hardship, particularly when matters are thrown into relief by those nearby who are clearly being treated very much better. These are difficulties with which we can all sympathise. They are part of the price of urban road building over a long period. They form part of the reason for urban road building becoming much more unpopular than it was. It has been reduced in total by comparison with the level of road building in towns about 10 years ago.

Like the hon. Lady, I represent a highly-built-up area astride a major trunk road. My constituents suffer many of the same problems that she has been describing so graphically. In view of those circumstances I should like to be as helpful as possible, but I am limited by two matters that the hon. Lady will understand. The first is that we are not discussing a trunk road. That has been agreed by the hon. Lady. If we were, my right hon. Friend would be the highway authority and I should be able to put to the House in clear terms the views held, the actions proposed or refused and the considerations and justifications involved.

The authority for the road in question, however, is Merseyside County Council. It is an independent body and, in the present context, completely independent and entirely responsible for the views that it takes. My right hon. Friend has no locus to intervene or to express an opinion on the council's actions.

The second limitation to which I am subject is the one that the hon. Lady mentioned arising from the road in question not being a highway under the 1959 Act. Perhaps I should not put that in such categorical terms. It is the contention that it is not a highway under that Act. This raises the question of the interpretation of the law. We make the laws, but we rely on the courts to interpret them when they have been enacted.

Part I of the Land Compensation Act 1973 provides for payment of compensation. by the responsible authority where the value of an interest in land is depreciated by more than £50 by physical factors caused by the use of public works. The physical factors are specified as noise, vibration, smell, fumes, smoke, artificial lighting and the discharge on to the land of any solid or liquid substance.

As for the meaning of "public works", Section 1(3) states:
"The public works mentioned in subsection (1) above are—
  • (a) any highway;
  • (b) any aerodrome; and
  • (c) any works or land (not being a highway or aerodrome) provided or used in the exercise of statutory powers."
  • The section dealing with the interpretation of Part I of the Act, Section 19, tells us that "highway" means
    "a highway or part of a highway maintainable at the public expense as defined in Section 295(1) of the Highways Act 1959".
    I see that the hon. Lady has done her homework, as she is nodding in agreement.

    The trail backwards in search of the meaning of "highway" is becoming rather long already, and the House may be relieved to hear that I intend to pursue it no further. I think that we have established the vital factor: that a highway for the purposes of Part I claims for compensation is a highway maintainable at public expense.

    The road that we are talking about was built by the predecessor authorities to Merseyside County Council, acting through the Mersey Tunnel Joint Committee, under the Mersey Tunnel Act 1965, a Private Act. I understand—I emphasise that it is only an understanding, as my right hon. Friend has no involvement in the matter—that the county council does not regard the road as maintainable at public expense as it was built under the powers of the Mersey Tunnel Act, not general highway powers, and maintenance of it is charged to the county council's tunnels account. I have no doubt that some might argue that it is nevertheless a highway maintainable at public expense or that, if it is not, it falls within the category of
    "works…provided or used in the exercise of statutory powers",
    which was the third category of the three I mentioned, referred to in Section 1(3)(c) of the Land Compensation Act.

    In short, I have strong doubts about the correctness of the council's view, although it is not for me to say. The question does not arise in relation to trunk roads, which are clearly highways maintainable at public expense. No doubt the county council considered all aspects carefully before deciding its reaction to the Part I claims made upon it.

    I should like to deal finally with the question of the Noise Insulation Regulations. These were made under Section 20 the Act and apply only to highways maintainable at the public expense. However, irrespective of any argument that there may be on the applicability of the regulations to the road about which the hon. Lady is concerned, the county council would have a discretion as to whether it exercised the power conferred by Regulation 4 to insulate—or pay grant in respect of the insulation of—dwellings affected by noise from highways opened after 16th October 1969 and before 17th October 1972. The hon. Lady's case has revolved around these dates. I understand that the road was opened in sections between June 1971 and May 1972.

    It is not for me to comment on the county council's decision about the exercise of this discretion, although I can understand the reason, in the context of the public expenditure restraint. I am sure that the hon. Lady also understands the restraints upon the county council.

    The conferring of a discretionary power in respect of roads opened between the dates I have mentioned was set out in the White Paper which the Conservative Administration of the day published before introducing the Bill that was to become the Land Compensation Act 1973.

    The hon. Lady has asked whether we could revise the date of the regulations to a later date, which would bring in the road in question. The problem is that it would bring in many other roads in many other parts of the country. I hesitate to say what the bill would be if we had to meet as a statutory duty claims as a consequence of extending the date backwards. To meet this local situation by introducing a national change in the regulations, which could be extremely costly, would not be the right way, especially when the Conservative Administration of the time deliberately built in the discretionary power which enables local authorities to pay compensation when they have both the money and the will to do so. In this case, as the hon. Lady fairly explained, they have not done so.

    Looking at the simple justice of the matter, one can have every sympathy with the individuals about whom the hon. Lady has been speaking, because of the situation they face. I pay tribute to the previous Administration who, with genuine all-party support, introduced this legislation. The right way to deal with it was to give discretionary power to the local authorities to deal with these cases arising before 17th October 1972. To have pushed the statutory obligation further back in time would have meant a bigger bill for the whole country.

    In view of the restriction on public expenditure that the Government of the day had to face, as to the present Government, that would have been impossible. Even if it were possible financially, it would be the wrong way to go about it, because there would have to be a national change to deal with what is essentially a local problem on Merseyside, a special situation arising out of the definition of "highway" in a Private Act.

    I do not think that we can proceed as the hon. Lady suggests, even though one must have considerable sympathy for her case. In the final analysis, this is a matter for the hon. Lady, her constituents and the Merseyside County Council.

    Question put and agreed to.

    Adjourned accordingly at thirteen minutes to One o'clock.