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Roads (Cheshire)

Volume 966: debated on Wednesday 1 November 1978

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

9.41 p.m.

I am grateful for the opportunity to turn from the important national issues that have engaged our attention during the debate on the Gracious Speech to local matters that are of great importance to my constituents. We last debated traffic conditions in Tarporley and Eaton in this House on 7th November 1975, and I do not propose to repeat all the information that was mentioned then. I did, however, say at that time that the Department's approach to the problem provided only half an answer, and provided it too slowly. That was my view then, and it is my view now.

The Under-Secretary of State said in reply to a Question before the House rose for the Summer Recess that his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State hoped to publish proposals under the Highways Acts for the westerly bypass of the A51 through Tarporley in early 1979, aiming to start construction for the period 1981–83, and that at the present time there was no proposal for the bypass at Eaton but that the Department was looking into other ways of providing relief. I should be grateful to know whether any other ways have presented themselves. I understand that the Department has always accepted that the ultimate solution to Tarporley's traffic problems—and of Eaton's—is the provision of two bypasses, one on the Chester-Nantwich axis for A51 traffic and one on the Whitchurch-Warrington axis for A49 traffic.

As the Minister knows, Cheshire county council has recently had under consideration as an alternative to a bypass at Eaton a weight restriction order to keep heavy goods vehicles out of the village. I understand that the highways sub-committee, after a visit to Eaton, during which one or two members were nearly run over by heavy vehicles, decided to support the weight restriction proposal, having listened to representations from the residents of Tarporley pointing out the appalling effects on Tarporley which will almost certainly eventuate.

The B5152 through Eaton is not suitable for heavy goods vehicles. Considerable environmental damage has been done to property. Over a two-year period, 224 accidents have been recorded by residents in the village. Damage and injury are a constant threat, and the Minister's predecessor, the hon. Member for Glasgow, Kelvingrove (Mr. Carmichael), when he was in the Department, said in the previous debate:
"I fully accept that this road is not capable of coping with the weight of traffic".—[Official Report, 7th November 1975; Vol. 899, c. 889.]
The Under-Secretary of State can imagine the feelings of the people of Tarporley at the prospect of the heavy vehicles which cannot go through Eaton now being sent through Tarporley, where the situation is already serious enough, the roads are unsuitable and there is a heavy concentration of pedestrians. There have been demonstrations in the streets and outside County Hall in Chester, and the Secretary of State has received a request from me to receive a delegation to discuss in greater detail than is possible tonight with representatives of the county council the urgent necessity either of two bypasses or of a link road from the A41 on to the proposed A51 bypass. I hope that the Minister will feel able to receive such a delegation at an early date.

The capital cost of a bypass for Eaton is going up all the time, as is the alternative possibility of a link road to the proposed A51 bypass—the latter, of course, being much cheaper. It is vital that both schemes should be included in the national preparation pool immediately and given the urgent consideration they deserve. The rates of return on an Eaton bypass would fluctuate from year to year depending on how the calculations are made and on how the economy and the rate of inflation progress.

Environmental considerations, however, become more and more compelling as the days pass and the situation deteriorates. Action must be taken immediately or, as I suggested three years ago, further delays will prove to have been an expensive error.

I turn now to Northwich. The Under-Secretary and members of his staff were good enough to discuss with me on 15th December last year the traffic situation in Northwich and the potential effects of the expansion envisaged by ICI as a result of the investment programmes that it has announced. I thank the hon. Gentleman for the detailed interest that he has taken in the problem.

The central problem is the crossing of the River Weaver in the centre of Northwich, which is at the moment provided by two swing bridges giving access to the town centre from the west, to ICI's works at Winnington and Wallerscote from the east and also carrying the area's north-south traffic on the A533. Another crossing of the river by the Northwich bypass, the A556, is indicated to the south and, in conjunction with School Lane, Hartford, and the A559, gives an alternative to the town centre bridges for all except town centre traffic from the west.

As I said in December, the future requirements of ICI, which is by far the largest employer in the area, are becoming greater and greater in their demands. It is not true that lack of suitable road capacity is actually inhibiting further investment by ICI at Northwich, but the company naturally wishes to see infrastructure which can support its substantial investment to revitalise and increase the capacity of the Northwich works.

The company believes, as I do, that the present road system is grossly inadequate to support its activities and that the construction of a new bridge or bridges is critical for the town of Northwich. The primary need is for access to motorways. The works lie between, but are badly connected to, east-west roads. By constructing a new works entrance at Lostock, the company has contrived a satisfactory solution for vehicles joining the A556 which can link with major routes to north, south, east and west by the motorway system.

Vehicles entering and leaving Winning-ton and Wallerscote works have to use the swing bridges over the Weaver or go through residential areas to avoid them. High-level bridges, provided the road system and linking them were planned with good access to the Winnington and Wallerscote works, would greatly help ICI's transport activities and ensure that the heavy traffic that the company generates would avoid the restricted swing bridges, take through traffic away from the town centre and avoid the disturbance to people living in residential areas.

Barnton, in particular, suffers from heavy through traffic. Nearly one-third of the heavy road vehicle movements out of Winnington and Wallerscote take the A533 to the north through Barnton. A single high-level bridge spanning the river north of the Town bridge would not alleviate this problem. ICI would therefore like to see the construction of a road linking the North Cheshire motorway, the M56, and the Northwich bypass, the A556, without passing through the town of Northwich.

At present the Winnington, Wallerscote and Lostock works have a capacity to produce 1·9 million tonnes of finished product a year. Of this quantity, 1·16 million tonnes a year of both packed and bulk products is dispatched by road, 575,000 tonnes by rail and about 180,000 tonnes by water. Needless to say, the company does not always have a free choice of the mode of transport it adopts. It can be dictated to by customers whose requirements depend on their facilities for discharge.

The present nameplate capacity of ICI's works for its major product, soda ash, is 1·7 million tonnes a year. The company expects the nameplate capacity for soda ash to rise to 1·8 million tonnes a year by 1979, and by 1985 to 2 million tonnes a year. Between now and 1981, or at the latest 1985, the present rail fleet will have to be replaced by air-braked vehicles, the capital cost of which is much greater than the cost of existing rail vehicles. By reason of the high capital cost of air-braked vehicles, and because of British Rail's rating policy, the ICI Mond Division expects to be unable to supply by rail in wagon-load quantities, and, despite the company's commitment to maintain the rail-road balance, the expectation is that the tonnage sent by rail in 1977 may be reduced by 1985 by 150,000 tonnes a year. That reduction, together with the increase in the tonnage that will be manufactured, will mean that by 1979 road traffic generated by the Mid-Cheshire works will increase by 500,000 tonnes a year, and by 1985 by 700,000 tonnes a year. The hope is that during this period the company will maintain its tonnage carried on the river.

Therefore, by the mid-1980s, wagonload services from ICI will have disappeared and rail dispatches will be confined to the employment of block trains, feeding depots in Scotland, the South-East of England, Yorkshire and an export terminal.

After the Under-Secretary of State kindly had a meeting with me last December, he wrote saying that a meeting would be held to establish whether section 8 of the Railways Act 1974 could be used to alleviate the situation. We should be grateful if the hon. Gentleman could tell us how the talks have progressed.

The traffic from the works, the number of bulk vehicle loads per day, will increase from more than 250 per working day now to 640 in 1985. It is clear that the present local road system will not support such an increase in traffic, nor will the local population readily tolerate such traffic over the roads which circumstances dictate ICI has to use.

ICI is not the only factor in the expected increases in traffic. It is the policy of the local planning authorities to encourage diversification of industry in the area, and, on the assumption that that policy is successful the difficulties are likely to be compounded.

As the Minister knows, I am convinced that the only answer for Northwich will ultimately prove to be a high-level bridge, and the longer we delay grasping the nettle the more expensive and painful the process is likely to be. I appreciate that there is competition from other schemes and that Hayhurst bridge and Town bridge appear to have adequate capacity, but the Minister is aware that those bridges are not in the first flush of youth. When we last saw him, the Hayhurst bridge was out of action, and the Town bridge has been out of action for some months and will not be back in use again until December.

Tinkering here and there may improve the situation. There has been the suggestion of a mini roundabout at the bottom of Winnington Hill and a diversion of more Chester traffic over Hayhurst bridge. Even allowing for such tinkering, I understand that improvements to the A553 and the desirable Davenham bypass have now been indefinitely deferred by the county council.

In the present depressed economic situation, the county's capital programme for road schemes has been reduced from a level of approximately £11 million to approximately £3 ¼ million per year at current prices. The effect of this is that a number of proposed desirable schemes in the key sectors—that is, schemes costing more than £500,000—are competing for priority in the transport policies and programme submission required by the Department. With current financial restraints, it is inevitable that only a few of these priorities can be accommodated within the programme. I hope that the Minister will feel able to look again at the constraints in the light of the situation that I have described.

The case for inclusion of the schemes in the TPP is reviewed annually on the basis of best value for money and other considerations. Taking into account these considerations, it has not hitherto been possible for the county council to include the scheme for a high-level bridge in Northwich in the current TPP programme. I very much hope that the Department is alive to the importance—not only locally but, taking into account the importance of ICI, to the economy of the North-West and the country nationally—of taking a hard look at the expenditure limits which it discusses with Cheshire county council. If the problem is shelved, the consequences for Northwich will be serious and, I submit, will ultimately be expensive for the public.

I turn briefly to the subject of the Northwich bypass. I am grateful to the Minister for his letter of 10th October on the subject of the pedestrian subway. However, he will be aware that his letter has caused great disappointment locally. I hope he is aware that the problem of children crossing from Moulsham and Davenham will increase. There will be more children and, no doubt, more traffic. The proposed "children" signs, while helpful, will not stop the enormous volume of traffic which comes through during peak hours when children are probably crossing.

If cost precludes an underpass, which I accept it may, perhaps a footbridge or even manually operated traffic lights may be the answer. After all, cars have to slow down at the roundabout. I cannot accept that the matter should be allowed to rest.

I turn finally to the matter of the Gad-brook site on the bypass. The industrial structure of Northwich raises many complicated and interlinked questions concerning the diversification of employment opportunities, assistance to existing industries, both service and manufacturing, the solution of environmental problems and increased accessibility to employment opportunities. I shall confine myself, in relation to Gadbrook, to the question of accessibility.

The Cheshire county structure plan envisages the need for up to 3,500 new jobs in the Northwich area by 1986. It is recognised that the reliance on the chemical industry must be reduced by diversifying employment opportunities in the town. Good industrial land is limited. It is vital that the council is able to exercise the option of finding substantial sites for industrial development which attract industry. Around Northwich there are about 200 acres available for potential industrial development. In some cases the land is not immediately available and would require substantial capital expenditure. In other instances available land has failed to attract industrialists. Wincham, for instance, which has been the subject of a development brief, has failed to attract industry, partly because of access and partly because of fears of possible subsidence.

Elsewhere in the town, land around Leicester Street and Manchester Road tends to be in small parcels and fragmented, as with the remaining land on the Denton Drive industrial estate. Development of these sites would invariably involve considerable movement of traffic along an already inadequate road system. Good road access and accessibility to the local labour force are vital. Although there is a cost in terms of disruption which would not be produced by further development at Wincham, sites along the Northwich bypass are thought to offer the best prospect.

As the Under-Secretary will be aware, his Department has raised an objection to access to the bypass at Gadbrook. I have forwarded to him—he will not yet have received it—correspondence between the district council and his Department on this matter. There is—

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. Snape.]

I am bound to say that there is an impression, derived from correspondence, of a certain lack of expedition on the part of the Department and a certain lack of appreciation of the urgency of the problem of Northwich. I want to leave the Under-Secretary of State in no doubt that we regard it as an urgent problem. I have received today a letter from the chief executive of the Vale Royal district council on the subject. Referring to the correspondence on the objections to access to the bypass, he says:

"The net effect as I know you appreciate is that there is really no land in the Northwich area which can be put to potential developers."
That is not a happy prospect for Northwich. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State, when he has had an opportunity to consider it, will feel able to remove the objections to access to the bypass so that the Vale Royal district council will be able to consider all the available sites without such objections.

10.1 p.m.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Northwich (Mr. Goodlad) on his good fortune in getting the first Adjournment debate of the last Session of the present Parliament. It is perhaps not exactly my good fortune, especially as I have to reply to tomorrow's Adjournment debate as well, but such is the lot of Under-Secretaries of State for Transport. There seems to be considerable local interest in matters such as those the hon. Gentleman has been telling us about. But at least we are having the debate at a civilised hour, which is not often the case with Adjournment debates. I also acknowledge the importance of the problems which the hon. Gentleman has raised, and also the fact that he has pursued them assiduously. To my knowledge, we have had at least one meeting and also extensive correspondence about them.

I turn first to the problems of traffic and the environment generally in Tarporley. Tarporley is a village of historic interest, and it has been included by the Council for British Archaeology on its list of historic towns and villages. Its centre is a designated conservation area under the Civic Amenities Act 1967.

Unfortunately, a substantial volume of traffic passed through the middle of Tarporley because the A51 Chester-Nantwich trunk road and the A49 Whitchurch-Warrington trunk road join and then run together for the entire length of the high street. The layout of the road is well below modern standards, and there is considerable pedestrian movement because of the shopping and other commercial activities along both frontages.

The number of heavy vehicles in the traffic passing through Tarporley is well above the national average, and a high proportion of them are long vehicles. This exacerbates a problem already made difficult by the presence of bus stops and vehicles parked for reasons of business with the premises flanking the high street.

All this obviously presents a problem of congestion and road safety which directly concerns my Department since, as I have mentioned, both the A51 and the A49 are trunk roads and therefore my Department's responsibility rather than that of the Cheshire county council. There is a clear need to give some relief to Tarporley from this very heavy weight of through traffic. To this end, the Department has already put forward a proposal to construct a bypass on the west side of the village, after giving serious consideration to 10 possible ways of improving the traffic conditions. The problems involved in some of the alternatives were formidable, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware, including damage to attractive park land and the environment, and the acceptance of gradients so steep that heavy vehicles would negotiate them only at a crawl and extra lanes would be needed for this purpose. It was, therefore, considered that the western bypass was the only viable proposition of the 10 which were considered, and it was this scheme that went forward to public consultation in 1975.

I emphasise, however, that when we put forward only one line for public consultation, we are always willing to consider representations about other routes. Indeed, it is not often that the Department can put forward only one realistic proposition. Usually there are at least two or three. The outcome of the exercise did not produce any pressure from those responding to the questionnaire, before the public consultation, for an alternative to be considered, nor did it give rise to any complaint about the Department's view that only one route—the route to the west—warranted detailed consideration.

After considering certain suggestions for modification to the line by members of the public, it was announced by the Secretary of State for Transport on 22nd February 1977 that a modified route had been selected for a bypass of Tarporley. The preferred route will now be protected for planning control purposes and future applications for development affecting the proposed road will have to be considered by the Department.

This decision has cleared the way for the scheme to be designed in more detail, leading to the statutory procedures involved in fixing the line by order and in acquiring the necessary land. In fact, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we hope to have the orders ready in detail for the main line by the spring of next year. In these statutory processes there are rights of objection to which the Department obviously must pay attention, and there might be a need for a public inquiry if objections cannot be resolved.

In view of the desirability of affording relief to Tarporley as soon as possible, I very much hope that the need for a public inquiry does not arise. But I would say to the hon. Gentleman, and through him to the people of Tarporley, that this is something which is very much in their hands. If the objections are of a sufficiently serious nature, obviously the Department will have to consider them and will have to hold a public inquiry. If the objections are not of that kind, perhaps we can dispense with the public inquiry and save a considerable amount of time.

As I mentioned, orders for the main line will be available in the spring of next year. If we had a public inquiry, we would be talking about beginning construction for the western bypass in 1981. Obviously, if we can avoid a public inquiry, we can bring that date forward, which will be very good news in Tarporley generally. I shall certainly try to do what I can, but this rests almost exclusively on the nature of the objections to the west line. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree that our endeavours as a Department are now best directed to processing that bypass as fast as we possibly can.

That is the main problem with regard to Tarporley. I now turn to the second problem, which is related to the village of Eaton. This is a community which is located very close to Tarporley, to the north-east, in pleasant rural surroundings. As the hon. Gentleman said, it lies on a minor road, not a trunk road—the B5152—which is tortuous, narrow in places and has restricted standards of visibility over a great deal of its length. It connects to the trunk road at each end, and the geography of the area is such that the B5152 can be used as a bypass of Tarporley for traffic moving between the north and the south or east.

Despite its substandard layout, it is used by an appreciable amount of traffic, including many heavy lorries and long loads, in order to avoid delays that arise in passing through the middle of Tarporley and also to circumvent the gradients on the A49 trunk road over Luddington Hill. It is fully agreed that the residents of Eaton have good cause to express their extreme concern over the present traffic situation, and I know that the Cheshire county council, as the highway authority for the B5152, has devoted a lot of time to considering ways and means of alleviating the problem. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman has made the point to me that representatives of the Cheshire county council have visited the area to see for themselves what the problem is in Eaton.

Although the Department has no direct responsibility for this road, I am fully aware that the choice of a Tarporley bypass on the east side would have helped Eaton. Unfortunately, it would not have been so effective as far as Tarporley is concerned as the selected route on the west side. There is good reason to expect, however, that when the Tarporley western bypass is constructed, the congestion in the village will be so diminished that the temptation to drivers to use the B5152 as a bypass will be reduced, with a corresponding reduction in the traffic passing through Eaton village.

The ideal situation would, of course, be the construction of two new bypasses for Tarporley, on its west side and also on its east side, which would solve all the problems. As I have said, the former is planned to go ahead after completion of the statutory processes, the cost of the scheme being justifiable on the grounds of minimising the congestion in Tarporley. In these circumstances, it would be very difficult to use the same reasons for justifying another costly scheme on an eastern alignment in the foreseeable future.

A second new bypass to the east would have to compete on a priority basis with a great many schemes throughout the country, very often at places where there is a demand for a first bypass, never mind a second. Obviously, the benefits to those areas of one bypass are considerably greater than those of a second bypass for Tarporley.

The point has been made in the debate about the possibility of a link road from the A49 north of Tarporley to the new bypass west of Tarporley as an alternative to a full-scale eastern bypass. This scheme has been considered, but again there are difficulties arising from the character of the A49 north of Tarporley. It is not an entirely satisfactory road for heavy vehicles.

The other possibilities for helping Eaton include the possible introduction of a suitable weight restriction on the B5152 which would control the extent to which heavy lorries use that road. I understand that, having visited the area, members of the Cheshire county council have agreed to go ahead, after initial reservations, with such a weight restriction for the village. But, as the hon. Member said, this will cause problems in Tarporley. He tried to draw me out on the precise extent of the problems in Tarporley, even supposing that Tarporley had a western bypass. I can tell him that we expect that the relief to Tarporley as a result of the western bypass will be that about half the number of vehicles will use the main road. That is a very considerable reduction in the volume of traffic. Even with a weight restriction at Eaton, which will push more traffic through Tarporley, there will be the offsetting factor of the benefit from the western bypass. Tarporley will end up as a net gainer if there is a western bypass and a weight restriction at Eaton. Therefore, by and large, it is right to push ahead with the western bypass and to consider, as the Cheshire county council has done, a weight restriction to help Eaton in the short term.

A further possibility for helping Eaton is to have a bypass for the village itself. We are making considerable progress on this. The Department's regional controller for roads and transportation is looking at this possibility together with the county council. We are also willing to consider the possibility of trunking the B5152 and improving the road generally, including a bypass for Eaton which would make it a substantial bypass for Tarporley as a whole. It would be a real alternative to the older conception of an eastern bypass per se. That would be the main item to be discussed if the hon. Gentleman were to bring a deputation to see me.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we acknowledge the problems of the general area of Tarporley and Eaton. We agree that the solution should be a bypass of some kind, in whatever form, to the east as well as the one which we are constructing to the west. We are now investigating thoroughly the trunking of the B5152 and improving that and making it the eastern bypass.

I should like to receive a deputation, but perhaps the hon. Gentleman would not mind deferring it until we have more positive ideas on whether the latest suggestion involving trunking the B5152 is a serious runner. If at that time we meet with the hon. Gentleman and the Cheshire county council, we may be able to see our way forward more clearly than we can at the moment when we are simply examining this matter as a proposal but do not know whether it is a serious runner. I should be happy to receive a deputation, but I ask the hon. Gentleman to consider whether such a meeting would be appropriate at present and whether it would not be better to meet in a few months' time when we may have more to say from our side of the table.

I hope that what I have said will be good news to the hon. Gentleman because it opens up a new line of thought which we are taking seriously and which at present looks promising.

I turn to the problems of Northwich and Gadbrook. The hon. Gentleman has already told the House that he had a meeting with my officials and me in December last year about the traffic conditions in Northwich. The town is already bypassed on its south side by the trunk road A556, commonly known as the Northwich bypass, which relieves the town of the through traffic movement between the M6 and Manchester to the east and Chester and North Wales to the west. A few miles to the north of Northwich, the recently constructed M56 runs roughly parallel to the A556 and has afforded some relief to it.

I wish first to comment on the possibility of traffic dangers to school children crossing the Northwich bypass on their way to and from the Leftwich high school. Discussions have been held between the regional controller's staff, the county council and the police, following investigations which showed that there was little justification for a special crossing facility. As the hon. Gentleman knows, because I wrote to him on 10th October, agreement was reached that warning signs would be erected on the approaches to the roundabout concerning the possible presence of children crossing to school at that point.

The problem is that the number of children using this point to cross to the school is small. That number is not marginally outside the criteria for an underpass or footbridge or pedestrian crossing; it is way outside our criteria. I believe that the current solution is the best at present and if the county council would like to consider establishing a school crossing patrol at this point, that plus the signs will be a more appropriate measure to take at the moment.

I understand that the school may be expanded and that the number of children using the crossing in future may increase. I reassure the hon. Gentleman that we shall keep the matter under review, and if the proposed development takes place, we shall re-examine the whole question. However, at present I do not see that an underpass is the right solution. I believe that what we are proposing for the number of children involved is the better way forward.

On the more general question of the road system in Northwich, the hon. Gentleman pointed out that all the roads in the area are the responsibility of the Cheshire county council and not of my Department. All the general questions he raised relating to the high-level bridges and better access to industry and to the motorway system are properly matters for the county council and cannot be dealt with particularly quickly because they involve a number of difficult, interrelated problems. I understand that since our meeting in December, a study has gone forward on these matters and a working party, established by the district council and the county council, will be reporting on all these points in due course.

Generally, there is more money available now than there was two or three years ago for such local road schemes and I have been saying to county councils—and I shall be meeting the Cheshire county council with other county councils in the North-West in the next few weeks—that they would be well advised to have schemes available for quick action because money can become available rapidly and we wish to avoid the under-spending that has occurred in the past. There is now a better climate for getting schemes off the ground than we have had for some time and if the Cheshire county council will get a move on with its plans for Northwich it will find us in a fairly receptive frame of mind.

On the question of section 8 grants which would be a means of taking the traffic from ICI off the road system and putting it on the railways, the ball is in ICI's court. The hon. Gentleman referred to meetings of the company, local authorities and ourselves, and these have indicated that there is a possibility of action in this area. We await proposals from ICI and will give them sympathetic consideration if they come forward.

The problem with the development at Gadbrook is that there is only one access, and there is also a problem over the nature of the development. The hon. Gentleman admitted that there is a great deal of land that could be developed in Northwich itself. This proposal is on the "wrong side" of the bypass—the side away from the town—and would entail a fresh phase of development on the outer side of the bypass. That is obviously a matter for concern.

I understand that there has been correspondence between officials and the local authority. I shall certainly read the correspondence that the hon. Gentleman will be sending to me. Generally, I always wish to take a helpful line in these matters because I believe that industrial development should have priority over, for example, traffic and access considerations, and I shall try to view the matter in that light as far as my powers extend.

It is proposed that there should be a meeting shortly between my regional officials and the local authorities and I hope that some progress can be made there. I undertake to look carefully at any correspondence that the hon. Gentleman sends to me.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-three minutes past Ten o'clock.