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North Circular Road,Ealing

Volume 960: debated on Friday 15 December 1978

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3.30 p.m.

After a quiet week at Westminster it is appropriate that we should end on a high note of excitement by addressing ourselves to the problem of the North Circular Road in Ealing. It is particularly fitting that I should raise this subject at a time approaching 4 pm on Friday afternoon, as the traffic there will now be at a virtual standstill and motorists will be asking themselves when on earth someone is going to do something to relieve this bottleneck.

I see from a recent edition of the Evening News that this stretch of the road has hit the headlines. Mr. K. D. Kirkham, of Enfield, Middlesex, wrote to the newspaper as follows:
" Reader J. C. Buck (November 28th) asked what is the worst black spot that needs improving on London's roads. Surely it must be that section of the North Circular between Hanger Lane and Ealing Common. It is single lane for some two miles on this, the capital's main orbital road. To allow such conditions in this day and age is beyond comprehension ".
It is on behalf of Mr. Kirkham, other motorists and my constituents that I raise the problem this afternoon. The North Circular Road is a trunk road for which the Department of Transport is the highway authority. That section of it in my constituency provides a vital link in London's main road network, carrying traffic from the M4, A4, and A30 trunk roads at Chiswick, and from south and southwest London via Kew Bridge to north and north-west London and the A40, M1 and A1 trunk roads. It is London's principal orbital road and, additionally, it is an important local road for my constituents, who, for example, use it to get to work at Park Royal from either Acton or Ealing and use it to get out of London.

To discharge its important functions, for most of its route the North Circular Road is dual three-lanes and where this is not the case it is either dual two-lanes or single four-lanes, with one or two stretches of single three-lanes. Additionally, along most of the route junctions are either grade-separated or there are roundabouts. However, that section of the road which is in my constituency—about 2·3 miles—is single two-lanes for all but a small section on Hanger Hill, where it is one-lane one way and two-lanes the other way. The only other section of the North Circular Road that is two-lanes each way is from East End Road to High Road Finchley, which is a much shorter stretch, and the other side of the M1 and A1 junctions.

So, traffic coming into Ealing from the South or from the North has to compress itself from three lanes into one. The comparison is with sand passing through an hour-glass, the narrow passage through which the sand passes being the North Circular Road in Ealing. Additionally, at the main junction with the Uxbridge Road there are traffic lights, and this, combined with the narrow road on either side, is at the root of the problem.

The capacity is totally inadequate, and there is intolerable congestion. The average southbound queue extends quite regularly from the Uxbridge Road all the way up Hanger Hill to Western Avenue, and the northbound queue at Uxbridge Road regularly extends all the way south to the Chiswick roundabout. These delays add between 10 and 30 minutes to the journey time between Western Avenue and Chiswick roundabout, and vice versa. When a lorry breaks down the situation becomes quite chaotic.

The problem that really concerns me is that adjacent residential areas have increasingly been subjected to significant volumes of traffic diverting off the main road and seeking short cuts to their destinations, often at high speed. These include the Hanger Hill estate—principally Ashbourne Road, Corringway, Princes Gardens and Monk's Drive, and elsewhere, Lynwood Road, Baronsmede, Birkdale Road, Hillcrest Road, Ascott Avenue and Lionel Road. Those roads are simply not able to cope, and the situation is becoming very dangerous. It is not only cars ; heavy commercial vehicles are also using these short cuts.

Public pressure from my constituents has grown in recent years as their patience has become exhausted. Residents' groups, such as the Hanger Hill East residents' association, are actively pressing their claims for relief. They would like extraneous traffic removed from their roads, but this simply is not possible while the capacity of the North Circular Road is so restricted. An improvement of the trunk road is the only way to reconcile these interests. Of course, the problems of this road have attracted the interest of the GLC and the Department of Transport for some time. Alas, it has attracted no action.

In March, 1972, the Department of the Environment published a scheme for the improvement of the North Circular Road, between Western Avenue and Popes Lane. It was a truly mammoth scheme, which would have caused considerable loss of amenity and, even if it had been acceptable on planning grounds, the subsequent cut-backs in finance for urban roads and the reversal of GLC policy on inner urban motorways would have killed it in any case. That scheme was dropped in 1973 and since then there has been no improvement to the road. There are now no concrete plans to rectify the problems that I have talked about. It still remains a one-lane road each way, and the situation grows daily worse.

On 12th December I received an invitation from the Minister's private secretary to an exhibition at the Abbey hotel, at which proposals for the improvement of the North Circular Road were to be displayed. I was delighted that this debate had produced such an immediate response, but to my annoyance I found that the section of the road that he proposes to improve is to the north, between Hanger Lane and Harrow Road, where the road is already a two-lane road each way. What is the object of ensuring that traffic arrives even more quickly in my constituency? I wonder whether the Department of Transport has its priorities right in widening other sections of the road first while leaving the principal bottleneck untouched.

I do not want to be entirely negative, and I know that road widening is never popular, but if the Minister decided to widen the North Circular Road to two lanes each way from Western Avenue to Uxbridge Road he would have my wholehearted support and, I believe, the support of those whom I represent. The route has already been safeguarded and relatively few people would be affected.

The route from Uxbridge Road down to Popes Lane is slightly more difficult, but my preferred solution is to cut and cover across Ealing Common, to go through St. Paul's playing fields, where the route has been safeguarded, and to rejoin the North Circular Road. I believe that that solution would also have the support of most of my constituents.

Resistance from residents is not the obstruction in this case ; it is lack of action by the Department of Transport. Going through my files, I found a letter from the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment dated 8th June 1976. He said:
" As you know, the Department has been reviewing this scheme to see how it can be modified to meet the objections made when it was first published. Also we must now await the results of the joint DOE/GLC reappraisal of traffic requirements along the North Circular Road. Until these investigations have been completed we cannot proceed with the usual statutory processes and therefore I am unable at this stage to give any indication as to when final decisions will be taken."
That letter was written three years after the scheme to which I have referred was withdrawn. A further two and a half years have elapsed and we still have no firm scheme for that part of the road.

I turn to the questions that I have for the Minister. I am sure that he is in a festive mood and will respond favourably. First, does he accept that this stretch of the North Circular Road is the worst and that a solution is urgently needed?

Secondly, when will he publish his alternative schemes and how long does he propose to allow for consultation? Thirdly, when does he—or, as is more likely, his Conservative successor—anticipate coming to a conclusion about which scheme to implement? Finally, when will little men with pickaxes actually turn up on the North Circular Road and start widening it?

I see from the document "Policy for Roads ; England 1978 that the Minister has earmarked £9 million for the improvement of this stretch of the road and that it will be started in 1981–83. I hope that that means 1981 and not 1983, in light of the lack of progress so far.

What we really want in Ealing is more information about what the Department of Transport is doing and some evidence that it attaches a high priority to widening the road through Ealing and is determined to arrive at a solution as soon as possible.

This is the final contribution from the Conservative Benches before Christmas and I therefore wish you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, your colleagues in the Chair and the staff of the whole House, who have not had an easy time in the past three or four days, a very happy Christmas and all the best for 1979.

3.39 p.m.

I join the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) in wishing you a happy Christmas, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was also in the perhaps unfortunate position of wishing you a good summer holiday earlier this year since I was also the last speaker from the Government side before the Summer Recess. It seems to be my unfortunate lot always to have to reply to Adjournment debates immediately before recesses, but my good wishes are heartfelt.

Despite those remarks, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me an opportunity to discuss what is a very important, but difficult, trunk road which allows orbital movement in north London. The importance of the road can be judged by the fact that improvement schemes on the road, and its proposed extension to the A13, account for most of the outstanding trunk road programme in London. Apart from the proposed extension, there are 13 improvement schemes programmed, and three of these lie wholly or in part within the hon. Gentleman's constituency. I am not sure whether that is a cause for congratulation, but, from the general tone of his remarks, I think it is.

I should like first to remind the House of the context in which schemes on the North Circular Road are being planned. The North Circular Road became a trunk road under the Trunk Roads Act 1946, and following a review of conditions on the road in 1961 it was decided that it should be improved to higher capacity standards with free-flow conditions at important junctions. The underlying purpose of this policy was to enable traffic to travel across the north of London from one radial route to another with the minimum of delay.

As an interim measure, some of the most congested junctions were improved at ground level, but the intention was that grade separation should be provided at all major intersections, that the road should be widened to dual three-lane standards and direct access to the road limited as far as possible. I think that was the scheme to which the hon. Gentleman referred. However, in 1974 the Greater London Council took the view that the standards proposed by the Department would provide more capacity and a higher level of service than was necessary, having regard to the environmental effects. I take it that the hon. Gentleman concurs with that general view. Accordingly, a joint Greater London Council—Department of Transport study was set up to consider this problem.

In November of last year, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced his acceptance of the recommendations made by the officials who carried out that study. They recommended that the general aim should be to provide dual two-lane carriageways without frontage access, that is to say, with service roads provided, or where frontage development makes it more appropriate, dual three-lane carriageways with frontage access, that is to say, without service roads. They pointed out, however, that, exceptionally, traffic projections may indicate, and environmental considerations may permit, or even require, dual-three lane carriageways without frontage access. Conversely, environmental or route continuity considerations may indicate, exceptionally, dual two-lane carriageways with frontage access. They also recommended that the capacities at junctions should be in balance with the capacities of links between them. That is a very important point on which the hon. Gentleman touched.

Since acceptance of those recommendations, officials have been reviewing the individual proposals for improvements, including those for which schemes had already been published. Because of the large number and complexity of the individual schemes, and the limited staff available for the purpose both in my Department and in County Hall, this review will take a little time. At present eight schemes are under study and the first two public exhibitions, one of which the hon. Gentleman has received an invitation to, will be held next month. At these, the public will be asked to give their views on alternative designs for improvements in the vicinity of Regents Park Road and for the length of road between Hanger Lane and Harrow Road. This latter scheme lies in part in Acton, and I have already written to the hon. Gentleman informing him about the public exhibition on 9th January.

I have a rather splendid map which I was about to make available to the hon. Gentleman, had not the preceding debate collapsed, to show exactly what was intended, and in order to let him have a personal copy of the proposals that we are putting forward for public consultation.

Another scheme which lies within his constituency is that dealing with the length from Popes Lane to Hanger Lane. This is the greatest single length of the North Circular Road which is not yet dual carriageway. It is also the narrowest and is one of the lengths most in need of improvement. Indeed, the need has been evident for many years, and as long ago as 1971 draft highway orders for an improvement to this section of road were published and a large number of objections were received.

The current review of this scheme in the light of the joint study recommendations has taken these objections into account and is well advanced. We hope to put alternatives before the public in the late spring or early summer. Therefore, we are talking about a very tiny delay between that scheme, which the hon. Gentleman wants to be advanced as rapidly as possible, and the one which will go to public consultation next month.

In reply to the question put to me by the hon. Gentleman at the end of his remarks, may I say that we accept that a solution of the kind we envisage is now necessary in the interests not only of general traffic movement but of residents in the area. We have put these alternatives to the public, and we shall listen to their comments when drawing up our preferred route.

As regards the next stage after that, we hope in the case of the scheme I have mentioned, for which we shall go into public consultation next month, that there will be an inquiry at the end of 1980. We shall begin inviting the little men with pickaxes to start work early in 1983. We hope to complete that work in 1985. That may sound a little disappointing to the hon. Gentleman, because we are talking about a period six years hence, but it is quite fast compared with the time scale in respect of most roadway constructions. Inevitably, it is determined by the time it takes to go through the statutory procedures when there will be a considerable number of objections, particularly when building a road in a densely populated area of this kind.

In some respects the length of the North Circular Road between the A40 and Chiswick warrants rather different treatment from the rest of the road because the purpose-built road comes to an end there and the route considerations which I have mentioned come into play. In view of the southbound movement, it will be appreciated that on arrival at the Chiswick roundabout on an improved North Circular Road traffic will be impeded by lack of capacity whichever direction is followed.

There is little prospect of providing additional capacity in the A4-M4 corridor, either eastwards or westwards, and the Greater London Council has no plans for any material increase in capacity on the South Circular Road. In this latter respect, the situation differs from that envisaged when our proposals were published in 1971 when Ringway 2 in the south was planned. Consequently the schemes that we intend to put forward for this length of the North Circular Road will provide for a gradually diminishing level of service between the A40 and Chiswick rather than the higher uniform level of service that we hope to achieve north and east of the A40. This would make it even more difficult to justify a very expensive proposal, such as the scheme completely in tunnel which has been suggested.

Furthermore, there are many lengths of trunk road in London where the residents could claim with equal force that the traffic should be put underground. Unfortunately, meeting their wishes would mean that, for financial reasons, many of the other schemes in London would have to be postponed indefinitely. This is not to say that in some places a short length of tunnel may be justified. I am sympathetic to that kind of approach, which has clear environmental advantages. I ask the hon. Gentleman to reserve judgment until he has studied our alternatives in the schemes that will shortly go to public consultation.

I mentioned that there were three schemes directly affecting Acton. The third is the new gyratory system that is now under construction at the junction of the A40 with the North Circular Road. That will reduce delays for North Circular Road traffic. With that system started and the two other major schemes nearing public consultation stage, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that in respect of North Circular Road schemes his constituency has received high priority since the joint study conclusions were announced.

I appreciate that there have been one or two delays on the way. I also appreciate what he said about the feelings of residents who live in surrounding areas, particularly on estates, who have to put up with traffic conditions and difficulties arising from the activities of those who seek alternative routes, in view of the undoubted congestion on the North Circular Road.

In order to make the best possible use of limited road space and junction capacity, it has been necessary to introduce traffic management measures such as the banning of turns at the Popes Lane junction, with consequential adverse effects on Gunnersbury Drive which the hon. Gentleman brought to my attention recently. Since reinstatement of the banned turns would obviously impede the progress of traffic along the trunk road still further, any interim alleviation of this problem pending implementation of the major scheme must be achieved, if possible, by other measures.

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that it is difficult to achieve the right sort of rapid progress in this area, but I have indicated that, in view of the fact that the scheme is due to go to public consultation next year, with the statutory procedures that will then unfold, and with the implementation of the schemes beginning roughly in 1983, we can achieve a measure of improvement in the foreseeable future. This will help to alleviate the problems which people in the area have had to put up with to an increasing extent for a long time.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes to Four o'clock till Monday 15th January, pursuant to the Resolution of tire House of 12th December.