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M1 Motorway(Hertfordshire)

Volume 961: debated on Tuesday 23 January 1979

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

11.37 p.m.

The Minister will recollect that among the many Adjournment debates of this type which he has had to answer, there was a debate on 12th May 1978 on the subject of the M1, introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Bedfordshire, South (Mr. Madel). My hon. Friend pointed out that it was a particularly appropriate date because, being Friday, at about four o'clock, the volume of traffic on the M1 at that time would draw attention to the urgent need for improvements to that section of the motorway to which he was referring.

It seems particularly appropriate today that we should have had a different sort of illustration. An industrial dispute has meant an additional burden of traffic on motorways. I understand that there have been 20-mile tail-backs on some of the motorways tonight. This morning there were 8-mile tail-backs on the M1. It is a matter of deep concern, and I am sensitive of the need to get on with the work on the M1.

I want to draw the Minister's attention to the fact that in my constituency there are a wide range of motorway matters and proposals which might be termed to have a motorway definition. There are pressures for the early completion of the M25 from Maple Cross, which is familiar to the Minister. He will be aware that there is widespread support for the early completion of the road. There is, as is usually the case, a divergence of views on the optimum route to be chosen, so the possibility of inquiry proceedings in that case cannot be overlooked. On the section of the M25 to be completed between Micklefield Green and South Mimms, which will cross the Ml, a number of alternative routes have been suggested. There has been a wide range of discussions and consultations over an extended period, and the Department's preferred route has been made known.

In this case, however, there are differing views, there are some differences of substance between one route and another, and there are widely held reservations about the need for the construction of this motorway at all. It is against that background that I wish to draw attention to the nature of the decision that was taken with regard to widening the M1 in Hertfordshire, and in particular as it affects my constituency.

The nature and conduct of proceedings are such that they have caused considerable misgivings among my constituents. I drew the Under-Secretary of State's attention to that in a letter that I wrote to him on 8 November, in which I pointed out that the view had been taken that, in the case of the M1 widening, the inspector's report had been thrown to one side purely for the purposes of administrative convenience and that this could only create further difficulties at any future public inquiry which might be held in the area of my constituency.

In contradistinction to that, I have great respect for both the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary of State in the conduct of road matters in my constituency in particular and, I am sure, in the country in general. I feel that they have on all occasions sought to discharge their duties both diligently and in the interests of the community at large.

I do not think that anyone can really deny the need to improve and, indeed, widen the M1 between junctions five and eight in Hertfordshire. I think that it is no exaggeration that millions of motorists will testify to the present inadequacies of the roads there, and commuters who regularly use that route are finding it a cause of increasing frustration and concern. I think that it is common ground, between both the Minister and myself and both sides of the House, that action has to be taken.

In the debate in May 1978 there was a careful review of some of the alternative proposals that might be taken on a short-term basis, and the Minister gave reasons why they had to be projected. He outlined the public inquiry position. We accept that there is a major traffic bottleneck at all times of the year, and it is no part of my case that the work should not proceed. My complaint is more at the manner and nature of the decision than at the need itself.

After all, the scheme now, at 1976 prices, will cost nearly 20 per cent. more than the original proposal. It will involve the construction of a second three-lane carriageway adjacent to the existing route but it will omit the proposals for the new interchanges at Beachtrees, Breakspeare and Waterdale junctions.

The report of the inspector on the 1976 public inquiry did not think that the original order should be confirmed. He agreed that there should be a second carriageway, but he did not agree with some of the details. The Department is now saying that it cannot abandon the original scheme because that would mean two more years' delay to overcome what was admittedly a mistake in the early planning of the motorway. It is to go ahead without any further public inquiry.

This conclusion means that three of the four principal conclusions reached by the inspector are being dismissed. The inspector agreed that there should be online widening for part of the route. However, the Minister feels that, because of the difficulties of traffic diversions, he can overrule that finding. He accepts, and it is clear, that the on-line solution would have had environmental advantages, but those advantages are apparently too limited when taken in the light of any delay that might follow any further inquiries.

The Minister has rejected that the proposed Waterdale roundabout should be built further east where the orbital road will cross the A405, and has also rejected the proposal for the acquisition of land and earthworks to be made ready when the north orbital road opens.

The Minister's argument is on the grounds of expediency and urgency. But there has been more than two and a half years' delay since the inquiry. The start date has also been brought forward, so this becomes even more urgent. This seems to be riding roughshod over the information given to those who attended the inquiry so assiduously.

The on-line widening proposals would have saved land and houses. I am not at all sure that there would have been any further delay, because no new orders would have been required and there would not necessarily have been a public inquiry in the light of what the Minister has now proposed. Sensible proposals have been discounted on the ground that they would have caused undue delay. The scheme still appears to be incomplete, in that the proposals on the Waterdale junction will have to be published in due course.

The objectors feel anger and frustration at the inflexible attitude of the Department. It is a poor example of democracy when objectors who have pressed their cases entirely through proper channels can feel that they have achieved less in six years of reasoned argument than others can achieve in other parts of the country by six hours of disruptive tactics. It is six years since the proposals were first published, of which five have been spent in inactivity and silence following the public inquiries. Only one year was spent on the public inquiries themselves and each inspector completed his report in the month following the inquiry.

I hope that the Department will look at the changes needed in procedure following the outcome of this inquiry, first on information and secondly on cost. The procedure is outlined in pages 13 and 14 of the report on the review of highway inquiry procedures.

There are two changes that are called for in awarding costs. Where there have been responsible associations and parish councils they should be able to claim costs, and these should be awarded where the Secretary of State has chosen to override the inspector's report after he has recommended that the order should not be made.

Secondly, on information, we must consider the case where the Minister has made available to him additional information after he has considered the inspector's recommendation. The ability of road construction units and road planners at the Department of Trade to be able to present further information to influence a decision after the inspector's report appears to be questionable. It is a one-way advantage providing no opportunity for response by objectors. It amounts to working on the inspector's report with the Minister in order to go back to the original proposal. That requires further investigation. I have written to the Minister to say that a detailed refutation of the accepted case when it has been rejected is called for. Although I accept that there was a helpful and constructive answer by the Minister giving grounds, we need a much fuller statement of his reasons for the rejection.

The Minister will recall that I asked him on 21st November if he would let me know the number of times in each of the past five years when inspectors' reports on public inquiries into road schemes had been overruled and if he would outline the criteria which are used in such situations. The hon. Gentleman was kind enough to advise me on 12 January that he had not overlooked the matter and that he hoped to be able to let me have the infomation before very long. I think that perhaps the hon. Gentleman is being a little reticent on some of these matters and I hope that he can get complete information by consulting his regional offices. I know that a number of organisations are deeply interested in the replies to this question.

My constituents are in no way wishing to stand in the way of progress. They are sensitive to the interests of the public at large in the use of this country's principal motorway. However, this is a classic situation of the suppression of a minority view in the interests of the majority.

The House has laid down procedures in the interests of those minorities. They seek to ensure that minority interests are fully investigated and made known. They seek also to provide an impartial means of judging those objections and representations so that recommendations can be made to the Minister, drawn up with due regard to the highest professional standards and the latest information. In this case these procedures have been scrupulously observed.

The Department has had two and a half years after each inquiry to digest the information and those recommendations, and has then seen fit to reject the findings of its own inspector.

My constituents had the gravest reservations at one stage as to the impartiality of the inspector appointed, but having overcome those reservations they have been dumbfounded to find that a scrupulously professional approach has been thrown to one side by the Minister on the ground that it would all take too long. I trust that the lessons of this unhappy series of inquiries will be learnt.

I must advise the Minister that I have put all my constituents on notice that in public inquiries in connection with my constituency they should record all the proceedings in detail and leave no stone unturned to protect their interests. I say that after careful reflection and with real regret in view of the very high regard that I have held for the integrity and fair-minded approach of the Minister on many of these matters in the past.

11.50 p.m.

I know that this issue has been a matter of great concern to the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, South-West (Mr. Dodsworth) and I pay tribute to the way in which he has pursued this and other motorway matters on behalf of his constituents. I am glad to have the opportunity to set out clearly the Government's view on the widening of the bottom end of the M1. In addition, I wish to express my understanding of the feelings of the people directly concerned. I feel for them very much.

It is common ground, as the hon. Gentleman admitted, that there is an urgent need to improve the six-mile section of the M1 between junctions five and eight—the notorious two-lane section. It is greatly overloaded, especially at peak times, and carries a high proportion of heavy lorries. Driving on it can be unpleasant, not just in weather conditions such as we have had today, with the additional problem of a lack of railway services, but in any rush-hour period. There is general recognition that this section was one of the mistakes of early motorway planning.

There is an urgent need for something to be done, and proposals for widening have been around for a long time. The first inquiry into the Department's proposals began in 1973. The proposals were subsequently changed and the inquiry was reopened in 1976, bringing forward the proposals that we are now discussing.

At the reopened inquiry the need for widening the M1 was not seriously questioned, but the method of widening was. The Bucknalls Lane residents' group, supported by the hon. Gentleman, the National Farmers' Union, the St. Stephen's parish council and the Brickett Wood ratepayers' association argued that the widening should be achieved by the on-line method, as opposed to widening by the building of a new motorway to the east of the M1. They said that on-line widening would require less land, would save four houses in Bucknalls Lane and would cause less environmental damage. The group also objected to some of the junction proposals.

The inspector concluded that this section of the M1 was overloaded, that it was the scene of considerable congestion and much delay and that it ought to be widened. He agreed that the road ought to be widened initially to dual three lanes and that there should be provision for a fourth lane between Breakspeare and the proposed junction with the M25. He concluded that on-line widening should take place through the existing bridge and alongside the retaining wall to Bucknalls Lane and that the resultant lack of hard shoulder and somewhat substandard clearances should be accepted. Finally, he was also generally opposed to the Department's views on junctions.

Because the inspector disagreed with some of the major details of the scheme, although he accepted the need for widening, he recommended that none of the orders before the inquiry should be made. The Secretaries of State decided, however, that the scheme should go ahead. It was urgently needed and had been much delayed already. They accepted the inspector's conclusions about the proposed junctions but decided that they should proceed with the published proposals for a new southbound carriageway at Bucknalls Lane.

Let me deal first with the situation at Bucknalls Lane. As I told the hon. Gentleman in my letter of 12 January, I am sorry that the Bucknalls Lane residents' group is so dissatisfied with the decision. But I can readily understand their disappointment that we were not able to accept the suggestion about online widening at that point in the road. The reasons for that were quite clear and were brought out fully at the public inquiry.

First, the addition of a third lane to the existing two in the Bucknalls Lane area would lead to enormous dislocation during construction. It would mean building on the existing motorway a new motorway, and at the moment the motorway, as we know, is only two lanes in each direction. It would lead to considerable bottlenecks for a prolonged period if we were to adopt this method of construction—that is to say, on the existing motorway rather than alongside it. Traffic on the Ml, already heavily overloaded, would have to be diverted on to the local road system, causing intolerable congestion on those roads and protracted delays to all traffic.

Secondly, at the end of the day the new motorway would have inadequacies, such as the absence of hard shoulders and substandard clearances, which, with the very high volumes of traffic involved—some 30,000 vehicles a day on each carriageway—would have serious disadvantages, particularly during periods of inevitable maintenance. It would be extremely difficult to keep this very important part of our motorway system functioning adequately when repairs had to be undertaken.

I very much regret that the decision will mean that three houses, one of which the Department already owns, will have to be demolished. No. 90 Bucknalls Lane can be saved, although part of the garden will be required for the works. I entirely appreciate the distress and disturbance caused to those who have to leave their homes. But, much as I sympathise, this great disadvantage has to be balanced against the benefits to the thousands of users of the existing road and of those who would be affected by the diversions. I am satisfied that in this case the decision reflects a proper view of inevitably conflicting considerations.

Officers of the Department have called on the families affected, and they will do everything within their power to make the move as smooth as possible. It is, I am afraid, the old story of a general good balanced against severe disadvantage to a small group of people. But, as the hon. Gentleman said, he knows the pressure that there has been for some improvement in this section of the M1 and the delay that there has been in bringing it about. Decisions had to take that into account as well as other factors.

The hon. Gentleman further suggested that there should be a reopening of the inquiry and made several points about officers looking at new facts. I do not believe that there are any grounds for referring the proposals back to objectors or for reopening the inquiry. The procedure rules require that statutory objectors who appear be given the opportunity of making written representations where the Secretaries of State disagree with the inspector's recommendation if they differ on a finding of fact or if they have taken into consideration new evidence or a new issue of fact which was not raised at the inquiry.

The Minister will recall that in the statement that was issued by the Department on 2 November paragraph 3.4 says:

"The Secretary of State decided to give interested persons a further opportunity to make representations before he made his decision. As a result of further traffic studies and representations made it was decided to revise the proposals and reopen the public inquiries."
What is the point of going through all that process when we have gone back to where we started and the further representations were of no value whatsoever?

My point is that we are prepared to look at any new facts which are brought to our attention, but in this case the Secretaries of State did not make that decision on any new facts which were brought out or on any new evidence. They made their decision on a difference of view about the relative merits of the alternative schemes put forward—the suggestions of the inspector and the original proposals which they themselves put forward. It was not, therefore, a matter of difference in facts. It was a matter of a disagreement about the relative merits and the balance of advantage between the two alternative proposals.

That is why, where there are new facts to be brought out, we are always prepared—indeed, there is a statutory right—for the objectors to ask for the inquiry to be reopened. But in this case there are no new facts as such. The facts in this problem have always been the same. It is simply a difference of view as to the alternative strategies put forward.

I think that the most serious point in the hon. Gentleman's presentation is when he says that we have thrown the inspector's report to one side purely for administrative convenience, that the decision will make for further difficulties at public inquiries in his area and that some cynicism about public inquiries is justified as a result of our behaviour in this particular case.

As the letter of 2 November conveying the decision of the Secretaries of State explained, the problem before us was a difficult one. The inspector accepted that this section of M1 is overloaded and should be widened, and we were aware that there is widespread support for the early improvement of this unsatisfactory and unpleasant stretch of road, as I have already said. But acceptance of the inspector's recommendations in full would have added at least a further two years' delay to what has already been a much delayed improvement. It would prolong the uncertainly of all those who live near this section of the motorway and have been wondering what effect the proposed improvement will have on them. New orders would have had to be published and they, in turn, would be subject to the normal statutory procedures. If they were considered concurrently with the proposals for the M25 between Micklefield Green and South Mimms, for example, the delay could be considerable.

We did, therefore—and I ask the hon. Gentleman and residents of Bucknalls Lane and others concerned to believe this—seek a solution which would follow the spirit of the inspector's report as far as possible, while meeting the urgent need for a widening which the hon. Gentleman himself recognised.

That was the fundamental approach that we adopted, and I believe that we have succeeded. After all, we have accepted a number of the inspector's points, particularly as regards junctions, and so forth, but we felt that to have accepted all his findings would have led to unacceptable delay, which we could not really tolerate in the national interest of having a solution to this particularly difficult problem. It is a problem which is known to all hon. Members at the bottom end of the M1. Indeed, it is almost a nationally notorious problem.

Finally, the hon. Member has written to me, as he said, requesting information about the number of times the Secretaries of State have gone against recommendations made by inspectors. It has taken a little time to assemble all the evidence, because I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would have wanted me to go back over a number of years and to deal with all parts of the country. This has meant quite a lot of work. However, I now have the information, which I shall send to the hon. Gentleman, as I promised—probably tomorrow.

As to the number of occasions on which the inspector's main recommendation was contrary to the Department's proposal and the inspector's recommendation was not accepted by the Secretary of State, this did not happen in 1977 or in 1978—among decisions already reached so far. Some inquiries held in 1977 and 1978 have not yet had final decisions taken on them. In 1976, when this inquiry took place, it happened in only one case—the case about which we are having this Adjournment debate—and that was one case out of 20.

In the year before that, 1975, there were no such examples. All 24 cases did not fall into this category where the main recommendation was contested by the inspector and the Secretary of State then refused to accept the inspector's proposals. It happened only twice out of 38 inquiries in 1974.

Therefore, the hon. Member can see that it is very much the exception that the Secretaries of State do not accept the recommendation by the inspector when it goes against their original proposal.

From what he has said, I am sure the hon. Gentleman can see that in this case we felt that the circumstances of this problem were so unique that we had to take them into account. As the hon. Gentleman said repeatedly throughout his speech, this is a notorious problem. We felt that further delay, after an inquiry had begun in 1973—we are now delivering the verdict of an inquiry as it happened at the end of 1978—would be an incredibly long time, and that to have pushed this into further years would not have been acceptable in the national interest.

Of course, I understand the feelings of the people in Bucknalls Lane and those who are directly affected. But, on the balance of interest, most objective observers would understand why we came down in the way that we did. Now that we have made that decision, we shall do all that we can to meet the legitimate concerns of the people directly affected. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall follow that up as sensitively and carefully as we can. If there are any problems in that particular regard and the hon. Gentleman cares to bring them to me, I shall give them personal attention.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at six minutes past Twelve o'clock.