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A19 (Repairs)

Volume 19: debated on Friday 12 March 1982

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

2.31 pm

I am pleased to have this opportunity to raise the question of the A19 trunk road, which runs through my constituency. Sadly, I and many of my constituents on Teesside have been acquainted with the difficult history of this road during recent years.

The go-ahead for it was given in 1966 by the then Minister of Transport, Mrs. Barbara Castle. Since then, during the planning and inquiry into the road, and then its construction and the first years of its operation, there have been eight Ministers of Transport. I am pleased to see the Under-Secretary of State for Transport here today, and I hope that her departure from the Department will not be as rapid as that of some of her predecessors, as she has only just arrived there. Indeed, the name of the Department may be appropriate, in view of the number of Ministers who have passed through the Department.

The public inquiry into this scheme took place just after the general election in 1970. The hon. Gentleman who is now the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Dr. Bray) and others made representations at that inquiry about the routing of the road. He took up the case of the residents in the area that had been affected by the road, as did his successor, Mr. John Sutcliffe, who was my immediate predecessor in the constituency.

For a considerable time, between 1972 and 1976, I was involved in making representations to the Government about the effects of the road on the surrounding area. Residents in Maldon Road, Stockton Road, Ashford Road and what we affectionately call the "Cabbage Club", the Newport Allotments Society, were all detrimentally affected by the construction of the road. At that time I sought the leave of the House to raise all those difficulties on the Adjournment, as I do today.

I had hoped that it would be unnecessary to raise this subject again, but during the past year massive repairs have had to be carried out, only six years after the road was opened. Naturally there is widespread concern in the area, and that concern has been expressed in newspapers and on the radio. I congratulate in particular my local paper, the Middlesbrough Evening Gazette, on the attention that it has given to the matter. Concern has been expressed by the local authorities, the county council, and other local councillors about the cost and disruption which these repairs have caused.

It has been estimated that the costs will be as high as £1 million. That is why I felt that it was important enough to raise the matter in the House today and to ask the Minister a number of questions arising from the repairs and the costs involved. In addition to the direct repairs, there is also all the inconvenience and disruption that they have caused over many months to motorists and residents in the area. With one exception, I shall deal only with that part of the road that is in my constituency.

There are two areas in which defects have arisen and are having to be rectified. One is on the massive bridge over the Tees, where cracks have been found in the concrete structures and in the joints. Secondly, defects have been found on the road surface between the bridge and the Parkway interchange—the A174 interchange—a short distance south of the bridge. There, the whole surface—indeed, from my observation, the whole road—seems to have had to be rebuilt from the foundations upwards.

That is a remarkable state of affairs only six years after the road was constructed and opened. Why have those repairs been necessary? Why have such defects arisen after only six years of operation? What is the normal life of such a road? How does this road compare with other trunk roads in the same area and in other parts of the country? What sort of life are roads of this kind expected to have, and what life was forecast for this road before repairs of the kind now being carried out would have been expected?

Why are repairs of this kind necessary only on the stretch of road between the bridge and the Parkway interchange? It strikes me, and no doubt others, as curious that only that one stretch requires such massive repairs. Is it the result of design faults, or is it due to some construction failure? Are the contractors who built the road at fault, or was it a particular contractor who built that stretch? I hope that the Minister will address herself to those questions and provide some answers for the public generally, but especially for those most directly affected in the Teesside area.

Have the defects in the bridge and the road structure arisen as a result of traffic flows? It has been suggested that traffic flows have been far more substantial than was expected, although it is difficult to believe that when the inquiries took place at the beginning of the 1970s the industrial developments on Teesside since that time were not foreseen. Most of the major industrial developments that have taken place—in the British Steel Corporation, ICI and other petrochemical plants on Seal Sands—were envisaged at that time. One would therefore have expected the forecasts to be fairly accurate. What were the forecasts, and what have been the traffic flows since the road came into operation? What is the variation and why has it occurred? If the forecasts were wrong, why were they wrong?

If the cause of this very expensive damage to roads is use by heavier lorries than was expected, is that not a further argument—I put this to the Minister because these matters are the subject of debate at the moment—for not proceeding with the Armitage recommendations for even heavier vehicles than we already have?

Can the Minister tell us why cracks have appeared in the joints of the bridge, and can she reassure those who use the bridge and who live nearby that it is safe? Naturally, anxieties arise when such stories circulate and are published and it would be helpful if the Minister could reassure my constituents and those who use the bridge and the facilities underneath it that it is safe. Is it the same sort of problem as has arisen at Spaghetti junction? Can some lessons be learnt from Spaghetti junction?

May I move from my constituency for a moment and ask why it has been necessary to spend about £75,000 strengthening the parapet on Leven bridge, which is just south of Teesside? It seems to me and to many of my constituents that such an expenditure should have been foreseen when the bridge was built only a short time ago. The strength of the parapets should have been known and it would be helpful if the Minister could tell the House why that expenditure has been necessary.

There are two further major points that I wish to put to the Minister. The first is the question of cost. A substantial sum, £1 million, has been mentioned. Perhaps the Minister will say whether that figure is accurate. Will it cost more than £1 million, or less than £1 million? What must be spent to carry out all the repairs?

Secondly, who will pay for the repairs? Can the Minister reassure the ratepayers of Cleveland county that they will not pay for them? It is galling to see the work having to be carried out when cuts in public expenditure must be made by the county council and the district authorities in our area. It would be unfair to put the large burden of this expenditure on the ratepayers. Will the Government bear the cost of the repairs?

Thirdly, are there implications for other roads such as the A66 and the rest of the A19? Will there be further expenditure on repairs to other roads such as this one and to other stretches of the A19?

My second major point is about the lessons that have been learnt from the defects in this road and what will be done about those lessons. What action is being taken to ensure that such a problem does not arise again? The public generally will wish to know why it has happened and will wish to be reassured that the lessons from it are learnt for the future. Will the Minister reassure us that when the mistakes have been rectified, the design or construction lessons will be taken into account in the preparation and building of future roads?

If the Minister can give full answers to those questions, it will greatly reassure the people of Teesside and the general public. If the Minister's reply this afternoon and the results of the inquiry being carried out are not satisfactory, the matter should be investigated by the Public Accounts Committee. Some people in Teesside have suggested that a public inquiry should be set up. But that is not appropriate. It would be a waste of money. We have the Public Accounts Committee and the services of the Comptroller and Auditor-General. It would be appropriate for the Committee to carry out an investigation into such public expenditure.

I hope that the Under-Secretary's reply will give the reassurances that I seek, answer the questions that I have posed and make such an investigation unnecessary.

2.45 pm

I thank the hon. Member for Thornaby (Mr. Wrigglesworth) for raising the matter, wishing me well in my new post and quickly confronting me with a problem. I do not think that my predecessor, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), was moved particularly quickly. He held the post for two years and 10 months, which was a reasonable stay for anyone.

I know something of the difficulties in the industrial North and, from the other side of the country, the value that is set on the new road system. I understand the hon. Member's concern when one of the roads is closed at times for repairs.

Not surprisingly, the need for repairs to the A19 trunk road in Teesside so soon—just six years after its construction—has attracted a good deal of local publicity. The hon. Member for Easington (Mr. Dormand) and my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Sir T. Kitson) have both been in touch with my predecessor about the matter in recent months. The issue has also been given a thorough airing in the excellent local press.

The hon. Member for Thornaby may already know from those reports that the Department has been investigating what has happened, but the investigations are still proceeding and final reports are still awaited. That situation remains essentially unchanged, but I shall try to explain the background and the current position in a little more detail.

At the outset I emphasise how much the Government recognise the benefit which new roads such as the A 19 bring to industrial areas. Those roads take the heavy industrial traffic out of places that previously suffered from it. On Teesside, with the heavy traffic from ICI and the North Sea oil industry, heavy lorries no longer trundle through the centre of Stockton and the pleasant village of Yarm. The road is doing its job; it is carrying that traffic and we ought to have that clearly in our minds before turning to the question of repairs.

Repairs are unwelcome and troublesome, but they are important if the new A19 is to continue functioning properly, keeping heavy lorries and other traffic out of neighbouring town centres and residential areas.

The hon. Member for Thornaby asked for a full-scale inquiry. There are clearly problems with this stretch of road. We have arranged for Cleveland county council, our agent authority, to look at the carriageway, and for a firm of independent consultants, Messrs G. Maunsell and Partners, to look at the bridge. The council and the consultants have considerable professional experience arid expertise at their service. They have no axe to grind in the matter and I am certain that they can be relied upon to be carefully honest and independent in their appraisal, findings and recommendations.

Our sole objective is to do whatever is necessary effectively to maintain the road, in the interest of users, and to ascertain the cause of the defects to see whether there are any lessons to be learnt for the design of roads in future.

Roads are designed to last for about 20 years, but they are showing a variable life span, partly because of the variations in loads carried, but also because of the variations in subsoil conditions. Without going into detailed technical matters, which I am not yet experienced enough to deal with, that may explain why there have been problems on the A19. However, I hope to reassure the for . Gentleman that we do not anticipate similar problems nearby.

Under the circumstances and bearing in mind that the problem is essentially a complex technical one, it seems to me that the sort of investigation that we have set in hand will be the best and quickest way to get to the bottom of the problem. We must have the road in full working order and we do not want that to be held back.

Hon. Members will realise that until the investigations have been completed I cannot give them a full explanation. I will do so when I can. Nor can we know whether we have yet identified all the lessons to be drawn from the investigations. It may be helpful, however, if I give a brief account of the background and explain what has been done so far.

My Department has been aware of the problems on the A19 for some time. There have been some signs of minor cracking in the concrete piers of the viaduct and slight movement in the carriageway to the south of the bridge. My Department has been keeping a careful watch and the two investigations that I have already mentioned have beers. started. As I have said, we do not have the full explanation yet, but we have learnt sufficient to demonstrate that additional strengthening and improvement to the drainage is needed to prevent further deterioration in the carriageway and to keep the road in good condition.

We have also learnt that there is no question of any danger to the public as a consequence of the cracks in the structure, but that it would be sensible to seal them so that the weather will not cause any corrosion. The strengthening has already been carried out on the southbound carriageway at a cost of £600,000, and further strengthening planned in the next financial year on the other) carriageway is likely to cost a further £800,000. Work in progress to seal cracks in the viaduct and provide staging for inspection purposes will cost £185,000, with a further £5,000 to replace one of the joints.

We shall not know whether further work is needed, or what it would cost, until the investigations are complete. Let me reassure the hon. Member that none of these costs will come out of the rates.

Looking in more detail at the viaduct, this is a large concrete and steel structure which spans not only the river Tees but the railway marshalling yards. It is about 1¼ miles long, has dual carriageways, and consists of a series of spans, supported at intervals on reinforced concrete piers. Our investigations have shown that there are some defects in the bearings which carry the main beams on to the piers and allow for expansion and contraction of the structure according to the temperature conditions.

We have found that some of these bearings are apparently slightly out of alignment, and this in turn is tending to prevent free movement of the structure in response to the changes of temperature. We are looking further at the problem to decide what remedial measures may be necessary and how the fault—if, indeed, this is what it is—has arisen.

The carriageway of the A19 was designed to have the most substantial form of construction which could be provided within the design specifications in operation at that time—the late 1960s. The Department's design standards are always monitored and reviewed in the light of research and experience both within the civil engineering industry and within the Department's Transport and Road Research Laboratory.

We have accumulated more experience since the design of the Teesside diversion and specifications have been improved by increasing the thickness of carriageway construction. Some materials previously used are not now specified because their performance has not been as satisfactory as we had previously hoped. A further factor has been the increase in weight of the average lorry, within the construction and use regulations, and this I shall come to in a moment.

I should like to say a word about the Leven bridge outside the hon. Member's constituency. I understand that the damage to the parapet or the retaining walls was caused by a road traffic accident. We have taken the opportunity, during the repair of that damage, to strengthen the parapet itself, so that, should there be, unhappily, a further road traffic accident there, we hope that it will not suffer the same sort of damage as it has experienced on this occasion.

I now turn to the implications for traffic forecasts. As the hon. Member knows, traffic forecasting is notoriously difficult, as the committee chaired by Sir George Leitch found. We recognise that any prediction of traffic is far from exact. New roads, particularly new motorways and trunk roads, near areas of heavy industry, have in all parts of the country attracted heavy lorries away from existing routes. This is a measure of the success of the provision of these new roads which are relieving so many communities troubled by the passage of heavy traffic.

It has been suggested that the Department's forecasting for the A19 has been bad. There has been confusion. I am sorry if it has been caused inadvertently by figures issued by the Department. The flow on the A19 is approximately what we orignially thought it was going to be in the early 1980s. But the loading of lorries has changed.

As the Armitage inquiry revealed, the average loading of lorries has considerably increased in the past decade or so, within the limits set by the present regulations. More and more hauliers have been changing from the small and medium-sized lorry to those that are close to the maximum that is allowed. Consequently, the damage to road surfaces, which depends on the number and weight of lorries passing over them, has been greater than had originally been estimated.

Traffic forecasts are updated in the light of increases in the number and weight of lorries on the network as a whole and main trunk routes in particular. That is one of the main reasons why stronger carriageways are now being provided. I mentioned the strengthening of the A19. We are well aware of the environmental concern about heavier lorries, but the hon. Gentleman will have to await my right hon. Friend's statement on our conclusions following the Armitage report.

To conclude, I again emphasise the benefit that the Teesside diversion has given to Cleveland. It is functioning and traffic has been removed from many areas that were troubled by it. We should remember that it has been a success, even if it may not be the total success that the hon. Gentleman and I would wish.

It is the Department's intention to be completely open about the investigations that we have already set in train. I shall let hon. Members have the facts as soon as they become available to us.

Before the hon. Lady concludes, may I ask whether the costs were only for the bridge? I thought that she referred only to figures for the bridge, which came to £1½ million. What is the figure for the carriageway repairs?

I was speaking of strengthening the south-bound carriageway when I mentioned £600,000. The strengthening of the other carriageway of the A19 would be likely to cost a further £800,000. To seal the cracks in the viaduct and to provide staging for inspection would cost £185 ,000 , and there would be a further £5,000 spent on the viaduct to replace one of the joints.

The matter is of great concern to the hon. Gentleman and to myself, as a new Under-Secretary of State for Transport. We are getting on with the necessary repairs. We are still making investigations and will be open about our investigations. I reassure the hon. Gentleman, his constituents and others travelling on the A19 that we should not allow traffic to travel on it if we were not happy with the ability of the road to carry the traffic that we allow it to carry. With that assurance, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will feel happier in journeying through his constituency.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes to Three o'clock.