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Volume 114: debated on Wednesday 8 April 1987

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Rolls-Royce Plc

12.8 am

I beg to ask leave to present a petition, which has been signed by more than 267 pensioners of Rolls-Royce plc. These pensioners live in my constituency, in other Bristol constituencies and wider afield, in the constituencies of my hon. Friends the Members for Northavon (Mr. Cope), for Woodspring (Sir P. Dean), and for Kingswood (Mr. Hayward), and in and around Coventry.

The petition relates to a difference between a pension that is given to Rolls-Royce pensioners who were members of the former Rolls-Royce pension scheme and other, similar pensioners, who were members of the former Bristol Siddeley Engines pension scheme and who retired between 1978 and 1984.

The petitioners pray :
That this honourable House should ask the Government while it retains its position as sole shareholder in Rolls-Royce plc to procure that the company give equal treatment to those Bristol Siddeley pensioners who retired between 1 April 1978 and 31 December 1983 to the treatment given to such pensioners who retired after 31 December 1983.
I willingly add my support, as indeed do many of the colleagues to whom I referred earlier, to that prayer.

To lie upon the Table.

A34, Stone

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

12.10 am

I am extremely grateful for this opportunity, even at this late hour, to raise this issue. In the words of the letter that I wrote to Mr. Speaker on 20 March :

"I would be grateful to have the opportunity to raise on the Adjournment the need for a bypass of Stone, Staffordshire, in my constituency."
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for sharing this late hour with you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, with me and with the Whip on the Government Front Bench. I shall be suitably brief.

Perhaps I can put the problems of Stone — a delightful town and I take this opportunity to invite my hon. Friend the Minister to visit it to see the problems that I am about to describe to the House in practical everyday terms—in the context of the correspondence that I will now recite to the House.

In a letter dated 17 November 1986, Mr. Onions, the county surveyor to the Staffordshire county council—a man whom I respect enormously and who I must say is a revered constituent of mine — wrote to Mr. John Blundell, the chairman of the Stone chamber of trade— and I want a place on record my gratitude, as the hon. Member for Mid-Staffordshire, for the support and encouragement that I have received from him and his officers who are present in the Gallery this evening—as follows :
"As you are probably aware, Stone high street is part of the primary route, the A520. It is the county council policy to encourage heavy commercial vehicles to use the motorway, the trunk road and the primary road network wherever possible instead of the more unsuitable class 2, class 3, and unclassified roads."
Of course, that includes the A34. He went on to say :
"It is not practical to restrict heavy commercial vehicles from using the high street in Stone until such time——"
I use my words carefully
"as the bypass is constructed."
Mr. Blundell, the chairman of the Stone chamber of trade, subsequently wrote earlier this year to Mr. Onions, stating :
"At a recent meeting of the chamber of trade the question of heavy goods vehicles was again raised by our members, particularly in view of the extensive roadworks to be carried out over the next 16 weeks in the lower section of Stone high street. I enclose a list of 18 different companies who appear to be using Stone high street as a pre-test circuit, and on the grounds of safety and convenience to the shopping public we would request that these vehicles should at least be prevented from using Stone in this way whilst these roadworks are being constructed."
Mr. Onions, the county surveyor, then replied to Mr. Blundell on 23 February :
"As I previously pointed out, high street Stone is part of the primary road network and it is not practical to restrict the movement of heavy lorries until such time as a suitable bypass is available. It is certainly not the intention of the county council to impose a selective ban on training vehicles."
I have raised on behalf of my constituents generally and on behalf of the traders and shoppers in Stone in particular the question of the urgency of the need for a bypass around the town. The Labour county councillor for Stone, Mr. R. D. Osbourne, wrote to Mrs. Elizabeth Ball, the secretary of the Stone chamber of trade, as recently as 7 April 1987 in the following terms :
"Thank you for your invitation to the Stone Chamber of Trade meeting. Unfortunately, I am working away at the present time so I will be unable to attend. Regarding the information about the Stone bypass road, things are not clear at this time. However, as soon as I have returned to Stone, I will be looking into the matter and I will report to the Stone Town Council."
Mrs. Ball wrote to me on the same date as follows:
"You will note that although we have raised the bypass issue in the press, at Town Council meetings and directly to the various local authorities by letter, we have had little active response."
Probably the best two quotes are from County Councillor Osbourne,
"things are not clear at this time,"
and the county surveyor:
"Relief from this long-awaited town-centre bypass is as far off as ever and no place can be found for it in the building programme for the foreseeable future."
Mrs. Ball wrote:
"As you know, a bypass has been talked of for these last 20 years at least, and the public inquiry with the new town council was held five years ago. It would appear"—
here modesty must creep in—
"that no one with the exception of yourself is willing to grasp this issue at any level and we, the Chamber of Trade, support you in what you are trying to do."
It is for these reasons — uncertainty, indefiniteness and procrastination—that I raise the issue this evening. I accept that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will probably not be able to give me an assurance that he can impose upon the county council, as the highway authority, his powers of persuasion to encourage it to bring this much-needed and long-overdue bypass to the top of the Staffordshire county council's priority programme, but I hope that by raising the issue in the Mother of Parliaments, and from here through the media in Staffordshire generally, and in mid-Staffordshire particularly, some pressure will be put upon the county council to be sensitive towards and understanding of the needs and wishes of the electorate of Stone, the shoppers and the ratepayers, for a long-overdue and much-needed bypass.

I say for the benefit of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State and of you, Mr. Deputy Speaker—I imagine that on your journeys to your constituency you have been through Stone high street from time to time, though not in the direction I am talking about because it is a one-way street.

Mr. Deputy Speaker would be on the bypass.

I am sure that Mr. Deputy Speaker would have been on the bypass, had it been constructed. As it has not been, that has not been possible. I hope that you will use the bypass in due course, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I hope also that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to promise me that it will be constructed in the not-too-distant future.

I shall describe the historic town of Stone. It is an intimate, close-knit town. Its architecture is typified by low-rise buildings of appearance typical of my part of Staffordshire, which gives it a pleasant human scale. The town centre is basically linear in form, with the high street — the main shopping street, a one-way street that is narrow in parts to the extent of 12 ft or 15 ft—forming the main spinal feature. There has been some consolidation of individual parcels of land due chiefly to new development. The general pattern of land use to the rear of high street premises is one of long, narrow curtilages which, together with footpaths and access roads, give a pronounced grain that runs broadly at right angles to the high street.

The high street, which forms the core of the existing conservation area — it is an area in which there is a predominance of buildings of architectural and historic interest, and certainly grades 2 and 3 listed buildings—is of particularly pleasant architectural composition. The street, with its more or less continuous facades of two or three-storey buildings, gently curves and widens uphill. The predominant materials are brick, stone, stucco, tile and slate. A number of the buildings have interesting detailing in some early shop fronts, which still remain, but with the continual thunder of heavy traffic they bear the appearance of being careworn and to an extent show signs of settlement.

There are a number of buildings of individual significance within the town centre, several of which are listed as being of historic and architectural interest. The value of the architecture along the high street and in the adjoining streets lies particularly in the total effect of the group of buildings.

In Stone town centre, the local plan modified by Stafford borough council following an extensive public inquiry and considerable public consultation, said:
"The Staffordshire county council has made provision in its current highway works programme for works in Stone town centre commencing in 1989 or 1990, although any programming of works will ultimately he dependent upon adequate funds."
I ask my hon. Friend to give two assurances if it is possible for him to do so tonight. First, can he assure me that those adequate funds, given the return of this Administration in the election that will intervene between now and 1988, will be available to the county council? Secondly, will he use his powers of persuasion to ensure that those funds are directed towards the provision of a bypass for the town centre of Stone?

The report continues:
"The borough council considers that improvement to the road network in the town centre is to be welcomed in principle. A number of highways converge on the town centre. Traffic currently has a considerable environmental impact on the High street and the adjoining streets, particularly during periods of peak flow when the amenity and the quietude of these streets is seriously affected. The problem is particularly acute to the south of Market place where High street tapers and the carriageway and footways become narrower."
For those hon. Members who have not travelled from north to south along Stone high street I point out that it is narrow. Because it is narrow, heavy commercial vehicles delivering goods to the shops inevitably have to park on the pavements, thus causing inconvenience to young married mothers pushing prams and to the elderly, too, who find it impossible on occasions to move along the footpaths.

Apart from the day-to-day bustle and commercial convenience for which the heavy goods vehicles use the high street, as I have just mentioned in reciting the correspondence to the House. Stone high street is used by a large number of companies to test their drivers in the use of heavy goods vehicles. The county council, whilst trying to encourage them to use the artery roads on the outside of the town, has failed to do so and Stone has become a veritable commercial race track, with the attendant risk to life and limb that that involves.

The report to which I referred earlier says:
"It is considered that in order to maximise the benefits of the inner ring road"—
to which my hon. Friend may allude in his reply—
"as a bypass route, complete pedestrianisation of the High street should be pursued as an ultimate aim."
What I am asking my hon. Friend to do in his reply is, first, to assure me, my constituents in general, and the shoppers, traders and chamber of trade in Stone in particular, that those adequate funds will be continually made available so that the bypass, in whatever form and wherever it should be planned, will remain available. Secondly, his Department should use its powers of persuasion and, dare I say, pressure, to try to ensure that Staffordshire county council carries out the wishes of the elected members and the electorate in my constituency so that Stone has its bypass as a matter of urgent priority. As soon as the decision is made and the priority struck, there should be a public consultation exercise to find out whether the electorate and shoppers require pedestrianisation and to ensure that when the bypass comes—soon cannot be soon enough—it is in a form, in a place and of a design and structure that meets the wishes of the majority of my constituents in Stone.

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to raise the issue and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for being kind enough to reply.

12.24 pm

It is always a pleasure to share either the Chamber of the House of Commons or a Committee Room with my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Heddle). We spent many arduous hours on the Housing and Building Control Bill of 1984 which extended rights to council tenants. My hon. Friend's well-known and well-deserved reputation in matters relating to housing is equalled by his work relating to transport.

I remember my hon. Friend saying to me how much he supported the Government's aim to get through traffic on to through roads so that, as he said, local traffic could be returned to those who are shopping and, in residential areas, to those who are going to school, and to pensioners who want to be able to move around, with or without a car in safety, without being pursued by heavy goods vehicles using unsuitable roads. The work done by my hon. Friend during his time in the House has made it possible for road casualties to be reduced, economic prosperity to be supported and the environment to be improved. No one wants to cover the countryside, or the towns, unnecessarily with concrete and tarmacadam. The occasional building of bypasses, relief roads or link roads allows other thoroughfares to be restored to their proper purpose, which is to allow people to move around in safety. Those three considerations—economic prosperity, environmental relief and road casualty reduction — lie behind what my hon. Friend has described as the keen desire of the people in Stone to have a bypass.

I am grateful also to my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Portillo) for being here this evening. His is perhaps the unheard hand, guiding the Department of Transport. I am sure that his constituents would like to know that in our stewardship of the Department of Transport since 1979 we have managed, with a reduced budget, to increase capital spending on roads, and to increase money for national roads unlike our predecessors who, from 1974 to 1979 halved the money available for new national roads. Unlike our predecessors, we have not had to put on the immediate braking effect of 1976 when the International Monetary Fund came in to run the country. We have been able to increase the money available through transport supplementary grant to local highway authorities—in the main, to the county councils — that want to promote schemes that are of more than local importance.

As I hope to show in the next few minutes, it is quite clear that Stone's need for a bypass is of more than local interest because of the through traffic that Stone wants to avoid. I probably speak for those coming down the A520, who do not want to go through Stone unnecessarily. Of course, those who do will benefit as will the town centre which my hon. Friend has described as having a closely-knit character, and the low-rise architecture that is familiar to that part of Staffordshire. I think that he said that it was on a pleasant human scale. I should like him to know that I appreciate the one bypass that Stone has because I was born near the A41 in Newport and members of my family live in the western end of the county of Staffordshire,. near Newport. As one who used to go to the races at Uttoxeter, I can say that that line would take me through Stone. Of course, I should confess that I have not put a bet on a horse since the day before the Gold Cup at Cheltenham when I backed two out of three winners and had to buy cream cakes; but perhaps that is by-the-by.

The whole House will be grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the question of a bypass, although I am sure that he will understand when I say, with a slight degree of puzzlement, that no Labour or alliance Members seem to be interested in this subject. My hon. Friend knows that the Government place great emphasis on providing bypasses on our national roads, especially to remove heavy lorries from places where people live, work and do their shopping. Our recent achievements in building bypasses and relief roads in the trunk road network, together with the proposals in the revised programme, will continue to help to resolve the conflict between the needs of residents and those of through traffic. In all, the current programme will provide relief for about 280 communities throughout the country. Even then there are some communities on the national network for which no bypass is planned.

In the mid-1950s the construction of the A34 bypass at Stone brought about a much-needed improvement by taking most of the north-south traffic away from the town. My hon. Friend has drawn the attention of the House to the other route passing through Stone, which carries considerable volumes of traffic.

For those less familiar with the locality, I should explain that Stone lies roughly midway between Stafford and Stoke-on-Trent. The county council, in its wisdom, may have decided to concentrate on some other areas rather than Stone and my hon. Friend, local councillors and the chamber of trade will argue the case for Stone. I would not direct the priorities of the county council. They are, rightly, determined locally. I hope that the county council will read the debate.

I recognise the tribute that my hon. Friend paid to Mr. Onions, the county surveyor, and his staff. Their work in Staffordshire and on the representative bodies for the highway professionals is well respected and Mr. Onions makes a contribution well beyond the county. I do not want any of my remarks this evening to be taken as a criticism of the council. Unlike Mary Goldring, who in her "Analysis" programme this evening thought that the Government had been trapped into doing the job that is rightly done by local highway authorities, we have a proper partnership on roads, where we look after the national roads, local councils look after the local roads and for local roads of more than local importance the transport supplementary grant arrangements appear to be working well.

My hon. Friend forgot to tell us how the history of Stone is closely linked with the Trent and Mersey canal, which is located on the western edge of the town centre. Perhaps the canal does not provide the type of bypass for freight traffic, so perhaps I should bring the House more up to date. It is Stafford borough council's intention to extend the present conservation area to include the canal and its setting and to exploit this important amenity resource by encouraging canal orientated development or re-use of canal side sites and to improve public access by providing new footpath routes and cycleways between the town centre and the canal site.

Although Stone no longer bears the brunt of A34 traffic, it lies at the junction of a number of highways, including two important local roads which generate a good deal of through traffic—some 9,000 vehicles a day, 10 per cent. of which are heavy vehicles. These are the A51 north-west/south-east route and the A520 north-east/ south-west route. Traffic currently has a considerable environmental impact on the high street and adjoining roads, particularly at peak times, when the amenity and peace of these streets is seriously affected. This is compounded by congestion caused by roadside loading and unloading. Bus stops along the high street can also add to the congestion. I am merely describing the traffic facts in Stone and not criticising the buses or those who use them.

As my hon. Friend said, in May last year Stafford borough council adopted the Stone town centre local plan, which provides for an improved highway network agreed with the local highway authority, Staffordshire county council. A package of highway schemes has been proposed which has as its main element an inner link road to the north east of the high street, but with associated provision of rear access or service roads, re-siting of car parking facilities, re-routing of buses and so on, leading to the eventual pedestrianisation of the high street.

The policies and proposals in the plan are aimed at enhancing the existing character of the town centre, while preserving its vitality and encouraging its efficient functioning as a shopping and commercial centre. My hon. Friend should be congratulated on working closely with the chamber of trade. Sometimes people argue that chambers of trade are interested only in themselves, but plainly they are interested in their customers, just as politicians are interested in their electorates. It is a natural way of representing the true community interests of a local area.

All these are praiseworthy aims indeed. Design of the new road schemes will need to balance highway and environmental objectives by seeking, for example, to keep traffic flowing by restricting the number of turning movements to those needed to give adequate access to the town centre, while minimising the visual impact of any road system by avoiding the demolition of listed or other interesting buildings. My hon. Friend reminded me that we are discussing local roads which are of course, the responsibility of the local highway authority. Staffordshire county council is able to establish where the needs are in its area. It must decide what the priorities are and how best to promote the necessary improvements.

Local highway authorities submit a transport policies and programme each year to the Department. These documents set out what local road improvements the highway authority wants to do. They contain a programme of likely expenditure according to the priorities for particular schemes, the resources available for carrying them out and the extent of the planning and design work needed. I have not yet mentioned the various statutory processes through which all highway improvement schemes must go. My hon. Friend said that he knew that the schemes would not necessarily satisfy everybody, but that if funds could be made available and a consensus arrived at that would be generally welcomed in Stone.

The TPP is the basis of an authority's bid for highway capital allocation and transport supplementary grant. Grant is paid towards firmly programmed schemes of more than local importance—that is, schemes on roads carrying long distance through traffic. Schemes are not normally approved for grant unless they are due to start in the following year.

In last year's TPP, Staffordshire included the A520 town centre bypass in Stone in its longer term programme. Broadly speaking, that probably means a start in five to 10 years' time. It has presumably taken that decision in the light of competing pressures elsewhere within the county. This is a matter for it and is not an issue on which I would wish to intervene. It is not for me to say which schemes in Staffordshire are the most important. My hon. Friend may decide to take up the question of priority with councillors in Staffordshire. I can tell him that if Staffordshire decided to bring the scheme forward in its programme I would give it careful consideration in assessing whether TSG should be paid. It is certainly the sort of scheme for which TSG is intended. It is on a primary route and will clearly relieve the town centre of through traffic. However, the question whether grant could be paid would rest on the priority that Staffordshire was able to give the scheme, the total resources that were available and the comparative merits of other schemes all over the country that would be competing for funds. My hon. Friend will understand that I cannot give an advance commitment, but what I have said about it being a primary route and the relief of the town centre is the best indication that I can give.

I understand the problems that counties have in putting schemes in order of priority. I intend to maintain assistance for counties in the way that we have in the past. No Government can commit themselves for future years, but if we can continue to have a response from a Government who are willing to take necessary decisions, the sort of infrastructure spending that is talked about by Opposition parties—what the Prime Minister and I call spending on roads, bypasses and relief roads — can continue to grow in the way in which it has done in the past few years.

Some people may argue that there is not much politics in road safety, bypasses or environmental improvements. They are wrong. Everyone in the House recognises that if we could add capital spending and give the sort of relief for which people are asking we would get the kind of political response that would return a Government — whenever the election comes within the next year or so — who could continue the sort of work that we have been doing, which is not to be mean or over-optimistic, but to provide the sort of increased programme of bypasses and relief roads for which my hon. Friend so eloquently argued. I thank my hon. Friend for the way in which he opened the debate, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Southgate for his attendance.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-two minutes to One o'clock.