§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Graham.]
§ 3.36 p.m.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Dodsworth (Hertfordshire, South-West)
I count myself fortunate to have this early opportunity of raising with the newly appointed Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Gateshead, West (Mr. Horam), the important matter of motorways and motorway construction in South-West Hertfordshire. I hope that the inauguration of the new Department will present an opportunity to end some of the sterile exchanges which have taken place in the past, much to the disenchantment of the public. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman is now involved 906 in this process, and I am sure that his positive and constructive view of affairs will be helpful.
On 24th and 25th September I conducted in my constituency my own informal and unofficial public inquiry into the choice of routes for the London outer orbital route, known as M.25, at Abbots Langley in Hertfordshire. I wish to make clear that was entirely an unofficial and informal exercise. Nevertheless, I received representations from more than 36 individuals and organisations, more than 80 people attended the inquiry, and many gave oral evidence. I wish to draw the Minister's attention to the outcome of the inquiry held under the aegis of the Department of the Environment and of that public consultation process.
I took the decision to hold the inquiry because I had observed the outcome of the various routes chosen for the motorway. I believe that there are useful lessons to be learned. I shall be submitting a transcript of the inquiry to the Minister and all interested parties to make sure that they have a complete record of what went on. A fruitful outcome for all concerned can be achieved only by a full ventilation of all the facts.
There are a number of specific matters that I should like to draw to the Minister's attention so that they can be taken into account and so that no ill-considered or impetuous action is taken before any further motorway construction takes place in South-West Hertfordshire.
If there is one overwhelming lesson to be learned from the inquiry it is that the public is extremely suspicious of the actions of the Eastern Road Construction Unit and the Department of the Environment. That is not to say that those suspicions are always well-founded. But it is a fact that such suspicions exist. I should like to explain why this is so. People felt that many of the decisions taken were reached behind closed doors. They felt that decisions were being taken in such a way that the public consultation and participation exercises were a farce or a charade carried out to deceive the public rather than as an attempt to take the public's views into account.
There is unfortunately tangible evidence to support that view. I have learned this week that borings are being taken on the line of route 2, the preferred 907 route, across the land known picturesquely as the "Ovaltine Farm", under the instructions of the Eastern Road Construction Unit. This was brought to my attention by the local newspaper, the Evening Echo and Post, which posed the question: "Does this mean that a decision has already been taken, bearing in mind that there has been no public inquiry of any official nature?". There has been only an announcement of a preferred route and no detailed consideration. If this is part of a procedure which relates to the consideration of a number of alternative routes, I am in favour of such detailed investigations.
It is clear from the report in the newspaper that the Department of the Environment has an "adversary" complex. Its spokesman is quoted as saying:We can't win. … If we take one route we are accused of prejudicing the other routes, but if we examine all the routes, we are accused of wasting Government money.I do not think anyone is interested in accusing the Department of the Environment of anything other than making a judgment which it does not share fully with the public. I realise that there are difficulties and that these are technical matters. The public has lost confidence in the participation exercise.
The participation and consultation exercise was designed to win public approval. One of the alternatives proposed meant tunnelling under an airport and putting the motorway alongside a hospital for mentally disturbed people with 1,682 patients, as well as tearing down a newly constructed spastics centre. I obtained evidence on that point. A Mr. Coe of Abbots Langley said:The proximity of the proposed motorway to Leavesden Hospital would be a serious hazard to the inmates of the hospital. It is the common experience of residents to pilot ambulant patients 'home' to the hospital when they have wandered off and lost their bearings. (I have taken three by the hand in the last 18 months.) It is their right to walk out and we are quite used to them and their needs. But, what would happen as and when they wandered to, say, a bridge across the motorway, or to the end of the cutting? One can imagine the disaster if some of these poor souls got on to the hard shoulder.Do we really imagine that that was a realistic proposal? The spastic centre I referred to was opened in July 1975 at 908 a cost of £130,000, raised by voluntary subscription. The proposed route would mean tearing it down. It hardly seems a practical proposal.
My concern is to make sure that we consider the facts and have true alternatives. My constituents feel that some of the ideas put forward are merely lines on a map, and a rather outdated map at that. They do not take into account the destruction of property which has been built after the preparation of the maps being used by the Department. There can be no surprise about the reaction among the public in such circumstances. That is the first lesson.
The second lesson is that we need up-to-date road traffic statistics. The projections previously used were based upon 1973 information and were based on the belief that traffic would continue to increase at the rate experienced in the past few years. Earlier this year I tabled a Question to the then Minister about these projections. I was told that there was no need to review them. However, if we examine the M1 widening inquiry we find that there was a change of heart almost in the middle of that inquiry. When I asked the Minister why, he said that the Department had carried out a review of traffic forecasts in January 1976 and decided that it did not need eight lanes or even seven lanes but could do with six, after all. That suggests that there is a need to review the situation in the light of modern road traffic forecasts. That is what concerns me.
Following that, because we know that there is to be another increase in the price of oil, we ought to consider whether we could not make better use of the existing road network. There is already a further widening of the A405. Surely we could make better use of that road widening, see how it works out and, when we have had a chance to consider it, look at the whole situation again. But to undertake a massive motorway construction project with substantial house demolition costs, and the acquisition of a considerable amount of agricultural land all seems to presume too much.
In those circumstances, we want to see a thorough-going survey of what has taken place already and what is being done now. In the light of the MI evidence, my constituents feel that we are 909 ploughing on rather pigheadedly with an analysis taken a long time ago which is now out of date. We want a new initiative.
We think that, first, we should complete the existing road network. Secondly, let us get an up-to-date evaluation of traffic flows and projections. That is only sensible and logical. Thirdly, let us make sure that all the alternatives are examined on the site by inspectors rather than as mere road lines on maps. I know that the Eastern Road Construction Unit is active, but has it been sufficiently active in looking at the lines which were used in the original consultative process? Fourthly—and this may come strangely to the Minister—we want decisions more easily defined, identified and taken more quickly.
There is a section of the road between Maple Cross and Egham which urgently awaits a decision. I have myself pressed the Minister on numerous occasions, the last of which was on 8th October when I received a letter from the Under-Secretary saying that an announcement would be made very soon. But I have had previous assurances of that nature on many occasions. We need to know what is to happen at that section because there is a blighting of the area which we cannot afford.
There are bottlenecks at Maple Cross because there is a completed section of the A405 bringing rapid traffic flows into a very narrow and restricted area. There are problems with traffic lights and supporting roads. I have been warned by my constituents that there is likely to be tragedy in this area. There are all the hallmarks of it.
I have taken up the matter with the Hertfordshire County Constabulary and the planning authority. I believe that they have tried very hard to solve some of these difficult problems. But urgent action is needed, and the best way is for a decision to be taken on the next section of the London outer orbital route between Maple Cross and Egham.
It will be observed from all this that I understand that in South-West Hertfordshire motorway construction has a complexity of factors and effects. It requires purposeful action by the Minister. I wish his new Department all success in solving what I regard as one of our very 910 modern and very difficult problems. However, I am grateful for this opportunity to present to the House the difficulties confronting my constituency, and I thank the Minister for his patience in listening to me.
§ 3.50 p.m.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. John Horam)
I thank the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, South-West (Mr. Dodsworth) for his kind remarks about me personally and his hopes for the new Department. Obviously I share these hopes. I have a longstanding interest in motorways and road schemes generally and the whole business of transport planning. This Department gives us a chance to examine this area thoroughly and rationally and to reach the right conclusions. I recognise that there is considerable disquiet about these matters.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for giving me the opportunity to speak about the motorways, existing or planned, in his constituency. He takes a keen interest in these, judging by the number of parliamentary Questions I have had from him even in my short time in the Department, and I am always pleased to receive his comments and ideas on the proposed new routes which affect his constituency.
I have noted with interest the account of his unofficial personal public inquiry into a proposed section of the London orbital route, the M25, between Micklefield Green and South Mimms. I have read his accounts and I found them very interesting, and look forward to reading a transcript of the full proceedings.
The hon. Member made a number of points, all of which I have noted carefully. I take up one point in particular. He referred to the borings in the area of the Ovaltine Farm. That does not mean that any decisions have been taken on the route—quite the contrary, in fact. We have to go through all the formal and informal proceedings, and the borings, if they have taken place, commit us to nothing.
The major motorway scheme in the hon. Gentleman's constituency is the M25 and there is also the M1 motorway, and the A41(M). This concentration of existing and proposed motorways indicates the problems facing people living in the hon. Member's constituency, problems which 911 derive both from construction and from use of these motorways. I know that the hon. Member has been particularly concerned about the M25. There have been numerous Adjournment debates about other sections of the M25 in which those concerned have referred on the one hand to the need for the road and, on the other, have emphasised the concern of those who deprecate the intrusion of a major motorway in their environment. This is clearly a dilemma which must also be faced in South-West Hertfordshire.
The Maple Cross to Egham section of the M25 was mentioned by the hon. Member, who seems anxious to proceed with this southward extension of the M25. The public were consulted on the alternative routes in 1974. I am aware of the hon. Member's concern about the choice of routes in the area of Heronsgate, west of Maple Cross, and I hope that a decision on the preferred route can be announced in the near future. I assure him that every effort will be made to reduce the impact of the road on this charming village and on Ladywalk Wood.
The hon. Member also referred to the Hunton Bridge to South Mimms section of the M25. The proposals for the gap in the M25 between Hunton Bridge and South Mimms were the subject of public consultation in 1974 when the public were asked to express their preferences on a number of alternative routes. In the hon. Member's constituency most people expressed a preference for "a postponement strategy". Of the alternative routes put forward in the consultation document, the main support was fairly evenly divided between the route starting just to the west of Hunton Bridge, then passing between Kings Langley and Abbots Langley, and that running from Hunton Bridge to far south of Abbots Langley. The local authorities concerned leaned towards the former solution.
The consultative document explains that the route south of Abbots Langley compared unfavourably with the others because of its high cost and the need to demolish about 26 houses. In the event, it was decided last March that the route passing between Kings Langley and Abbots Langley should be the one to be safeguarded and designed for publication in draft orders under the Highways Acts. I expect that stage to be reached 912 late next year. All the alternaive routes put forward were investigated to the same degree.
The hon. Member mentioned local Press interest in the possible effect of the orbital route on Leavesden Hospital and the newly completed spastic centre, but these would not be affected by the Department's proposals as they are not on the preferred route. The fact that they might be affected was one of the reasons we chose the preferred route. There has been some criticism of the possible effect of the orbital route on the Booksellers' Retreat at Kings Langley. The preferred route crosses Retreat land but does not affect the property itself. The Department is very much constrained by the proximity of the main London to Crewe railway line, which must be very noisy. Every effort will be made to mitigate the noise from the road, which may in turn act as a buffer against noise from the railway.
The route selected for further study does not please everyone, but I am sure that the hon. Member would be the first to agree that no route in this area would be acceptable to all. I understand that the villagers of Kings Langley dislike the Department's preferred route. Those of Abbots Langley want the road to go between the two villages across the Gade Valley, as the Department proposes. The people in the two villages cross-examined each other at the hon. Member's unofficial public inquiry, I believe.
While all this is going forward the Department has to select a preferred route. This is far from being the end of the story. The object of the public consultation is to inform people at an early stage in the planning of a new road of the practicable alternative routes or methods of improvement which are available, and to obtain a full expression of their views with the object of selecting one route to be prepared in detail for publication as a statutory proposal.
One of the things which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will need to consider is what effect the recent improvements to the existing trunk roads in the area will have on traffic on the proposed M25. This is where I come to the point that the hon. Member made most strongly concerning the need for up-to-date traffic studies. I entirely take that point. Further traffic studies have 913 been taking place since the public consultation was held. These will take into account improvements on the A405. These figures are as up to date as they can be and they will be the ones used to make an assessment.
§ Mr. Dodsworth
Will that information be published at an early date? It will be very valuable in obtaining public confidence.
§ Mr. Horam
That is a very important point. I can assure the hon. Member that the information will be published as soon as is reasonably possible. It would certainly be available before a public inquiry. There is no question of secrecy. I am anxious to dissolve what is in this case a myth that there is a great deal of concealment about plans for motorways. We try to open the books up and to give the facts and figures as much as possible. The consultation procedure is designed to give everyone the maximum possible choice, so that we can finally arrive at the route which while not pleasing everyone will please most people.
I have no doubt that a public inquiry will need to be held into the Department's proposals when they are formally published. This will be before an independent inspector and will give people who object to them a full opportunity to put forward their views and to suggest alternative routes if they wish. It will give an opportunity to question the Department's detailed case for the road.
I hope that the public will take the opportunity of treating the inquiry as a forum to thrash out the complex issues of this proposed new road in a rational way. Only after my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for the Environment and the Secretary of State for Transport have considered the inspector's report and recommendation and all the objections and representations made at the public inquiry will the Department's proposals be put forward. These proposals may be for the preferred route to go ahead, to 914 be modified or to be abandoned altogether. The situation is therefore at an early stage and we must wait and see.
The hon. Member mentioned the MI. The proposals for widening the motorway were considered at a public inquiry recently. The inspector's report is being considered.
§ It being Four 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. Graham.]
§ Mr. Horam
I think I have covered all the points raised by the hon. Gentleman. We have dealt with the question of Ovaltine Farm, the new spastics centre and Leavesden hospital and the up-to-date road traffic statistics, particularly on the gap in the M25. We have also looked at the Maple Cross-Egham section, where the hon. Gentleman now knows the situation, and I have reassured him about the openness of the procedures which will be used. I attach a great deal of importance to open procedures and sensible solutions.
We attach great importance to the M25. The fact that it is mentioned in the consultative document is an indication of its importance. It is designed as the route round London which will take all the radial routes that go into the middle of London taking traffic on unsuitable roads in many areas of the hon. Gentleman's constituency and others.
It is important to get on with those parts of the M25 that we can as soon as possible while taking into account public expenditure considerations, which loom very large at present, and the legitimate concern of people living in a lovely part of the country who are obviously concerned about the environmental impact.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at two minutes past Four o'clock.