HC Deb 24 May 1979 vol 967 cc1341-53

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

8.51 p.m.

Mr. Alastair Goodlad (Northwich)

I am most grateful for the unexpected opportunity to raise again the matter of the Tarporley bypass. May I take this occasion at the outset, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to offer you my congratulations and express my delight at your assumption of office. I am extremely grateful also to my hon. Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), the Parliamentary Secretary, for coming to the House at such short notice to reply to the debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend also on his appointment on this, his first appearance in that office at the Dispatch Box. I have no doubt that he is discovering that he has taken on a job which requires him to be not only omniscient but ubiquitous.

The House considered the traffic conditions in Tarporley and Eaton on 1 November last year and on 7 November 1975. My hon. Friend's predecessor as Minister, the hon. Member for Gateshead, West (Mr. Horam), agreed last November to meet a delegation from Cheshire to discuss this important matter, and I hope that my hon. Friend will stand by that agreement and will not treat this debate as a substitute for receiving such a delegation.

I shall not rehearse again the urgent necessity for a bypass of Tarporley on the A51 Nantwich-Chester axis, save to say, as I said in 1975, that Tarporley and Eaton are among the most attractive villages in Cheshire. They are in a conservation area, and Tarporley in particular is a historic place, containing at least 35 listed buildings of historic or architectural merit.

But both Tarporley and Eaton have over a period of years suffered increasingly from the ever-growing burden of noise, pollution and accidents accompanying the increase in traffic on the A49 and A51. The previous Secretary of State for the Environment proposed to alleviate this situation by the provision of a bypass on the A51 starting at the bottom of Ash Hill, passing to the west of Tarporley about 400 yards from the village High Street, crossing Birch Heath Road at the existing ground level, and terminating on the Tarporley side of Tiresford about a quarter of a mile north-west of Four Lane Ends junction.

However, the Department thinks that this bypass will be used, as I understand it, by only about half the traffic which at present travels along Tarporley High Street and will not in itself alleviate the position in Eaton.

The county council, the parish councils and, I believe, the great majority of local residents feel strongly that the A51 bypass should be proceeded with as soon as possible, and I must emphasise again that any pressure for an additional bypass on the A49 route should not delay the construction of the A51 bypass.

My purpose in raising the matter again is to bring the House up to date. I think, as I have said, that the necessity for a bypass is widely accepted and is in fact common ground. My hon. Friend's predecessor, the hon. Member for Gateshead West, wrote to me on 17 November last year in these terms: As you know from the recent Adjournment debate, we are well aware of the concern felt locally about the effects of traffic on Tarporley and recognise that the environmental problems will not be resolved without a bypass on both trunk roads. That on the A51 to the west of the village is now programmed and will give very significant relief. The Regional Controller is looking with the County Director of Highways and Transportation at the case for the other (A49) bypass and if in principle such a case can be made we see no obstacle to considering the trunking and improvement of B5153 in a way which will also relieve Eaton. I am in a position to bring the House up to date. For a number of weeks prior to 3 May I had the pleasure of treading the doorsteps of my constituents. I can testify at first hand to the strong feelings among those who live in Tarporley and among the many who go there to shop, to receive schooling or to attend the hospital. That feeling has arisen following the imposition of a weight restriction on the B5152 through Eaton village. There is no doubt that the volume of traffic, especially heavy goods traffic, going through Tarporley was much too high. However, it has increased to an appalling level. I understand that the county council has been, or is, conducting traffic surveys. I hope that the Minister will be in a position to indicate the results.

The views of the Tarporley parish council and the Rushton parish council—Rushton including the village of Eaton—are clear and not in dispute. In a letter to me dated 16 December 1978 Mr. J. Peters, the clerk of Tarporley parish council, wrote: The objective of Tarporley parish council is to remove all heavy through traffic from the centre of Tarporley on to more suitable roads. As far as possible new roads should provide the maximum relief for Eaton. We do not think that the parish councils are in a position to offer detailed proposals, but we are prepared to make some general comments. We wish to see the A51 bypass completed at the earliest possible date. Then we seek either (a) a link road built from the new A51 bypass to the top of Luddington hill (That would have to be incorporated into the desien stage of the A51 bypass and preferably would be built at the same time), or (b), and A49 bypass. This would probably take the form of major improvements to the B5152 with a short route around Eaton village itself. (We think that this is a more realistic option than a completely new A49 bypass). There are strong feelings in the parish council on the relative merits of schemes (a) and (b), although there has recently been a small majority in favour of scheme (a). We have talked informally to Rushton parish council and established that they are in favour of scheme (a), but strongly opposed to scheme (b). Tarporley's decisions are in favour of (a), were taken partly in the light of Eaton's position. However, if (a) is to be ruled out eventually, then Tarporley would pursue option (b) with great vigour. On a point of clarification, there have been various reports that the link road scheme is being reconsidered by the MOT. Mr. Horam's recent statement was rather ambiguous however. Can you please ascertain whether both schemes (a) and (b) are still under active consideration? That is the view of the Tarporley parish council.

Rushton parish council's present view was expressed to me in a letter dated 17 January 1979 from Mr. A. C. Merry, the clerk of the council, in which he states: We agree with Tarporley parish council that nothing should be allowed to delay the building of the A51 bypass and indeed we would urge that this bypass should have priority over the bypasses already planned for Tarvin council and Kelsall. Rushden also supports Tarporley in the proposal that a study be made of a northerly route for a road connecting the western end of the A51 bypass to the A49 in the area of Luddington Hill. Indeed, this parish council has already supported a study of such a route by a company of chartered civil and structural engineers, this study shows such a route to be practical. The Rushton parish council rejects any proposal to 'trunk' any part of the B5152 road between Four Lane Ends and its junction with the A49 at Cotebrook. It is the view of this council that once the agreed weight limit on this part of the B5152 has been put into operation the heavy goods vehicles presently using this road will in great part take the alternative route to the motorways by making use of the A41 from Whit-church via Chester to the M56, and will not pass through Tarporley. That is an important question. The House will be most interested to hear whether Mr. Merry's last point has been the subject of any origin and destination surveys by the Department or the county council. Has that belief been adhered to, following the imposition of the weight limit on the B5152 through Eaton? Some work was done on the question.

My constituent Mr. G. R. Wolfe Barry of Knowl House, Eaton, wrote to me in November last year. He said: During the last five years a check has been kept of the operators of H.G.V. on the B5152 and it has been possible to make reasonable assumptions as to the point of departure and destination of the bulk of these vehicles. It is clear that of the H.G.V.s going North a great number pass through Whitchurch and use the B5152 to take the A49 to Warrington via the Exit No. 10 on the M56 at Stretton. At this point many of the vehicles join the M56. The same route is taken in reverse by H.G.V.s using B5152 going South. The alternate route using A class roads all the way is from Whitchurch using the A41 to the Chester North by-pass, then to the second roundabout where the A56 takes the traffic down to the M56 and up to the same Exit No. 10. A check has been made by travelling this route and comparing the result with the route using the B5152; the extra distance is 10 miles, 37 miles for the longer route against 27 for the other. However, with the longer route 11.5 miles are on the motorway. It should also be remembered that the M56 extention to the outskirts of Chester is now under construction; when completed this will further reduce the extra distance. In any case the extra distance of 10 miles should be considered in the context of the journey distance of the H.G.V.s which is likely to be in the order of 150 miles. Once the weight limit is put on the B5152 and has been in operation for say three months, the H.G.V.s will transfer to the alternate route outlined above and the citizens of Tarporley who are worried about taking the traffic now using the B5152 will find they need not have been so concerned. The question is whether that is so and whether the A51 bypass on its own will bring about the result that Mr. Wolfe Barry expects.

The clerk to the parish council wrote to a large number of transport managers of vehicles which had been seen going through Eaton. He appealed to them to take the route suggested in Mr. Wolfe Barry's letter. I shall let my hon. Friend have a copy of the letter from the clerk to the parish council. I do not know what, if any, response there was to those letters. However, I imagine that the Cheshire county council concerned itself with the matter.

The previous Cheshire county council survey of traffic in Tarporley, of which the results are known, was conducted on 15 March of this year, just before the Eaton weight restriction order came into force. Perhaps my hon. Friend will let us know whether there were any later official surveys.

Since then the Tarporley traffic campaign conducted two surveys on the same basis and on the same forms as those used by the county surveyors. I pay tribute to the Tarporley traffic campaign for the work it did. The surveys were carried out between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. on Monday 14 May and Tuesday 15 May, respectively. On the A49, in Forest Road in Tarporley, the average of the two surveys shows an increase of 118 per cent. in heavy goods vehicles over the 15 March figure, or an extra 520 heavy goods vehicles per day—almost one per minute. The survey also showed that half of the heavy goods vehicles were articulated.

The Minister may be aware that the junction of Forest Road and Tarporley High Street is totally unsuited to articulated vehicles as the lorries, when turning, must swing out into the road in the face of oncoming traffic.

The increase in total traffic, as opposed to heavy goods vehicles, on Forest Road between the county council's survey before the weight restriction and the two later ones was no less than 47 per cent., and it is hard to see why a weight restriction should have given rise of itself to such an increase in non-heavy goods vehicles.

The Tarporley traffic campaign survey on the combined A49 and A51 road on the High Street, as opposed to Forest Road, showed an increase of heavy goods vehicles of 43 per cent.—450 movements per day—between the survey before the weight restriction and those conducted in May. The increase in the total traffic was, as one would expect, as little as 6 per cent.

From these unofficial surveys, it would appear that we are faced with a very serious problem of heavy goods vehicles on roads which were not and are not designed to take them. The proportion of heavy goods vehicles to total traffic in Cheshire as a whole, including motorways, is 17½ per cent. In the Forest Road survey the proportion was no less than 26 per cent. That figure is totally unacceptable to Tarporley, and some solution must be found urgently.

I shall be most grateful if my hon. Friend will tell the House precisely what has been done by his Department and by the county councils since we last debated this matter and what is proposed for the immediate future. I need not belabour the dangers of any further delay. It may well be that my hon. Friend is not as yet in a position to give a definitive answer to the problem of resolving the inter-linked traffic conditions at Tarporley and Eaton. I hope, however, that he will be able to confirm that construction of the A51 bypass will proceed immediately and as a matter of urgency, and that no time is being lost nor effort spared by those in his Department and in the county council.

As I have said before, feelings in the locality are very strong indeed, and I give my hon. Friend notice that we shall continue to press the matter of finding a solution to the traffic problems of these two villages until such a solution has been found and the matter satisfactorily concluded.

9.7 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. Kenneth Clarke)

May I begin, Mr. Deputy Speaker, by adding my congratulations to those of my hon. Friend the Member for Northwich (Mr. Goodlad) to you on your appointment and say what a pleasure it is to address you for the first time in your new capacity. I should like to congratulate also my hon. Friend on his quick response to the vacant time on the Floor of the House and his success in obtaining an Adjournment debate on the subject of traffic conditions in Tarporley and Eaton. As he said in his kind remarks, this is my first appearance at the Dispatch Box in my new post, and it is not too surprising that I make it on the subject of traffic conditions in these two villages in my hon. Friend's constituency.

My hon. Friend has been remarkably persistent in pressing his case on these traffic conditions. He has obtained a considerable amount of parliamentary time in the past in which to discuss them. I have studied the reports of the two debates to which he referred, on 7 November 1975 and 1 November 1978, both of which were initiated by him. I have tried to familiarise myself with the problems. I assure him that his efforts have made my Department and those who work within it very familiar indeed with the difficulties. There is certainly no one in my Department who does not appreciate the urgent need to do something about the conditions being experienced by his constituents. The residents of the two villages concerned have every reason to be grateful to my hon. Friend for the way in which he so persistently underlines the urgency of their case.

I have come for the first time to any detailed study of the case, and I am quite appalled to discover the conditions. Tarporley is an attractive village. The Council of British Archaeology has put it on its list of historic towns. The central area of the village is designated as a conservation area, but it suffers from the misfortune that two trunk roads, both of which are the responsibility of my Department—the A51 from Chester to Nantwich and the A49 from Warrington to Whitchurch—join near the village. The two roads then run together for the full length of Tarporley High Street, and that High Street is one of the more picturesque parts of the village. Many of the buildings along it are listed as being of special or architectural interest. I am told that they include a number of attractive Georgian buildings and cottages, most of which are now in commercial use.

The result is that through that attractive High Street there is channelled a considerable volume of traffic which is quite unsuited to such a road. Surveys carried out by my Department—I shall come to the later ones in a moment—show that 18 per cent. of the traffic consists of heavy vehicles, compared with a national average for trunk roads of about 11 per cent. Therefore, a high proportion of heavy lorries go along the High Street in a heavy flow of traffic and get involved with bus stops, delivery vehicles making commercial deliveries, and numerous access points to garages and public houses, together with difficult junctions. The traffic conditions are quite appalling, and it has been appreciated for a considerable time in my Department that something must be done to relieve that traffic congestion as quickly as possible.

After all the options had been considered, a decision was taken to move towards the construction of a bypass to the west of the village—my hon. Friend referred to it as the A51 bypass. Once that was chosen as the main option, it went forward to public consultation in 1975. The original route proposed was modified, and the modified route was selected in February 1977. Since that time a great deal of design work has proceeded.

When my hon. Friend last raised the topic in November 1978, my predecessor told him that the statutory procedures which were required to fix the final line by order and to acquire the land were in hand. My predecessor also told my hon. Friend that he hoped the draft line order and the compulsory purchase orders would be produced by the spring of this year. I am afraid that that date has slipped, and I have made inquiries about it. I am assured that we are now aiming to produce the draft orders in October 1979. The reason for the delay Is that it is essential for considerable detailed design work to be done at this stage. It is important that that design work is done properly and that we are happy with the final results that are produced so that the minimum delay and difficulty arise in considering those draft orders.

The main thing that will arise after the draft orders are produced is that, in accordance with the statutory procedures, every right will be given to people to raise objections if they wish. If substantial objections are put forward to these draft orders, and if they cannot be resolved, it will be necessary to hold a public inquiry. Whether that is necessary will have a considerable bearing on the pace at which we can proceed with the new road. I am glad to say that so far, from the moment that public consultation began, the proposed line for the road has been favourably received and no serious obstacles have arisen. It seems that there is a real chance that there will be no need for a public inquiry. I must stress—I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree—that anyone who has serious objections to the draft orders when they are produced has every right to raise such objections. He is fully entitled to take that course and no one should seek to deter anyone who wishes to do so. I am sure that all those who live in the neighbourhood of Tarporley and appreciate the need for a bypass will bear in mind that if we can avoid the necessity of a public inquiry, that will save considerable time before the construction of the road is commenced. To some extent progress on this western bypass rather depends on public reaction within my hon. Friend's constituency, and the main question that arises is whether we shall need to have a full public inquiry.

That could have quite an effect, because at the moment the scheme is listed in the White Paper "Policy for Roads: England 1978" as likely to lead to a start in construction in 1981 to 1983. Obviously that will depend upon statutory procedures and upon the availability of funds at the time. I am told that if a scheme is produced which does not need a full public inquiry, that can save as much as a year in the preparation time for a road scheme. Therefore it is possible—we wait to see what happens when the draft orders are produced—that we might be able to make some substantial progress.

That is all that I really need say about the western bypass, except to reassure my hon. Friend that there is no question of consideration of the other bypasses in any way delaying work on the western bypass. There is no question of anyone in my Department—certainly not myself—expecting delay in getting on with the western bypass. We appreciate the urgency of the scheme. It is the least that we can press ahead with in order to relieve the present problems of Tarporley. As my hon. Friend said, there is no question of the western bypass in itself removing all the traffic which at the moment goes through Tarporley. There is therefore no question of contenting ourselves with studying the western bypass alone and pressing on with its construction.

That leads me to the problem of the other village referred to by my hon. Friend, Eaton, which is very near to Tarporley and just to the north-west of it. Eaton is on the B5152, which is not a trunk road but serves as a link between the A49 north and south of the village. That means that traffic which travels along the B5152 is able to avoid the congested centre of Tarporley. That makes it an attractive route for a number of motorists. It is a particularly attractive route for heavy vehicles because it enables them to avoid the steep gradients of Luddington Hill, just to the north of Tarporley on the A49.

A survey on the B5152 before the new weight restrictions were introduced showed that at that stage no less than 25 per cent. of the traffic going along the B5152 was rated as heavy vehicles, which is a particularly high proportion. That heavy traffic was going on what is a narrow, tortuous road and quite unsuitable for heavy vehicular traffic. This obviously gives rise to a serious problem of giving some relief to the residents of Eaton and some relief to the residents of Eaton and Tarporley from the north-south traffic which will not be wholly diverted from both villages by the proposed western bypass.

Cheshire County Council has for a long time been concerned about the situation in the village of Eaton and has now introduced the weight restriction to which my hon. Friend referred. He pointed out that one unfortunate effect of the weight restriction in Eaton is that some of the heavier vehicles have been diverted back into the village of Tarporley with adverse effects there. But, of course, the weight restriction was introduced for the benefit of my hon. Friend's constituents in Eaton. It is too early to judge the overall effect of them, but they obviously are providing some relief.

I accept what he says—certainly when he said that there is nothing like a general election campaign for bringing one face to face with the up-to-date views of one's constituents—that the weight restrictions have given rise to some additional problems in Tarporley. The western bypass will give some relief, possibly, to the inhabitants of Eaton if it reduces the congestion in Tarporley, because it might reduce the temptation to those travelling north-south along the A49 to go through Eaton. Again, that merely means that they will be tempted to go back through the high road in Tarporley. So one has to look, in the longer term, to a further project which might give some relief to those people who live on the B5152 and, if possible, take the traffic all the way round both the villages we are considering.

The particular matter which is being considered at present is the possibility of trunking the B5152. Trunking the B5152 will, of necessity, involve a considerable number of improvements to it. The most important of those would be an Eaton bypass. It is possible that if an acceptable scheme could be produced to trunk the B5152, and to include an Eaton bypass, that would provide an effective eastern bypass for both villages with which we are dealing.

This is a project which is being examined at present. My hon. Friend has underlined the need for careful inquiry into such a project. I am grateful to him for citing to me the views of the Tarporley and Rushton parish councils. Both of them hold somewhat different views on the desirability of considering trunking the B5152. I should be grateful to my hon. Friend if he would pass those on to my Department. I assure him that we shall consider them now that he has put them before the House.

What is happening in considering this particular project is that Cheshire county council is acting as agent for my Department in considering this whole scheme. We have indicated that we are very willing to consider the trunking of the B5152 as a possibility, but of course we have to wait for the Cheshire county council to do the necessary preliminary work before we are able to reach a final judgment upon it.

My hon. Friend referred to the traffic surveys that are being carried out by the Cheshire county council, partly to evaluate present traffic flows on these roads and partly to evaluate the effect of the weight restriction in Eaton. I understand that those traffic surveys are being carried out, but I do not have the results to hand. I assure my hon. Friend that as soon as I have them they will be passed on to him and I shall let him know the up-to-date position.

When it comes to the overall evaluation of the trunking of the B5152, with the necessary improvements, traffic surveys are not the main cause of delay in the principal work in hand. What really has to be done by the Cheshire county council is to evaluate possible alternative routes for an Eaton bypass, and that requires careful engineering appraisal of the varying routes that present themselves as possibilities.

In anticipation of my hon. Friend's debate tonight, I caused further inquiries to be made of the Cheshire county council. I am told that it has the work in hand. The latest estimate that I have is that it could take up to 12 months before the council is in a position to complete its work and put its conclusions to the Department. We are in the hands of the Cheshire county council as agents. I am sure that the council appreciates the urgency of this project. I am sure, too, that my hon. Friend will use his position as the Member for Northwich to be in touch with the council and to find out whether there are any difficulties where matters could be helped along and perhaps the work done somewhat quicker.

However, that is where we have got to at present. The western bypass is being proceeded with. The draft orders will soon be produced. Everything then depends on the need for a public inquiry. If we can avoid that, things will be speeded up. If it is possible that a public inquiry might be avoided, we shall proceed to the construction of that road as soon as we can, bearing in mind the statutory procedures and the availability of funds.

The eastern bypass—if I may give that name to what is at present merely a project to trunk the minor road and put a bypass around Eaton—is being actively looked into by the Cheshire county council, as agents for my Department. We are hopeful that we shall get results from the council as quickly as possible.

That means that there has been some progress since November 1978, when my hon. Friend last raised this matter. I hope that this further debate has made the picture a little clearer. I hope also that we have, in particular, underlined the fact that everyone, including myself, realises that, as time goes by, these villages are continuing to suffer quite appalling problems from the traffic that goes through them. I assure my hon. Friend again that we are seeking to respond as quickly as possible to all his urgings.

I have taken note of his request to bring a delegation to see me again. No doubt he will consider what I have said this evening and read it tomorrow. Then, if he wishes to bring a delegation, arising out of anything I have said or any further point I have not covered, I shall be happy to meet him.

I hope that we can offer some prospect that in the not-too-distant future some real relief will be given to my hon. Friend's constituents who are at present suffering quite intolerable problems.

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