§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn—[Mr. Lang.]10.42 pm
§ Mr. George Gardiner (Reigate)
I wish to raise the matter of work on the Reigate-Leatherhead section of the M25, which, with the Leatherhead interchange and the section from Leatherhead to Wisley, constitutes a vital missing link in the orbital route round London, with long sections of completed motorway stretching either side of it. Within the unfinished stretch, work on the interchange is well advanced. Despite earlier difficulties, work is proceeding well between Leatherhead and Wisley. Work is furthest behind on the section between Reigate and Leatherhead.
The contract for the latter section was given to Bovis-Birse, which since a management buy-out has become Birse-Farr. The consulting engineers are W. S. Atkins and Partners of Epsom.
The completion of the section is of strategic importance for traffic movement in all of south-east England, and of acute environmental importance to Reigate, through the narrow streets of which the traffic thunders on its way between the eastbound M25 and the westbound A25, and to those who live along the A217 and A240 to the north, who suffer all the traffic that follows the signed route between the two open sections of the M25. Those who live by the A240, which is single carriageway south of Ewell, must suffer the passage of more vehicles each day than are carried by the six-lane M40. In Reigate and along the A217/240 this heavy traffic is increased during the summer as holiday traffic from the midlands and the west drives to and from the channel ports. My hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Mr. Hamilton) is as concerned for the welfare of his constituents as I am for mine.
It was therefore with great anticipation that we awaited the promised completion and opening of the Reigate-Leatherhead section in the spring of this year. Imagine the dismay when we learnt last summer that the contractor had been granted a six-month extension until 25 August this year. That meant that our overloaded roads and overburdened communities had to endure the vibration, noise, fumes and danger from all that traffic through another summer.
But worse was to come. No sooner were we through last summer and into autumn than Bovis-Birse announced that it was stopping all work on that section, pulling off all equipment and laying off men, for the six months which the construction industry defines as winter, from 21 October to 21 April. A six-month extension of contract time plus a six-month holiday from further work calls for an explanation.
No satisfactory explanation has been given. The first excuse advanced was the wet spring of 1983, although one would have thought that some allowance was made for inclement weather when drawing up the contracts. That wet spring was followed by two good summers. However, I have my hon. Friend's assurance, in a letter to me dated 27 September 1983, that the weather was not a factor taken into account in granting the extension. The next excuse offered by Bovis-Birse was that the Department of Transport changed the specification for concrete used on motorways just before its programme for laying concrete 255 commenced. I would not criticise my hon. Friend for changing the specification to give greater durability to our motorways, and I do not question the fact that the necessary adjustment by the contractor would cost a little time—but as much as six months? The suggestion is not credible.
Why was the contract extension granted? At this point, I must make it clear that this was not a decision of my hon. Friend or her colleagues. Under the Institution of Civil Engineers Conditions of Contract, fifth edition, it is the engineer appointed to supervise the works and administer the contract who is responsible for deciding whether an extension of contract time is appropriate, and for how long. Therefore, the decision was taken by W. S. Atkins, and my hon. Friend was informed of it later. It is all very fishy.
It is hardly surprising that, when the cessation of work was announced soon after, it was suggested in my constituency that the extension of time owed more to cash flow problems at Bovis-Birse, and to the impending management buy-out, than to the weather or to concrete specifications, and even that a backhander might have been passed to the consulting engineers. I know enough of the repute of W. S. Atkins to discount that story, but the fact remains that no satisfactory explanation for an extension of as long as six months has ever been offered.
Then there is the mystery surrounding the contractor's decision to cease all work during the winter months. I gather that, under the terms of his contract, he can do so, although my hon. Friend assured me in her letter of 27 September that it was open to the contractor to carry out winter concreting if he wished to do so. Senior officials of the Transport and General Workers Union tell me that they have never encountered a case of a contractor pulling all men off an unfinished site in winter. It is noteworthy that Fairclough, the contractor on the Leatherhead-Wisley section, has kept some men on the site throughout. The concrete could easily have been laid on the Reigate-Leatherhead section in November; indeed, only half a kilometre of road remains to be done. Meanwhile, other staff could have continued lesser work in preparation for full resumption.
I do not doubt that Birse-Farr, as the contractor is now called, is within its contractual rights to cease all work for six months, just as it would incur no penalty if the road was not ready for handover before 25 August; and I accept that my hon. Friend has no power to order it to do otherwise. But Birse-Farr badly needs to win back some good will, and, although my hon. Friend has no power, she has influence. After all, the Government are the client, and my hon. Friend or whoever succeeds her will have further motorway contracts to place. If Birse-Farr is to secure any of those, it would be wise to turn in a better performance on this contract than it hitherto has; and the same goes for W. S. Atkins's supervision of it. I submit that if Birse-Farr gets men back on to this site well ahead of 21 April, if it starts concreting earlier weather permitting, and if it then works flat out, it will be possible to have the motorway open before the contract deadline of 21 August. I urge my hon. Friend to apply her utmost endeavours to that end.
§ The Minister of State, Department of Transport (Mrs. Lynda Chalker)
Before I deal with the particular inquiry of my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Gardiner) — and I thank him for bringing the issue before the House tonight—I should like to confirm that the M25 continues to be top priority in our road programme. I am pleased to say that we are well on course for achieving our target of opening the entire 122-mile orbital route by the end of 1986. Already we have 86 miles open to traffic and the remaining 36 miles are all under construction.
I well understand the anxiety of my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate and of my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Mr. Hamilton). The Leatherhead-Reigate section of the motorway, with which my hon. Friends are particularly concerned, is of vital importance to the whole of that southern ring of the M25. I share the disappointment felt in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate that the road will not be open sooner than August of this year. But there are some clear engineering and contractual reasons for the situation that he has described so clearly.
It may be helpful if I start by explaining the contractual position. It is not one that comes before the House on more than the rare occasion. The contract for the Leatherhead-Reigate section was let in April 1983 to the Bovis-Birse joint venture, which was set up for that stretch of road. The intention was that the three contracts that would fill the gap between Wisley and Reigate should be ready to be opened together, or more or less together, in the spring of 1985.
The Department's contracts for this type of work follow the conditions of contract laid down by the Institution of Civil Engineers, as my hon. Friend said. These conditions were established some 20 years ago, and have worked without problem in the intervening years in nearly all cases. But there is an integral part of the conditions which may not be well understood. It is that an independent and impartial engineer is appointed to supervise the works and administer the contract. W. S. Atkins and Partners, the consulting engineers, were appointed for this purpose for the Leatherhead-Reigate contract. This is in line with our policy that the responsibility for the supervision of the Department's larger road contracts should be undertaken independently of Government and thus in the private sector. I know that my hon. Friend welcomes the amount of work that is done in the private sector away from the Government machine.
Clause 44 of the conditions lays down that an extension of time for the completion of the works should be granted to the contractor by the independent engineer if circumstances arise that the contractor was not aware of the time when he prepared his tender. Such circumstances could include exceptional adverse weather conditions, unforeseen ground conditions, changes in the design required by the engineer or the employer, or any other unforeseen circumstances. It is the engineer's responsiblity—and his alone—to decide whether an extension is appropriate and, if so, the period for which it may be granted after treating each case on its merits.
In this case, the engineer, W. S. Atkins and Partners, granted extensions of time because of an unforeseen problem with piling to one of the structures and because as my hon. Friend said, of an improvement in the Department's specification for concrete roads.
257 This later change was introduced nationally as part of our continuing programme to improve the quality and durability of our roads. It will have long-term benefits by reducing traffic delays associated with future maintenance, and I am sure that it will be fully justified for such an important road as the M25. The extensions of time would not ordinarily have led to an eight-month delay in completion had it not been for the fact that the original contract was priced on the basis of summer concreting.
This is not unusual, as contractors frequently cease concrete laying during the winter. The extensions, of necessity, carried the contract completion date beyond 21 October, which is the seasonal limit of summer concreting. This meant that the contractor was entitled to have sufficient extension to enable him to complete the work in the following summer season, which officially commences on 21 April. The new contract completion date, therefore, became 26 August 1985. My hon. Friend referred at one point to 25 August, but I understand that he agrees that in fact it is 26 August.
The contractor is, therefore, entitled to take until 26 August 1985 to complete his work. It is for him to decide his own work programme to meet that completion date. However, if this new date were not met, liquidated damages would be payable.
The firm—Bovis-Birse, now known as Birse-Farr—decided in November to cease all work for the winter and resume again in the spring. This is a decision that it is entitled to make under the contract, but I agree with my hon. Friend that it is most unreasonable.
My hon. Friend is understandably concerned that the consultant is not required to refer requests for extensions of time to me in situations such as this. The consultant works closely with my officials, and he is keeping them advised of events. But I must re-emphasise that, within the terms of the contract, the decisions are those of the consultant, and it is for him to satisfy himself that the factors were outside the contractor's control when the consultants granted the extensions.
My hon. Friend is aware from previous discussions that we have had that I have already ensured that my officials will remain in continued close contact with the consultant. Everything possible is being done to encourage the contractor, Birse-Farr, to press on as fast as possible with the work on this vitally important section of the M25 motorway.
I fully appreciate that local residents who are anxiously awaiting the completion of the M25 will have found it difficult to understand why the contractor has chosen to close the site completely. However, having received the extension of time, he was exercising his right to take a management decision as to how the work should be completed within the contract period.
The question has been asked why Bovis-Birse closed down in the winter, whereas the contractor on the nearby Wisley-Leatherhead section — Faircloughs — continued concreting well into December. I can only repeat that this is a matter for the management of the respective contractors to decide, bearing in mind that any work done during the winter months would not necessarily have a material effect on the completion of the works. In other words, there is work that may be done by a contractor who continues in the winter, but that will not necessarily speed up the end of the concrete paving that has to be laid in better weather.
258 As my hon. Friend now knows, we have no power to instruct the contractor to reopen the site. We might be able to induce him to do so by paying him what could be a substantial sum of money, but this would mean that budgets would be exceeded and, because of the difficulties associated with work in winter weather which I mentioned earlier, such additional payments as might be made would not necessarily represent value for money. Notwithstanding the priority that we give to the M25—I do not hesitate to re-emphasise that point — value for money must be achieved on every contract. I would not think it right to authorise additional expenditure on this contract which would inevitably be at the expense of other urgent road needs, particularly in view of the considerable uncertainties involved, and the use to which this money might be put.
Although 21 April is the start of the summer concreting season, there is no reason why the contractor should not restart work on site before that date and my officials, through the consulting engineer, will be encouraging Birse-Farr to do so.
My hon. Friend has made very clear his concern that the section of the motorway between Leatherhead and Reigate should be opened as soon as it is ready. The Leatherhead interchange is being completed ahead of contract and the Wisley to Leatherhead section will probably be ready prior to completion of the Leatherhead-Reigate section, so there should be no obstacle to opening the latter section immediately upon completion of work.
I know that my hon. Friend has not been concerned with the related timings of the adjacent contracts, but for the sake of the record and for those who may read the report of our debate he will understand me when I say that if there should be a substantial difference between the opening dates of the two adjacent sections — Wisley to Leatherhead and Leatherhead to Reigate—there would be discussions with the local authorities involved. The last thing in the world that my hon. Friend and I want is that traffic that has travelled quite reasonably on the motorway should suddenly turn on to roads that were not built to take that type of traffic. It is against that eventuality that I must provide.
I can assure my hon. Friend and the House that my Department is in no way complacent about the wider problem to which he has referred. As I said earlier, we attach very high priority to the completion of the M25, but we are concerned that the section between Wisley and Reigate should be completed as soon as possible. Existing traffic problems in Reigate, Ewell and other areas are badly affected by heavy goods vehicles and other orbital traffic. I well understand the disturbance, distress and inconvenience that this causes both to local residents and to the other road users. One of the reasons for building the M25 is to take traffic out of residential, shopping and commercial areas and we shall certainly do all in our power to see that the M25, in Surrey and the remainder of its length is completed as quickly as possible.
I hope that my hon. Friend will realise from what I have said that we shall not let up in our efforts to get the contractors back on site as early as possible so that this section of the M25 can be completed as soon as possible. Only upon its completion will my hon. Friend realise with me why there is a need not only to get the job done as fast as possible but as thoroughly as possible and up to the specifications that the Department lays down so that the road shall have a proper life without interruption. I assure 259 my hon. Friend that we shall leave no stone unturned to make sure that the contractor has the M25 in his area open as soon as possible.
260 Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at three minutes past Eleven o' clock.