John Morris – 1959 Maiden Speech in the House of Commons

Below is the text of the maiden speech made by John Morris, the Labour MP for Aberavon, in the House of Commons on 3 November 1959.

It is with considerable trepidation that I rise to intervene in such an important debate. I stand in the same place as other young men have done in the past, and I can only hope that they did not do so with as much trepidation as I do. I hope that the House, in putting me in the balance and weighing me, will not find me unduly wanting.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Mr. I. Davies), I should like to mention my predecessor, Mr. W. G. Cove, who, while the political tides ebbed and flowed, for 30 years represented Aberavon in this House, and before that he represented Wellingborough. While the tides ebbed and flowed Aberavon stood firm, even in 1931, when Mr. Cove’s predecessor, Mr. Ramsay Macdonald, stood in another light and, of course, for another constituency.

I should like in the few minutes at my disposal to deal with that part of the Gracious Speech which concerns the development of a sound system of communications throughout the country and the Government’s intention to press forward with their policy of building new highways and improving existing roads. It would be presumptuous of me, as a new, young and inexperienced Member, to try to paint a broad picture of the country’s system of road communications. I shall try to devote myself to a part of the problem with which I have tried to the best of my ability to familiarise myself in the last few years, and that is the transport system of South Wales, and, in particular, of Port Talbot.

In recent years the problem of who will do something for the Port Talbot by-pass and for the inner relief road scheme for the town has been a burning question in South Wales. This is not a mere constituency matter. It affects the prosperity of the whole of South Wales. Indeed, whenever there is an international match in Cardiff, every sportsman in Wales has his own epithets for describing the Government of the day when he is held up at the Port Talbot bottleneck.

The Minister of Transport said yesterday that he was appalled at the standard of driving on the new M.1 road from London to Birmingham. My sincere hope is that he is equally appalled at the hourly chaos which exists at the Port Talbot bottleneck. Here is one of the greatest bottlenecks in the country. Hour after hour private vehicles and the great vehicles of industry are held up there, causing a tremendous waste of fuel, time and money. I shudder to think of the annual amount of wastage caused by that single bottleneck. The worst period is between five o’clock and six o’clock in the evening. It has been reported that on a recorded occasion 1,278 vehicles crawled through that bottleneck between those hours.

The significance of the bottleneck is that while there is traffic from east and west, there is also traffic from north and south, and a railway crossing across that great highway. In the period between five o’clock and six-thirty it has been estimated that on recorded occasions the railway crossing gates have been shut for no less than thirty-five minutes. In any system of road communications I think that is a considerable time for the road between east and west to be closed.

No doubt the Minister is aware of the controversy which has existed regarding which of two proposed improvement schemes should be carried out, an outer scheme of relief, involving the demolition of 260 to 270 houses, or an inner scheme. It has been stated that the schemes concerning Port Talbot have had a “chequered career,” but it has appeared to me to be more like a game of snakes and ladders, with no one winning. Even though the Minister decided as far back as November, 1957, that the outer scheme should be carried out first, not a single brick has been laid up to now and not a single inch of tarmacadam has been put down.

Local authorities have done their best to assist the Minister in this matter. I wish to stress that at the inquiry in November, 1957, the Minister did not decide against the local authority’s scheme for inner relief; he merely said that he would not alter his order of priorities and that he intended to carry out the outer scheme first. But the problem of inner relief for the town still remains. On 10th March this year the local authority and the Glamorgan County Council resubmitted a scheme for the inner relief of the town. Even on the most optimistic prophecy the outer scheme will not be completed before 1965, and, even so, it will deal only with 30 per cent. of the traffic which now comes through the bottleneck at Port Talbot.

Traffic is increasing year by year by 10 per cent. I shudder to think what a tremendous bottleneck will exist in 1965 even with the construction of the outer scheme. It is absolutely vital that the Minister should decide to do something at the earliest possible moment regarding the inner road. In May of this year the local authorities requested a joint meeting with the Minister, but he regretted that the future of the inner relief scheme must remain in abeyance until after the election, as he did not consider that he should take a decision which would commit a future Administration. Now that the joustings at the hustings have been completed, I hope that the Minister of Transport will see his way clear to meet the local authorities in this matter at the earliest possible moment.

There is also the question of re-housing the people whose homes are involved in the carrying out of the scheme. I said earlier that 260 to 270 houses will be demolished. I am informed that the Ministry has not encountered a demolition problem of this magnitude before, but the problem is one which eventually will affect the whole of the country. There are no houses for sale in this area.

The majority of my constituents are steel workers and at the moment they are members of the most prosperous community in Britain. Many of these people are old and their houses are worth only £700 or £1,000. Where are they to find equivalent accommodation with which to replace their present homes? Those who are tenants will be re-housed by the council which will get a subsidy in order to do that. But the problem of where owner-occupiers will go still remains. Will the council have to re-house these people? Will it get a subsidy to enable it to rehouse owner-occupiers who cannot find other accommodation?

This is a basic problem involving people who have worked all their lives and saved up to buy their house. Are they to be compensated with sums of money which will not be sufficient to provide them with another house? There are no such houses available in modern housing developments. The cost of a new house would far exceed any amount of compensation which they might receive. Even were they re-housed in council houses, the £700 or £1,000 compensation which they might receive would soon be whittled away if they had to pay the economic rent of a council house, which amounts to £2 17s. a week. If they came within the differential rent scheme for council houses and the council received a subsidy for re-housing them, they would still have to pay a weekly rent of £1 6s.

It is no consolation to speak of National Assistance for such cases; indeed it would be tragic, because these people would have to use up the compensation they had received before getting any aid at all. There is a basic principle involved here because the life of a whole community is at stake and if we continue with great plans of road development, in a few years other people will be put in jeopardy in the same way. It will need the wisdom of Solomon to dispense justice in such circumstances.

How can we compensate people who have spent all their lives in a house of a certain type which cannot be replaced under modern housing conditions? Local authorities are anxious to obtain some indication of the attitude of the Government to these problems. Some of these houses are to be demolished as early as next March. The occupants are under notice, but the local authority has not yet been informed whether it is supposed to re-house those people.

There is a tremendous backlog of road work to be done in the country. In Great Britain there are 29 motor vehicles for every mile of road. We have the most congested roads in the world, and if the number of vehicles continues to increase at the present rate it is estimated that by 1962 there will be no fewer than 10 million vehicles on our roads. This means that there will be a motor vehicle for every 35 yards of public road or street.

Compared with twenty-five years ago the yield from motor taxation has gone up nine times, but the expenditure on roads today, even taking into account the present plans, is running at only three-and-a-half times more. The fact that we have three times more traffic on our roads today than we had in 1939 is, in my opinion, convincing evidence of the growing dependence of our social and economic life upon road transport, and it has been estimated that road congestion already costs the country no less than £500 million a year. That amount accrues from delays, wastages, wear and tear and accidents.

South Wales, and South-West Wales in particular, has suffered some hard knocks regarding unemployment in recent years. Industrialists—and who can blame them?—shy away when faced with the tremendous transport problems which exist in South Wales.

After years of talk, of inquiries, of consultations and of conferences, the people of South Wales will hardly believe their eyes when the first part of any scheme for Port Talbot is completed. Good roads are the arteries of our economic existence. The developments at Milford Haven and Swansea and the bringing of new industries to Pontardawe and Llanelly are dependent on the development of a new life link to South Wales. The prosperity of the whole community of South and South-West Wales depends on a good system of communications.