Patrick Nicholls – 1985 Speech on the Roads Programme

Below is the text of the speech made by Patrick Nicholls, the then Conservative MP for Teignbridge, in the House of Commons on 4 July 1985.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak about the roads programme, although many other subjects might be more popular. High rhetoric and declaratory speeches about road transport and motorways do not trip neatly off the tongue.

An inferior road system has an effect on local communities and on the quality of people’s lives. To make my central point, I do not need to discuss the Government’s road programme at length. The importance that the Government attach to the subject has been clearly shown in the White Papers that they have published, in particular that of 1983. In that White Paper, the Government set out their national and local priorities. There is no doubt that the Government know what they are doing. If one considers the progress that has been made since 1979, the details given in the White Paper on Government expenditure and in my hon. Friend the Minister of State’s announcement as recently as 25 June about 51 further projects at a cost of about £300 million. one begins to see that those priorities are being fulfilled. However, when one studies those matters, I believe that one finds that one ingredient has not received the degree of prominence that it merits.
In 1977, the present Secretary of State for Social Services produced what might be described as a seminal document setting out the attitude that a Conservative Administration would take to transport. The paper stressed that a Government implementing such a programme should seek to ensure that decisions were taken by and for the users rather than the providers of transport. In matters concerning local communities it is vital to ensure that local people’s views are properly taken into account. That problem certainly arises in the context of planning legislation, and I have raised it in the House more than once.

The procedures adopted must pay more than lip service to local people’s views and ensure that local opinion has a real effect on the policy adopted. When one considers the way in which road traffic policy is implemented at the local level it is clear that, despite our rhetoric before we came to power, local communities do not always feel that they have the input that they want.

The specific problem that I have in mind concerns the road traffic system in Newton Abbot, a substantial market town in my constituency. Devon is the third largest shire in England, with more than 8,200 miles of road—more than twice the total for any other county. There is no doubt that Devon and the west country generally have seen substantial improvements in terms of major capital projects. For instance, there has been the dualling of the Plymouth-Exeter road. There is now dual carriageway virtually from the end of the motorway to the Tamar bridge. In terms of major projects, the west country has benefited greatly and it was well entitled to do so.

Improving motorways and dual carriageways, however, may simply move the bottleneck further down the track. It thus becomes even more important to ensure that the traffic is dealt with properly when it leaves those main arterial highways and comes into market towns.

It would be all too easy for me to say that those responsible for planning the traffic system in Newton Abbot do not know what they are doing. I could make a ​ splendid speech. The Gallery would become packed and reporters would be hanging on my every word. I do not go so far as that, but there is no doubt that the people of Newton Abbot feel that the needs of their town are not properly reflected in the traffic system provided for them.

These days everything has become a speciality. Even politics, which in our British tradition should be the province of the true amateur, has become professional. Traffic management, too, has become a speciality. There is certainly a feeling among my constituents, especially those living in Newton Abbot, that the specialists have designed a traffic system which is all very well for them but which simply does not work.

A specific example is the Penn Inn roundabout where priorities were altered in such a way that traffic arriving at the roundabout found that it had precedence over traffic already on the roundabout. By any stretch of the imagination, it was an extraordinary decision. Public protest was such that eventually the highway authority, to its credit, while not actually admitting that it was wrong, did the next best thing and changed back to the old system.

The system in Newton Abbot has not been completed yet, and those of us who are optimists are wondering whether, when the t’s are crossed and the i’s are dotted, the system will work. For the time being, the local people are faced with a system of one-way streets and mini-roundabouts, by which the authorities seek to control traffic. A person trying to get through Newton Abbot in a hurry on a weekday had better take a deep breath, because it takes some time to do so. On one occasion—this was not during the high season or at a particularly busy time of day—it took me 20 minutes to get across the Penn Inn roundabout.

Clearly, if local people are asked to design a traffic system, they will have many ideas. The fact that they may not be able to achieve a consensus does not detract from the basic proposition that, at times, traffic in this market town is being brought to a standstill and the common-sense views of local people on what should be done are not being properly reflected.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

I have the advantage of knowing the hon. Gentleman’s constituency extremely well, having lived there for many years. I am following his argument carefully. What exactly is his point? Is he suggesting that the previous Conservative-controlled county council, which presumably channelled the views of the inhabitants to the traffic planners, failed in its duty? Is he suggesting that that is why those Conservative councillors were deposed in the shire county elections?

Mr. Nicholls

The hon. Lady makes a particular political point. If she casts her mind back, she will recall that her stay in the west country was brief as, having succeeded in being re-elected in one parliamentary election, she was promptly deposed at another. I do not think that her reflections on how we act in the west country are especially helpful.

I come to the point that I would have made if the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) had been able to contain her exuberance. One cannot be certain whether the traffic planners in a town such as Newton Abbot have got it right. The present structure makes it impossible for local people to ensure that their views are taken into account. A planning analogy is the best analogy ​ that I can offer the hon. Lady. What happens if the local community does not have the right to appeal once a planning application has been granted? It is too simplistic to say, “That means that it must be the fault of the local councillors.” Of course it is not necessarily their fault. Whatever their political persuasion, local councillors properly give a great deal of weight to the advice that they receive from professional officers. The planners in Newton Abbot may be getting it right, but their views cannot be put to the test. Those living in areas where the traffic does not flow freely face considerable hardship. Their hardship may be exaggerated, but one must emphasise the stress faced by the travelling public in using a complex traffic system that is not working properly.

We can note the Government’s priorities and the spending on major projects and can compare the record of this Administration with that of their predecessor. This Government are getting it right.

In the end, one must come down to local level and ask oneself: “Can we be sure that there is proper control, so that those who are responsible for road planning are providing transport systems that are there for the benefit of the people, dictated by the people and created in the light of their experience, or is it a case of transport systems being thrust upon them from on high?” That is the point that I wished to make to my hon. Friend.