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Column 1313road that we are now led to understand may not be even approximately where its preferred route has been the subject of public inquiry.
I regret that the Minister's advocacy has caused both great uncertainty, with the possibility of a wider shadow of blight extending from Brownhills to Lichfield, and raised the spectre of delay. If I have understood his judgment, it is that somewhere in a corridor running from about Essington to Coleshill there may be a toll motorway. This toll motorway, if it is to meet earlier projections, should be in operation in 1994. It will be about 30 miles long and will have 12 junctions if it is to meet some of the purpose of the presently understood route. Being a private motorway, it will under present legislation require a private Bill or the hybrid Bill procedure. There have been private Bill promoters who can testify that this procedure can involve considerable delay. To meet that difficulty the Government have decided on the introduction of a new procedure by way of amendment to the Highways Act 1980. The Secretary of State will legislate for the new M6 to be a private road. At least, that was the position until about 4.45 pm yesterday when, in another flurry of activity, the Department responded to a letter written some time ago. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who unfortunately cannot be here today, wrote to me, and I shall quote his letter as it has some bearing on the debate. It said :
"You have expressed in the strongest terms your own concern, and the representations you have received from your constituents, about the route which any privately financed Birmingham northern relief road should take and about the need to avoid delay--indeed, you are moving an Adjournment debate on the subject tomorrow. Having considered and reflected on these representations, I am writing to you to set out my conclusions."
No discussion, no consultation--my right hon. Friend found himself in a hole and had to send a letter at 4.45 pm on the day before the debate.
The letter continued :
"As you know, my original intention had been to leave it open to bidders to propose their own route, for a road serving broadly the same purposes as the public sector proposal which we put to the public inquiry. The aim was to give the private sector maximum flexibility to propose routes which might offer better solutions than the original route ; after all, one of the main advantages of involving the private sector in the provisions of roads is to make use of their innovative ideas and skills. Nevertheless, you have made it very clear to me that, after much work on the part of all concerned, the present route has achieved a good degree of consensus ; and you have persuaded me that it would be too damaging and disruptive to leave bidders the freedom to propose wholly new routes."
That is two months after the Government had already created great uncertainty and anxiety. It continued :
"I therefore now propose to meet your concerns by requiring bidders to make proposals which broadly follow the line of the route originally proposed by my Department to the public inquiry. They may not propose entirely new routes. Bidders will of course produce their own designs and will have freedom to propose variations or improvements to the route. These will be considered at the public inquiry, along with all other aspects of the successful tenderer's proposals. It will be open to objectors to propose alternative routes or variations, just as they were able to do at the inquiry into the Department's original proposals. The Inspector will have to consider proposals and objections on their merits, and I will examine the Inspector's report in the light of all the relevant considerations. I am able to meet your concerns about the route because of the special circumstances of the BNRR which you have
Column 1314made so clear to me. Private sector promoters will have greater freedom to propose routes in most other competitions, because there will not be an existing proposal at a fairly advanced stage of preparation. The decision on the route for the BNRR does not therefore set a precedent or compromise the underlying policy. I appreciate and share your concern about timing of the BNRR"-- hallelujah.
"My aim is not to delay the scheme as a result of the private sector competition. The original publicly financed road was not due to open to traffic anyway until the mid-1990s, and that was subject to considerable uncertainty."
That was slippage already. It continued :
"Similar uncertainties apply to a privately financed scheme, and indeed to all major road schemes. Subject to these uncertainties, I would expect a private financed scheme to be able broadly to match the former projected opening date of the mid-1990s. To reinforce the point, I shall ask bidders to make proposals on the basis of an opening date in 1995. For our part, we shall proceed as fast as possible. This month we are issuing background material to potential bidders, and next month a formal invitation to tenderers to pre-quality will be placed in the EC Journal."
I do not want to delay the House, but in that flurry of correspondence I also received a letter from my hon. Friend the Minister for Roads and Traffic, responding on behalf of my hon. Friend the Minister for Public Transport. It is important to some of my constituents because it raises the question of awarding some of the costs of successful objectors. I shall quote it because it is important to put it on the record. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for signing the letter in time for me to receive it before the debate. It said :
"Thank you for your letter of 16 June to Michael Portillo. It is the Department's practice following a decision on an inquiry to award qualified successful objectors some or all of their costs depending on the degree of success. A qualified objector is one with an interest in the land affected such as owner lessee or occupier. Where a decision is made to abandon the proposals entirely objectors' costs are dealt with immediately. In cases where it is intended that fresh proposals will be taken forward, the assessment of costs is usually deferred until the final decision has been taken.
In the case of the Birmingham Northern Relief Road it was announced that a decision following the inquiry would be deferred until the private finance competition has taken place. Award of objectors' costs will be considered once the decision on the inquiry has been announced.
If as a result of the competition it is decided to implement proposals other than those taken to the inquiry, claims for costs will be invited from qualified objectors.
Objectors' costs cover all reasonable costs incurred in preparing and presenting the case at the inquiry--including such items as travelling expenses."
Many citizens' action groups, having a genuine concern for their environment and locality, cannot meet the criteria set out in that letter, despite the fact that they may have incurred considerable costs. Some individuals may even be dead by the time that the matter of costs is considered.
My intention is not to review the proposals for new road finance or to attack them. None of us finds it particularly difficult to accept the principle that, in the case of new roads such as the corridor between Birmingham and Manchester announced in the Green Paper, one must canvass all possible alternatives for their financing and construction. However, the northern relief road has already been 10 years in preparation, from its preparatory and initial stages through to the public inquiry. We shall have a difficult problem in political terms in convincing local residents-- particularly given that there has been no improvement to Aldridge- Brownhills' roads infrastructure for 25 years, despite its population increasing from 35,000
Column 1315to nearly 92,000--that they are now confronted by the possibility of a toll road that will toll part of a continuous M6, from the north-west to the south-east. There is also the issue of the 12 junctions, which I am sure my hon. Friend the Minister is considering carefully.
The sequence of announcements has given rise to the belief locally that a deal has been cobbled up with national construction companies such as Tarmac, which have convinced the Ministry that the quick kill method of introducing the concept to the public is to take over a project in which citizens have already invested £10 million and whose public inquiry they also financed. All of that is being thrown up in the air in a curious way. In a debate only the other week, my hon. Friend the Minister said, as I understood him, that the matter merits no significant debate. Therefore, we must countenance either new legislation or the use of the private Member's Bill or hybrid Bill procedure. It is difficult to understand how that does not imply delay, particularly when a Europeanwide competition is also involved.
I have tried to express some of the frustrations that are felt in connection with that matter. What function can we perform as Members of Parliament when a Secretary of State and a Minister of State do not think it is worth even consulting local Members of Parliament and of continuing a tradition established by their predecessors in seeking such advice? This Adjournment debate is indicative of the insensitivity of senior Ministers, who did not even feel that it was worth troubling local residents or their elected representatives in respect of a tremendously important decision.
The Minister for Roads and Traffic (Mr. Peter Bottomley) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) on securing the debate and on the basically fair way in which he conveyed his views and the concerns and interests of his constituents. My hon. Friend will not be surprised if I totally reject any words of his that might be taken as criticism either of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State or of my hon. Friend the Minister for Public Transport.
Single Member constituencies make it possible for people's interests to be forcefully presented. If there is one thing to be said about my hon. Friend, it is that he never puts forward his views in any other way. If he has a view worth expressing, he presents it in a manner that ensures that all hear it clearly. That is demonstrated by the response of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in the letter that my hon. Friend the Member for
Aldridge-Brownhills read out.
I am grateful also for my hon. Friend's kind remarks about the letter on successful objectors' costs. It is important to come to the House of Commons not with some goodies to distract attention, but to try to provide information so that hon. Members can make their speeches in the light of known information rather than do a magician's act.
I now refer to the general point about "New Roads by New Means"--the private funding, design, even private operating opportunities. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has rightly been congratulated on his mainly successful attempts so far to remove unnecessay obstacles to private sector involvement. My hon. Friend, with his west midlands constituency, will know that we
Column 1316would not have had canals if it had been up to the Treasury and the Department of Transport to provide them. Also, we would not have had railways, so many ports, or airports if it had been up to central Government. On many occasions, central Government are even more conservative than I am. In looking for private sector involvement, we have made great strides forward. The Channel tunnel is perhaps the biggest private sector scheme in the world at the moment. I would not spend too much time talking about the Dartford to Thurrock bridge, which is to provide extra capacity linking the M25 across the Thames.
When my right hon. Friend wanted to bring forward new opportunties for private sector involvement, he could have said, "We will not start even looking at any scheme if it has been in the roads programme." That would probably have meant that there would be no private sector involvement, in addition to the ones that we have in different forms at the moment, for about 13 years. I do not think that anyone would want that.
My hon. Friend's main criticism is that the Department was unable to consult him and our hon. Friends who represent the other parts of what we might call the new M6. If that has caused offence, I apologise. It was probably correct to try to treat the House of Commons as a whole in putting forward the proposal. My hon. Friend said also that the Department and its Ministers claim some credit for the modification of what my right hon. Friend called the purist view, instead of allowing private sector competitors to range far and wide and create a great deal of extra uncertainty. In a press notice and in a letter to my hon. Friend, my right hon. Friend said that the bidders will be expected to stick to pretty well the line, the route and the function of the new M6 as we put it to inquiry.
I emphasise the point that my hon. Friend read from the letter from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. We hope that there will not be much unnecessary extra delay. I hope that no one listening to the debate or reading reports of it afterwards will assume that road schemes run like clockwork anyway. The nearest analogy that I can think of is a dinghy race- -things can only go wrong, and there is no normal way of accelerating, although we will do the best we can on the M40. My hon. Friend the Minister of State is doing all he can to try to make sure that we learn the lessons. We will all learn lessons from my hon. Friend's speech and from his constituents' concern. As time moves on, many of the apprehensions that have rightly been expressed will turn out not to have foundation. Notification of the European competition is in the official journal. People will then qualify for the tendering process. That should not provide, as the cliche goes, an ongoing continuing delay situation. It should be a one- off--a notice that, if one wants to come in, that is fine. I refer those who are interested in this subject to the working party on private finance in the construction industry sector group of the National Economic Development Office and the paper entitled "Private Participation in Infrastructure Projects" by R. S. Dobson. It refers to some of the problems that the private sector faces and what kind of action plan would move things forward. It would be in the interests of the private sector who wish to bid and also in the interests of my hon. Friend's constituents to read it.
I place on record quietly but firmly that nothing that we are doing is at the behest or in the interests of a partlcular construction firm. People may have had their doubts, but
Column 1317they are not correct. On the two other occasions when people have had bright ideas in the construction industry, we have gone out to tender, and on each occasion the people who first had a good idea were not the ones who won the tender competition. There is no given right for people to say that the intellectual property or idea they may have had in the first place, which may or may not duplicate other things in this or in other countries, necessarily gives them the right to win a large contract or to get the advantage of a parliamentary procedure, which, as my hon. Friend said, could be under general legislation or a hybrid Bill. What matters is that we meet the interests of travellers while meeting the interests of local people during the period of uncertainty.
Column 1318The blight and the delay connected with various road schemes cause me concern. My hon. Friend and his parliamentary neighbours share that concern. Future plans will be introduced without unnecessary delay. When the history of the Birmingham northern relief road, or the new M6, is written, I think we shall find that the movement towards the provision of private finance is a plus rather than a minus and that, because of my hon. Friend's work, and that of others like him, there will be relatively little extra delay. His constituents will therefore be grateful for the representations that my hon. Friend has made on their behalf in the House and to the Departmentof Transport.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Three o'clock.
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