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11.52 am

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): The comments of the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Stringer) about the importance of transport to the vibrancy of the north-west economy reflect what many hon. Members have said in their contributions. The comments so far represent many of the frustrations that we all feel when we are serving the interests of our constituents and trying to put right transport issues, which are vital if we are to achieve our common goal of wanting to see the north-west prosper in the future.

I have heard the M6 mentioned during the debate. I know that work is being undertaken to look at some of the remaining key pinch points on that route. To improve access to the north-west, either by car or lorry, the M6 must be upgraded in parts of the north-west, but not, I hasten to add, near Carlisle. At times, the road appears to be impassable. Its importance cannot be underrated and we should not forget it.

Many hon. Members have commented on the integration of transport. That is an aspiration to which we would all adhere. The ease with which one can move from one mode of transport to another is important, particularly if we are to make public transport a real option for car users. Preston, part of which is in my constituency, illustrates precisely some of the difficulties we face. The rail network is to the west of the town and the bus depot is sited at the north-east of the town. The idea of smooth integration such as that witnessed in, for example, Hammersmith in London, where one can go straight from the bus into the tube system, will remain a dream for Preston. If we are to address the traffic problems in Preston and on the Fylde coast and persuade people to use the railways and buses, that type of integration is the physical solution to which we must aspire. Inevitably, there will be further debates reflecting on that point.

I hope that the Minister might be able to say something about the possibility of eventually extending the M65 all the way to Yorkshire. The developments that have taken place are of enormous benefit but, as other colleagues have observed, although natural routeways exist there are gaps in the system. We are all acutely aware of the pressures on the M62, particularly at peak times, in linking that important north-west corridor to the ports on the east coast.

I endorse what many hon. Members have said about Manchester airport. On public transport, there is still a major education job to be done if we are to alert people to the real benefits of the alternative. Equally, providers must be educated to concentrate on quality issues. In many cases it is difficult to persuade car drivers, including me, out of their cars and on to buses. They realise that the bus will not provide them with the same degree of comfort as they are used to enjoying in their cars. There are bus designs now that are meeting that problem, and public transport providers should reflect on that.

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I want to concentrate on a much more localised issue. I am delighted to see the hon. Members for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) and for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall) in their places because I suspect that they will also want to talk about moss roads. Before people immediately leap to the conclusion that those are some sort of ancient green-covered routeway in the north-west, I shall explain that moss roads are the vernacular expression for a vital series of routeways that pass through the constituencies of Lancaster and Wyre--particularly the Wyre area--West Lancashire and my constituency of Fylde.

Recently, councillor Richard Toon, who looks after transport in Lancashire, made some comments to the local press under the heading:

The fact that I am raising this issue and that other hon. Members may also choose to do so is an illustration of how long, under the previous Government and this Government, we have been making representations about the very special problems faced by this rural network of roads.

My research has shown that this type of road exists only in Norfolk, Lincolnshire and Lancashire. In correspondence to me recently, the Minister tried to suggest that the roads were similar to those being affected by subsidence in mining areas. I acknowledge that there may be a special case in those instances, but there are special factors over and above the normal wear and tear that affect the rural network of moss roads.

One of the problems is that they are built on a foundation of peat and sometimes a combination of peat and sand. That oxidises because of the weather and time and, eventually, the roads are left sitting feet out of the ground while the land around them subsides. The substructure of the road is then incapable of supporting the carriageway. The next stage is the creation of what I would describe as a funicular railway effect. The roads go up and down and break up and the routeway is in danger of being destroyed. Long periods of dry weather can have a bad effect on the routeways, which are obviously beyond the control of man given the current technology.

In May last year the county council estimated that the cost of putting the roads right was about £32.6 million. The annual safety and maintenance figures alone amount to £400,000. That figure was further revised when the county's environment director noted that a sum total of £5.3 million had been spent on those routeways in the past seven years, but that they simply were not able to keep up with the problems. The new estimate for reconstructing that vital rural network of roads is now £43.5 million. Councillor Toon made what I thought was a telling comment when he said that

That lies at the heart of this problem.

In total, we are looking at 47.5 km of this vital rural routeway in Lancashire, of which 22 km are in a severely distressed condition. In correspondence with me, the Minister attempted to argue that Lancashire should, like everywhere else, like it or lump it and use the money allocated to it under the standard spending assessment to look after the routeways. I am sure that the Minister understands that it is well beyond the county council's ability to look after the roads within the headroom given

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by the SSA. The construction of the general formula does not allow flexibility in recognition of such specialised local conditions. The Minister mentioned mining subsidence. That is also a special condition. Sometimes our nationally agreed formulae are too inflexible to recognise local problems. I am confident that the Government will be sympathetic to my arguments, particularly in the light of their stated intention to produce a new rural White Paper, one of the key themes of which will no doubt be the maintenance of good transport links in rural areas.

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre--I call him my hon. Friend in this context because we work closely together on rural matters--will want to say something about the problems in his constituency if he is called, because I recognise that they are even greater than those in my constituency. The county's environment directorate has made it clear that the moss roads in Wyre, West Lancashire and Fylde are of the highest priority.

I should like to put on record my appreciation for the diligent way in which Mr. Graham Harding has represented the interests of moss roads to hon Members. In a letter to me on 22 May last year, he said:

He goes on to point out that research is being undertaken on other similar road problems. He says:

    "It is my understanding that the Highways Agency is looking for sites for recycling trials using secondary aggregates and it is a pity that, whilst an ideal site in the moss roads is also available the different sources of funding mean that it is not able to be pursued."

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre): I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his positive comments. Does he agree that, while reconstruction of the moss roads is fundamental to the rural economy and the life of the rural community, the most important issue is road safety? He will be aware of an incident that happened two weeks ago yesterday in which some of his constituents may have been involved. A double-decker bus carrying 30 schoolchildren tipped over on one of the moss roads. Fortunately, it was saved by a telegraph pole, preventing serious injury to any of the children. Does he regard that as a warning to us all about the grievous consequences of not investing properly in the work?

Mr. Jack: I am grateful for that telling point. The mention of a busload of children shows the vital contribution that the network of rural roads plays in linking sometimes far-flung villages and those involved in farming and horticulture. If the Minister visits the north-west, it would be to her advantage if her officials could carve out a few moments for her to travel along such roads. Once she has seen them, understood their importance as transport links for rural Lancashire and witnessed how dangerous they are when they start to deteriorate, the point will be made.

The moss roads are a special case. This is special pleading. However, as the Minister has seen, there is agreement across the House that something must be done,

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even if in the first instance it is research by the Department into techniques to stabilise the roads and stop their deterioration. That would at least be a positive start to a programme to address that small but vital problem for many important parts of rural Lancashire.

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