The Charnwood line

When first conceived, few sections of the proposed route of the M1 were more controversial, or caused more public outcry, than that which ran north from Leicester.  The result was a significant delay in the building of this stretch of road. The story of the construction of the M1 in Leicestershire can be traced through the pages of the local (see Local Protest) and national press, and through Hansard, the verbatim record of proceedings in the House of Commons, where the issue was raised and fiercely debated on several occasions in the late 1950s.  If one wants to get a sense of the level of antagonism and fury that existed at the end of 1957, then this report from the Midlands Correspondent on the Manchester Guardian is a good place to start.

‘MOTORWAY SEEN AS THREAT TO CHARNWOOD: BATTLE BEING WAGED OVER PROPOSED ROUTE.

The Manchester Guardian, 16 Dec. 1957.

If it is size that matters, Charnwood’s 30 square miles do not make much of a forest, but the battle about the way through the woods is not being fought with the mightiest clash of arms.  Leicestershire County Council, against the strong advice of its planning and highways committees, recently recommended to the Ministry of Transport that the new London-Leeds motorway should pass through the forest.  The road would by 120ft wide and would stretch for eight miles, cutting through the heart of Charnwood.

Immediately the storm broke.  The Ramblers’ Association spoke against the plan and petitions, some of them carried by patrols who ranged the forest, began to pile up, urging that Charnwood should be preserved “in its natural state for posterity.”  If the columns of newspapers’ protests that had been written in the last three weeks were laid end to end, they would probably stretch from Shepshed at the north of Charnwood to Newton Linford in the south.

Regarded as defender

A certain amount of reproach is mixed in all these outpourings.  For years, the county council has been regarded as the defender of Charnwood.  Now, in a matter which seems to have cult across all political loyalties, no kind of criticism seems too severe—the continual mutterings about “vandalism” and “desecration”—and almost every conceivable argument of possible woe has been summoned against the plan.  Groby Parish Council sees its village cut in half and the sanctuary of the water birds in its famous pool disturbed; the Vicar of Oaks-in-Charnwood fears the contamination of the woodland wells and claims that the volcanic nature of the forest renders it unsuitable for a major highway; and the chairman of the County Planning Committee, Mr V.R. Pochin, regards the motorway as potentially “a tremendous eyesore that will absolutely spoil the forest.”  It is certainly true that in such a small area it will be difficult indeed to escape from the sight, smell and noise of a broad road carrying fast traffic.

Main argument

The last is the great argument that gives the opposition its real and seemingly formidable strength.  Charnwood may be only a small woodland but there is nothing quite like it for miles around.  It is Leicestershire’s own forest—the playground and the lungs of the city and the minefields.  An afternoon in the country for people hereabouts very often means a trip to Charnwood.  It is pointed out sadly that the county council has always recognised this in the past and it was in fact described in one of its booklets five years ago as “a valuable part of the national heritage of which the residents of Leicestershire are the fortunate guardians.”

Several routes have been surveyed and are being considered by the Minister.  The best alternative seems, however, to be a roadway through the Soar valley and this was, in fact, suggested by the county planning committee.  This second route has, however, been opposed by local farmers on the ground that it would take up valuable farming land.  Councillor the Duke of Rutland remarked in the debate that it would “cut up a number of good farms.”  There has been an exchange of rival statistics.  If the forest route is 1 ½ miles shorter, its opponents point out that the engineering costs of dealing with rocks and hills would be £1 ½ millions more.

Whether the Minister decides for Soar or for Charnwood, he seems likely to be unpopular.’

Two years later, the issue was still being debated in Parliament.  Accusations and counter-arguments reveal how challenges to the various lines of the proposed M1 route had held up the progress of the motorway’s construction.

LONDON-YORKSHIRE MOTORWAY: HOUSE OF COMMONS DEBATE

Hansard volume 603 cc 773-782 (13 April 1959)

Mr Barnett Janner (Labour: Leicester North-West):

‘I hope that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation, who is to reply to the debate, was present in the House when the Chancellor made his speech, because what I shall say to him falls within the Chancellor’s devout appeal, in which he said that we live by our exports and that their development should be one of our principal aims. I do not know whether the Parliamentary Secretary, who is to give us the Government’s view on the subject which I shall raise, has taken sufficient note of that appeal, part of which I shall repeat.

The subject which I am raising affects many people in Leicester. It occupies the minds of very many men and women in Leicestershire, and I am sure that the House appreciates that in speaking for my constituents I desire to say that it occupies their minds very much indeed. Leicester is an industrious and important industrial city. It produces hosiery, knitwear, clothing and shoes and boots and light engineering power. It produces pharmaceutical products and countless other things. These are well known and highly valued not only in Britain, but also in other parts of the world. I have come across Leicester products in many different countries and particularly in the United States. It is essential that these goods should be transported from Leicester to other parts of the country, and, in particular, to places from which they can be exported, as cheaply and speedily as possible. It is also vital that effective means of travel to Leicester and Leicestershire shall be readily available, whether for business purposes or for pleasure.

For many years I have advocated in the House the development of motorways, as have many hon. Members on both sides of the House. It was a very long time before steps were taken with a view to providing motorways, but I think that today it is generally recognised that these are to be an essential part of the roadway system which is to be used for the purposes of assisting our industries. The London-Yorkshire motorway is of vital importance to the interest of the country, as the Minister has acknowledged, and it should be completed as quickly as possible.

When the portion of the motorway through Leicestershire was being considered a large number of the inhabitants felt that the proposal originally made by the Leicestershire County Council would seriously affect the beauty of Charnwood Forest, which is well known to many hon. Members and throughout the country. Active steps were taken to prevent this proposal from being put into effect. I am sorry that the Minister of Transport is not here tonight, because on numerous occasions we have put Questions to him about this and other matters affecting this road.

The Minister will realise that it was unavoidable, in the circumstances, that objection should be raised to the route then proposed. As an assurance was not given by the Minister that he would not accept that proposal for the road, the residents of Leicester and Leicestershire naturally took effective measures to bring their protest home to him. They were disturbed that a unique amenity area and a stretch of country unrivalled in scenic and geological value in the Midlands would be so adversely affected by the scheme then contemplated.

As the Parliamentary Secretary is aware, the local Press, particularly the Leicester Evening Mail, took up the matter. The latter sponsored a petition, which was signed by over 32,000 inhabitants and was handed to the Minister. It is important to note that the Minister, when approached, said, “I have no ambitions about Charnwood Forest. It is up to the local authorities. I have set my ambitions elsewhere”. Later, he admitted that the petition represented a very considerable body of public opinion in Leicestershire and was reported in the Leicester Evening Mail as having said: Really, you should make your protest to the County Council. it is for the local authorities to agree on a route and if they cannot I may have to withdraw this section of the motorway from my current programme. The latter part of that statement was very strongly resented by the inhabitants of the district, as they have never opposed the idea of a motorway crossing Leicestershire. What they were concerned about was the route that had been contemplated. Everyone appreciated then, and appreciates now, that the motorway would probably pass across some part of Charnwood Forest. The major concern, however, was the vast area of the forest which would have been affected by the original proposal.

When the Minister received the petition—I do not know whether the Parliamentary Secretary knows this, but his right hon. Friend will certainly recollect it—he told Leicestershire to hurry up and produce an agreed line. The new proposal was prepared and submitted to the Minister as far back as last September. That is over six months ago. Meanwhile, the Minister threatened to leave the Leicestershire section and get on with the Yorkshire end because, as he said, there were great difficulties in resolving the line.

I do not know what those difficulties are. The people in Leicester do not know what those difficulties are. The people in Leicestershire do not know what those difficulties are. The Minister has kept them a secret. He has never told us. The local people want to know. After all, Leicestershire, which is one of the nation’s primary centres of consumer goods, does not understand what the difficulties are. The County Council has prepared the route in accordance with the Minister’s request and has supplied, I understand, the fullest information to the Minister.

In reply to a Question from me some time ago, the Minister said: “…I cannot proceed without a thorough re-examination of the whole problem.”—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd February, 1959; Vol. 600, c. 120.] There has been ample time to re-examine the problem. Indeed, when the Minister was questioned by a correspondent of the newspaper to which I have referred. On 2nd March last, he said: “No one wants to build it more than I do. We have the funds. It is part of the programme. I want to get on as quickly as possible.” I should like to emphasise all those words, and I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will take note of them.

There seems to be no obstacle in the way at present. Does the Minister intend to leave the matter to stand over any longer? If so, my constituents want to know why, as do all the interested people  in that district. I hope that the real position is not that the Minister was peeved by the fact that when the first proposal was accepted by him it was not accepted by the residents. When I put that to him in the form of a supplementary Question, he seemed to take umbrage, although I cannot understand why.

What is the matter with him? He has the money. At no time has anybody suggested that the scheme now put forward by the Leicestershire County Council is too dear, and cannot be paid for. It is true that a few people may have objected, but with a job like this a few people who are affected by the route itself are bound to raise their voices in objection. As far as I have seen, no protest has appeared in either the Leicester Mercury or the Leicester Mail. I have not received any letters of protest, although everybody there knows that, with other hon. Members, I have taken a very close interest in trying to get this road. I am pleased to say that my constituents are by no means backward in giving me notice of their complaints for attention, but none has been sent to me on this matter.

I just cannot understand the Minister’s attitude. I am told that there are similar instances in other parts of the country, although I am not as conversant with those as I am with this section. I hope that my appeal for speedy commencement of the work will be heeded. The holding up of this road means a loss to manufacturers there. The Minister should remember that the lack of the road impedes industrial advancement.

A further point is that we want tourists from various countries to come to Leicestershire. We not only want the foreign currency; we want them—and, in particular, we want the English-speaking peoples—to see our countryside. The holding up of an amenity such as this really damages our national interests as well as causing a considerable amount of complaint from the people affected. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to let us know that his Department is getting on with the matter.’

Miss Mervyn Pike (Conservative: Melton):

‘I have probably a greater interest in this road than has any other hon. Member, not only because it will run through my constituency but also because I travel by road at least twice a week. Today, I have done the return journey from Leicester to Leeds by car, and then I got the train to the House. When the House sits, I do the journey twice a day, and much more frequently when the House is in recess. I can, therefore, speak feelingly of the need for the motorway, and from that point of view I endorse everything that the hon. Member for Leicester, North-West has said.

I, too, had the honour to present to the Minister a petition signed by those people who do not wish the road to go through he Charnwood Forest. I must also represent the views of farmers in my constituency, who are anxious about the road going through agricultural land. I must point out to the hon. Member that although he may not have had any complaints, and may not have seen any complaint in the Leicestershire Press, among those who have signed the petition are many who are anxious because the road is to go through their own farm land. They are in the difficult dilemma of not wishing the amenities of Leicestershire to be spoiled, and yet not anxious to have their own economic agricultural interests put into jeopardy.

In Leicestershire, many of us, knowing the difficulties, are grateful to the Minister for the care that we believe he is taking of trying to weigh all the relevant considerations in relation to this road. There is the consideration of the aesthetic beauty of Charnwood Forest, which we all want to preserve—and more particularly those of us who live in the countryside and who are used to its beauty.

We have some of the best farming land in the whole country, and we do not wish this road to be driven through our farms. Our land is a workshop, and to have a road driven through the middle of one’s workshop is a very difficult thing from the point of view of the economic running of a farm. Again, we do not want the road running through beautiful urban and suburban areas of Leicester where people live.

We have reason to believe that the Minister will take into consideration the engineering and economic considerations of this project, and I wish to say that, while appreciating the urgency of this particular problem, we have confidence in the fact that the Minister will get the right balance between all these considerations.

Nobody wants to see a good motor road to Yorkshire more than I do. I would say, in parenthesis, that the most heartening bit of news is the fact that the Doncaster by-pass is being used. That is possibly one of the most important things as far as the road from Yorkshire to Leicester is concerned. The Minister should press ahead with all the urgency he can, but, at the same time, he should remember the different views and interests of all the people in the county of Leicester. We have confidence that the Minister is weighing all those views, and we ask him not to hurry this road forward at the expense of people whose livelihood may be jeopardised.’

Mr. Janner:

‘Is it not a fact that the Leicestershire County Council has weighed up all these facts and given this route as the least troublesome one? Obviously, there must be some trouble.

Mr G.R.H. Nugent (Conservative: Guildford: The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation):

‘I think the hon. Member for Leicester, North-West  in his known enthusiasm for the building of this road has to some extent misunderstood the facts of the case. The northern section of the London—Yorkshire motorway has never had a firm place in my right hon. Friend’s five main projects, although it has been much talked about.

The first mention of a London—Yorkshire motorway occurred in the days when the hon. Member was sitting on this side of the House, and the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation was Mr. Barnes, but that project never got off the books. The way it went was that in 1956 a line of the northern section was proposed running through the Soar Valley, which the hon. Member has not mentioned tonight.

Opposition to that developed from the farming world, and was expressed in the first place by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who was then the Minister of Agriculture. The National Farmers’ Union and other farming interests also expressed their strong opposition. The result was that by early 1957 my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport decided that the opposition to that particular line was so strong that another line would have to be investigated.

It was realised that that would cause delay to its development, and it was then that my right hon. Friend announced his five main projects. He included in them the modernisation of the Great North Road, because he foresaw that it would be a difficult job to get agreement about this line north of Leicester. Modernisation of the Great North Road to some extent helped the North and some parts of Yorkshire. Therefore, he accelerated the modernisation of that road, realising that this one would be delayed. On referring to the records, I notice that in the Supply debate of July, 1957, when an hon. Member on the benches opposite asked me about it, I confirmed that this northern section was not one of the five main projects.

It is true that to some extent the difficulties in settling the line have caused this section of the London-Yorkshire motorway to lose its place. The hon. Member’s suggestions that my right hon. Friend was peeved about this are laughable. My right hon. Friend is concerned with building roads and he is getting more roads built than anyone has built before. The fact is that we have an enormous backlog of roads to build. From the time when his own party was in office, the hon. Member will realise the difficulties of meeting the road needs of the country and equating them with all our other needs. The result was that the hon. Member and his right hon. and hon. Friends did not do a very great deal. If one project falls out, there are always many more waiting to come in. As I have said, my right hon. Friend in particular accelerated the modernisation of the Great North Road.

The history of the case will help the hon. Member to see in detail what has happened. I have mentioned that in 1956 opposition to the original Soar Valley line developed. It was then that my right hon. Friend appointed consultants to examine the possibility of another line. Those consultants advised us of the line, to which the hon. Member referred, known as the Charnwood Forest line. When that was publicised, opposition to it developed, as the hon. Member has rightly said, and culminated in the petition which was brought by my hon. Friend the Member for Melton. That deputation told us what we had already heard of, the great concern about the amenities of Charnwood Forest which are much valued by the people of Leicester.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Melton has said, my right hon. Friend paid close attention to those objections expressed by the local people. The result was that he decided that the line through Charnwood Forest was, perhaps, not the best line to proceed with and that we had better consider a third line which would not meet the same amenity or farming objections. Once again, therefore, we went back to the Leicester County Council, which throughout has been most co-operative and helpful, the county surveyor in particular. We asked Leicester County Council to suggest a third line and the council submitted a third line to us in September last year. We then appointed our consultant, Sir Owen Williams, with the county surveyor to work out the cost of all three lines and to submit a report to us. This they did in February this year. Since then, our engineers have been examining that report and have now reported to us. It now appears to us that, unhappily, even the third line is not without objections.

The first objection is that it costs £½ million more than the Charnwood Forest line and £1 million more than the Soar Valley line. On cost, therefore, the proposition is not attractive to us. Secondly, the elevation of the third line and the gradients involved are both unattractive to traffic, especially heavy traffic. Thirdly, the line of the road is too far to the west fully to serve the traffic needs for which we are catering. Those difficulties were present in the Charnwood Forest line, but not to the same extent.

In all these circumstances, now that we have considered the three lines, each of which has objections of one kind or another, my right hon. Friend has decided that the best thing to do is to consider the whole matter afresh. There are weighty pros and cons for each of the lines. The logical course seems to us to be to consider again the original Soar Valley line, which is at least the best on grounds of cost, traffic and engineering, although it has the weighty objections of agricultural interests. To this end we have now reopened discussions with the Minister of Agriculture.

It may be that the practical experience of the effect of a motorway on farming interests which can now be seen where the London-Birmingham motorway runs, and the methods by which we have been able to deal with severance by means of tunnels under the road or bridges over may ease the objections of the farming interests concerned. At any rate, I hope so. Certainly our hope is that we shall be able to reconcile the objections in due course as far as possible so that we can publish our proposal for a line by means of a draft Order. That is my right hon. Friend’s intention, just as soon as he can.

I stress to the hon. Member that, however keen we are to build these roads, it is only right and proper, and I am sure that the House would expect it of us, that we should pay full attention and consideration to the feelings of the local people whether they are for amenity, farming or anything else. If the objections to a draft scheme when it is published are serious my right hon. Friend can order a public inquiry to test the strength of public opinion. In the light of that the line can be confirmed or modified, or it can be rejected and we can start again. After that, of course, we have to go through the similar procedure for side road Orders.

Let me say this to encourage the hon. Member, that the remainder of the line from Northamptonshire to the Doncaster by-pass has been cleared with the various interests and the county councils and is now protected in the county development plans. That, at least, is settled.

This serves to show to the House first that the hon. Member’s anxieties are not well founded. Far from being peeved we have been continuously trying to clear up these local difficulties, which are obviously going to be difficult to reconcile. Secondly, it illustrates the lengthy and complicated procedures involved in the matter of building a major new road. However, I can assure the House that we shall lose no time in settling this difficulty and of completing the other preparations for the road.

It is not our practice to forecast dates for road schemes in the years ahead, and I shall not do it for this, but I can say that we shall complete this preparatory work just as fast as we can so that we can fit it into our programme as soon as we can see room for it.

In the meantime we are pushing ahead with the improvements to the Great North Road, which are proving already to be a considerable help to a great deal of the northern traffic. Already we have authorised some £22 million worth of work on that road. A good deal of it has been dual carriageways, of which 114 miles have been authorised and half-finished or started. The remaining £23 million worth of the work is to be authorised in the next year or two, which will dual a further 108 miles of that road. That will give a great deal of help to the northern traffic, although I accept that it will not be any immediate help to Leicester and Derby.

However, I am sure that the hon. Member, in his anxiety to see motorways built and our existing roads modernised will be pleased to see these great new roads being built. He does see the gratification of his wish to see a really first-class road programme in this country. I am sure he realises that it is only in the hands of this Government that he has any prospect of seeing it. I am sure he feels a sense of gratitude that we have been able to translate into reality the wishes which he so often and so warmly expresses here.

Let me assure him that, far from my right hon. Friend having an adverse reaction to these local representations, he listens to them with sympathy, as he always does, and will press ahead with a great road programme which will at last meet the road needs of this country.’

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