HC Deb 25 July 1973 vol 860 cc1679-87

An eighteen hour survey of traffic noise from the M6 motorway was carried out on Friday the 18th May, 1973 between the hours of 6.00 a.m. and 12.00 midnight, at a position adjoining No. 92 Hough Road. The method used was that noise levels were taken continuously for five minutes every hour, at about two second intervals. The results were tabulated and final results calculated. A traffic census was carried out at the same time. The Department of the Environment recommend that two values of noise level should be calculated viz.:

  1. (1) The L10 level. This represents the noise level which is exceeded for 10 per cent. of the time.
  2. (2) The L90 which represents the noise level which is exceeded for 90 per cent. of the time.
The L10 and L90 values of each set of hourly readings is calculated for the 18 hour period, and the averages of the 18 results are accepted as the L10 and L90 levels respectively for the day. The results obtained from the survey carried out as above are:—
  1. (1) L10=69dBA.
  2. (2) L90=64dBA.
At the moment the Department of the Environment regard an L10 of 70dBA for road traffic noise as acceptable, and their proposals for compensation are based on this figure. In anticipating this debate in a way, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary said last night: I hope I am now restored to the celestial station that my hon. Friend assigned to me earlier, because I have said on many occasions that, although there was the discretionary power extending back to October 1969—this will be maintained for local authorities—the Government, namely, the Department of the Environment as a highway authority regard this as mandatory for its schemes. I am sorry that there were people, including constituents of my hon. Friend, who were misled and obviously worried by inaccurate Press reports. If the Press had bothered to check with me, they would have obtained an answer very quickly at that time".—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 24th July 1973; Vol. 860, c. 1526–7.]

It is interesting that my hon. Friend speaks in those terms. I was about to quote him speaking slightly earlier.

The houses in Hough Road were built by the Walsall authority in 1952 at a time when they looked over the green pleasance of Pleck Park. They were so attractive that many were bought by their occupiers. Little did they know what was in store for them. Even when the M6 stretch was opened in 1968, traffic was infinitely smaller than it is today, when the links have been completed connecting the M5, M6 and MI—the so-called Spaghetti Junction complex.

This was quite an issue at the last General Election, when many of my constituents raised it in no uncertain terms. I was, therefore, much pleased to receive a letter from my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Development dated 23rd November 1972, which it seems best to quote in full: Thank you for your letter of 12th October to Keith Speed about the noise from the M6 motorway experienced by your constituent, Mr. E. J. White.

Mr. White lives in Hough Road. You are no doubt aware that, since you wrote, our proposals to alleviate the adverse effects of new and improved roads on the environment have been published in the White Paper "Development and Compensation—Putting People First" (Cmd. 5124), and that a Land Compensation Bill to implement these proposals was presented to the House of Commons on 9th November. 1 am sorry that until the Bill is enacted I cannot say with any certainty whether any of the proposed measures will be of assistance to Mr. White. Experiments are still being conducted with screening, but I am afraid it is too early to say how effective they are likely to be. There are two other significant features in the Bill which might apply to people in Mr. White's situation. Payments will be made to offset any substantial reductions in the value of residential and certain other properties which have been caused by noise and other nuisance from new or improved roads opened on or after 17th October 1969—this would include the section of the M6 near Mr. White's home. There will also be regulations made under powers in the new Bill enabling highway authorities to sound insulate certain properties affected by noise levels rising above prescribed limits. It cannot be assumed that Mr. White will necessarily be eligible to take advantage of this scheme, but details will be publicised when the regulations are made.

My right hon. Friend said It cannot be assumed that Mr. White will necessarily be eligible.

He may as well have said "It can be said that Mr. White would not be eligible. "That would have been a more accurate description of the state of affairs when that letter was written.

It now appears that this letter was written under a misconception as to the date of the opening of the section of the M6 in question, but, if so, it was a misconception shared by no less than my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, though he is reported as having said, as recently as the by-election at West Bromwich in May, that people in Great Barr, which is an adjoining section of my constituency, would be compensated because of the noise effects of the M6. I accept that misunderstandings of this sort are inevitable in a Department as large as the Department of the Environment, but this does not lessen the plight of my constituents.

In the same speech the Minister is reported as saying: In future sound insulation may be installed at an early stage to protect people as far as possible from the effects of road construction noise.

If road construction noise, why not road traffic noise?

Last night my hon. Friend the Minister expressed great concern for people living in the areas where motorways were opened after October 1969, who will be suffering the same, and in some cases possibly less, noise disturbance than my constituents in Hough Road. I appreciate that to go back further than October 1969 would involve the Government in vast expenditure and that a line must he drawn somewhere, but I must point out that when the part of a motorway along Hough Road was built almost no effort was made to alleviate the noise factor, added to which there are gasometers opposite from which the traffic noise bounces back on to the houses of the Hough Road estate. With the final linking of the roads which go to form Spaghetti Junction, the amount of traffic has increased out of all proportion to what it was in 1968.

Yet on the part of the motorway completed after the Hough Road section, where my hon. Friend is able to give genuine assurances of further help, experimental sound barriers have already been erected. Why not on the Hough Road, my constituents ask with justifiable indignation? Why not indeed?

I hope that the Minister in his reply will not put off my constituents with sympathetic platitudes and no further action. I remind him of the White Paper he published nearly two years ago, Cmnd. 5124, entitled "Development and Compensation—Putting People First". Here is an opportunity for him to do just that.

3.11 p.m.

Mr. William Wells (Walsall, North)

The hon. Baronet the Member for Walsall, South (Sir H. d'Avigdor Goldsmid) has very properly raised a matter affecting some of his constituents. It is evident from what he said, and it is known to me apart from what he said, that this is a problem not confined to those who live in South Walsall. As the hon. Baronet said, it applies to residents in Great Barr and to some residents in North Walsall.

I can only reiterate the hope expressed by the hon. Baronet that the Department will, in the words of its own White Paper, take such steps as to show that the expression "Putting People First" was something more than a pious hope and that it can be translated now or very soon into some effectual remedial action.

3.12 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Keith Speed)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Sir H. d'Avigdor-Goldsmid) and the hon. and learned Member for Walsall, North (Mr. William Wells) for raising this important topic. It is perhaps very timely, because I understand that the noise regulations which follow from the Land Compensation Act which we debated in the House last night have now been approved in another place and will be taking effect from 1st September.

Following last night's debate I should perhaps say a few things, to put the situation into context. My hon. Friend mentioned the letter from the Walsall council saying that the noise level we were operating, on the L/10 index, was 70 decibels on the A scale. This is rather technical, but we must try to get it right.

The regulations Parliament has now approved provide for the qualifying noise level for sound insulation to be at 68 decibels. This is 68 decibels measured in the design year of the road, which is normally many years ahead of the construction date. The figure can be 3 decibels down, so that instead of being at 68 when the road comes into use we can be dealing with 65 decibels.

That was the situation which the House approved. That means that where there is residential property affected by new trunk roads from the date of opening-17th October 1969—the Government accept that, although there is an element of discretionary retrospection back to 1969 and where the Department is the highway authority, we regard this as mandatory upon us. We shall use the powers under the regulations to install double glazing or a sound-proof barrier, or even on occasions a combination of both, in any properties affected by roads coming into use from 17th October 1969.

Unfortunately, a line has to be drawn. I do not wish to enter a discordant note, but the remarks of the hon. and learned Member for Walsall, North were a little unfair. As I said last night, this legislation, the Land Compensation Act, and the regulations which flow from it are in advance of anything that has taken place anywhere in the world relating to environmental damage from highways.

Clearly at some stage in the proceedings there has to be a cut-off point, because these are expensive measures. The element of retrospection alone for trunk roads going back to 1969 will cost about £10 million, and the annual average cost each year to the Department for double glazing and sound barriers will be about £5 million, which will extend into the future. It would have been agreeable if we could have gone right back and had complete retrospection but, as I said last night, that would have cost well over £1,000 million. I am sure my hon. Friend will recognise that in the present public expenditure situation that is a very large sum of money indeed.

Perhaps I should make particular mention of the point which was raised by my hon. Friend concerning his constituents. Unfortunately, the letter which my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Gov- ernment and Development wrote to my hon. Friend last year contained a mistake in as much as it related to the opening of the road. My hon. Friend knows this section of the road quite well, as I do. The problem was that the road opened in different phases, and the key changeover point is junction 9, the Bescot interchange.

The actual date of opening of the road ought to be put on record because I do not think it was incorrect when I made my remarks in May. The first section of the road in this area which was opened was Shareshill—junction 11—to Walsall, Bently and Darleston—junction 10—and that was in September 1966. In December 1968, junction 10 to the Bescot interchange—junction 9—was opened. This particularly concerns the area of my hon. Friend and his constituents. Therefore. that date was clearly some 10 months earlier than the October 1969 retrospective date. Junction 9, which is the Bescot interchange, down to Great Barr—the M6/M5 interchange—opened in May 1970. It is that section to which I was referring, and it will be covered by the regulations which Parliament has now approved since that particular section of the road opened seven months after this retrospective date in October 1969.

My hon. Friend knows that my right hon. Friend has apologised to him for the mistake which was made. We have admitted that this was a mistake. It is unfortunate that his constituents in Hough Road are just the wrong side of the interchange and did not and do not qualify under the regulations. I should like to say one or two things which I hope will reassure him. I do not intend merely to make sympathetic noises.

We have accepted the retrospective provision to October 1969 so far as the regulations and the double glazing are concerned, and this will be a big, sustained and expensive effort. I am sure that the first priority should be to concentrate on these matters where the noise levels are the highest. My hon. Friend mentioned the 69 decibel noise level, which is bad. He knows that there are other sections along the M6, possibly in his constituency and certainly in the constituency of Perry Barr, where noise levels are considerably in excess of that, where these houses and flats will qualify for double glazing. We are giving priority to the West Midlands where there is a particularly high noise level. At the same time, a plan is being drawn of noise contour levels at this point, and when the regulations come into effect on 1st September we can move into action as quickly as possible to carry out double glazing and other installations.

There are other parts—Manchester and London in particular—where again there are very high levels of noise to which we have to give first priority. But sound-proof barriers are not subject to the same restraints necessarily as double glazing. We cannot go any further back than 17th October 1969 on double glazing, although I admit that double glazing is the most effective way of dealing with the problem. But with barriers the situation is a little easier.

My hon. Friend suggested an experimental barrier in this area rather on the same lines as that at Perry Barr. But the experiments at Perry Barr are not yet complete, and we have not got the complete answer there yet. Therefore, purely on an experimental basis I would not be justified in embarking on another barrier in the area before the experiment to find out what the noise attenuation is has been completed. However, the indications are that the noise barrier at Perry Barr is giving an attenuation of between 8 and 12 decibels. This is a substantial reduction when one remembers that a reduction of 10 decibels is equivalent to halving the noise.

There are, of course, problems with motorway barriers—maintenance, aesthetic attraction, or otherwise. Some people may well not like to see a barrier which, with the best will in the world, still looks like a barrier on top of a motorway. There may be advantages compared with double glazing, which reduces noise very substantially inside the house but does nothing for the garden or for the street or for the general exterior. This can be an important factor, particularly where children and elderly people are involved who wish to play or sit in the garden, or for others who have business outside the house. Nevertheless, it appears from the Perry Barr experiment that barriers, particularly on elevated sections of motorways, will play an important part not only in the regulations but in the powers we shall have to install them elsewhere.

I cannot give an open-ended undertaking that all areas affected by noise from motorways and trunk roads will, whenever those motorways and trunk roads were built, be protected by noise barriers. First, there are some situations where a barrier would not be particularly effective, and it would be wrong to waste public money in putting them up in such circumstances. Secondly, there are now many trunk roads and motorways, and one has to bear in mind the cost and, particularly, the present public expenditure restraints. Thirdly, there are certain areas where local people, for some reason or other, would not wish to have a noise barrier, particularly from the aesthetic point of view, and although they may not qualify under the regulations for statutory double glazing they may wish to make their own arrangements.

The first priority must go to those properties affected by the regulations, properties which are alongside trunk roads and motorways opened since October 1969. But we certainly intend to look carefully and sympathetically into cases where remedial work through the provision of a noise barrier would protect a number of people from noise.

The area about which my hon. Friend is concerned in particular is an elevated section of motorway. But there is an added complication in that on the west side of the motorway there is a gas installation and a form of concrete barrier has been set up for safety purposes so that vehicles do not plough into the gas plant if they crash off the motorway. This, of course, may well have made matters worse for my hon. Friend's constituents. My advice is that they may well be getting a reflection of noise from this concrete barrier going on to their houses, which makes matters even worse than they would otherwise be.

So, subject to the caveats I have had to declare—and they are genuine—I can give my hon. Friend my personal assurance that I shall be looking very sympathetically into the possibility of erecting barriers on this section of the M6, and in this respect I am not necessarily covered by the regulations, so we need not worry about that. There may be difficulties, and I cannot give the highest priority to his constituents that my hon. Friend would like, but I am doing more than make sympathetic noises. We shall look closely into this and, as soon as I have technical and other information, I will write to my hon. Friend telling him the proposals we have in mind and the time scale within which we hope to implement them.