HC Deb 08 December 1988 vol 143 cc546-54

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Maclean.]

11 pm

Mr. Anthony Nelson (Chichester)

I welcome this opportunity to raise a serious environmental problem in my constituency—the noise emanating from the new A27 trunk road from Chichester to Havant. The quality of noise as much as its excessive level is quite intolerable for my many constituents living near this stretch of road. It is on their behalf that I speak today.

Every new road brings its reliefs and its problems. This new section of the A27 trunk road was sorely needed and long awaited. The deaths, injuries and traffic congestion along the old route were the source of outcry for many years. Many residents, especially the very young and elderly, in communities along the route were frightened to cross the road. Drivers went in fear of their lives and in certainty of traffic congestion.

When, after long delay and seemingly interminable public inquiries, the new road went ahead, there was great relief in those communities and along the south coast. I know that that view is shared by many hon. Members representing constituencies adjoining my own. Only this evening, I was talking to my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Sir I. Lloyd) whom I see in his place, and my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel (Mr. Marshall), both of whom have taken a close interest in this matter because of the relevance to their own constituents.

My hon. Friend the Minister came down to open the new section of road on 19 August this year and we thank him for doing so. He will remember the very warm reception that he received on that occasion. However, few appreciated at that time, least of all myself, driving up the new road for the first time in a rather elderly car with him, just how noisy the new road would be when modern traffic in the volume and speed that it adopts used it to full effect, but, unfortunately, our worst fears have been exceeded.

I have with me some 200 or more letters from my constituents, complaining in strong terms about the noise and calling for resurfacing or remedial measures to be taken. This is the catalogue of human distress. This is the file of distress that my constituents have suffered and about which they have written to me in such graphic terms over the past couple of months. Many of them are reasonable people, not given to extremism or complaining lightly, but they feel that the noise, while expected to some extent, has proved to be excessive and quite unbearable. Many of them describe the roar to which they are constantly subjected as similar to that from an aircraft runway, especially when heavy goods vehicles pass by, as they frequently do.

Many are unable to enjoy their gardens or peace and quiet inside their homes. Many cannot sleep at night. Many have suffered a reduction in the market value of their homes, even though most neither wish nor intend to sell and leave the area. For many of my constituents, the quality of their life has changed materially, and for the worse, since this new section of road opened. In short, their peace has been shattered. They look to my hon. Friend to alleviate this problem urgently and to find the funds necessary. I take from this file a couple of letters which are indicative of the representations that I have received every day from my constituents and about which they have been to see me. I quote first from a letter from Mr. Nightingale of Cemetery lane, Woodmancote, Emsworth. He says: Living at the above address, I would like to point out that the peace and quiet of my home, garden, and environments have been destroyed by the noise from the new A27 trunk road, which passes at 80 metres distance from my bungalow. I very much hope that something can be done to alleviate the noise problem and thus relieve my suffering. I would also like to point out that when the wind is blowing in my direction, I can actually smell the fumes and exhaust from the road. Mr. Cyril Baker writes to me from Scant road in Hambrook, saying: Being an O.A.P. and property owner, thus a rate payer, I am writing to you regarding the constant noise created since the opening of the new A27 Trunk Road which passes through the field opposite the front of my property. Not only has the value of my property depreciated but as my bedroom is in the front of the bungalow I find it impossible to sleep. Even in my back garden I can no longer enjoy peace and quiet. Your co-operation regarding this matter would be appreciated. Richard Stafford from West Ashling writes to me: I know you are trying to remedy the intrusion that the 'roar' of this road has brought to the peace and quiet of these parts. Please persuade the Department to do something. We must live ½ mile away and the whine continues day and night; life for the people closer must be intolerable. Mrs. Sheila Frampton, writing from Fraser gardens in Southbourne, says; I write to express extreme unhappiness with the noise levels of the above. The unceasing traffic noise is both distressing and irritating. It is an ever-present noise even more obvious at 3 a.m. than it is at 3 p.m.

My constituents are obviously distressed, and I make no apology for reading out what they have said to me, because this is indicative of the real distress that is caused to individuals' lives—people's homes, the quiet and privacy of their environment, which they enjoy and for which they have paid a great deal of money. I believe that my hon. Friend—I hope that he will accept this obligation —will reply in sympathetic terms and offer some redress or alleviation of their plight.

I first raised the question of the type of road surface and the noise implications with my hon. Friend some years ago, following representations from a number of constituents who were apprehensive about the use of the concrete surface. As always, my hon. Friend was courteous and assiduous in his reply. On 15 July 1987, he said to me: as far as road surface noise is concerned our general experience has been that surfaces of brushed concrete do not produce noisier roads than bituminous surfaces designed to give traffic the same level of skid resistance. I have to tell my hon. Friend that neither I nor my constituents believe this to be the case. I have been to hear for myself the noise and disturbance with which my constituents are being asked to put up.

I have visited residents and communities along the new route, with local councillors and representatives of the new A27 action steering group, which consists of residents associations of Fishbourne, Hanbrook, Woodmancote, Lumley and Emsworth. In my view, the noise results from excessive grooving or depths of brushing in the concrete road surface. It is not the noise emanating from the engines of vehicles but the noise of the tyres on the rough surface, which so permeates the countryside and so disturbs my constituents.

Interestingly, the noise varies greatly with the wind direction and the weather conditions. For some of my constituents, on occasion it can hardly be heard at all, and on others, it is distinct and permeates not only their properties but the structure of their buildings. There are some instances where properties on stretches of road where there is a great deal of curvature have a combination of noise effects that is extremely disturbing, I have visited some of my constituents in some of these homes. Although the noise varies with wind direction, it can be heard over suprising distances.

I stood close to the A27 dual carriageway at Havant, which carries the same volume of traffic, but is surfaced in asphalt, and the noise level there is insignificant in comparison. Similarly, when driving along the road, the surface is noticeably quieter when on the asphalt sections over bridges and culverts.

I understand from my correspondence with my hon. Friend that the Department of Transport's specification for the surface finish of brushed concrete provides that the average texture depth shall not be less than 0.75 mm. as determined by what is known as a sand patch test. I believe that that is a somewhat archaic method, given the new laser facilities for assessing surface depths, but it is the one that is used and, presumably, it is regarded by the authorities as being reliable. That minimum surface depth is to ensure that there is sufficient skid resistance. From inspecting the road myself, it is apparent that the texture depth is much deeper in places and the unevenness in some parts appears to be similar to mini potholes.

The A27 action group has today delivered to me its own measurements of the surface texture depth. Those measurements were taken by an assiduous constituent at daybreak on a Sunday three weeks ago, while his wife kept a lookout for passing traffic. That was somewhat beyond the call of duty, but it has been helpful to the debate. By using the same sand patch test method, he found that the mean surface texture depth was some 30 per cent. more than the present guidelines advise and, in the worse cases, was some 60 per cent. more.

In his letter to me of 18 November 1988, my hon. Friend the Minister, said that on this scheme the sand patch test results varied generally from 0.9 mm to 1.9 mm, with an average result of 1.3 mm. Even that is nearly double the minimum specification and in my judgment is much deeper on some parts of the road. Those parts of the road where it is much deeper give rise to noise and permeating noise, which is quite intolerable for my constituents.

I ask my hon. Friend whether there is a maximum texture depth specified and, if not, why not? That is of importance not just in my area, but throughout the country where new roads are being built.

Mr. Michael Marshall (Arundel)

My hon. Friend will accept that he is doing a great service, not just for his constituency, but nationally. He will know, of course, of the new plans for the A27 at Crossbush and at Arundel. I hope that my hon. Friend will urge our hon. Friend the Minister to assure us that the point that he is making will apply to the new extensions of the road allied to his own schemes and, especially, in the selection of tarmac rather than concrete as a principle.

Mr. Nelson

I am obliged to my hon. Friend, because I believe that he supports the point that I am trying to make. It does have relevance to other parts of the country as well as to my constituency. There is great concern that perhaps economies—reasonably and understandably being sought in the roads programme—may have an adverse impact on the environment and noise. Crossbush, which we discussed before this debate, is an important example. Therefore, I believe that other communities will be listening with great interest to my hon. Friend's reply.

The planning inspector's report on this road back in 1984, at paragraph 79.03, said: In order not to introduce more noise than is necessary into the lives of affected communities. I request that a major factor in the choice of road surface for this route should be its property to generate the minimum amount of traffic noise. To which the Secretaries of State responded on 12 June 1985 in paragraph 42 that this will be taken fully into account during the contract letting procedures. I ask my hon. Friend to explain whether that was taken into account in awarding the contract and, if so, how.

My hon. Friend the Minister wrote to me on 4 November 1988 asserting that if this new road had been constructed with asphalt surfacing in accordance with the Department's current specification, it would not have produced a significantly lower traffic noise level. I contest now, as I did then, this assertion, especially as the grooving in the concrete is at least twice the depth of the minimum specification.

The Minister went on to say: the usual competitive arrangements allow for either concrete or bituminous construction to be accepted, with contracts awarded on the basis of the lowest cost for a particular job. All well and good, but what was the difference in the cost between surfacing the road in concrete or tarmacadam? Indeed was a quotation for bituminous construction even invited? This raises significant questions. Tenders should not be sought on the basis of price only. Does the Department make a point of inviting tenders for different types of surfacing in view of the implications of the different building materials involved?

Most of my constituents who are affected consider that the only satisfactory conclusion is the resurfacing of the road with asphalt. My hon. Friend ruled this out last month because, in his words, the Government could not justify the very substantial cost that would be involved. What cost would be involved, and how would this relate to the difference between the original tenders for concrete and for bituminous surfaces? I have been told that the road was budgeted originally at £30 million. Apparently the contract price was about £19 million, although the actual cost was a little higher. Will my hon. Friend confirm or deny these figures? It is important that he does that because it might demonstrate whether the job has been done on the cheap, but at the expense of quality and quietude.

Last month I suggested to the Minister that, if it were technically feasible, the textured depth of the road should be "sandpapered" down, but he replied on 18 November that his Department was not aware of any machine that could plane concrete to a tolerance as fine as, say, 0.5 mm. But such a fine tolerance is not required. Any improvement or reduction in the highly grooved surface would bring a significant attenuation of noise.

The Minister also appears to place great reliance on the natural action of traffic as an abrasive in removing the high ridges within "a reasonable period". But what is "reasonable" and what degree of reduction in noise can be anticipated? My view is that it will take much longer than a year.

It has been said that the noise from the new road surface will be reduced by 40 per cent. in the first year. But what does that 40 per cent. reduction mean? Sound intensity is measured on a logarithmic scale, so a reduction of sound intensity by 40 per cent. would mean that the measured sound level would be reduced by only about three dB(A). The chairman of Chichester district council, Mrs. Jean Illius, recently sent me the test findings of environmental health officers at two locations north of the road, in Hambrook and Woodmancote.

The findings of 65 dB(A) and 65.5 dB(A) respectively were at or above the predicted noise levels provided by the Department of Transport at the commencement of the scheme and predicted for the year 2003. But as the volume of traffic is expected to rise significantly in the next 15 years, it is reasonable to assume that the actual noise levels for the year 2003 will be greater than predicted. While I welcome my hon. Friend's decision to undertake a reassessment of traffic noise levels, may I be told what action he will take if his original predictions are shown to have been exceeded?

The Minister has told me that the Department of Transport could contemplate only work such as further bunds or barriers, but my impression is that these would provide little relief, even to nearby houses. Surprisingly, the trees along the route provide little or no sound cushion. Unless there is a considerable depth of densely planted trees, the attenuation provided is negligible.

What redress or compensation is available to my constituents? Will the Minister look again at the question of resurfacing or planning works if the results of his tests show, as I believe they will, that the noise is excessive? Also, in view of the recent tragic death of a 15-year-old boy while trying to cross the road, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Havant, I hope that he will consider the aspects of access to the road and safety along its route.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that in part I of the Land Compensation Act 1973, claims for compensation may be made for loss of value of property because of noise and other adverse physical factors? My constituents should be informed that claims may be made from 20 August 1989, one year before the road opening, and that anyone selling before then should register a claim with the Department of Transport after exchange of contracts but before completion. Claim forms are available from the Department's south-east regional office in Dorking.

From what I know of my hon. Friend the Minister, I know that these words will not have fallen on deaf ears. I and my constituents look to him to make a constructive and positive response.

11.20 pm
The Minister for Roads and Traffic (Mr. Peter Bottomley)

I shall say some specific things first and then deal with more general issues, which is the reverse of normal procedure. My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Nelson) referred to safety, and my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Sir I. Lloyd) has written to me about it. We are considering the improvement of fencing along the road as a matter of urgency. My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester talked about lighting. Hampshire county council has accepted that it is its responsibility to maintain the lighting in the tunnel, and it will give the matter urgent attention. Noise is important, but, as my hon. Friend says, it is safety first.

Anyone listening to my hon. Friend would have understood how hard he has worked on these issues, the detail that he has gone into and the close links that he has had with his constituents and the constituents of others who are affected by the issue. I acknowledge the way in which he brought into the debate my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel (Mr. Marshall). If I spent all the money that is available to me on extra facilities for existing road proposals, I must say to my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel that it would not be possible to bring Crossbush into the programme as soon as I would wish.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester has raised an environmental issue. Liberal Members are entirely absent from the Chamber. That is their position after a speech by the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) on a water authority, during a debate on the money resolution, that had nothing to do with the question before the House. That shows how the Liberals treat local and national issues. My hon. Friend has introduced a national issue, and I know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that that is one of the reasons why you are chairing our proceedings.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester knows that, in the light of the concern which he and his constituents have raised, we have asked the consultants to reassess traffic and noise levels. The reassessment will take account of traffic flows, recorded in the three months since the road opened, and the road surface texture, using the new 1988 version of the report entitled "Calculation of Road Traffic Noise". If the original forecasts of noise levels are found to be significantly exceeded by the measured results and the forecasts which were built upon them, we shall consider whether additional protective measures can be justified. We hope to have the results early next year.

It is too soon to draw firm conclusions either on the results of the new forecasts or on whatever measures might be taken—I do not want to raise my hon. Friend's hopes too high by offering him promises late at night and not delivering in the morning—but it does appear that noise levels are between 2 and 3 dB(A) higher than forecast. As my hon. Friend spelt out in his physics lesson, that is an appreciable difference. Of course, it is the same difference upwards as it would be downwards. We should not rubbish the effects of reductions or of increases in noise. At the least, if it is confirmed that noise levels are 2 or 3 dB(A) higher than those predicted, that would result in additional houses being offered secondary glazing.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester was slightly unfair to mounds. If someone is within about 100 yd of a mound or bund, there is an appreciable difference. The closer that someone is to the bund or mound, the greater the difference. Trees on their own do not affect the noise level. They have a psychological effect, however, because they cut off the sight of traffic. It is often the combination of the sight of traffic and the sound of it that makes life difficult to bear for those who have lived previously in an area that was quiet. We all know that in areas of the sort that are represented by those of my hon. Friends who are in the Chamber this evening—I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Mr. Dorrell) will confirm this from his constituency experience—that when a road is built where people are already living, it can disturb them greatly. If a house is built following the construction of the road, people will move in and cheerfully put up with more noise than if the noise follows them.

I understand the local concern. It would not be possible to resurface the road. The cost difference requested by my hon. Friend is £1.3 million, and that is an appreciable sum. If we have 30 to 40 completed road schemes a year and we were able to save £1.3 million on each, we could bring relief to many more communities. I am not saying that my hon. Friend's constituents must make sacrifices so that others may be bypassed. There is a responsibility to bring the environmental relief that this section of the A27 has brought to the many people who live on the existing road and we need to get value for money. Also, if we specified the type of surface, we would find that either the bitumen or the concrete suppliers would start to practice more monopoly pricing. We would lose a strong element of competition. There would be a loss not of £1.3 million, but of £2 million or £3 million on a surfacing contract. One of the reasons why we get value for money is that we allow competition.

My hon. Friend referred to the inspector's report and to the decision letter when previous Secretaries of State said that they would take that into account. The information that, at any given level of steering resistance, roads have the same level of noise is based on scientific research. It does not state that a concrete grooving will always be achieved precisely as intended. My hon. Friend raised that point. He was rather hopeful about taking off any high ridges that may exist. It is important to ensure that we have the right skidding resistance. We were talking about trying to cut off peaks, if there are any, without affecting the skidding resistance of the road. We intend to spend £9 million in each of the next four years and £2 million a year thereafter to monitor the skidding resistance of our roads to see whether resurfacing work is inadequate. We expect that that small amount of money will produce a return of £5.50 for every £1 we spend in terms of accidents prevented. It is important to bear that in mind after my earlier points about casualty reductions.

I obviously cannot say that on every occasion that asphalt is used it comes up to the intended specification. Extra safety and extra noise must be balanced. There may be signs that traffic is wearing out some of the ridges in a reasonable time. However, that cannot be claimed to reduce the noise by 2 or 3 dB(A). The likely figure is 1 dB(A) and that would not be noticeable to the general public, although it would be noticeable to noise meters.

If successive ridges have created extra decibels, my hon. Friend should not be concerned about that. It may turn out that since the road was designed and the calculations were made, continued economic growth, the increase in he number of cars and the growth in general movement in the south-east and on the south coast in particular, may have been more of a cause of that. That would provide a new basis for the forecast for the design, which may bring about some of the changes in compensation arrangements.

My hon. Friend asked me to confirm the section 1 compensation arrangements. He described them correctly. People who are selling before the year is up after the opening of the road, should register the claim between the exchange of contracts and completion. If they have any doubts, they can refer them to my hon. Friend. to the Department, or to a surveyor, who can act as their agent. Those who are still in possession of their homes a year after the opening of the road can make a claim. We shall go in for extensive local publicity, so that no one loses the chance to claim for a reduction in value of his home because of noise or other relevant factors.

My hon. Friend paid tribute to the importance of the new road. Although I said in my speech at the opening of the road—which was a cheerful occasion—that those who were experiencing noise for the first time would find it unpleasant—I cannot remember whether I used a stronger word than that—most of us understand that it is not nice to have to accept noise from a new road. Nor is it nice for local people living in the settlements along the old road to have to put up with the traffic. Clearly, the traffic on the new road is travelling faster, and that will lead to an increase in noise. It may be generally better that that should be so, but we must always recognise that progress has its penalties.

The constituents who sent 200 letters to my Department, some of which I have seen, and the letters that my hon. Friend held earlier, show that there is a problem. So far as the Department is able, it will try to solve it. However, I do not want to make any extravagant promises. Even with the increase of 20 to 40 per cent. in the next two years in road spending, we must watch out for the money while trying to be fair. When we receive the noise report, the new forecast will be presented in public. I hope that that will help my hon. Friend and his constituents.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Eleven o'clock.