HC Deb 04 March 1988 vol 128 cc1331-8

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

2.31 pm
Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

Nothing generates more heat than a planning proposal, and few roles can be more ungrateful than that of the Minister who has to decide between local outrage and what he perceives as the national interest. Therefore, I enter this debate acutely conscious that my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for roads and traffic is under enormous pressure from all sides and that, as the proposal to site a motorway service area at Hollingbourne is currently subject to appeal, he may feel inhibited from making any statement on the issues today in the House.

Nevertheless, I am deeply grateful for this opportunity to put on record, in the Parliament to which all Ministers are ultimately responsible, a number of considerations that I believe my hon. Friend will have to take into account when he comes to take his decision. I also believe, as I shall later show, that there is one decision that he can announce today without trespassing on an area which is properly sub judice and for his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment.

I believe in motorways. They are much more efficient than other types of road. They are much less dangerous and they are now the lifeblood of a modern economy. However, if there are motorways there must also be motorway service areas—suprisingly frequently, it would appear. In 1979, the then Secretary of State accepted recommendations that argued for flexibility in spacing motorway service areas, but still expected a frequency of roughly 30 miles. In the 10 years since those recommendations were made, petrol consumption has improved by about 30 per cent., but I suppose that against that the Minister could argue that motorway service areas are much less to do with the motorist's need for putting fluid in than for letting it out. Nevertheless, on roads where a mile takes less than a minute, variations in spacing of 10 to 15 miles are hardly significant.

The idea is to have, in the Maidstone area, a motorway service area on the M20, which is shortly to be completed after many years of mutual frustration, by the insertion of the missing link between Hollingbourne and Ashford. The Department makes much of the need to open the service area at the same time as the motorway. If it were to be the only one, I might be tempted to ignore the precedent of 25 years of unserviced motorway hitherto or the unserviced years of the M25, but it will not be the only one. There will almost certainly be motorway service areas at junctions 3, 4 and 6 on the M25 and at Ashford and Cheriton on the M20.

In that embarrassment of riches, some people might wonder whether we need another service area at all. Many motorists have managed a great number of miles perfectly well without one, but, if we have to have one, where should it be? Since as long ago as 1975, it is clear that voices in the Department of Transport have been arguing to place it at Hollingbourne, and therein lies the major problem, both for those who oppose the plan and for the Minister.

Over the past 13 years, files will have grown fat with letters, memos and minutes of meetings between officials, the sum total of which has been to turn a proposal into a de facto decision. It will need more than sympathy and vision and more, even, than argument alone to overturn that decision now. It will require ministerial courage of the kind that says to respected senior advisers, "I am the Minister. I believe that that is the wrong decision and I am going to change it." That sort of courage is always in short supply, although less so in this Administration than in most. I believe that my hon. Friend the Minister has that sort of courage in ample measure. All that is needed is to demonstrate to him that since he made the choice of Hollingbourne public in 1986, and certainly since 1975, enough has changed to render a new approach as logical as it is desirable.

I wish to deal, first, with the position of Kent county council. My hon. Friend has every excuse if he feels puzzled by the apparent behaviour of Kent county council. During the recent appeal hearing, an official of that council stated that members of Kent county council supported the choice of Hollingbourne as the preferred site for a motorway service area as far back as 1976. The then vice chairman of the county planning sub-committee, who is now the borough councillor for Hollingbourne has no recollection of any debate on the subject at that time and believes that if the decision were taken at all, it must have slipped into the minutes inadvertently.

Since then the council's officers have been assiduous in promoting Hollingbourne, even to the point of virtually ignoring a recent very firm instruction from the planning sub-committee to carry out a full appraisal of an alternative site. In those circumstances, it would not be surprising if successive Ministers believed that county members approved the choice of Hollingbourne. Indeed, my hon. Friend made their approval an important ground of difficulty in meeting the objections to the site put to him by a delegation from Hollingbourne, which he met on 8 December 1986. When, after many attempts to arrange a meeting between Maidstone borough council and Kent county council had strangely foundered, a site meeting eventually took place on:5 January this year. County council members instantly resolved that the potential of the Allington site should be explored. In response to that, the county officers failed to do any such thing, but simply put another paper to a meeting of the county planning subcommittee on 23 February, reiterating their choice of Hollingbourne, Members rejected that for the second time and demanded a proper study of the Allington site.

The Minister cannot possibly be expected to make a distinction between the opinions of officers and members of a county council, unless the disagreement is brought to his notice, but I should like to assure him that Kent county council, like Maidstone borough council and all the parish councils concerned, wants him to undertake a Full appraisal of Allington quarry as an alternative site for the motorway service area.

A second change since 1975 has been in the growth of traffic. Since 1977, on the B2136, which passes through Leeds village, there has been an increase of 443 per cent. in vehicles with three or more axles, including articulated lorries. In 1986, the Minister's Department admitted that the rate of growth in traffic using that narrow country road was more than twice the national average, and forecast a rise in traffic levels on the road to between 6,500 and 8,000 vehicles per 24 hours by the year 2005.

It will, I am sure, come as no surprise that a traffic survey made in December 1987 showed a 24-hour figure of 8,167 vehicles. I say that it will come as no surprise because it is, after all, the Department that gave us the traffic forecasts for the M25. I do not know how that Department dares now, in its summary of evidence to the current inquiry, to suggest that we can ignore the claims that traffic is increasing on the B2163, or that the motorway service area would affect it. The M20 interchange will add hugely to the attractions of this wholly unsuitable informal bypass to Maidstone for assorted heavy lorries. If added to that were the lure of a 24-hour service area, Leeds village would be almost destroyed by the burden of traffic.

My hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe), in whose constituency Leeds village lies, endorses those trends entirely, and she is very sorry that a constituency engagement prevents her from saying so in person. Severe damage to Leeds village would mean a desperate loss. Both halves of the village are conservation areas, and 41 of its buildings are grade 2 listed. They are an important ingredient in what many of the half million visitors to Leeds castle come to enjoy.

The third change is that work has now begun on the Channel tunnel. That will substantially accelerate the already dramatic switch of Britain's trade from other markets to mainland Europe, and will bring many tens of thousands more vehicles and millions more visitors to Kent. With the lively and much-appreciated assistance of my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Kent is working hard to protect itself from the disadvantages of this great innovation, while trying to ensure that it benefits from it also. That is why the council has declared that development will not normally be permitted if it is likely to cause loss of, or material damage to, landscape areas and features which are: —

  1. (1) representative of the Kent countryside by reason of their physiographic character or vegetation cover, with particular regard being paid to those areas of rare or possibly unique scenic quality: or
  2. (2) of historic interest: or
  3. (3) of an unspoilt quality free from urban intrusion."
I wonder whether my hon. Friend could easily find another area in Kent in which all those criteria come so fully together.

The proposed site is in the North Downs special landscape area. It is within 500 m of the conservation area of Eyhorne street, 1,400 m from the Broad street conservation area to the north and within only 900 m of the park of historic Leeds castle, the third most popular tourist attraction in Britain. The site shares a border with an area of outstanding natural beauty, a designation so special that everyone recognises the names involved: the Lake district, the mountains of Mourne and the Cotswolds. Perhaps all of them are eagerly awaiting the chance to have a motorway service area as well.

A fourth change has been the dazzling success of exquisite Leeds castle as a tourist attraction. Host to half a million visitors a year, its special events attract between 10,000 and 20,000 visitors or more. On a fine summer evening, how many of them would park their cars in the motorway service area for a ready getaway after the concert, and how useful would a motorway service area, so blocked, be to the road user?

I shall not pretend that Leeds castle's success depends entirely on leaving its neighbours, Leeds village and Hollingbourne, undisturbed. However, I share the managing director's view that a lorry park, a caravan park and a possible motel in a motorway service area would make a change so fundamental in the castle's environment that no amount of landscaping would do more than garnish the wound.

In the old days, the rich used their influence to keep modern developments, such as the railways, at a distance from their estates, and there must always have been a temptation for Ministers to tease them when they could by defeating their endeavours and lumbering them with a line beneath the fences of their estates. In this case, the rich man is replaced by the half million ordinary citizens who come to Hollingbourne and Leeds village to see ancient England at its best. It would be a sorry memorial to be remembered as the Minister who gave them the inescapable view of a lorry park.

A fifth change relates to the position, in planning terms, of Allington quarry at the Coldharbour interchange. Until recently it was the subject of a major planning appeal. When we went to see the Minister on my birthday last year he told us that he would be unable to accept a motorway service area as part of a site where alcohol was on sale. Indeed, he also believed that the proposed development would not leave room for a motorway service area. Both of those difficulties have disappeared with the refusal of planning permission. However, two other difficulties remain. One is the nature of the refusal. The Department of Transport seems to believe that its terms preclude the use of the site for a motorway service area or anything else. The second difficulty is cost.

The valuer retained by the Department placed a value of £285,000 per acre on the Allington site. That value depends entirely upon "hope value." No developer would pay £285,000 as "hope value" for land subject to ministerial restriction of the nature described. At most, the developer would buy an option. It is important to note that an equally qualified valuer put a value of only £2,000 per acre on the site. That presupposes that the land carries only agricultural value.

The only things that are clear in this difference of opinion are, first, that the Department of Transport cannot simultaneously argue that the green wedge considerations are so overriding that they rule out the use of the quarry as a site for a motorway service area and, at the same time, value the land as if the green wedge considerations were of no importance. Secondly, unless and until there is a properly worked out consideration of the Allington site, none of us will know what the sums involved are likely to be. However, we are aware that the Allington site would be much more heavily used than the Hollingbourne site.

I find it extremely encouraging that the Tonbridge and Mailing council, which does not want the green wedge damaged, argued against siting the motorway service area in the quarry, where, with great care, it will scarcely affect the visual wedge. It said: Tonbridge and Mailing is unwilling to support the construction of a motorway service area at Allington Quarry unless and until a developer demonstrates an overwhelming case of need. An essential element of such a case would be evidence of the Secretary of State's rejection of all other alternative sites. Therefore, the issue stays with the Minister. He has it in his power to reverse the bureaucratic mud slide that threatens to engulf the most environmentally-sensitive area of my lovely constituency.

When Lord Jenkin, then Secretary of State for the Environment, did us the honour of inspecting the site, he told us that although we would have to accept either the interchange or the service area, it would be intolerable to have to suffer both.

In this debate I speak as the hon. Member for Mid-Kent. However, I also speak for my hon. Friends the Members for Maidstone and for Faversham (Mr. Moate) who is president of the North Downs Society. My hon. Friend the Member for Faversham would have been present if it were possible. However, I believe that I do not speak just for my hon. Friends and our constituents. I speak for the millions who, between now and the end of the century, will come to Kent looking for the essential England — the historic, small-scale, solid, ungarish England of Led the Saxon whose castle stands at Leeds and of the Canterbury pilgrims who knew, when they got to Hollingbourne, that they did not have much further to go.

If we have to explain to those visitors that the garish motorway service area — even before its inevitable expansion it will dwarf the conservation areas around it and it will till the night sky all the year round with reflective light — could have been sited in a disused quarry where nobody lives, where nobody could see it and where no part of it would intrude on the environment, they will look at us as we would on the residents of some Third world country who turn a unique temple into a lorry assembly plant.

As I said at the beginning of my speech, I do not seek to press the Minister for a decision today. Even if I could, it would be improper for me to do so. I ask only whether he will produce a fully worked-out proposal for the Allington quarry site, which was the first choice of his own Department's consultant in years gone by, before he makes his final choice. I believe that so much has changed since his original decision was taken that it would be prudent and generous of the Minister to accede to my request.

2.50 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Peter Bottomley)

No decision will be taken on the proposal for a motorway service area at Hollingbourne until my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Transport and for the Environment have received the inspector's report of the inquiry and have carefully considered that report. I hope that that is a partial assurance to my hon. Friend. He has drawn this matter to the attention of the House and has spoken about our hon. Friends who would have liked to express concern. It is of passing interest that not a single hon. Member of another party is involved in that environmental or transport issue.

My hon. Friend is keen to see good road communications in Kent, whether for pilgrims or for others. I noted with interest the views he put forward on television last week on procedures to help establish such roads. I thought that that was sensible and brave, but I cannot guarantee to accept those proposals, either.

We regard the provision of motorway service areas—MSAs — as an essential part of the motorway system and have carefully formulated a strategy for their provision. No doubt many former pilgrims would have been grateful if our medieval ancestors had done the same, because pilgrims experienced problems in getting refreshment on route.

My hon. Friend knows that our specific proposals for an MSA at Hollingbourne have been the subject of a public inquiry. I will take the opportunity to explain why we regard MSAs as being essential, why we selected a site at Hollingbourne, and that we propose to minimise environmental intrusion there.

Unless services are available beside the motorway, vehicles will leave the motorway to find them on local roads. Such detours defeat the heavy investment in motorways and the important public benefits they provide of faster, cheaper and safer journeys reducing traffic congestion; and improving safety in the communities bypassed.

My hon. Friend sensibly made the point about people taking rat runs, even in the country, to avoid congestion. An additional advantage of MSAs is that they enable drivers to take a rest, thus increasing their alertness when continuing their journeys and contributing further to road safety. About one motorist in six tends to come off the motorway to go to a service area. If there are no motorway service areas obviously they cannot do that. They are a significant advantage and convenience to many motorists who would otherwise have to pass by.

Organisations and individuals have stressed the need for MSAs to be provided. MSAs have always been an important feature of motorways in England. In deciding on the number to be provided, the advantages to the motorist of frequent services have to be weighed against the financial and environmental costs, the likely commercial viability and the general policy of severely restricting accesses to motorways. We don't expect motorway users to have to travel more than about 30 miles or half an hour's driving between service areas.

Following consultation with local authorities and other interested parties in 1983, we established in 1984 a strategy of providing four MSAs at the cardinal compass points of the M25, together with MSAs about 15 to 20 miles outside the orbital motorway, where they do not already exist, on major feeder motorways, including the M20. Consultants were appointed to assist the Secretary of State in deciding the provision of MSAs on the M20 in the Maidstone area and in the Folkestone area. Two were short-listed out of nine potential sites in an 11-mile corridor centred on Maidstone. Those were Hollingbourne and Allington quarry, which is also known as Coldharbour. There is no strategic need for services between Westenhanger and Maidstone.

We considered carefully the consultants' findings on the two Maidstone options. In particular we noted the conclusion that Allington quarry was preferable on environmental grounds and would serve more travellers. There were major problems about Allington quarry site. The government believed that it was desirable for the MSA in the Maidstone area to be built so as to be open by the time the M20 extension from Maidstone to Ashford was opened. My hon. Friend talked about Kent county council's view. We understood that the county council shared our view. The Allington quarry site could not be developed without the concurrent improvement of junction 5.

Mr. Rowe

My understanding is that Kent county council has said that it would prefer to see environmental considerations given precedence over the need to have the site opened concurrently with the link.

Mr. Bottomley

My hon. Friend knows that I cannot get into what was before the inquiry. I am stating the view that we understood Kent county council to hold.

It was thought that the widening of the M20 and the improvement of junction 5 were unlikely to occur until 1993 at the earliest, and perhaps later. It was thought that Hollingbourne could be developed in time to open with the M20 extension in 1990. A major problem with Allington was the prospect that an MSA would not be open until at least three years after the completion of the M20 Maidstone to Ashford extension. That remains the position. The second major problem about Allington was a financial one. I shall not go into the details of that. I would cover ground that has been covered elsewhere.

It may be said that we have a policy of going for MSA sites in the open country, simply because they will tend to be cheaper than sites in urban or near urban areas. I assure the House that that is not our policy, as any review of our current MSAs will show. We try to choose sites that are the best in the light of all relevant factors. But we cannot ignore cost.

At my hon. Friend's request, I met representatives of the local planning authority, the parish council and the Hollingbourne society to hear their concern at first hand. I remain convinced that Hollingbourne represents the best balance of all relevant factors. Great care has been taken in preparing the site layout that will minimise environmental intrusion. Fear of environmental intrusion causes most local concern.

My hon. Friend expressed particular concern about the possible impact on views from the North Downs, from Pilgrim's way and from Leeds castle, as well as from Eyhorne street and from Hollingbourne itself. I shall explain briefly how we propose to minimise the intrusion. We do not intend to have pedestrian access to motorway service areas. The fear of having a car park for Leeds castle will not be borne out in practice.

The overall aim is to integrate the development into its surroundings, as far as possible, to mitigate any visual intrusion, and to create an attractive setting for users of the facilities.

In the design of the site layout and the landscape proposals, particular attention has been paid to views into the site from nearby properties and from the North Downs, to develop measures for minimising visual impact. Use is made of the existing landform and vegetation, as well as the proposed motorway embankment and the landscape proposals for the M20. Specific measures to reduce visual impact include the use of surplus soil to form mounds along the most sensitive boundaries. They will be beneficial upon completion of the works and before full establishment of the planting.

The lorry and coach parks—intrusive and difficult to screen—have been sited in the lowest part of the site, where it is screened from the north by Cottage and Snarkhurst woods.

The Department is seeking to acquire a 40 m strip parallel to and to the north of the London-Ashford railway line, that is, part of Snarkhurst and Cottage woods, to ensure that an adequate height of tree cover is retained to effect screening of the MSA, particularly in views from the north, those from the Broad street area on the Pilgrim's way and the important long-distance footpath, the North Downs way. The Department considers it essential that the 40 m width of Snarkhurst and Cottage woods be acquired as part of the MSA and that it be managed under departmental control. A management scheme would be prepared with the aim to achieve and maintain a healthy tall screen of vegetation, while preserving the character and ecology of the woodland.

In view of the landscape quality of the area, it has been agreed that the lighting sources for the various areas be kept lower than would normally be adopted. I cite one example. The height of column for the integral perimeter road would normally be 12 m. In this instance a 10 m height is proposed. By adopting a lower light source height for the required illumination of the site, it will be well below the top of Snarkhurst and Cottage woods as viewed from the north and seen against the background of Snarkhurst wood as viewed from the south.

That is a brief explanation of our general strategy for motorway service area provision and the particular care that we would take at Hollingbourne. I hope that, to some extent, that assures my hon. Friend of our commitment to a well-balanced and caring development of the proposed MSA on the M20. He asked me to refer to other aspects of work. It is a sensible convention that decision on such issues are taken after the benefit of the independent, impartial inspector's advice, following the conclusion of the public inquiry.

Through my hon. Friend, I say to our colleagues who cannot be here and to my hon. Friend's constituents that there has not been a more effective demonstration of local concern than that which was put forward by my hon. Friend and his constituents. They put their views forward in a firm but courteous way. In reading the newspapers, listening to them, face to face, and going round the area, I have reached an appreciation of the concerns, and of some of the issues which would have been put forward firmly by my hon. Friend if he had had time to raise them. If the MSA goes ahead, some of those concerns may turn out to be less of a problem than people imagine. However, to pursue that would take me into sectors in which I do not want to trespass.

All in all, motorway service areas, together with our roads programme, are designed to bring economic benefit, environmental relief and road safety advantages. MSAs are an important part of this, although I appreciate the concern about where they go and where they might have to go.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Three o'clock.