HC Deb 17 January 1992 vol 201 cc1287-94

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

2.36 pm
Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling)

I am aware that my hon. Friend the Minister for Roads and Traffic replied to an Adjournment debate which I initiated only 14 months ago in November 1990. I make no apology for the fact that just 14 months later I am seeking his reply to a debate on the same subject. I have to tell him that the Department of Transport's handling of the widening of the M20 between junctions 3 and 5 in my constituency has been disastrous for hundreds of my constituents. I shall seek to demonstrate that it appears that it has also been a fair-sized disaster for the public purse. I shall put several specific issues to my hon. Friend, but before doing so I suggest that there is one lesson of overwhelming importance which I hope that the Department of Transport will learn from the way in which it has handled the scheme so far.

As my hon. Friend will be aware, from the moment that the Department announces its intention to widen a road, blight is instantly created. That is particularly the case if at the time of the announcement the Department does not announce how the widening scheme will be carried out. Obviously the blighting effect is particularly acute in areas where there is a substantial amount of residential property. That is the case along almost the entire length of the M20 between junctions 3 and 5.

The announcement of the intention to widen was made in the White Paper "Roads for Prosperity", which was published in May 1989. One would have hoped that it would be followed quickly by a detailed description by the Department of Transport of how the widening would be conducted.

In practice, two and a half years elapsed—until October 1991—before details of the widening schemes were announced. As a result, the huge swathe of blight created instantly from May 1989 onwards along both sides of the motorway continued unabated for two and a half years and continues to a degree. As a consequence, hundreds of people have been unable to sell their houses. The consequences have been disastrous for those who have had to do so for personal, family, health, matrimonial break-up or job reasons.

I hope that the Department of Transport will accept that it has a fundamental responsibility not to announce its intention to widen until it can at the same time, or shortly thereafter, say how the scheme will be carried out.

The two-and-a-half-year gap has also had serious consequences for the public purse. In a reply of 3 December my hon. Friend said that the Department had acquired at that time a total of 227 houses for the cost of £21.9 million—a purchase price of about £100,000 for each house. He went on to say that another 59 houses were being acquired. The Department will end up with 286 houses, which will cost the taxpayer about £28 million.

I do not criticise the Department of Transport for discharging its legal obligations under the blight purchase provisions. Indeed, it would have been wrong for it not to have done so. However, if one looks at the alignment of the road and reads the further part of his answer of 3 December—to the effect that of 286 houses acquired by the Department not one will be required by the road scheme—one realises that it raises major issues of policy concerning public expenditure.

The Department has effectively spent, or is spending, about £28 million to acquire 286 houses, none of which is required for the widening scheme. That is a matter of great concern. Indeed, I am so concerned that I think it is appropriate for me to refer the use of public funds in those circumstances to the Comptroller and Auditor General. I spoke to his office this morning and he confirmed that that is an appropriate matter for me to refer to him, and I propose to do so.

I hope that the Department will not again announce an intention to widen without an immediate announcement—or as immediate as possible thereafter—as to how the scheme will be carried out.

I want to mention six matters to my hon. Friend. The first concerns the section 62 powers which were taken by the Government—and I welcome that—in the Planning Compensation Act 1991, giving new discretionary powers to the Secretary of State for Transport to acquire houses by agreement with their owners when they are seriously affected by a motorway or road scheme, regardless of any distance limit from the scheme.

I have been asking my hon. Friend for details of how those powers will be used, and I am grateful for the parliamentary reply that he gave me before the debate commenced, in which he has given an initial indication. Obviously, I shall want to examine that in the context of a number of cases. I hope that it will help one of my constituents who is in the extraordinary position of having received an offer from the Department of Transport whereby it will acquire her garage under the statutory blight provisions but not her house. I hope that the answer in my hon. Friend's letter will help her ludicrous and unfair situation as well as that of some other constituents who continue to feel that they are blighted, notwithstanding the announcement of the line of the widening scheme.

Secondly, there is the question of the continuance of the 200 m notification requirement on the planning authority for prospective purchasers. I can understand why that was necessary until the line of the widening scheme was announced, but I was dismayed to receive an answer from my hon. Friend on 18 December in which he said that the notification procedure would continue until the scheme was implemented. That will continue to blight properties well away from the widening scheme for some years to come. I urge him to reconsider his policy on notification in the context of the scheme.

My third point relates to noise from the motorway. In my view, this section of motorway—perhaps because I drive on it more than most—is as bad and as noisy a section of motorway as I have found anywhere in the country. It is of a ribbed, concrete surface which gives off more than the usual volume of noise. I hope that my hon. Friend will assure me that the opportunity of the widening scheme will be taken to bring about a significant noise reduction programme along this section of the M20, including a replacement of the existing ribbed concrete surface by a black top surface.

My fourth point relates to noise during the construction period. As I have said, this section runs almost entirely through a residential area. I hope that my hon. Friend will assure me that when construction commences strict restrictions will be placed on the contractors so that construction is limited to normal working hours and there is no weekend working.

My fifth point relates to the construction timetable. Now that the line of the widening scheme has been announced, I hope that it will be carried out as quickly as possible, not least because constituents who are facing a reduction in the value of their homes will be unable to claim injurious affection compensation until one year after the widening has been brought into operation.

The timetable of the scheme seems to have slipped steadily. I have a letter of 31 May 1989 from Mr. Springett of the Department of Transport in which he said: The Department hopes that the widening will be completed in time for the opening of the Channel Tunnel in 1993. Two years later I had an answer from my hon. Friend the Minister for Roads and Traffic in which he said: Recent experience of other widening schemes suggests that construction could start by 1995 with completion two years later."—[Official Report, 3 June 1991; Vol. 192, c. 54.] In other words, between those two indications of timetable, which are two years apart, there has been no less than a four-year delay. If my hon. Friend's latest answer is the correct one, it means that no injurious affection compensation would become payable to my constituents until 1998.

That degree of delay is unacceptable to my constituents. More significant for my hon. Friend with his ministerial responsibilities, it is unacceptable in national transport terms. The section of motorway, particularly at junction 3 of the M20, is of great national significance. As my hon. Friend will be aware, all the channel tunnel road traffic from East Anglia, the midlands, the north, the west, the south-west and the south coast using the motorway system will converge on junction 3 and proceed from there to the channel tunnel.

If my hon. Friend continues to allow the widening scheme to delay to the extent that he appears willing to accept, there is a serious danger of a traffic shambles on this section of the M20 almost as soon as the channel tunnel opens. Therefore, I hope that my hon. Friend will look immediately at the timetable for the scheme and I urge him to bring forward the implementation date to the earliest possible, certainly well before 1995.

What about the 286 houses which are now in the Department of Transport's ownership? As I have said to my hon. Friend, and in correspondence with my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State, the management of those houses has been far from satisfactory. Many of the houses have been vacant, squatters have moved in, and properties have been subject to poor maintenance and remote management from Eastbourne. Those factors have made it that much more difficult for people in the surrounding areas to sell their houses.

What is the Department's policy towards those houses? Will they be sold or will they be rented on a permanent basis, and if so, to whom? The critical thing is that the temporary nature of the occupancy of those homes must be ended as quickly as possible. We are talking about what were once settled, stable communities and they want to revert to that pattern. I hope that my right hon and learned Friend and my hon. Friend will give the highest priority to re-establishing homes along this section of the M20 that are under permanent tenure, whether they are owned outright, rented or under shared ownership. Permanence is the key factor in bringing back stability and, I hope, a reasonable degree of tranquillity to the estates.

I am sorry to have offered my hon. Friend such a barrage of criticism of his Department. If my hon. Friend had faced, in his constituency, the dismay and distress of so many of my constituents, caused by the Department of Transport, I am confident that he would make a speech no less critical of the Department than my own.

2.51 pm
The Minister for Roads and Traffic (Mr. Christopher Chope)

I acknowledge the genuine concern of my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley) on behalf of his constituents. No group of people can ever find it easy to tolerate a major road building scheme in their area. This particular scheme has been the subject of a lot more difficulty and delay than either I or the Department would have wished.

When the scheme was included in the 1989 White Paper, "Roads for Prosperity", it was part of the Government's expanded roads programme, which covered a large number of schemes. When one is announcing additions to the roads programme, it is impossible, even with the best will in the world, to guarantee that one knows exactly the time in which all of those additions will be built.

First, one announces an addition to the roads programme and then one must obtain the advice of consultants through competitive tender. One then considers their advice as to the best way in which to implement the proposals.

When the White Paper was published, the Department hoped that the widening of junctions 5 to 8 and of junctions 3 to 5 would be able to proceed together, according to the same timetable. That is why the letter written to my right hon. Friend's constituent at the end of May 1989 cited a certain timetable.

My right hon. Friend knows better than anyone about the complexity of widening the motorway from three lanes to four in this constrained part of the M20, which runs between built-up areas. Unfortunately, when the consultants considered the proposal it became immediately apparent that it would not be possible to deal with the widening of junctions 3 to 5 on the same time scale as that for the widening between junctions 5 and 8. That is part of the background to the delay.

My right hon. Friend regrets the expenditure incurred in purchasing many houses, but he was at the forefront in campaigning for the Government to make their arrangements sufficiently flexible to allow them to purchase those houses and thereby tackle the blight that any new road scheme causes. If the blight period had been shorter, we might have had to acquire fewer houses, but I suspect that, having acquired so many houses already, we shall now have to acquire fewer under the extended powers, to which I referred my right hon. Friend in answer earlier today.

I am not saying that if we had been able to act more quickly there would not have been so much blight or over such a long period, but I hope that my right hon. Friend will understand that there was no malice aforethought. The proposal was included in the roads programme. The original strategy was to widen the M20 in time for the opening of the channel tunnel, but, unfortunately, that did not prove possible.

My right hon. Friend will know that the missing link in the M20 has been completed. The widening between junctions 5 and 8 is under way and should be completed for the opening of the tunnel.

My right hon. Friend referred to the section 62 powers and welcomed the revised guidance. I understand that he has not had time to consider each case, but one of the most important features of the new guidance is that it enables the Department to acquire properties before construction. Previously, property could be acquired between when blight first occurred and when proposals were announced in detail, and there was a period between then and the start of works when it was not possible to acquire property. I hope that that gap has been filled by the new powers that we have taken in the Planning and Compensation Act 1991. We shall use the guidelines that I have announced today to implement that.

The 200 m requirement and notification is not Government policy. The Law Society and local authorities agreed that local authorities should be required to reveal the existence of proposals to widen the M20 between junctions 3 and 5 in response to searches by prospective purchasers of properties within 200 m of the scheme, until widening is implemented. I understand my right hon. Friend's concern that that might be thought to be harsh on those seeking to sell their properties, but it is done in accordance with an agreement with the Law Society, no doubt for the protection of potential purchasers. Constituents of my right hon. Friend who found out a day after they had completed that they had moved into a property within 200 m of a road widening scheme would be none too pleased that it had not been drawn to their attention beforehand. My right hon. Friend asked me to reconsider the policy, but it is not the Department's policy. I have no control over it; it is a matter between the Law Society and local authorities.

I am well aware of the noise from the road surface between junctions 3 and 5 of the M20. Part of the surface between junctions 4 and 5 was recently topped with bitumen. At the exhibition of the widening proposals held in October, some residents said that they thought that it had reduced the noise whereas others said that it had exacerbated it. That bears out the research undertaken by my Department which shows that there is a different type of noise from concrete surfaces compared with that from bitumen surfaces. The volume of the noise is similar, but the pitch is different and that may affect different people in different ways, depending where their house or property is situated.

We are talking about an on-line widening without the need to remove all the existing carriageway. If we proceed on that basis and if the existing carriageway is strong enough to take the new road, a proper surface—a bitumen surface—would be laid. The widened road would be of bitumen rather than of concrete. If, however, it proved necessary for all of the existing carriageways to be taken up and reconstructed, in accordance with its usual policy, the Department would invite competitive bids from contractors for either a concrete or bitumen-surfaced road.

I assure my right hon. Friend that whether there is ultimately a concrete or bitumen-surfaced road, the road will be constructed to a very high standard and the most modern noise attenuation measures will be included in the scheme. I cannot give any guarantees about noise during construction, because there must be a balance between the need to build a road such as this as quickly as possible and the legitimate concern of people living close to the road that they should not be disturbed by construction noise at anti-social times. We must consider that aspect in much greater detail. I cannot give any assurances today, but the Department and the contractors are well aware of the effect of construction on residents and they will deal with it as sympathetically as possible.

On the construction timetable, I share my right hon. Friend's frustration at the potential further delay before the scheme can be brought to fruition. I shall certainly inquire whether we can improve the speed of the proposed timetable, but the biggest uncertainty is that associated with the potential need for public inquiries into objections raised to compulsory purchase orders to acquire the additional land and for the necessary orders to enable the widened road to be constructed.

As my right hon. Friend knows, there is nothing certain about the way in which an inquiry will go, about the time it will take an inspector to consider the evidence or about the conclusions that he will reach. Again, I cannot give any guarantees, but when I gave my last reply to which my right hon. Friend referred, I did so taking account of the average time it takes to design a scheme, to take the detailed proposals to the necessary inquiry and to proceed beyond that.

All this is subject to the necessary resources being available, but, as my right hon. Friend said, the improvement of the road links to the channel tunnel is a very high political priority for the Government. I assure him that the road will be a high priority scheme and will be proceeded with as quickly as possible.

As my right hon. Friend knows, I have been concerned about the quality of the management of the 286 houses, and from 1 April this year there will be a new arrangement under which any new houses acquired after that date will not automatically go the housing assocation that has managed the existing houses. That is because of concerns which we have expressed openly to the housing association about the quality of management. It has improved significantly and I would be interested to hear of the extent to which my right hon. Friend thinks that it is still lower than it should be.

The Department feels that there is a need for competition to be introduced. That will lead to even higher standards of management and I hope that it will prove beneficial for my right hon. Friend's constituents. The length of time that it will take to resell the houses that we do not need must be the subject of discussion and negotiation. My right hon. Friend will understand what the impact would be if all the houses were suddenly placed on the open market, let alone the implications for the tenants now occupying them.

The first of the tenancy agreements expires in June this year. Some of them have been on a two-year basis, and some of the more recent agreements on a one-year basis. We shall have to prepare a strategy, which we shall discuss with the local council, for the future plans for the houses that we own. We do not want to own more houses than is absolutely necessary. Those houses properly belong in the private sector and the sooner they can be returned there, in an orderly fashion, the better.

I hope that I have answered some of the questions raised by my right hon. Friend, who makes no apology for having raised the subject again after some 14 months. I hope that he understands—although he might not agree with it—my explanation that the Department is very conscious of the adverse effects that such road schemes have on people living close by, and it may have erred on the side of generosity in acquiring so many houses. That was largely because my right hon. Friend was keen to encourage the Department to acquire them. Now that we have done so, we need to get rid of the ones that we do not need as soon as possible.

We wish to bring the scheme to fruition quickly so that the uncertainty, blight, noise and the other general adverse effects can be brought to an end as soon as possible.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at six minutes past Three o'clock.