HC Deb 01 April 1993 vol 222 cc626-44 12.25 am
Mr. Peter Ainsworth (Surrey, East)

Were this not a matter of great concern to my constituents and people throughout the south-east and further afield, I might feel some embarassment about raising it tonight. It is, after all, only some two months since I had cause to detain my hon. Friend the Minister for Roads and Traffic over the same issue. In saying how grateful I am to see him here tonight, at this late hour, I must also say that I can offer no apology for asking the House to return to the matter of the M25 and the proposed link roads. In so doing, I hope to give some of my hon. Friends the opportunity to make known their views on an issue that is of importance and concern to their constituents. I know that my hon. Friends have taken a keen interest in the matter, and that includes my hon. Friend the Member for Esher (Mr. Taylor), who, for family reasons, is not able to be here tonight.

Although it is a matter of deep personal concern to people whose lives, homes, villages, fields and woodlands are directly affected by the proposals, it raises wider issues about transport policy, planning policy, environmental policy and the relationship between all of them. We know that roads and cars are vital to the development of our economy. We know that an efficient transport infrastructure in the south-east—I listened with interest to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment speaking on that in the previous debate—is important not only regionally but nationally. We know that roads and road traffic will continue to play a key role in that. We know that millions of people regard almost as a right the freedom to travel by car, as and when they choose. We know that all commentators agree that demand for road transport, if unchecked, will increase substantially between now and the second decade of the next century.

We also know that roads and cars are damaging to the environment. They are damaging in a local, practical way. When one builds a new road, one inevitably tarmacs over part of a field or somebody's garden, and affects homes and property. In this instance, We are talking about road-widening proposals for green belt land, but there is global damage as well, through emissions of carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide and carbon dioxide.

We know also that cars are bad for human health. Much more work needs to be done in that area, but, as I said to my hon. Friend when we last discussed these matters, it is not necessary to have a Phd in chemistry to work out that cars damage human health. We are all aware of the tragic consequences that can arise from a running engine in a confined space. I remind the House that in 1990 there were 19 million private vehicles licensed for use on this overcrowded island, and that car traffic had reached 331 billion km a year. Department of Transport forecasts are that those figures will grow by up to 75 per cent. by the year 2015.

These are major issues. My hon. Friend will know that they have been given a thorough treatment in a document entitled "Cars and the Environment: a view to the year 2020", published by the Royal Automobile Club's foundation for motoring and the environment. The fact that a motoring organisation is giving serious thought to these issues is indicative of the way in which the debate about transport and the environment is developing. I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees that it is vital that the Department of Transport should be at the forefront of new thinking on these matters and not stuck with an accepted wisdom that fails to recognise changing attitudes and new needs.

It is not an exaggeration to say that one of the greatest challenges facing us as we move towards the millennium is that of reconciling environmental health and transport policies. New technologies will undoubtedly help, but the greatest help would be a change in philosophy at the Department. I believe that the link roads concept fails to meet the problem, because it addresses only the problem of traffic congestion, and that in isolation from other issues. It fails, too, because we know that wider roads have a habit of becoming filled by traffic as the years pass, creating greater traffic jams, more pollution, further pressure for more tarmac in the green belt and more environmental damage.

I am delighted that since our previous debate on these issues there has been a positive development. I warmly welcome my hon. Friend's announcement a few days ago that the Department will be introducing variable automatic speed limits between junctions 11 and 15 on the M25. My hon. Friend will recall that I urged the introduction of just such measures in February. He will know, therefore, how much I,welcome his announcement. In Germany and Holland, similar systems have proven that the capacity of motorways can be increased by up to about 10 per cent. They ease traffic flow and reduce the risk of accidents and attendant congestion.

I know that my hon. Friend has tolling much in mind. If road tolls are introduced with sufficient flexibility to the busiest part of the M25, I am sure that they could have a major impact on congestion. The majority of cars are on the motorway for short journeys, and it was not built to take that sort of traffic. The fact that it must do so is a major cause of congestion and of the problems that my hon. Friend is seeking to deal with through his link road proposals. The careful introduction of tolling could well keep local traffic on local roads, thereby freeing the motorway for the trunk journeys for which it was intended.

I know also that my hon. Friend may take the view that failure to tackle congestion on the M25 will make life progressively worse on adjacent roads. I share that concern. There was an incident in my constituency a week or so ago that led to the entire motorway being blocked to traffic. That was the result of a possible terrorist-related incident. The amount of traffic that immediately flowed on to the A25 and other surrounding roads caused severe problems for local people using those roads. I share my hon. Friend's concern about shifting traffic off the motorway and on to local roads. I fully understand his point of view.

Equally, it is important to bear in mind the wider issues that I mentioned. There must be a case for seeing the effect that advanced management systems and tolling have on congestion before proceeding with the development of a 14-lane highway in a crude attempt to satisfy a rising tide of demand that cannot in truth be satisfied.

Let us consider also the regional aspects of my hon. Friend's proposals, which conflict with a regional planning strategy that has been carefully developed over many years to promote development in the east of the region. The west is already crowded. I fear that if that link roads proposal is implemented, that overcrowding will become more severe.

My hon. Friend knows that his link roads proposal is not welcome by Surrey county council, other local authorities, or SERPLAN. Large sums of public money have been spent developing a coherent and balanced regional strategy under the auspices of the Department of the Environment. The link roads proposal does not complement that in any way, but runs counter to it.

One criticism of the link roads proposal and other plans for expanding the motorway's capacity is that they are being developed on a piecemeal basis. Sections of the motorway are being considered in isolation. It is always difficult to develop a coherent, overall strategy if one takes a piecemeal approach, but it is nigh on impossible in the case of an orbital road. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to reconsider reviewing the motorway in its entirety. To approach it on a piecemeal basis is further to cut across the developed approach to regional planning.

I ask my hon. Friend to think carefully before making further announcements about the link roads and to bear in mind the points that I raised. I do not raise them glibly but because they reflect the views of locally elected representatives of all parties, local government officers, and the views of many whose lives will be immediately and practically affected by the plans.

My concerns are shared by a growing number of people further afield. They include road users such as myself, who understand the economic importance of road traffic but who are afraid that simple road widening, even on the massive scale envisaged by my hon. Friend the Minister, offers no lasting solution to the present difficulties but instead offers what we should most seek to avoid—a poisoned bequest to our children and to future generations.

12.37 am
Mr. Mark Wolfson (Sevenoaks)

I congratulate my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Ainsworth), on securing this debate and giving a number of us an opportunity to bring to the attention of the House the concerns of our constituents and ourselves about proposals by my hon. Friend the Minister and his Department for link roads around the M25.

I owe my hon. Friend the Minister for Roads and Traffic an apology, because for the second time in a week I am keeping him from his bed. Earlier this week, when we were all here overnight, my sonorous breathing in the Library disturbed him. Tonight, we are keeping him out of his bed again. We all know that a Minister's life is a dog's life—or some of it, anyway.

I understand the priorities of my hon. Friend the Minister in respect of the M25. He has the job of keeping the main arterial road around London open and flowing with traffic moving at a reasonable speed. I appreciate that he must make plans to try to deal with the ever-increasing density of traffic on the road, and that, if he does not take some action—now and in future—the traffic flow will seize up.

Others will speak for themselves, but for my part I accept—albeit reluctantly—the need to widen the existing M25 to four lanes within the existing boundaries. However, I want to emphasise my concern, and that of my local authority and constituents. We are worried about the effect on the current environmental safeguards. We have all seen central grassed or hedge lanes of motorways being concreted over. I do not know what the Department's policy is, but I should like to know. Will all the green strips down the centre of motorways eventually be removed in favour of concrete and crash barriers, which will have a much harsher environmental impact?

There is also concern about the existing environmental controls provided by banks and trees within the hedged or fenced limits of the motorway. What will happen to them when the motorway is widened to four lanes? What are the Department's intentions, and how will those environmental safeguards be replaced and, indeed, improved? Current thinking on environmental safeguards is now very much more sophisticated than it was when the road was first built. Will there be sound barriers, and will new trees be planted? Is it right for the Department to try to widen the road within the existing limits, rather than enlarging its land-take to provide the space for adequate noise and air-pollution barriers for the future?

What is the current policy on the width of lanes? When the four-lane widening was first proposed, we were told that the widths of lanes would differ, the widest being on the outside and the narrowest closest to the kerb. That strikes me as a rather dangerous proposal. Will drivers know the width of the lane that they happen to be driving in? Perhaps the idea has been thrown out.

Sir Michael Grylls (Surrey, North-West)

My hon. Friend mentioned trees, which are important in environmental terms. All those green blobs on the maps look very good, and one imagines that a wonderful forest will appear overnight; but, in fact, those blobs will not become trees for 30 or 40 years—for several generations. It is not really a solution.

Mr. Wolfson

I entirely agree. Moreover, if the motorway is widened to four lanes, the trees that have already been planted on the verges may have to go, in which case we shall have to start again from scratch. How does the Department propose to deal with that? As I have said, I reluctantly accept that the road may have to be widened immediately; none the less, I want some answers from the Minister.

Implacable local opposition to the link road proposals is building up. There is great worry about the proposal that, running through green belt country—some of it of outstanding natural beauty—there should be a 14-lane highway. It is a terrifying prospect.

One sees a comparable width of tarmac only in America, particularly in Los Angeles. If I am wrong, I look forward to the Minister correcting me, giving examples of where 14-lane highways in Britain have been landscaped and telling me that we do not need to worry about them. I shall take a lot of convincing on that score. Such an intrusion into very attractive countryside is an appalling prospect.

Due to the lateness of the hour, the full picture is not emerging of the mounting concern of hon. Members and local authorities throughout the circumference of the M25. Those who are participating in this debate are the ones who may face difficulties during the earliest stages of the proposals. As my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, East said, we are not happy about planning applications for the proposals being submitted on a piecemeal basis. We believe that the only fair way of bringing this matter properly to the attention of the public is to look at the road as a whole, as part of the strategic planning for London and the south-east.

I am concerned, too, about the effect on work and living patterns which widening the road, and in particular building the link roads, will have. Where will this end? It is a short-term solution which, over the next 20 years, might deal with the overcrowding, but if, during those 20 years, we continue to make it easy for people to live in Surrey and work in Hertfordshire, more of them will do so. We shall therefore add to the problem. We must think about population growth, where the jobs will be and whether, in the 21st century, it will make sense to encourage people to travel the distances that they now travel to work, using the road network.

When my hon. Friends and I talk to people who work in our constituencies, we find that often they tell us that they have not moved house because they are now able to get round the M25, even though they may have to start very early in the morning and put up with the great congestion on the road. It allows them to follow their present work and living pattern. What sense does it make to allow that process to continue? It will lead to the same problem all over again in 20 years' time. A 14-lane motorway and its link roads will no longer be adequate; we shall have to create a 20-lane, or more, motorway. We shall be no further forward.

As for noise barriers, is it proposed that better noise protection barriers will be provided? I am pleased that the Department of Transport now accepts that different road surfaces produce different levels of noise. Before my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Mr. Carlisle) became a Department of Transport Minister I remember writing letters to the Department asking whether its officials were aware that some surfaces were quieter than others. They wrote back and said that their experts had told them that there was no difference in the noise level. We were not experts. We were common or garden people, but we could tell that there was a difference. At last, the Department, with or without its expert advice, has accepted that there is a difference and is promoting quieter road surfaces. However, they are not being promoted fast enough. The materials that lead to lower noise levels should be used not just on new roads but on roads that are resurfaced. One of the banes of modern life, which can turn heaven into absolute hell for many of my constituents, is to have a very noisy road running close by. There is no doubt at all that the plans for the M25, as they stand, will result in a horrifying increase in the level of noise.

On the question of noise barriers, we look to experience abroad, where, it appears, there is a much greater readiness to provide new and different types of barrier. Motorways on the outskirts of Paris and those running past other French towns have very tall barriers, and different wall angles are used to break up noise. Then, to disguise the ugliness of the barriers, trees and creepers are planted. There is much more advanced development than has been achieved in this country so far. My expectation is that Kent will follow the good example of Surrey, where parts of the M25 have wooden noise barriers already. We have never had any such things in Kent. I do not know whose fault that is, though I can happily say that the situation arose before I became a Member of Parliament. However, we will try to learn and to see that very much better barriers and bunds are provided in the future.

There is an absolute need for a clear transport strategy in connection with the M25 proposals. The Government must consider, and there must be a public debate about, the balance between road and rail, between bus, train and car. I welcome the proposals for road pricing and the recent announcement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport about the possibility of tagging a motorist as a means of measuring the amount of time he spends, for example, driving on London roads and the distance covered. These are sensible policies. We must move from a situation in which people are not immediately aware of the cost of a car journey, as they are aware of the cost of a train journey when they buy a ticket. Only after having met much of the cost of running a car does the motorist buy the petrol, which is the only immediately apparent cost. If we are to control the use of cars, it will be necessary to make a more immediate charge for the use of congested roads. The idea of congestion pricing makes good sense to me.

I want to deal with the question of public transport, which has to be considered in balance with private transport. I call for renewed priority to be given to improvement of the public transport system in London as a corollary to limiting the intrusion of link roads into the countryside in the area of the M25. In the debate on an earlier topic, an Opposition Member quoted a recent CBI survey which suggests that traffic congestion in London costs industry £10 billion a year. As I am a realist in respect of these matters, I do not expect that there will be an opportunity to prevent traffic congestion, however good the public transport system may be. However, there is a good deal of room to make the public transport system in London more comparable with the systems in other capital cities. Paris is the one that I know particularly well. In that city there are at least four highly developed forms of rail transport—the 19th century railway system; the high-speed railways, which run directly into the capital; the metro system, which is comparable to our tube; and the RER high-speed trains, which criss-cross the city at 60 mph. The parallel proposals here are for crossrail and the line from Heathrow to central London.

Those proposals are only a beginning—such services have existed in Paris for 20 years or more. The French had major problems about, among other things, the environment when establishing their services, but they went ahead. I appreciate the fact that French law allows central Government greater freedom to make final decisions than is the case here.

Having used the French system, I know how good it is in comparison with ours. I also know that, year by year, London's public transport system is falling behind that of our continental competitors—and they are competitors. Whatever our political views, we must accept that a good public transport system is an absolute necessity for a capital city which wants to stay in the world class for business.

There are proper interchanges in Paris. The suburban stations on the RER lines have been developed, and bus routes run out to residential areas. The whole system is integrated in a way that we have so far not been able to achieve, so I welcome the appointment of a Minister with responsibility for transport in London. The appointment was long overdue and very necessary.

As a corollary to asking for a more integrated approach to the particular proposals for the M25 link roads, we must accept that it will be necessary to increase investment in public transport in and around London to prevent the countryside from being literally swamped by concrete pathways for the motor car, which would still not enable people to go about their daily business on a decent system.

12.56 am
Sir Geoffrey Pattie (Chertsey and Walton)

I speak as a keen user of motorways. If I can escape the traffic congestion, I hope to be using a motorway in a few hours, and I do not need the Minister, now or at any other time, to extol the virtues of rapid motor vehicle surface benefits.

The Department of Transport talks of adding another lane to the M25. My hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Wolfson) reminded us that even increasing the number of lanes from three to four involves certain hazards. Without meaning to, the Department has done us a great service. Its link road proposals are sufficiently grotesque—adding another six lanes to what will be eight lanes—will force many people, including me, to say that, although there have been considerable benefits to be had from motorway travel until now, what will happen when we fill up the six new lanes, as we shall? Will we have another six and another six after that?

The policy appears to be to have a bypass around this, an extension to that, and an extra lane somewhere else. Successive Governments have done the same. I sympathise with the Minister because the main problem is to know when it is time to call a halt and recognise that we are heading into the proverbial cul-de-sac. We are not in the Australian outback or the Nevada desert; we are a small country with a finite resource. The image that people have of this green and pleasant land is not one of motorways but of fields, hedgerows and downs, which are relentlessly being eaten up.

I must tell my hon. Friend the Minister that there is nothing remotely resembling personal criticism of him, and no offence meant, when I talk about "the Department". I know from experience in government how difficult it is for anyone holding ministerial office to be able to initiate a review of policy, but I have to ask whether even the Department of Transport is capable of producing what I think we need, which is a new transport policy to take us through not only the rest of the decade—it is too late for that—but into the next century.

For example, is the Department of Transport capable of integrating the road and rail aspects of transport? We have my hon. Friend the Minister for Roads and Traffic—how grateful we are that he is here tonight—and we have a Minister for Public Transport, who is responsible for rail transport. We should feel more comfortable if the Department of Transport issued a proclamation that it was examining the future transport needs of the south-east, and of the whole country. We are focusing on the M25 tonight, but if what I am saying has any force at all, it has equal force anywhere in the country. I am talking about considering transport as an integrated activity.

My hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Ainsworth), who initiated the debate so excellently, said that there was a sense of growing unease among many people, and not only in the south-east. That unease is not simply the predictable kind, which enables Departments and civil servants to say, "Oh, well, let us give them some compensation, because some people's houses will be affected," and the other standard stuff that we always hear when a bypass is going through a housing estate, or whatever. The unease that people feel about current proposals is different; it is deeper. People are really starting to ask whether we have reached the point in transport development at which basic questions have to be asked and answered.

How will we move people about in the first decade of the next century and beyond? As my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks explained so well, the existence of the M25 has made possible a whole series of journeys that were never possible before. Someone can live in Braintree, for example, and work near Guildford; and there are many such permutations. Who am I to say that that is wrong? But it has drawn traffic in. When the Department of Transport sees that, its answer is, "We must provide more facilities: let us widen the road so that even more cars can come on to the motorway.

" That represents one of the rare examples that I can think of in this country of our not providing market mechanisms such as tolls. On a personal note, I must admit that I am one of the people whom my hon. Friend the Minister and his proposals are trying to get at. I frequently get on to the M25 and leave it at the next exit, because my constituency of Chertsey and Walton is situated precisely between exits 10 and 11. If I had to pay £25, or whatever, for the privilege at peak time, I might think twice about doing that.

In the past two weeks the Minister has produced what seems, prima facie, a sensible proposal—to manage the flow of traffic with speed restrictions. But I ask him to consider the results. Apparently the proposal would result in large gantries appearing over the 14 lanes. I know that there will not be 14 lanes at the pilot stage, but let us look ahead at the grotesque nightmare that will eventually materialise. There will be 14 lanes and gantries with all sorts of messages on them, and drivers will be jockeying for position, trying to work out what the signals are telling them to do. Are they to reduce their speed or increase it? If they are three lanes from the lane they ought to be in, it will be like the dodgems.

Simply adding more lanes on the scale proposed is not the answer. Had the Department been smart enough a few years ago to leave a slightly wider curtilage, which would have enabled it to move first from three to four lanes, then from four to five in two or three year's time, and then from five to six, it would have got away with it. It would have seemed unreasonable for my hon. Friends and I in future debates to say that we did not like the fifth lane, or were not happy about the sixth lane, when only one lane was being added.

This is the big leap: we are to have an extra six lanes. My hon. Friend the Minister must not underestimate the intensity of the opposition, which is not based just on the fact that people are saying that they already live near it and do not like it or that they will lose their houses. The people who will lose their houses are lucky. We are beyond that—we are talking about colossal environmental damage and fantastic pollution.

The Department needs to think about work patterns, and about the 60,000 or 70,000 people who work at Heathrow, nearly all of whom drive to work, and many of whom would not do so if a satisfactory alternative transit system existed. My hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks has described cogently the Paris transport system. The sad fact that we have to face, which involves successive Governments, is that we have not solved the problem of how to move people from the conurbations around London in and out of the city, whether they are travelling for leisure or for business purposes.

I urge my hon. Friend to take the message back to his Department from the debate that this is not just a knee-jerk reaction by a bunch of well-meaning Members from the shires, as I suppose we are called. This is but the start. These are the early shots in a campaign which will last a long time. It will last as long as his Department persists with the proposals. We intend to use whatever means we can to encourage the Department, if I may put it in those terms, to justify what it is doing and to urge it every step of the way to think again and to develop the integrated transport policies that we believe are the only sensible recipe for transport use in the early part of the next century.

1.7 am

Sir Michael Grylls (Surrey, North-West)

My hon. Friends who have taken part in the debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Ainsworth) have covered much of the ground involved in the effective doubling of the M25. I want to paint a picture of the area where it is proposed to start, which may not be familiar to all hon. Members—roughly the part between the M4 and the M3, going towards Chertsey, in other words, Egham to Chertsey. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chertsey and Walton (Sir G. Pattie) will forgive me for mentioning Chertsey, but I had the honour to represent the people in that area until they took the wise decision to have him instead of me.

It is a lovely area. From St Anne's hill at my hon. Friend's end of the constituency, to the village of Thorpe in my constituency, to the ancient town of Egham on the edge of the River Thames, it is a great beauty spot. Thorpe is a beautiful village, surrounded by the M25, the M3 and the Thorpe water park, which is quite agreeable on a nice day. The village will be squeezed even more by the doubling of the M25. It is a lovely village with its ancient church. Coincidentally, it is reputed to be the place where the first Christian worship took place, so it is an historic church. Thorpe is a traditional English village where people have lived happily for hundreds of years.

I shall pick up the theme of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chertsey and Walton. He said that people originally accepted the M25. There was an understanding that there had to be a belt road round London to avoid congestion in the capital. People accepted it, although it did enormous damage when it was built. The M25 goes close to the village of Thorpe and touches the town of Egham. As my right hon. Friend said, the noise is appalling.

People accepted the road because there was a national interest in it and they understood the logic of it. None of them in their wildest imaginations believed that my hon. Friend the Minister for Roads and Traffic would make this proposal. My hon. Friend is benign, extremely efficient, charming and distinguished. He has only good attributes: I cannot think of a single negative attribute. That is a rare thing to say about any Minister—we get to know the negatives quickly. My hon. Friend the Minister does not have any negative attributes. The only problem was that he made this proposal. People could not believe that someone would double the motorway. It was absolutely astounding. In the years that I have represented this lovely part of the world, I have known nothing like the angers and horror which spread.

When the proposal was mooted, it was fascinating. I went to an exhibition in Egham in the literary institute building. The building is beautiful and I commend it to my hon. Friends who have not yet been there. There were two gentlemen from the Department of Transport at the exhibition, although my hon. Friend the Minister was not there. There were a lot of anxious burghers of Egham at the meeting who asked the officials, "Even if we accept these feeder roads—which we certainly do not, but let us say that we do simply for the matter of argument—as necessary to resolve the present problems, for how long will they resolve the problems? What will happen when the feeder roads get filled up? Will you take another eight lanes or build something on top or underneath?" We were treated like idiots. The officials may have been right or wrong. We may be idiots. We got the odd reply that those matters are not relevant because this solution will be the all-time solution. We heard the same thing when the M25 was built.

We have the advantage of,some traffic flows which are expected in the year 2015—they were announced in a parliamentary question. That is a few years on. Undoubtedly, my hon. Friend the Minister for Roads and Traffic will still be in the same position: he may even be the Secretary of State for Transport by then. There will certainly be a Conservative Government. In 2015, he will be 74. We will probably have another Adjournment debate to discuss this issue and it may well be at an uncivilised hour, as well. My hon. Friend the Minister will be 74 and I will be 81, so it will be much worse for me. Undoubtedly, I will stagger or totter into the Chamber and say that this sort of thing is wrong.

The figures show that nearly a quarter of a million cars will travel between junctions 14 and 15 daily. They are silly figures because we know that such figures have always been wrong. My hon. Friend the Minister has given the figures in all honesty, and he is a man of the highest integrity. I do not believe that he is trying to trick anyone. However, I do not think that any true credibility can be given to the figures. Forecasts are made and it is said that this will be the all-time solution until the year 2015; but the figures could be at least 50 per cent. wrong. I believe that the initial figures for the M25 were more than 50 per cent. wrong.

We know what is happening. The Department feels that it must do something—and that is understandable. It is what politics is about: instant action to get instant results. However, as my hon. Friends the Members for Surrey, East and for Sevenoaks (Mr. Wolfson) said, when one is talking about the future of the countryside and green belt areas, one cannot be short-termist. Once it has been concreted over, it cannot be deconcreted. People in our part of the world have accepted the M25 as being generally in the national interest, but hereafter we face creeping concretization—if I may be allowed to use that phrase. It is short-termism gone mad.

We need some real lateral thinking, not the knee-jerk reaction of putting a few more lanes in to keep the whole thing going. I do not know how the suggested traffic slowing measure would work. If traffic on one part of a circular road goes at 50 mph and on another part goes at 80 mph, one does not need to be a great mathematician to realise that at some stage there might be a nasty bump. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Chertsey and Walton said, one has to read the gantries. I would not be able to read them at all, let alone concentrate on them. So perhaps that is not helpful.

We need to examine how we shall deal with the car. In the past 25 years, the growth in the number of cars has been enormous. Somehow the country has just survived. But our south-east of England has become very crowded. If one takes the increase in traffic in London in the past 25 years and doubles it for the next 25 years, one can conclude that, although the traffic flows slowly now, it would come to a full stop then. So we must do some careful thinking.

First, we must conduct an environmental study of the whole M25. We should not deal with it piecemeal. I do not want my hon. Friend the Minister to think that I am being critical—perish the thought—but I believe that there is an element of divide and rule in the Government's policy. They think, "We will pick off Grylls in this part. We can dispose of him easily. We can eat him for supper. Then we will take the right hon. Member for Chertsey and Walton." He would be rather a more substantial meal than me. They may get indigestion.

We are not too much trouble individually. Tonight, unfortunately for the Government, four of us happen to be together so we are a proper repas, to coin a French phrase. The Government have to do better. We must look at the environmental dimension. I do not want to stray into European policy in a debate on a national issue, because I know that you would tick me off, Mr. Deputy Speaker. However, there may be room for calling back that EC figure who was much derided by some of us—Mr. Ripa di Meana.

Sir Geoffrey Pattie

He has retired.

Sir Michael Grylls

Perhaps he has retired or perhaps he is in prison for taking a few pourboires that he should not have taken. Good luck to him. Perhaps we want another Mr. Ripa di Meana to have a look at the whole of the M25 and find some less damaging solutions.

My hon. Friend the Minister has one great attribute which I have not yet mentioned. I do not want to leave any out. He is a real country man. He loves the country and represents the beautiful county town of Lincoln in a beautiful part of England. He understands well the need to preserve the countryside. Perhaps we should look more seriously for solutions to traffic problems. The Government have mentioned road pricing. It would be difficult to operate, but it is a better solution than telling people that they should not use their cars. That would not be feasible. The car is part of our life for the foreseeable future in a free country. As a Conservative, I do not believe that people should be told not to use their cars.

Using price as a way to control the use of cars would be more acceptable than creeping concretisation. This is not the time to go into the technicalities of road pricing, but certainly it can be done without people having to put money into boxes. We can do it with technology. Perhaps another way—I do not necessarily propose this, but I want to put some new thinking into the debate—would be somehow to limit the amount of petrol that people can buy. I do not like rationing. The hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) is going to have a bit of fun in a moment. He would love to intervene, I am sure, and I would love to give way to him, but time is short.

Perhaps petrol is the key—pricing petrol according to how much is used. A motorist has £500 worth at the normal price, and the next £500 worth at double the price.

Some thought must be given to bringing pricing into the use of cars. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chertsey and Walton was right when he said that we are a very small country. But we are particularly blessed because we have had sensible policies that preserve the green belt, so we still have lovely parts of our country, even near great cities such as London, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool. That has been a precious policy that we must not eat into. If we do, future generations will never forgive us.

So let us look at road pricing very seriously. Even if these feeder roads happen—there is a big question whether they will—when they get blocked up again in the year 2015, and my right hon. Friend is 74 and I am 81, we will still have to come to road pricing, I am absolutely sure. So why not do it now, and not destroy more and more of the countryside?

There is another area that I commend to my hon. Friend, because he is a member of the Government, whom I support with great enthusiasm, and they have a temporary problem with their borrowing, which is forecast to go to a very high level temporarily, until we can bring it under control. I know that my hon. Friend will wish to play his part in bringing that excessive spending under control, because he is a very sound economist and I have discussed these things with him. He wants to see sound money and prudent finances. He does not like high spending any more than I do, and we are spending far too much as a country. I am perfectly sure that he will want to make his contribution from his Department. He is, and would like to be even more, I am sure, the blue-eyed boy of my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary, who needs to bring the financial situation under control.

Most hon. Members come to the House and ask for more money for their constituents—a bit more money for this hospital, this school, that bypass. I am going to shock the House and suggest tonight that my constituency could do without £144 million, which is the estimated cost of this first stage of the feeder road system. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be the first to congratulate me on that generous gesture and will tell the Chief Secretary that the hon. Member for Surrey, North-West has made a generous gesture, and it should be recognised, appreciated and accepted here and now.

We have a very famous part of the country in north-west Surrey called Runnymede, where the Magna Carta was signed. There are some statues and memorials there, and my hon. Friend would surely deserve a statue in that famous field if he accepted my proposal to save £144 million of taxpayers' money. That would be good for the Budget and good for the borrowing requirement. It would please the Chancellor, and we always like to do that. It would give us time to look very seriously at this issue of how we keep the M25 moving and how we deal with the motor car for the next 25 years, while preserving the freedoms that we all want to preserve.

I want to leave my hon. Friend under no misapprehension about the anger that is felt about this proposal in my constituency, and in other constituencies, too; there is also the fear that people's main asset, their home, is under threat. It is not the house that is compulsorily purchased that is the problem; it is the house whose occupants can no longer go into the garden. Their house is not only unsaleable; it is uninhabitable.

Mr. Wolfson

In support of that point, is my hon. Friend aware that there have been road widening schemes in the area near Maidstone and the current compensation arrangements are quite appalling? It is an inadequate way of protecting his constituents from the ravages of road widening.

Mr. Grylls

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. No one dreamt there would be such noise. My constituents accepted the concept and the building of the M25, but they had no idea what the noise would be, and nor did the planners or the Department. They had no idea what the traffic flow would be, so they could not have known about the noise. Now it will be virtually doubled and that is intolerable.

Like those of my hon. Friends here tonight, mine is a loyal Conservative constituency which has always returned a Conservative Member of Parliament, as far as I know. I am sure that it will continue doing so, but the anger of my constituents with their own Government knows no bounds. They are deeply upset and angry and they do not believe that sufficient thinking has gone into the plans.

We need lateral thinking and we need to pause. Let us save the money, and let us find a sensible way of dealing with the problem and not do it through wholesale destruction.

1.25 am
Mr. Tony Banks

With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to make some comments about the proposal.

I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Ainsworth) on his choice of subject. Having heard the proposal, it is not surprising that the widening of the M25 should have stirred up the Conservatives in the way it has done this evening. I have great sympathy with Conservative Members, and indeed with all the people who will be affected if the Government are foolish enough to go ahead with the proposal. The hon. Member for Surrey, North-West (Sir M. Grylls) was too kind to the Minister. Perhaps he feels that his gentle persuasion will cause the Minister to rethink, but there are signs of a juggernaut behind the proposal and I am not sure whether the Minister has the power to stop it.

So many proposals start in the fevered minds of planners and civil servants, are taken up by Ministers and, despite the fact that hon. Members across the House consider them to be absolutely appalling, nothing is done about it. No one has spoken in favour of the proposal. Although the Government Whip might speak in favour of it if he had the opportunity to do so, I suspect that he would be a minority voice among those who understand and are directly affected. If Parliament means anything at all, the wishes of Members of Parliament who represent the area covered by such a proposal ought to be taken seriously into account. It will not bother me if the Minister outrages his own side. I welcome the thought of large numbers of Conservative seats falling at the next county council elections, as they may very well do as a result of the proposal. It is not for me to tell the Minister that if he wants to save his political skin and some of his colleagues on county councils in the area he should do something about it. That is his problem.

If the proposal is implemented, it will be devastating to the environment and to the communities, which happen to be represented in large measure by Conservative Members, but that does not mean that there are no Labour voters in the area and that we have no concern for people, whoever they vote for and whoever they elect to the House of Commons.

Sir Michael Grylls

The hon. Gentleman is probably aware that Surrey county council, as a body, and all the Conservative councillors are dead against the proposal and have been fighting it every bit as hard as Conservative Members.

Mr. Banks

I was aware of that fact. The only thing that will concentrate the Government's mind, however, is if they see their party suffering electoral reverses in the county council elections. That might sound like an obvious point for me to make, but I do not want to rejoice in Tory defeat by seeing the scheme go ahead. If the people of Surrey, Kent, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire and Essex want to send a clear message to Ministers, perhaps they should do so by voting out Conservative county councils—even when they know that those councils are as much opposed to the M25 proposals as they, the electors, are.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth

I must take issue with the hon. Gentleman on that point. The people of Surrey, Essex, Kent and Berkshire are not foolish. They know where they stand on the proposals, which they are against. They know that their locally elected authorities share their opposition. They know that their best chance of getting the proposals thrown out is by re-electing Conservative councillors who will be able to liaise closely with their Members of Parliament to persuade my hon. Friend the Minister to see sense.

Mr. Banks

The hon. Gentleman's hon. Friend the Minister has not seen sense up to now, even after listening to an awful lot of his hon. Friends trying to tell him why he should. Conservative Members should be more forceful in their treatment of the Minister. Instead of treating him with kid gloves, perhaps they should strangle him—that would be the best way to concentrate his mind.

I understand that Conservative Members are serious about their opposition to the proposals, but I believe that some serious electoral reverses will have to be suffered by their party in their areas so that the Minister understands the depth of local feeling. If a Labour Government were to make such a proposal, I would be up in arms—I would not go toadying to a Labour Minister to beg him not to be nasty to my constituents.

The proposals will have a devastating impact on the affected areas and it is amazing that the Government can come forward with them. In 1986, on the day the M25 was completed, the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, described it as "a magnificent achievement". That was a hollow claim even then. Even before its completion, planners realised that they had hopelessly underestimated traffic growth on the motorway. Traffic in the north-west sections grew by between 30 and 70 per cent. within six months of the final stage being completed. Although it was expected to carry 79,000 vehicles a day in 2001, traffic on some western sections already exceeds 200,000 vehicles.

In 1988, two years after completion, 21 out of 26 sections were carrying more traffic than they were designed to carry. The hon. Member for Surrey, North-West referred to the possible intervention of the European Community and the former Environment Commissioner, Carlo Ripa di Meana. The Government's proposal that eight lanes should be completed by 1996 and 14 lanes by 2007 cuts out public discussion and debate in the affected areas. No full plan will be debated, so the environmental impact assessments which the hon. Member for Surrey, North-West wants will not be prepared. They will be prepared for one section at a time. Some sections will be widened before consultations and inquiries into other sections have taken place. That is a ridiculous and irresponsible way to undertake such a development.

The hon. Member for Surrey, North-West also said that he intended to ask Ministers not to spend money in his constituency. I understand why, because the total cost of the 14 lanes will be £2.8 billion at 1990–91 prices. That money could be used to build crossrail, which would be a good way to relieve congestion within the M25 area.

I have a list of all the towns, villages and sites of special scientific interest affected in Kent, Surrey, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire and Essex.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

Read it out.

Mr. Banks

My hon. Friend asks me to read it out, but I cannot do so as it contains dozens and dozens of villages. Widening the M25 to 14 lanes will devastate the countryside around London. Some 60 per cent. of the area affected lies in the green belt. Up to 26 sites of special scientific interest—the official title given to the United Kingdom's most precious wildlife sites—lie near the M25. Seventeen of them lie within 500 metres of it, and many will be damaged or destroyed. The M25 passes through three areas of outstanding natural beauty—the official term used for areas of beautiful countryside—the Chilterns, the Surrey hills and the Kent downs. Widening it would further damage those areas.

The proposal is not the way to deal with congestion. I think that it was the right hon. Member for Chertsey and Walton (Sir G. Pattie) who said that if the motorway is widened it will be the widest motorway system outside north America. We know what happens: the more roads one builds, the more traffic comes on to them. The Roads Federation will then demand that more roads be built. People in the Department of Transport seem obsessed with building more roads. I wish that they were more obsessed with building railways in this country, but the cry is always for more roads. The roads lobby, with which Conservative Members are dealing, is a powerful political force. As the roads become wider, more traffic uses them, and so the demand increases.

The scheme is crazy, irresponsible and destructive. The Opposition bitterly oppose the proposal to widen the M25. If the Minister does not listen to me—and I doubt whether he will—I hope that he will listen to Conservative voices as on this occasion they are telling the truth and it is about time that he listened.

1.32 am
The Minister for Roads and Traffic (Mr. Kenneth Carlisle)

I, too, am glad that tonight's subject for debate was chosen. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Ainsworth) on securing it, and I congratulate my hon. Friends for turning up in such force to participate in it. The subject is important and I have found the arguments of great interest and thought. I hope to respond satisfactorily to my hon. Friends, but the debate is a continuing one and will go beyond tonight as it involves the development of our transport policy, which is important and enduring. My hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, East has returned to the subject, which I welcome, and I know that he will do so again. He also expressed the interest of some of my hon. Friends.

I was glad to visit the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, North-West (Sir M. Grylls) only a week or two ago to look at the problem on site. He showed me the road from all angles and I met many of his constituents. He made me aware of his concern. In the House, and on other occasions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chertsey and Walton (Sir G. Pattie) and my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Wolfson) have also ensured that their great concerns are fully aired. I thank them for being present tonight.

I shall try to answer the issues raised. First, however, it is important to consider the present needs of the M25, which is one of the most important roads in this country. Since it was opened, the traffic on it has increased. It has served its purpose well and has drawn traffic away from London, but now its busiest sections—sections 12 to 15, to which the proposal relates—carry up to 200,000 per day. That is nearly double the amount of traffic for which the road was designed.

There has been much talk about expanding other forms of transport, which we support. We want a balanced transport system, and put about as much money into railways and public transport as we do into roads. But 90 per cent. of freight and people travel on our road system. Even if we doubled the number of people who travelled by train, we would hardly dent the numbers who travel by road. The M25 is already full to overflowing, so the problem is one that we face now, not one that will have to be faced in 10 years' time. We need a better road system now.

The M25 is not just a local road, although surprisingly it is that as well—two thirds of the traffic which gets on at the M3 gets off at or before the M4—so we can look at sections of the M25 in their own right, serving a local community. It also serves as an important road for through traffic. I have more letters than ever saying that we must improve the road. People write from Scotland to say that the biggest bottleneck between Scotland and their markets is the M25. We must stand up for a big silent majority who want not to face congestion on roads, and who want the roads to be improved.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Chertsey and Walton is important in the industrial world, and is an important man in my constituency of Lincoln, where he is the chairman of some of the companies there. When I visit those companies, the biggest complaints that I have about their ability to compete is that communications are not good enough and it takes them too long to get their products to Heathrow or the channel ports. It is therefore vital for the economies of communities north of Watford, in Lincoln, in Yorkshire and in Lancashire, that the M25 should work well, and we are determined to ensure that our plans for the M25 relate to that.

My hon. Friends have said that they want to see the future of the M25 set in its strategic context. That is the right way to go about things, and it is what we seek to do. Many papers have done so. For example "Roads for Prosperity" in 1989 had a section on the M25, and that was followed up by the White Paper of 1990. We also had, in 1989, the M25 review, which dealt specifically with the M25, followed in 1990 by the M25 action plan, which again looked at the M25 in its strategic context. I have promised my hon. Friends and the county councils representing the areas surrounding the M25 that when we come up with the results of the consultation paper on link roads we shall have a further paper on our strategy for the M25.

The case for a better M25 is proven by the existing weight of traffic on it, by the needs of the economy and by the congestion. People who live around the M25 should ponder a little on what happened when it was closed by the false alarm that a bomb had been placed on it. Traffic was forced on to local roads, where it had been before the motorway was built, causing great inconvenience to all the local communities. The number of cars on the roads will further increase. We have fewer cars per person than Germany and France, but as prosperity returns, more cars will be bought. If we do nothing to the M25, and do not improve that existing route, in 10 or 15 years' time, those communities will be angry about the congestion. There is an argument that we should seek to keep traffic on existing routes so that it does not spill over into surrounding communities.

I agree that there is a strong argument that we cannot continue merely to build roads. We must have new thinking, and within the Department there is the genesis of many new initiatives. First, we can use new technology—some of which my right hon. Friend the Member for Chertsey and Walton produces—to manage roads better. We are increasingly erecting variable message signs on motorways to enable us better to manage traffic flows. We recently announced a trial of controlled motorways, which we hope will help to improve the flow on existing motorways. As that will not be enough, we are examining pricing. I may be unpopular as a result, but I must say that we are considering it.

We are undertaking some research into road pricing within towns and cities. That is city congestion charging. We hope that we shall be able to develop ideas and technology so that if we wanted to go ahead with an experiment, we could do so. It is important to separate towns and cities from the flow of traffic between communities. We have said that in May we shall be producing a Green Paper on motorway charging, which will be between cities. I shall be grateful if my right hon. and hon. Friends respond to the paper. As the Minister with responsibility for roads, I recognise that it is vital to improve the flow of traffic between towns and cities. The roads which link them are, unfortunately, not yet good enough. They are far worse than their counterparts in many other countries on the continent. Our inter-urban roads need to be improved, even if we have to move towards some concept of motorway charging in the long-run. I am convinced that within towns and cities we cannot make provision for ever more traffic. Therefore, we are developing comprehensive packages within towns.

The other day I visited Chester, where we have helped to fund a park-and-ride scheme. Eventually, there will be five or six extremely good car parks on the edge of the city, where motorists will park their cars before taking a 10-minute journey into the city centre at a very cheap rate.

We are examining city congestion charging, park and ride, controlled parking, bus routes, and so on. These ideas are developing quickly in our communities. There is much to be said for the integration of transport, but I tend to agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, North-West that we cannot dictate to people what they may or may not do. We must depend very much on the private sector to ensure that a bus meets a train when it arrives at a station. Within that use of the private sector, we are seeking integration. In the coming year we shall invite local authorities, when they bid for transport supplementary grant, to adopt what we call a package approach, if they can develop one. That means submitting a bid which can balance, as it were, buses, railways, the need for roads, park and ride, and so on. That is a useful initiative.

My right hon. and hon. Friends are rightly worried about the environment and it is important that we adopt a sensitive approach to the building of roads. First, we accept that it is difficult to build a road on a green-field site. If we do not improve existing routes, however, we may be forced to build a road where one did not exist before. If we are to improve our road system, we must expand existing routes—that is the way to do it.

The realistic speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks dwelt on environmental aspects. There have been improvements in that respect. Our "Good Roads Guide" described how new roads are made to fit better into the landscape, and false mounding and false cutting is used far more imaginatively. I agree with my hon. Friend that there is great scope for higher and more environmentally friendly noise barriers. Such new techniques, together with quieter road surfaces, will be used to make roads more acceptable.

When designing roads, we must consider each section in detail to determine how it should be constructed. My hon. Friend asked how the road would be constructed in his constituency, if we decide to widen within the existing boundaries after consultation. If my hon. Friend will visit the Department, we can show him how each section will be dealt with in the most sensitive way. If we were to go ahead with link roads on the west of the M25, the road's existing design would be improved. About two-thirds of the land taken for the link roads would be used for landscaping—the planting of trees, banks, mounding, and otherwise making the road less obtrusive. When I visited the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, North-West, I reached the conclusion that our designs would make the road less intrusive than it is today. If we went ahead with the link roads, we would take great care to design them properly.

As my hon. Friends know, we take consultation seriously and have consulted on the link roads. I cannot say yet what we shall do because we have not concluded our consideration of that consultation. If we were to go ahead because the existing need for the road was considered pre-eminent, we would bring forward a full environmental assessment. The hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) should understand that. It is not as he said. We would attempt to take people with us when we announced the preferred route and would show them the plans in more detail. They would of course have the right to a full public inquiry at which they could advance their views.

Sir Geoffrey Pattie

Can my hon. Friend confirm that the public inquiry and related procedures would be on a motorway-wide basis, and not deal with one section after another?

Mr. Carlisle

It has to be on the road that is being built. It would not make any sense to hold an inquiry on junctions 12 to 15 and on the Dartford bridge at the same time. They are not related closely enough. When one considers the flow of traffic on the M25, it is clear that it is a local road. My right hon. Friend said that he uses just one section, as he nips to his surgery and back again. When the results of the consultation are published, and if we are to go ahead, we shall produce a strategy document which will consider the M25 in the round.

Sir Michael Grylls

Will my hon. Friend undertake to include in his paper all the options for the feeder roads?

Mr. Carlisle

I shall try to be, as helpful as possible. I believe that there is an economic need for a better M25. We shall consult, and we shall be as sensitive as possible. I fully understand that we must develop our thinking about how to manage traffic in the future. Although roads are economically important, we all know that they are only a part of life and need to fit sensibly into the existence of a civilised society.