HC Deb 26 July 1993 vol 229 cc738-40
8. Mr. Mullin

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport how much his Department is proposing to spend on new road building during the next five years.

Mr. MacGregor

The current public expenditure plans of my Department involve the spending of £4.1 billion on the construction of new motorways and trunk roads in the years 1993–94 to 1995–96. In the current year, we plan to spend £1.4 billion on building new motorways and trunk roads as part of this year's record expenditure of VA billion on national roads.

Mr. Mullin

I welcome the Secretary of State's decision not to concrete over Oxleas Wood. Was it a one-off or the first step in a programme to prise his Department from the grip of the road lobby? If the Government are interested in making savings in public funds, is not their insane road building programme an obvious place to start?

Mr. MacGregor

I do not accept that it is an insane road building programme and, as I go round the country, the demands and requests that I receive are for building bypasses and improving the motorway network, on which the vast majority of people want us to put emphasis. Increasing emphasis is being placed on environmental issues. Having benefited from close proximity to a wood, and knowing the importance of lungs, I believe strongly in trees and woods and lungs for London. I took my decision on Oxleas Wood on its merits. Nowadays, the Department of Transport puts heavy emphasis on all environmental aspects of the road programme.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth

Is my right hon. Friend aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey North-West (Sir M. Grylls) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Chertsey and Walton (Sir G. Pattie) are today visiting the European Environment Commissioner to express the concern of many thousands of people in Surrey and elsewhere around London about the proposal to build link roads on the M25? To what extent is my right hon. Friend of the view that link roads work in harmony with local, district, county and regional plans and, indeed, with the Department of the Environment's Green Paper, which was published only last week and suggested that we should restrain traffic growth in the interests of the environment and of health?

Mr. MacGregor

I think that they are consistent with regional plans and with the Department of the Environment's Green Paper, with which I was closely associated and with which I agree. We propose to hold a public inquiry next year on the proposed link road between the M3 and M4, which will have to look at the fact that doing nothing is not an option. Whatever restraint—motorway tolling or other measures—is put on the growth of traffic, there is no doubt that traffic on that section of the motorway, which is one of the most congested in the country, will continue to increase. Unless something is done, the danger is that a substantial amount of traffic will be diverted back to local roads, which will recreate the congestion and environmental disadvantages that the M25 was designed to remove.

Mr. Harvey

Will the Minister confirm whether his Department is considering a network of 12 or 14-lane wide motorways, as speculated in some Sunday broadsheets, whose vivid diagrams almost went off the edge of the page and probably evaded the tabloids altogether? Is not he concerned about projected growth figures of 35 million vehicles by 2025, and how will that square with the commitments that the Government gave at Rio? Is not he concerned by reports linking asthma with car usage? Does not a point come when one has to say enough is enough and instead seek investment opportunities in the public transport network?

Mr. MacGregor

Let me deal with a few of those points. First, I do not confirm the reports in the Sunday newspapers. We are talking about a three-lane link road on each side of the M25 on one section, and I have announced one other. The important point is that it is not just the M25 around London—preventing traffic coming into London—but a major arterial route between several other motorways. It is an exceptional part of the motorway network and, in my view, needed the type of proposals that we are putting forward to a public inquiry.

We are taking a large number of steps to deal with environmental pollution. I am aware of the asthma research and look forward to seeing the results in 1994. The hon. Gentleman should not neglect the fact that allowing traffic to move freely also contributes to removing pollution from the atmosphere. If traffic is congested and stays still, it is a major contributor to atmospheric pollution; we are taking many steps to put that right.

Mr. Luff

When my right hon. Friend considers how much money to spend on investment in roads, will he consider the advantageous effect of a significant investment in local rolling stock on the railways in my constituency? Does he acknowledge that investment in the new Cotswold turbos between Worcester and London has led to a 26 per cent. improvement in revenue in the past two months on my local rail service, and will he bear that strongly in mind when considering the relative merits of road and rail investment?

Mr. MacGregor

My hon. Friend is quite right and I am aware of all of that. However, when considering the problems on the M25 that we discussed earlier, one must realise that whatever one does on the railway system will not substantially reduce the increased amount of traffic likely to flow on that road.

My hon. Friend mentions an important point, which enables me to emphasise yet again, particularly to those who argue that the Department of Transport is mainly concerned about roads, that 56 per cent. of the Department's spending is on roads, compared with 44 per cent. on public transport. Given that nine tenths of traffic goes by road, that shows that, if anything, we in the Department of Transport are skewing—relatively speaking—public expenditure favourably towards public transport.

Mr. Prescott

Does the Secretary of State accept that his Department's estimates mean that growth in use of the private motor vehicle will need a road to accommodate demand equivalent to a 275-lane motorway from London to Glasgow? Is not his proposal to increase the M25 to 14 lanes the down payment on that crazy policy? Will he conduct a fundamental review of the road programme that will encourage people to transfer to public rather than private transport, as the only way of dealing with congestion and environmental problems? I assure him that we will vigorously oppose his plans for the M25 through the summer and beyond.

Mr. MacGregor

The hon. Gentleman is free to put his points to the public inquiry that I have set up, but I have thoroughly considered the arguments and believe that there will continue to be a need for a substantial road building programme such as we envisage. I notice that the Opposition Front-Bench Members have decided on a wholesale review of the road building programme and the scrapping of some major projects. They fail to appreciate that the road programme is a vital part of our overall transport strategy. I believe that to halt our present plans is to ignore the needs of industry, to ignore the right of every person to choose how to make a journey and to ignore the fact that, as living standards improve, there will inevitably be growth in road traffic. I also remind the hon. Gentleman that, as I said earlier, 44 per cent. of our current spending is on public transport.