HC Deb 24 May 1993 vol 225 cc729-34

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

1.6 am

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury)

We have waited several hours for the Adjournment debate, but as the Minister will know, my constituents in Aylesbury have waited far longer for their bypass. I welcome the opportunity to draw the Minister's attention and that of the House to the urgent need for better road communication to Aylesbury. I represent the county town of Buckinghamshire, a town designated as a growth area for housing and industry but whose growth is being stifled by inadequate road communication, which has been delayed for far too long.

In all my dealings with my hon. Friend the Minister, I have met with nothing but courtesy and good humour. I know that he will not take it amiss if I sometimes feel that it would take the pen of a Dickens to do justice to the way in which the Department of Transport has behaved with regard to the Aylesbury bypass. The spirit of the Circumlocution Office and its principle of "how not to do it" seems alive and well and is inspiring the Department's work.

The saga began as early as the 1960s, when the need for a bypass for Aylesbury was first recognised. In 1972, the Department of the Environment commissioned a highway feasibility study and concluded that a new trunk road was needed to link Oxford and the A1 (M), passing south of Milton Keynes. Eight years later, in 1980, the Department of Transport decided to abandon its plan for a new trunk road in favour of improvements to existing roads and a network of bypasses around the major towns.

The Thame bypass, part of the series of links, was completed in 1980. In 1985, the Department of Transport's document "National Roads, England" called on the three county councils involved—Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire—to make bypass proposals to improve the A418-A505 route. In 1987, the Department of Transport announced in its White Paper that the Government intended to give the new route trunk road status. With that in mind, the Department provided a 100 per cent. grant for the Leighton Linslade bypass, which has now been completed, and proposes to make a 100 per cent. grant available for the proposed Wing bypass.

Buckinghamshire county council, as one would expect because it is an authority that is always active in the interests of its residents, did exactly what the Department of Transport asked. It formulated proposals to bypass Aylesbury. It drew up options for a bypass to the north or to the south of the town. It consulted the Aylesbury Vale district council. It published the alternatives in the local plan to allow full public consideration of the two options.

In 1989, the county council decided on the southern route as more practical and supported decisively by public opinion. Not only that, but the county council was ready to start building the first stage of the bypass linking the Wendover road, the A413, and the Stoke Mandeville road, the B443. The county council had planning permission for the first stage of the route. It had gone to the Secretary of State for Transport to ask whether he wanted to call in the application, and was told that he had no wish so to do.

In 1989, there was a further somersault by the Department of Transport. The White Paper "Roads for Prosperity" stated the Government's intention to develop an east-west corridor between the M40 and the east coast ports. The Department took over from the county council responsibility for the Aylesbury proposals which would form part of that route. Concern was expressed by the local authorities then about possible delays. The Department, as always, was reassuring.

Sadly, those reassurances were not borne out in practice. On 13 November 1990, Buckinghamshire's concern about the continuing delay was recorded in the minutes of the Department of Transport's eastern region consultative committee. The Department then said that public consultation on the preferred route would take place in July 1991. That target was not met.

On 23 January 1992, the consultative committee met again and the public papers of the committee show a target date for public consultation on the preferred option of spring 1992. That target was not met. On 8 December 1992, the consultative committee convened once more and the target date was announced as spring or early summer of 1993. That target was not met, and we are told that the target has slipped a further few months to perhaps the autumn of this year. It is little wonder that my constituents are becoming impatient of the Department's promises, which have been so often postponed.

I ask my hon. Friend to explain the reasons for the delay. We know that Oxfordshire county council and South Oxfordshire district council object to the southern route and prefer the northern route up to Bicester. The differences between the various local authorities have been known for a long time. They are surely the issues that should be debated at the public inquiry which is now long overdue. The need is now urgent.

Aylesbury is designated as a growth area, and the new proposals for the south-east—SERPLAN—mean still more growth for the town. The housing target set out both in the structure plan and in the local plan cannot be met unless the bypass is built. The bypass has strong support from local business, because every study shows that it is poor road communications more than any other single factor that is holding back the needed growth in Aylesbury's economy and the town's recovery from a severe and long-lasting recession.

What inspired me to apply for this debate was that Aylesbury is now in the ridiculous position whereby new planning applications for businesses to take up vacant lots on industrial estates are being recommended by the county council to the district council for refusal on the grounds that new business would bring in extra traffic and that that would be more than the already congested roads in Aylesbury could bear.

For example, in early 1993 more than 24,000 vehicles passed along Gate House road in Aylesbury, which adjoins major industrial estates, in 12 hours. That was down 1,500 vehicles on the 1990 peak, a peak which I am sure will be reached again as economic recovery in the south-east gathers strength. The single carriageway of that road is inadequate for the purposes that it is supposed to serve.

There is a strong economic and social case for the Department to press ahead as quickly as possible with the bypass that it has promised for so long. However, there is also a personal side to this question and that concerns the personal circumstances of my many constituents who live along the proposed route of the bypass.

Fortuitously, in the past week I have received a letter from a constituent who lives in Stoke Mandeville. I want to read one paragraph of that letter which summarises the feelings of people in my constituent's position. After describing the difficulties he faced in selling his house, because searches declared that the bypass was likely to pass within 200 yards of his home, my constituent wrote: I am not a 'NIMBY'. I simply ask that if the community wishes to mount a project for the general good then it should not be allowed in the process to damage my interests, life, career and marriage, all of which have been or are at threat because of this ineptitude. To prevaricate for over two years is neither equitable or responsible. To be dismissed with a mix of arrogance and indifference by Department of Transport officials; to be imprisoned without any end in sight to the sentence, is frankly intolerable in a fair and civilised society. I believe that many other constituents who also live near the proposed routes would echo those sentiments.

In the interests of the town that I have the honour to represent and the many individuals whose lives have been blighted by the uncertainty over the future of the road, I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to explain the reasons for the delays so far; and to tell us how long it will be before the Department goes out to consultation on the preferred route and how long it will be before the building of this much needed bypass gets under way.

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

It is my pleasure to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) on securing tonight's debate. Throughout his time in the House, he has shown tremendous determination to bring to me, either here in the House or in the Department, his concerns about his local roads. I respect that very much. At this late hour, he has pursued the history of the Aylesbury bypass as fiercely as Sherlock Holmes would have pursued any rogue. I am sure that my hon. Friend will carry on determinedly in that vein until we have delivered the road.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his speech and his determination. I recognise that Aylesbury, like many other communities in the country, needs a bypass and that there are very strong economic and personal reasons for that community to have a bypass. We have a very big road building programme and many conflicting demands to meet.

In answering this debate, I feel that it is worth exploring some of the history of the scheme and the broader issues. If we do that, we will obtain a better appreciation of the situation. The current scheme has its origins in local authority proposals that, in the 1980s, formed part of a plan for a new route between Thame and Stevenage. Since 1983, proposals have been developed on a southern route following a joint planning study and public consultation by the county and district councils.

The Aylesbury district plan, adopted in 1991, confirmed the planning status of the proposals and consequently planning decisions in the area have assumed that a southern bypass would be built. That set the scene, in planning terms, for a route south of Aylesbury, and the scheme entered the trunk road programme in 1989.

That date is not too distant. Many schemes which entered the programme before then are only just coming to fruition now. So the White Paper "Roads for Prosperity" announced the plans for a new strategic east-west route between the M40 and the east coast ports that would build on work already carried out by local authorities.

In view of its background knowledge of the scheme as a local authority scheme and to maintain momentum, Buckinghamshire county council was appointed as the design agent to continue the development of the Aylesbury proposals to meet the needs of the new trunk road.

Several strategic options have been examined as the bypass has developed. The study has proved complex and I know that at times it has led to local disappointment when the expected targets for consultation on the route of the bypass have been achieved. My hon. Friend gave strong expression to that disappointment in his speech.

For a start, the original strategy for a southern route has been developed in detail and reviewed. The investigation of strategies involving routes north of the town, and the implications that they could have for local planning issues and the economies of the scheme have also been studied. We have also had to consider the location of junctions and the justification for road links that might be provided to bring relief to Aylesbury from traffic using the A41 and A418 corridor through the town.

I recognise the importance of the scheme to the area. Progress has been made as quickly as possible, given the required detailed analysis of the options. However, I am sure that my hon. Friend appreciates that, with a scheme which represents such a large investment and has a significant impact on the environment and the economy of the area, there must be proper evaluation before taking the next steps to public consultation.

I should like to strengthen the arguments by saying that the scheme is complex. The decisions are certainly not easy. The road will cost a considerable sum of money. I advise my hon. Friend that it would be foolish to rush ahead with a scheme which we could not deliver or which would not stand up to public inquiry. Many schemes have been rushed forward but then delayed far beyond the date by which they should have been built because the preparation was short. Therefore, it is our right, in such an expensive and complex scheme, to take due care.

Also relevant to Aylesbury is the future development of the western section of the east-west route west of the town to the M40. It is no secret to my hon. Friend that the choice is between a northerly route along the A41 and a southerly one along the A418/A329. The choice could have a bearing on the solution for Aylesbury. My hon. Friend will also be aware of the pressures that the choice will put on other communities. He will recall the recent Adjournment debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden) in which we considered Waddesdon on the A41 west of Aylesbury.

I have considered in the past few days our conclusions for the consultant study. I expect shortly to make an announcement about the way ahead. Once that is done, I should be able to authorise the way forward for the Aylesbury bypass proposals. Then we shall be able to fit that bypass into the wider theme of the east-west route. When we do that, it will remove speculation about the possible consequential effects on communities west of Aylesbury. It will enable us to proceed with greater certainty in both local and strategic terms.

As I said, it is important to get it right. The Department is sometimes criticised for not thinking strategically and not seeing a motorway scheme beyond the limits of the town by which it passes. It is important that the east-west route—which embraces not only Aylesbury, but communities to the west and many others to the east—is considered properly.

I must defend my Department's performance against my hon. Friend's understandable criticisms. We truly want a rapid, effective scheme, but—as I have said—we need to get it right. We seek at all times to deal with hard-pressed members of communities as gently, and as correctly, as possible.

I am sure that my hon. Friend appreciates that, within the scope of our busy roads programme, we are eager to make progress for Aylesbury and many other communities throughout the country. I thank him for raising the subject, and hope that at least he and his constituents will be assured that progress with the bypass will proceed to the next stage in its development without delay. I hope that that stage will be reached fairly soon, not least because it is very important to relieve communities of blight and uncertainty.

I am certain that my hon. Friend will keep up his relentless pressure. He is determined to have the road, and I know that he will fight long for his community to secure it.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes past One o'clock.