HC Deb 25 November 1993 vol 233 cc683-90

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

10.32 pm
Mr. David Sumberg (Bury, South)

We are constantly told that we live in a new environmentally aware era. But you, Madam Speaker, would have to be far more persuasive than me to convince many of my constituents in Whitefield and Prestwich that that is so.

A six-lane motorway, the M62, presently cuts through the middle of my constituency. That is currently being widened to make it an eight-lane motorway. On 7 September this year, my hon. Friend the Minister for Roads and Traffic announced proposals to construct an additional six-lane motorway, to be known as the M62 relief road, to run parallel with the soon-to-be-eight-lane. M62. It is thus envisaged that, at some time in the next century, a 14-lane highway should run through the Whitefield and Prestwich parts of my constituency.

That relief road would have no exits or entrances to my constituency and would not service the people who live there, but would simply be used by those who are passing through on their way across the Pennines. To construct the 14-lane highway, the Department of Transport proposes to demolish 370 good, sound houses and to create what will be widespread and devastating planning and housing blight in the surrounding area.

The announcement of the proposals in September was greeted by my constituents with shock, with anger and with incredulity. It was greeted with shock because no indication had been given to them that such a plan was ever in prospect. Indeed, some three years ago a promise had been made to them by a Department of Transport official at a public meeting in my constituency that there were no plans to widen or to extend the existing M62.

The announcement has been greeted with incredulity because it seems to me and to my constituents that it is unacceptable, at a time when some people are homeless, when the housing market is struggling for recovery and when local business is working on a knife edge, literally to devastate one of the most densely populated parts of my constituency. The announcement was greeted with anger because, for years, this part of my constituency has had to live with the environmental pollution, and housing and planning blight caused by the existing M62. That has to be seen and the noise has to be heard to be believed.

The case against the proposals is overwhelming. Time does not permit me to set out that case as fully as I would wish. There are three main arguments which should convince my hon. Friend the Minister to withdraw the proposals. The first is that there is a growing realisation throughout the whole community, a realisation shared by many Conservative Members and by many in the Conservative party as a whole, that continuous road building is not the solution to the problems of traffic congestion. Indeed, it could be argued that such road building achieves exactly the opposite effect, simply encouraging more traffic to fill the increased space, while diverting attention from other solutions to the problems.

I have never seen the arguments about alternative methods of dealing with traffic congestion, such as the argument between road and rail, as a battle between the public and the private sector. The road programme is part of the public sector and is costing the taxpayer a great deal of money. Indeed, if anybody doubts that, the recent report of the National Audit Office shows a massive increase in the cost of the road-building programme to the staggering sum of £6 billion. I do not think that the taxpayer is getting value for that money. There is an urgent need for Governments of all political parties and for society as a whole to consider in a national, non-dogmatic, nonpartisan way how best we can provide for the transport needs of our nation into the next century without constructing a concrete jungle of noise, pollution and blight.

The second argument against the proposals is that the need for them has not been proved. There is, indeed, traffic congestion now on the M62 motorway, but no one knows for certain how that will be reduced once the motorway has been increased from six lanes to eight lanes. No one knows how that congestion will be affected once the existing M66 motorway is completed and joins the motorway network surrounding Greater Manchester. We have been waiting for years for that to occur; it has still not been completed. There is a strong body of opinion that believes that it will make a significant impact on the problems of congestion on the M62.

The third reason for the rejection of the proposals, assuming, of course, that a motorway as such is the answer to the problems, is that the relief road is not the only potential new motorway route across the Pennines. The BBC has recently revealed that a number of Labour local authorities, Lancashire county council and North Yorkshire county council among them, are proposing a scheme to extend the M65 from the M61 motorway near Preston across the Pennines to Leeds. Those councils have apparently asked the Department of Transport to undertake further studies. They are concerned that, if the M62 relief road is built, their plans would have little or no chance of coming to fruition.

I do not wish to become embroiled in the argument over that motorway proposal, but I think it unacceptable for the Department of Transport to go around blighting vast areas of the country—whether or not that is done in conjunction with local authorities—when it should be sitting down to examine and evaluate the real transport needs of our people on a national basis.

The proposals must be withdrawn. They have already had a devastating effect on the lives of the people whom I represent. It is true that, regardless of whether the proposals ever take effect—regardless of whether the road is ever built—the Department has already offered to purchase, at more than market value, the private houses along the proposed route. That offer, incidentally, does not extend to the council house tenants on the route, who are asked to accept the derisory sum of £1,500 as compensation for being thrown out of their homes.

A number of those home owners have already accepted the Department's offer. That is a matter for them, but the Minister should take no comfort from it. It cannot be a surprise to anyone that, after putting up with such tormenting noise and pollution from the existing M62 for years, and being unable to rely on any commitment or promise from the Department about the future, local residents should now seize the opportunity to escape.

But what about those who are not on the line of route? What about those who are trapped in their homes and cannot escape? They are not currently entitled to require the Department of Transport to purchase their homes; they must wait until the relief road is built. If the M66 extension is anything to go by, that could be well into the next century. In the meantime, those people cannot sell their homes—or, if they can, they must do so at vastly reduced prices.

Why is the Department of Transport so mean and short-sighted on this issue? If it genuinely believes that I —along with others—have exaggerated the extent of the blight in the surrounding areas, let the Department now offer to purchase the houses affected, at full market value. Then, if it wished, it could recoup some of the cost by reselling to others who might wish to take the chance of the motorway never being built—as we hope it will not. In the context of the enormous sums spent on the roads programme—I have already mentioned them—I do not think it unreasonable to urge a change of thinking from the restricted and narrow lines currently pursued by the Department.

I have not by any means covered all the points with which I wished to deal. For example, I have not mentioned in any detail the great concern that homes now being purchased by the Department will be allowed to fall into disrepair during the interim period, or will be let to people who will not be as anxious to maintain the areas to the desired standards as those who live there now. I have not mentioned the fears of many local businesses, such as newsagents and tobacconists, who feel that their enterprises are now unsaleable and who face the bleakest of futures. I hope that there will be other chances for me to do so.

Suffice it to say that I have never known the community I represent to be more united than it is in its opposition to these plans. That opposition includes not only people who live in the area, but people living outside it. It is sustained by three motorway action groups; it includes the local council in Bury, and all three political parties represented on it.

As evidence of that united approach, Madam Deputy Speaker, you will note that the hon. Member for Worsley (Mr. Lewis), whose constituency is also adversely affected by the proposals, is in his place. He and I disagree a great deal politically, but we are united in our present campaign. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will catch your eye, so that he can make his views clear.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be clearly aware that my constituents and I will not accept the environmental squalor that the scheme would cause—the destruction of property, the devastation of lives and the ending of hopes. I hope that, sooner rather than later, he will lift the threat that hangs over so much of my constituency.

10.44 pm
Mr. Terry Lewis (Worsley)

May I first congratulate the hon. Member for Bury, South (Mr. Sumberg) on his luck in the raffle. He is making a habit of it these days, given the number of times he has appeared at Prime Minister's Questions, but I am grateful to him for allowing me two or three minutes tonight to raise one or two points that affect my constituency.

Like the hon. Member, I do not want to go into too many details of the argument with the Department of Transport over the next weeks and months before we reach a position where we may be able to change the Minister's mind.

The Residents Against the Motorway group has been in existence for four years. Four year ago, I extrapolated from the White Paper "Roads for Prosperity" the fact that a brand new motorway was likely to go through my constituency. I was accused of scaremongering: if only I had known how devastating the proposals would be.

Worsley in my constituency is, was and has been for many hundreds of years a very picturesque village. It has already been devastated by the M62 with continual widening, broadening and extensions. The M62 is now part of the major motorway network, when it was designed in the 1960s merely as a bypass for Eccles. We are now faced with the possibility of another 14-lane motorway cheek by jowl with our schools. We know the problems of youngsters who suffer asthmatic diseases near motorways. It would be devastating for them.

I am straying into details, but I would like to use a couple of minutes to remind the Minister of the exchanges we have already had, and to confirm for the record some of the agreements that we have already reached.

I am grateful that the Minister readily saw me in his office some weeks ago when I first complained to him bitterly about the way in which the Department had told 116 residents in my constituency that their homes were in the way of the proposed motorway. I re-emphasise tonight that that bitterness lingers on, as the Minister must know.

I should also like him to confirm tonight that, contrary to the opinion given by his officers in the north-west, he will accept comments written on the Department of Transport proforma, whether or not the people who put the proforma in were able to go to the presentation. The Minister has now agreed to a second presentation. I acknowledge the letter he sent me a day or two ago and the fact that he will also consider seriously any comments on the proforma produced by RAM.

We have always known the new road as the Greater Manchester relief road. It has now changed into the M62 relief road. I do not want Ministers at the Department to say that they cannot accept complaints because they are about the wrong road. I would like the Minister to confirm that tonight.

Finally, the Minister has agreed to meet a deputation from RAM on 7 December. Our loins are girded, and we look forward to seeing the Minister then.

10.48 pm
The Minister for Roads and Traffic (Mr. Robert Key)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Sumberg) on his good fortune in acquiring this Adjournment debate. I also pay tribute to him for the tireless way in which he has represented the interests of his constituents in this most difficult of issues. There is nothing like any roads issue to raise passions in any constituency.

My hon. Friend has represented his constituents' interests with great dignity and success. He has made it clear that he has a strong position on this, and that he will not be swayed by any partisan influences, for which I respect him, as I am sure do his constituents.

I acknowledge the way in which the hon. Member for Worsley (Mr. Lewis) has approached the matter. I have met him and my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South. I confirm that I shall see a delegation led by the hon. Member for Worsley at the beginning of December and a delegation from my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South later.

The exhibitions are generally at an end but, at the request of the hon. Member for Worsley, I have arranged for two further days' exhibitions to be held in the Worsley area in early January. We have had 12 days of exhibitions and 6,829 people attended. That figure contains a certain element of double counting, because many people understandably wanted to go twice or more.

We have received 880 comments sheets, and my Department has received 520 letters. There have been a number of multiple letters from the same individual or family, but they are none the worse for that, and some 690 pre-printed objection leaflets have also been received.

I confirm that I am pleased to receive all objections in whatever reasonable form they should appear and, at the request of the hon. Member for Worsley, I made available an additional 2,000 objection forms that were sent to him at the House of Commons. They will, of course, be counted as proper representations. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South has also asked for a large number of additional forms, and they too will be properly counted.

The number of applications that we have had for statutory blight purchase stands at 168, and so far we have accepted 84 and have had 35 applications for discretionary purchase. A housing co-ordinator has been appointed and is in post, and she is currently establishing contact with local authorities and other interested bodies.

Bury metropolitan borough council and Manchester City council have accepted our invitation to join the M62 liaison committee, which has been formed to consider wider housing issues. [Interruption.] Salford metropolitan borough council has, I am sorry to say, not replied to our letter of invitation.

Mr. Lewis

I am becoming too sensitive about the over-emphasis on Manchester city council and the overlooking of Salford. I apologise.

Mr. Key

If I wanted to, I could not overlook Salford but, as sponsor Minister for Manchester and Salford, I would not want to. I am well aware of the sensitivities either side of the river. I pointed out that we have received an acceptance from Manchester city council, but not so far from Salford. I hope very much that it will respond to the invitation, because it is important for its residents and the hon. Gentleman's constituents that it should.

We all know that the M62 is the busiest road in the north-west and one of the busiest in the country, and conditions on it are poor. To describe them as dreadful would not be an overstatement. Delays, frustration, congestion and accidents are words that spring readily to mind to describe the situation. There is no doubt that it is a road under stress, with drivers under stress.

Doing nothing is not an option. Congestion on parts of the M62 will get worse this year, next year and the year after, as well as into the next century, which is the time scale that my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South has absolutely right. By then things will have got worse, so we must address the problem now.

It is worth emphasising that congestion reduces the efficiency and reliability of road transport for industry, and so increases the cost for consumers. It is also bad for safety, and congestion harms the environment, because slow-moving vehicles burn more fuel and hence create more harmful emissions. We need to tackle those problems now.

If we do not act, the travelling public will face increasingly difficult driving conditions, and the resident population of the area on either side of the existing motorway will face increasing unpleasant side effects in terms of the noise and smell that they have to put up with.

In the transport arena, it is not only the roads that are receiving Government support. My hon. Friend is right to point out that roads can perfectly reasonably be described as public transport, and we shall continue to invest heavily in public transport. We spend about 56 per cent. of our budget on roads and the remaining 44 per cent. on railways, buses and other forms of public transport. Ninety per cent. of all journeys and freight movements are undertaken by road, and only 10 per cent. by rail and yet —quite rightly—the balance of spending does not reflect that fact.

It is worth pointing out that I have also received representations from my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Burt), who cannot be here tonight but who has taken a very close personal interest in this difficult problem.

As with any road scheme, the first stage was the initial investigation of options. It took place with as little publicity as we could manage, not because we wished to deny anyone the opportunity to study and comment on what was being proposed but because at that early, fact-finding stage, our consultants' investigations were extremely wide-ranging. Many options were considered and eliminated in the search for a viable solution. To have released details on the routes or corridors under investigation would have led to widespread and unnecessary blight.

The first option we considered was the possibility of improving the existing road. Widening the M62 to four lanes will provide interim relief in the short term, but it will not deal with the long-term problem of congestion on the route.

A number of alternative routes were considered, including a completely new road corridor through the area. We found that all the options away from the existing motorway corridor affected too many and too broad a range of interests for them to be viable. For example, they would have had an impact on community buildings, including three schools; they would have passed through formal parks and consecrated ground, run close to the centre of a small town and damaged major factories.

In addition, there was the problem of Radcliffe Ees, a huge landfill site between Radcliffe and Whitefield, which is steadily being converted to attractive open space. It was not possible to devise a method for building a new road through the centre of the Ees without the need to remove large quantities of the deposited waste material and to find somewhere else to put it.

In general terms, a new road line away from the M62 would impact on a whole new range of people and interests, without bringing any significant improvement to those living close to the existing motorway. On balance, therefore, we believe that a new motorway alongside the existing one is the only viable option for a M62 relief road.

Without the new road, we would have to consider controlling access to, or even closing, a number of junctions on the present M62 in order to help the flow of traffic on the motorway. However, it would also have a severe impact on the local road network. The area would suffer increasing congestion, with worsening conditions for residents. Access to the motorway system on which the Bury district plan is based would no longer be available.

I deal now with the current stage of the scheme's development. Following the identification of a viable route on 7 September, I announced the start of consultation on the relief road. It is a large-scale and wide-ranging process, which allows us to explain our proposal, and provides people with the opportunity to view large-scale plans, ask questions and present their views. Consultation will continue until the end of February next year. I reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South that no decision will be taken until I have fully considered what the public have to say.

The consultation process is non-statutory and gives people an early opportunity to have a say in the development of the scheme. At a later stage, when orders are published, they are able to exercise statutory rights of objection. At that stage, the matter will be considered by an independent inspector, appointed by the Lord Chancellor, presiding over a local public inquiry. The decision on whether to proceed with the scheme will not be taken until the end of 1994.

Of course I recognise that consultation is an unsettling time for those affected by the proposed route, which is why we have protected the route against development. That brings the statutory blight provisions into force and enables affected owner-occupiers to serve a blight notice requiring the Department to buy their property in advance. I hasten to say that there is no compulsion about that, as the Department is not, as some would have it, in the business of buying off the opposition. Of course, the question of compulsory purchase will not arise for some years.

I shall now deal with some of my hon. Friend's detailed concerns. I know that a major proposal such as the M62 relief road brings uncertainty to people living in the area through which the road will pass. We gave considerable thought to the best way of informing those affected. There is no easy way to break unwelcome news. Our aim was to tell those affected before they found out either from a neighbour or from the local media. We are not indifferent, and we shall always try to minimise problems and deal with them as sympathetically as possible.

Of course there has been concern about the effect on local housing, especially on properties just outside the proposed line of the relief road. I greatly regret the unavoidable impact. As I have explained, we have set up special arrangements to help those who would lose their homes.

There are worries too, about what we shall do with the properties that we buy under blight. I understand that. I can tell my hon. Friend that we shall appoint experienced agents to manage and let the property on our behalf. We know that it is important to the local community to maintain housing standards. We shall not let our properties decline and decay.

That leaves the question of the perceived effect of new road proposals on the local housing market. We know only too well that a major road proposal can being uncertainty to people living in the immediate area, but there is no evidence that that uncertainty will have a long-term effect on house prices.

The Department's experience all over the country, acquired over many years, has been that, although there may be an immediate effect on the housing market following a road announcement, prices quickly return to normal once the proposed line of the new road and its likely effects become better known, and the degree of uncertainty recedes. We know that house builders quite happily build close to motorway boundaries and have little difficulty in selling those properties—there are examples alongside the M62 in my hon. Friend's constituency.

We shall take full account of the total impact by way of an environmental assessment that will result in a published statement under EC directive 85/337 at the time of line order publication. That will be the appropriate time to publish.

I understand the concerns of my hon. Friend and of the hon. Member for Worsley. I give them my word that I shall continue to listen carefully to their representations. We have a duty to fulfil all the statutory procedures, which we shall carry out scrupulously and fairly, as we decide whether to proceed with the scheme.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes past Eleven o'clock.