HC Deb 19 October 1993 vol 230 cc252-8

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

10.32 pm
Mr. George Walden (Buckingham)

I am pleased to see my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education with us this evening. He will add a scholarly tone to our discussions. I imagine that he will sit and listen in enforced, although I hope not unsympathetic, silence to what I have to say. I am also glad to see in the Chamber my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry)—the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment-my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) and the hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith).

My hon. Friend the Minister may be getting used to debates such as this. If he is not, he soon will be. I begin by cautioning him against any belief that this is merely a routine protest about roads, where the Government want to build a route that they think is patently necessary and to which people object in the way that people always do. After the village meetings that I have attended and the expressions of exasperation and anger from normally placid and perfectly rational folk, and after answering almost 1,000 letters on the subject—more than I have received on any other—I would not make that mistake and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will not do so either.

I need scarcely remind my hon. Friend the Minister that all the polls show that concern throughout the country about transport policy in all its forms is mounting. For me, the A418 is obviously a major constituency issue, but it is also a symbol of far wider concern about what is happening with our countryside and increasingly profound anxieties about the direction in which Government transport policies are driving us.

My hon. Friend the Minister knows the history of the present proposals, and that I first drew the Department's attention to my concerns about the A418 in an Adjournment debate on the proposals for Wing nearly two years ago. My hon. Friend may appreciate less well the evolution of the proposals as seen through the eyes of those most concerned—my constituents.

Imagine the millenarian expectations of villages that have suffered for years from the effects of traffic growth, as they wait and hope for the long-promised bypass, and the frustration and fury that they feel when they discover that they are to get not a bypass but a major east-west trunk route—initially of four lanes but with provision for six lanes, which will in some cases run within a few hundred yards of their villages.

As to the question of six lanes, I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister remembers that he wrote to me on 17 August to state: The only additional feature we are considering because of the wider implications of the East-West route is the provision at the outset of bridges that would allow widening to dual 3-lane standard in the future. The next thing that my villagers learned was that their little local bypass features on the trans-European road network that is to be considered and approved by the European Parliament while Department officials are still explaining that proposal to the outraged villagers concerned. Even those who are well disposed towards the EC, such as myself, find that strange.

I shall be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister, to whom I have written on that matter, will say exactly what I am supposed to tell my constituents when they express fears that matters are being decided over their heads. When they see all that happening, what conclusions are they to draw about Government transport policy? That it evolves organically, driven by the insatiable demands of the motor car; that it is made up as we go along; and that there is no transport policy in any rational sense.

I ask my hon. Friend the Member to forget his brief for a moment and to resort to his imagination. How does he think it feels to have a major European trunk route sprung on one instead of a bypass at the very moment that the Government are floating off the entire railway system, to be run by persons as yet unknown? In those circumstances, are the Government surprised that there is nil enthusiasm in my constituency—or in the country, as far as I can see —for rail privatisation, when all my constituents can see at the end of it are higher fares, fewer lines and more roads?

My own experience of the A418 has intensified my misgivings about rail privatisation and has strengthened my conviction that a fully integrated transport policy is needed. I am not saying that a railway could replace this particular road, but, were there a semblance of a national policy, Members of Parliament might be more inclined to explain to their constituents that, however, regrettable it may be, sacrifices have to be made for the greater good. I had to do that over the extension of the M40—as I am sure a number of right hon. and hon. Members did—part of which passes through my constituency.

I acknowledge the economic case for a link between the M40 and east coast ports, although it may be healthy to re-examine that too, because I have heard the contrary case made. How am I to explain to my constituents, at a time when they have so little confidence in the Government's overall road policy, that the best way to reach those ports is to string together a series of bypasses next to their villages?

My constituents' reactions naturally vary from village to village, as Department representatives who met them will have noted. I pay tribute to the way in which those representatives conducted themselves in the course of some warmish exchanges. Feeling against the road is strongest in places such as Haddenham, Long Crendon, Chearsely, Dinton, Cuddington and Nether Winchendon —which, because they were not asking for bypasses in the first place, will suffer much for absolutely no return.

Other villages, such as Stone, Biertori and Wing, have more nuanced opinions, but that is only because they have effectively been placed in a trap. They are being told that they either settle for a bypass in the form of a major trunk route of potentially six lanes, with all that that could mean for the local environment and the attraction of yet more traffic to the area, or they get no bypass at all. "Blackmail" is a strong word, but I have heard people use it.

For those reasons and many others that I have discussed with my hon. Friend the Minister and written to him about, I must call on him to withdraw the proposals as soon as possible and go back to the drawing board. Opposition to them is justified, widespread and determined. As my hon. Friend knows, Oxfordshire county council has strong views on the matter.

Mr. Andrew Smith (Oxford, East)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for initiating this debate. I agree that it is clear that what is going on is the use of a series of supposedly local bypass schemes to smuggle in a major strategic route without proper consultation on that strategic route. Should not the Minister give an assurance that the strategic road, its justification and route, will be the subject of full public consultation before the Aylesbury bypass scheme and the related Oxford bypass schemes, which are so damaging to my constituents, especially at Barton and Old Marston, are given any further consideration?

Mr. Walden

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will answer that intervention as adequately as he answers my speech.

If the proposals go ahead, the A418, along with an increasing number of national schemes, will become a cause celebre. The only outcome will be the enhancement of the Government's regrettable reputation for vandalism by road building.

The Minister might think that I have spoken strongly, but I cannot exaggerate the sense of bitterness that my constituents feel. People will look back in future years at the despoiled environment around their villages, the acres of concrete, the desolating no-man's land between parallel roads, and ask, "Who in heaven's name did this?

10.42 pm
Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden) and to my hon. Friend the Minister for allowing me a few minutes to intervene. As my hon. Friend will recall from an Adjournment debate that I initiated this year, there has been strong demand within Aylesbury, from county and district councillors and the local business community for the building of a bypass around the town at the earliest opportunity. The scheme, as published by the Department in its initial proposals, does not meet the demands or the needs of my constituents.

Criticism has fallen into two categories. A significant number of my constituents, like those of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham, would say that no road needs to be built. Another group take the line to which I certainly subscribe—that there is a need for a bypass around Aylesbury which would remain even if the Government scrapped the east-west link tomorrow night.

I do not want to see Aylesbury fall into the position of towns in north Kent or some towns on the Sussex coast which have become pockets of high structural unemployment because of poor communications although they are located in a region which is generally prosperous with good employment prospects. That is the fear which drives local councillors and the local business community to say that a road of some sort along some route is needed not as an alternative to public transport but complementary to it. I certainly regard the Government's continuing commitment to the crossrail project as evidence of their good faith and the fact that they intend to pursue a balanced transport policy now and in years to come.

The criticisms that local people have made of the scheme concern both the route and proposed design. It has concerned me that, although my hon. Friend the Minister has now rightly released details of his Department's consultants' reports into the possibility of a northern bypass route around Aylesbury, it has become apparent that such a route has not yet been subjected to a thorough analysis in the way that the southern route has been treated.

The so-called S03 strategy seems to offer Aylesbury the economic benefits of a bypass but without the costs associated with the proposed southern route. There may be disadvantages. The people in Bedgrove, Walton Court and Wendover Park in my constituency would benefit from a northern route. They would not have the intrusion and the noise. People in the north of Aylesbury might feel differently. We need to know more about the relative costs and benefits of alternative routes before a final decision is taken.

I ask my hon. Friend to look at the design of the proposed road. Nothing has aroused more anger and resentment in Aylesbury than the proposal by the Department of Transport to stick this road on a 30ft high embankment going around the entire southern and western perimeter of the town. The Department's criteria are inconsistent. In the south of Aylesbury, it has rejected the so-called black route because it passes too near to homes, yet in the west of the town it is advocating a route that is as near to people's homes as the rejected black route is along the Bedgrove side of Aylesbury.

I shall write to my hon. Friend shortly with a much more detailed account of the specific objections raised by my constituents to the proposals published by his Department. Tonight, I ask him to recognise that a public consultation exercise a decade ago, showing a majority in favour of a southern bypass for Aylesbury, was undertaken with the expectation of a route that would be a normal single carriageway—a two-way traffic road—running a fair distance from people's houses and along the level, rather than a major trunk road running along a 30ft high embankment and lighted for its entire length.

I ask my hon. Friend to live up to the pledge that he has given to me, and which his officials have given at public meetings: that they will listen carefully to the criticisms and the comments made during the public consultations. In the light of those comments, I hope that they are prepared to reconsider the route and the design of the road that they propose to build.

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

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden) on his determination to focus attention on the concern that has been expressed about this road. I am glad to have this opportunity to put the record straight. I am pleased to see my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Mr. Patten) and my hon. Friends the Members for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) and for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) here. I acknowledge the representations that I have received from my right hon. Friends the Members for Witney (Mr. Hurd) and for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) on this issue.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham so eloquently demonstrated, the concern centres on the role of the Aylesbury scheme as part of the east coast to M40 route and the potential impact that it could have in the longer term when included in the trans-European road network. My hon. Friend mentioned the whole question of a balanced and integrated transport policy. I entirely agree that it is important for us to recognise in real and practical terms that that is what we are achieving.

I hope that the fact that we spend 56 per cent. of our budget on roads and the other 44 per cent. on public transport subsidy will go some way to reassure my hon. Friend on that point. Ninety per cent. of all journeys and freight movements are undertaken by road with only 10 per cent. by rail. Yet the balance of spending does not recognise that: it recognises the need to subsidise public transport and invest heavily in railways.

There is nothing new about the Aylesbury bypass. The current scheme has its origins in local authority proposals which, in the 1980s, formed part of a plan for a new route between Thame and Stevenage. This, in itself, is a concept from the early 1970s. The scheme was absorbed into the trunk road programme four years, ago when the 1989 White Paper "Roads for Prosperity" announced plans for a new strategic east-west route between the M40 and the east coast ports which would build on work already carried out by local authorities. Because of its background knowledge of the scheme as a local authority one, and to maintain momentum, Buckinghamshire county council was appointed as design agent to continue the development of the proposals to meet the demands of the new trunk road.

The route taken to consultation was to the south of Aylesbury—a preference which had been chosen in 1983 following a joint county and district council planning study and public consultation on routes to the north, centre and south of the town. It would not only bring direct relief to Aylesbury from traffic using the A418 and A41 corridors, but also relieve villages on the A418, such as Rowsham and Stone.

Initial surprise was expressed that the scheme appeared to have grown beyond a local bypass into a strategic east-west route. This strategic role was made clear in "Roads for Prosperity" in 1989 and again during consultation in both the brochure and the public exhibition material about the Aylesbury bypass. We are not proposing a motorway—nor a six-lane highway. The dual two-lane road now proposed is, in our view, the standard required even if we were only providing a local bypass. There are certainly no plans for the scheme to be expanded further as part of some fictional outer orbital route of London, nor any other national or international concept.

My hon. Friend referred to bridges. We design bridges to last about 120 years. Recently we have had to knock down many 30-year-old bridges because they are too narrow. It is simply prudent to design bridges that do not pre-empt decisions that may be taken in 50 or 100 years' time. Understandably, that has caused concern.

There has been concern, too, about the intrusion of the scheme on people's homes, particularly on the southern and western outskirts of Aylesbury. In addition, villages such as Haddenham are anxious about the impact of the new road on their peaceful surroundings. We have specifically asked in our consultation for views on points, such as the profile of the route, environmental measures and the position of the junctions.

I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury that we would be prepared to consider putting the road in a cutting. We will take all these views fully into account before deciding which scheme to develop further. If and when we decide on a preferred route, we will publish draft orders, probably in 1995. The merits of alternative routes would be considered at a public inquiry.

This leaves the fundamental question of why northern routes have not been put forward for consultation. The immediate answer is that northern routes were considered beforehand, but rejected. Some were inferior in traffic and economic terms while others suffered environmental disadvantages. A southern route is more acceptable in planning and environmental terms, while offering greater relief from local traffic for Aylesbury. At Buckinghamshire county council's request, we have produced a report of previously unpublished information about two rejected northern route options.

I am grateful to both my hon. Friends for coming to discuss these issues with me at the Department of Transport. Of course, public response to the consultation has been intense. The next step will be to analyse all the results. The decision will not be easy and there will be many points to weigh before we reach a conclusion about the best route. We hope to announce our conclusions in early 1994.

An important offshoot to the Aylesbury consultation has been the concern about the future development of the western section of the east-west route, west of the town. There is strong feeling that the choice of a southern route for Aylesbury has a bearing on this. This is not so. The Oxford-to-Aylesbury study, from which the corridor choice was made, had two principal objectives. The first was to advise us on the right corridor for the east-west trunk route west of Aylesbury to the M40; and the second to identify whether future improvements in that corridor were needed.

In the case of Oxford to Aylesbury, because of the significant interest and the perceived relationship with the Aylesbury bypass proposals, we departed from normal policy and announced the result at an earlier stage than usual. The announcement made it clear that we had not decided, and have still not decided, to add any improvement schemes to the roads programme for the M40 to Aylesbury section of the east-west route. At the request of my hon. Friends, I have made available the full text of the Oxford-to-Aylesbury study report.

Perhaps most disturbing has been the way in which some protagonists, in particular Oxfordshire county council, have speculated about the trans-European road network, TERN, concept in relation to the east-west route, and in particular the Aylesbury bypass. Facts about TERN have been distorted, and some eminent people have been misled as a result. There is no secret about TERN.

Part of the Maastricht treaty looked forward to the establishment of Community networks of infrastructure in transport, energy and telecommunications. Following the agreement in Maastricht in 1991, the Commission set up a working group to investigate proposals for a trans-European road network. That group produced an initial report and the Commission used this to prepare its published policy document "Towards a Master Plan for the Road Network".

At the Edinburgh Council last year, agreement was reached in principle for funding mechanisms to be set up for trans-European Networks, and at the Luxembourg Council in June a political decision was taken to proceed with TERN. The European Parliament is at present considering the latter decision, and will debate it on 25 and 26 October. Select Committees of both Houses of Parliament considered these proposals in October 1992. A further memorandum was laid before this House in May the year.

Much of the TERN network already exists or is in preparation by member states. The agreed network in the United Kingdom includes a link between Oxford and Felixstowe, of which the east-west route forms a part. That route is not planned as a motorway as part of TERN; there is no requirement for links in TERN to be motorways. Nor are there any plans for the east-west route to be a part of an outer orbital route of London, as I have said.

It is worth noting that, in every other case, local councils have been clamouring to be included in the network. I have received at least one delegation in my office to that effect. As far as I know, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire are the only counties in the United Kingdom that are opposed to this concept, whose aim is to improve trade in the European Community.

We have been open in our preparation, frequently consulting the local authorities. For example, Department of Transport officials discussed TERN and the east-west route with Oxfordshire county council some six weeks before the council made its extraordinary statements. On the Oxford-to-Aylesbury study, my Department worked closely with Oxford in the formulation of the study; in fact, the county council brought important and practical influence to bear. Since July 1989, there have been six formal meetings between my officials and officials of Oxford county council about extending the east-west route between Oxford and Aylesbury. In July 1991, a presentation was given to Oxford county council officers and members.

My predecessor received a delegation from the council, together with the hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith), in December 1991. The council has also been kept up to date in correspondence from my Department in July and August this year.

I believe that the House will agree that to accuse us of secrecy now is just a little strange. We are not complacent about the effect of roads on the environment and do not claim that new and improved roads have no effect on people's enjoyment of their surroundings. That is why we follow such a careful step-by-step process of study, consultation and debate. I am sure that fruitful debate of the facts will, in this instance, lead to an acceptable solution.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the subject and hope that he and his constituents will be assured that their opinions count.

I cannot refrain from commenting on the fact that, only today, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport announced that we had decided to abandon a motorway scheme in the north of England, because—following consultation—we had concluded that it was no longer necessary or desirable. We do indeed listen very carefully and do indeed update and take seriously our economic assessments of the needs for roads. That was a motorway; this is not, and we have no plans for it to be one.

I am very glad to have had the opportunity to dispel some of the myths and misconceptions which, if not checked, can cause unnecessary worry to our constituents.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes to Eleven o'clock.