HC Deb 24 February 1995 vol 255 cc665-72

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

2.40 pm
Mr. Tim Smith (Beaconsfield)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the subject of the proposed widening of the M40 between the M25 and High Wycombe. I last raised the question of motorways in my constituency in an Adjournment debate on 15 May 1992, when my starting point was—as today—the problem of increasing noise.

Three motorways run through my constituency. The M4 will be familiar to my hon. Friend the Minister for Railways and Roads, as it runs the full length of his constituency. The M25 runs from just south of its junction with the M4 to just north of its junction with the M40, and the M40 extends to just beyond the Loudwater flyover at High Wycombe. Three years ago, it was proposed that each of those stretches of motorway be widened to four lanes in each direction. Work on the M25 has been completed. Traffic flows much more smoothly and, consequently, traffic volumes on the A355 between Beaconsfield and Slough have fallen.

The scheme to widen the M4 was replaced by a more ambitious scheme, effectively to construct a new Slough bypass. It is a great comfort that my hon. Friend will be replying because, as my neighbour, he is as familiar as I am with the roads that I am describing.

The M40 widening scheme was added to the trunk road construction programme in May 1989 as part of the "Roads for Prosperity" White Paper and confirmed in the February 1990 report, "Trunk Roads, England—Into the 1990s", which stated that the preferred route would be decided in 1992. In fact, the scheme was published in 1993. When local public exhibitions were held, my constituents were principally concerned with the environmental consequences of the proposed widening—noise, atmospheric pollution and lighting at night.

As I explained to the House three years ago, the most extreme example of the growing noise problem in my constituency is provided by the M40. When it opened more than 20 years ago, it was relatively quiet—perhaps even underused. With the extension of the M40 to Birmingham, which was not originally envisaged, traffic volumes grew rapidly. There has been a substantial increase in the number of heavy goods vehicles and the noise is intolerable in parts of Beaconsfield and Gerrards Cross.

The purpose of my debate three years ago was to persuade the Department of Transport of the merits of porous asphalt. I was delighted when, two months later, my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Sir K. Carlisle), then Minister for Roads and Traffic, announced a three-prong attack on the source of noise from road surfaces following an in-depth review.

My hon. Friend said that, in urban and more sensitive areas, porous asphalt would be used where conditions were suitable, and that the benefits outweighed both the higher cost and the need for expensive winter maintenance and more frequent resurfacing. We then had to set about persuading the Department that porous asphalt should be used on this particular stretch of motorway. There was no doubt that Beaconsfield and Gerrards Cross were noise-sensitive, and my constituents needed no encouragement to write to the Department in large numbers, pressing the case for porous asphalt.

In August 1992, my hon. Friend the then Minister for Roads and Traffic wrote to me that it was still too early to say whether porous asphalt would be the right material in the circumstances. By August 1993, the motorway widening unit was writing to my constituents to confirm that porous asphalt will be provided as the running surface for this section of the M40 as part of the widening works. That was, of course, not the only noise amelioration measure; the symptoms and the cause were to be treated by means of environmental barriers, which would serve the dual purpose of a visual screen and noise barrier.

Understandably, my constituents were demanding those improvements whether or not the motorway was widened. I explained that the Department was empowered by Parliament to make such improvements only as part of a widening scheme. From mid-1993 onwards, therefore, I was pressing the Department to announce a final start date. Last year, the motorway widening unit confirmed that it hoped to start work this March so that most of the cost would be incurred in the financial year 1995–96.

Then came the Secretary of State's announcement on 19 December that he was refocusing the roads programme. Because of the redirecting of resources, he would no longer be proceeding immediately with six publicly funded schemes on which work was scheduled to begin in 1994–95. He said that he would consider proceeding with four of them by design, build, finance and operate—or DBFO—contracts. One of them was the widening of the M40.

My hon. Friend the Minister of State, whom I should like to thank for keeping me so well informed, wrote to me at once to say that his provisional view was that the length of the M40 improvement scheme itself was too short for the scheme to be free standing as a DBFO. The issue was what might partner it to form a sensible management task.

I commend my hon. Friend for the speed with which he then proceeded to a decision on the matter. He wrote to me on 14 February to say that he had decided to invite bids for the management of the M40 between junctions 1 and 15, a length of some 75 miles. One of the first tasks for the appointed company would be to widen the section between junctions 1A and 3.

My hon. Friend had an important point to make about the Handy Cross junction improvement. He said that, because that scheme is to be the subject of a public inquiry, that element of construction could not be included in the DBFO contract since it was not legally authorised. The Department would, however, expect the appointed company to co-operate in its delivery should it be subsequently approved. My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Whitney), who shares my concern about motorway noise and who is especially concerned about traffic congestion at Handy Cross, has asked me to say that he welcomes that, as I do, but that he hopes that the scheme will be approved soon.

My hon. Friend the Minister told me that he would invite expressions of interest with responses due by the end of March; he would select bidders by May and invite tenders by June. Tenders would be in by the end of the year and construction could start in the late spring of 1996. I should like to make it clear to my hon. Friend that the DBFO scheme and his proposed timetable have my full support. I want the widening scheme to be implemented as soon as possible, and I believe that that is the best way to achieve it.

As it happens, we debated clause 87 of the Finance Bill in Standing Committee last night. It amends the Capital Allowances Act 1990 to provide industrial buildings allowances for so-called highway concessions. That will allow a company appointed to operate a DBFO contract to write off its capital expenditure for tax purposes over a 25-year period. In addition, the Department has now published its pre-qualification document for the four DBFO contracts, one of which is the M40 project.

I was glad to read paragraph 3.5.3 of appendix A to the document, which states clearly that the finished surface of the road must be porous asphalt; and paragraph 3.6.1 lists the environmental commitments and undertakings that the Department has made during the statutory procedures. All those must be adhered to by the appointed company.

The traffic information in the document shows that the number of vehicles using the stretch between the M25 and Beaconsfield exceeded 100,000 for the first time last year. The number using the stretch between Beaconsfield and Loudwater was 98,000. So for both traffic congestion and noise pollution reasons, this is an urgent scheme. I hope that my hon. Friend will today reaffirm his commitment to its early completion, and in particular to all the environmental improvements that my constituents want to see in place at the earliest opportunity.

2.50 pm
The Minister for Railways and Roads (Mr. John Watts)

I congratulate my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith), on securing this debate—the second in three years that he has initiated on the M40. It is typical of the care and concern that he shows for his constituents in advocating their needs in the House. He has also taken many opportunities to lobby me and to write to me on the same matters.

I welcome the opportunity to discuss the issue again, and to say a little about the schemes for improvement between junction 1A and junction 4 at High Wycombe, and about our choice of the DBFO route to deliver this important scheme.

As my hon. Friend said, traffic has grown considerably, now averaging between 87,000 and 101,000 vehicles a day between junctions 1A and 4. As I have found when travelling to the midlands and further north using the M40, congestion at these junctions and along that stretch is particularly heavy. We expect traffic to continue to grow in line with the long-term growth of the economy. If this stretch is left unattended, the expected increase in traffic would lead to existing congestion at peak times becoming more frequent and longer lasting.

Congestion has no merits. It brings with it longer journey times, greater fuel consumption, stress and frustration, accidents and higher levels of pollution. In this case there is also the possibility of traffic diverting to alternative, less appropriate routes such as the A40.

I wrote in December to my hon. Friend explaining why this improvement was being considered for a privately financed shadow toll contract—a design, build, finance and operate project. I shall return to the merits and timing of DBFO contracts a little later, but I am convinced that we can deliver the benefits of this scheme more quickly under the DBFO arrangement than we could on the public sector budget under conventional procurement.

My hon. Friend has raised a number of questions about the environmental effects of the motorway and of the improvement scheme, and I want to deal with the substance of these issues. He will know that the Highways Agency routinely examines very carefully the environmental effects of schemes and the measures needed to mitigate them. That has been done with these improvements.

A considerable advantage of building on the existing road network—such as widening, rather than building completely new roads across new routes—is that it limits intrusion into built-up and rural areas. But there is no reason why those living alongside existing routes should suffer more from the policy of containing road improvements to existing corridors. It is therefore very much our aim to try to improve the level of protection that they enjoy. I know that my hon. Friend appreciates the degree of environmental protection designed into the scheme between junctions 1A and 3. The Highways Agency has sought to limit the local effect of the widening still further by designing it to be carried out entirely within the existing highway boundary.

Noise is always a legitimate concern. We are all too aware that existing traffic noise levels next to the motorway are generally very high. Prevailing noise levels are estimated to be as high as 75 dB within 55 yd of the motorway and between 70 and 75 adjacent to existing main roads. At about 325 yd from the motorway, noise levels generally have dropped to only about 68 dB. The area around the Loudwater viaduct is particularly noisy where the motorway is elevated.

The proposed improvement includes extensive environmental protection: 6 to 9 ft noise barriers arid bunding are proposed at sensitive locations. The overall aim is to reduce existing traffic noise by a significant level for people living near to the motorway. As my hon. Friend knows, I am delighted to be able to confirm to him again today that we are intending to use a porous asphalt surface where it is required, although not all of the normal criteria are met.

Where durability and maintenance are not a problem, as in this instance, the use of porous asphalt brings significant noise reduction benefits as well as improving safety by reducing spray in wet conditions. I am pleased to say that this and all other commitments to environmental measures made in our original decision letter will be honoured in the DBFO contract.

Between junctions 1A and 3, about 90 properties qualify for noise insulation either from traffic noise or construction noise. Installation of secondary glazing is currently under way. The insulation should all be complete before the start of work, which will protect against the inevitably high levels of construction noise. There will, of course, be strict controls over the timing of construction. There will also be extensive visual screening. The DBFO contract will honour those undertakings too.

My hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Whitney) have pressed me about the need to get on with the further scheme for widening between junctions 3 and 4, which includes the notorious Handy Cross interchange. The scheme is in the early stages of its development. The improvement is important and it will be pursued, but other schemes have higher priority.

There has been extensive public consultation about the nature of the improvement between junctions 3 and 4. It was on the basis of two options, one of which would incorporate an improved Handy Cross junction on its present alignment, and the other a new junction further to the south. The second option would encroach slightly on an area of outstanding natural beauty, so it raises some sensitive issues. All the responses that have been received are being carefully analysed. I hope that it will not be too long before we can announce our conclusions on the route to be developed. Following that, the scheme will have to be developed so that it is ready for presentation at a public inquiry, which I think is almost inevitable.

We have not pinned all our hopes on the major improvement scheme. There has been a continuing programme of smaller improvements to the Handy Cross roundabout during the past three years. These include slip-road widening, traffic-monitoring loops and upgraded traffic-signal equipment. All these improvements provide increased capacity in the short term. The Highways Agency has undertaken extensive reviews of traffic-signal timings to prevent queuing on the existing slip road, so reducing the possibility of the interchange becoming gridlocked.

I turn now to our private finance policy and how we propose to apply it to the M40. The private finance initiative is gathering pace. We see new opportunities in many areas day by day, and transport is at the forefront of them. The Highways Agency and the Department have been keen to innovate in getting roads built and maintained. That is as it should be. The nation's most important roads are among its most important assets. There is no place for old-fashioned thinking.

These considerations underpin our design, build, finance and operate contracts. We view the investment from the service end of the project and pay accordingly. The principle is, no service, no pay. That is the basis on which we tendered the initial four projects in January. It will underpin the further tranche of four, which includes the M40, which I announced last week.

I shall comment briefly on the contract's main features. First, design. That means two things. There is the strategic, external element of design as it benefits the national roads system—that remains primarily the Government's responsibility—and taking the case through a public inquiry.

All undertakings given at or since public inquiries will be binding on the company which eventually delivers the project. But there is still significant scope for greater freedom for the appointed company to apply business principles in the realisation of that design during the building phase of work. There are efficiencies to be gained in the process of construction, not least as in the case of the M40, where the project must be conducted on a live motorway.

With financial responsibility goes risk. The company will not be paid fully until the full service is delivered, post-construction. Its payments will depend, at the margin, on delivering an efficient service. Finance is clearly significant both in terms of cost control and reinforcing discipline in the process of construction, but also in terms of volume and speed. Private finance enables projects to tap into a flexible and enthusiastic investment market. Private finance also allows us to proceed with projects that we could not otherwise afford or only at a later date.

We shall be able to realise the benefits of these further projects both to the national road system and the local communities it serves. The most important element of the new contract is, however, the operational phase. We shall pay shadow tolls in return for a service given. The amount of those tolls will in practice be set by a market judgment of the standard and reliability of that service.

The contract will last for 30 years. My hon. Friend knows as much about the City as any of use in the House, and will recognise that a DBFO is not merely a deferred payment or credit arrangement. If that was all we wanted, we could get project finance over a period of 15 to 18 years. We would not have to go to 30 years for such an arrangement. Crucially, we want bidders to base their assumptions not only on having to live with what they build, but on taking on long-term maintenance obligations and the obligation to provide reliability of service to the motoring public. That means extending company obligations, both geographically and in time.

The eight projects announced so far cover nearly 6 per cent. of the trunk road and motorway system. They provide us with the test bed for a new industry. The contract gives us the opportunity to unify responsibilities which are now distributed between private companies and public authorities. The private sector already has a great deal to do with design, construction and maintenance. The next logical step is to extend this into road management. But the Secretary of State remains the client as the proxy for the travelling public, and he also remains the highways authority for motorways and trunk roads.

From what my hon. Friend said—I know that he is supported by other hon. Members—there is no doubt that the section between the M25 and High Wycombe must he widened. The widening scheme between junctions 1A and 3 is fully authorised. It will supply a fourth lane in each direction on the most heavily used section of the motorway. The next section to the west between junctions 3 and 4 is at an early stage and it must be developed and taken through a public inquiry before it can be implemented.

The DBFO contract, however, contains provisions which allow further contracts to be let to deliver schemes subsequently authorised. The first task at High Wycombe is to get a scheme through a public inquiry.

In taking forward private finance proposals, we have been met with great enthusiasm to take on significant management tasks as well as construction. The M40 project is a direct response to that enthusiasm. The company will maintain and manage in daily service for 30 years some 75 miles of motorway from London to Warwick. It will need to co-operate with the highway authorities, the police and other organisations with a direct interest in the road.

As to time scale, my hon. Friend is naturally concerned that the scheme is delivered as rapidly as possible. We invited expressions of interest only last week, and submissions are due by the end of March. We shall go out to tender in June, and negotiate bids received in November. On that basis, construction should start next spring, and we should also achieve a transfer of managerial responsibility for the existing M40, from junction 1 to junction 15 at Warwick.

I very much welcome the warm support which my hon. Friend expressed for our decision to make use of the DBFO route for carrying forward this scheme. I see the M40 as leading the way to the future management of our national roads system, and I look for the project to receive as warm a welcome locally as it has received from my hon. Friend.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at four minutes past Three o 'clock.