HC Deb 01 November 1995 vol 265 cc259-67 12.59 pm
Mr. Tim Smith (Beaconsfield)

I am grateful for the opportunity to draw attention to the important matter of the proposed motorway service area at Iver on the M25 in my constituency.

I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Minister for Railways and Roads will reply to the debate, not only because he is the Minister responsible for that aspect of policy, but because, as the hon. Member for Slough, he knows that part of the country as well as anyone, and is especially well qualified to make a judgment about that important matter.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for the fact that he has agreed later to receive a petition that I hold in my hand, which was signed by nearly 2,000 local people and which gives some sign of the strength of feeling about this proposal. I am especially grateful to those people who have gone to great lengths and put in a great deal of hard work to collect all those signatures, especially Mrs. Eileen Sibley, who is secretary of the Iver Lane and district residents association, who personally collected about 800 signatures.

An inspector appointed by the Secretary of State for the Environment has recommended that a motorway service area should be built on the M25 at Woodlands Park, Iver, in my constituency. In my opinion, that is one of the most perverse and indefensible planning recommendations that I have ever come across. I am grateful for the opportunity to explain to the House why it should not be allowed to proceed.

There are three motorway service areas on the M25—one each in the north, south and east quadrants. It is generally agreed that there is a need for a fourth motorway service area in the western quadrant, as the distance between the one in the north and the one in the south is 63 miles. I do not disagree with that conclusion, although I draw my hon. Friend's attention to the fact that Woodlands Park is 24 miles from the one in the north but 39 miles from the one in the south, so it is by no means equidistant between the two.

The history of that matter is, as my hon. Friend confirmed to me in a written reply last week, that the Department of Transport commissioned a survey of possible sites in July 1984. That led to an announcement, in 1988, that the Department would promote a motorway service area at Iver. However, that was not the Woodlands Park site, but a site on the other side of the M25, between Iver Village and Richings Park. In the end, for various reasons, no planning application was submitted.

In 1989, the Department of Transport announced a fresh search for a motorway service area site on the western quadrant. Soon after, the provision of motorway service areas was deregulated, and the search for a suitable site was abandoned.

We now move to February 1994, when Cape Plc and Corporate Land Ltd. submitted three planning applications for a motorway service area at Woodlands Park. Those were determined by Buckinghamshire county council, because that site is the subject of an existing minerals and waste disposal planning permission.

When the applications were submitted, the Department was still proposing to build link roads along the M25 between the M4 and the M40. Since then, it hasabandoned that proposal, and instead proposes to build a fifth lane in each direction to accommodate the increased traffic. I believe that it was for that reason that the Department directed the county council to refuse planning permission.

The Department gave two reasons. The first was that the development of a motorway service area would be incompatible with the link road proposals; obviously, that objection is no longer relevant. The second was that the motorway service area would be incompatible with the use of the motorway in its present state, as regards both the safety and function of the motorway as part of the national system for through traffic. I believe that reason to be as relevant today as it was last year. Indeed, I believe it to be a conclusive reason not to implement that scheme.

Although the county council had no choice but to refuse the planning application, it considered all the other issues arising from it. It concluded that planning permission should be refused for those reasons, too.

First, the council said that it had not been demonstrated that that was the proven optimum site in the western quadrant of the M25. Secondly, it said that it had not been demonstrated that the development on a former waste disposal site could be carried out safely during and after construction. Thirdly, it said that the proposed hotel was not a necessary facility, and might become a destination in its own right.

Fourthly, the council said that the motorway service area, because of its excessive size and unsatisfactory siting, would be unduly obstructive and detrimental to the visual and residential amenities of the occupiers of neighbouring residential properties and to the character of the area. Fifthly, it said that the MSA would, according to the advice of the National Rivers Authority, be at direct risk of flooding, and would increase the risk of flooding elsewhere.

Cape Plc and Corporate Land Ltd. appealed against the refusal of planning permission. Between 22 November and 9 December 1994, the inspector appointed by the Secretary of State to consider the appeal held a public inquiry at the Evreham centre, Swallow street, Iver. Evidence was given by the appellants and by Buckinghamshire county council and individual witnesses, included County Councillor Mrs. Audrey Bainbridge, County Councillor Mrs. Ros Wingrove, District Councillor Mr. Richard Worrall, and Mrs. Sibley, whom I have mentioned.

Those individual witnesses said that, for many years, local residents had suffered the adverse effects of two previous exploitations of the site—mineral extraction and industrial waste filling—as well as those arising more recently from the addition of fourth lanes to the M25. Now, just as the site has been restored to a rural appearance, they are confronted with the prospect of further and permanent damage to their residential environment by the construction and subsequent operation of a massive motorway service area.

Those witnesses told the inquiry that noise and air pollution levels in the locality, not least from the M25, are already high, and would be further aggravated by the appeal proposals.

Those witnesses said that asbestosis and related diseases are well known at first hand in the locality, including numerous deaths, especially of former employees of Cape. I am pleased to see my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Sir M. Shersby) in his place, since many of his constituents will be affected by that proposal. Later, he will say a few words about an aspect that we both consider extremely important—what will happen when the site is dug up and asbestos, which is buried in the site, is exposed.

The local objectors also claim that the assessment of need for a motorway service area does not take into account the relative proportions of long-haul and short-hop traffic on the M25. Lastly, but by no means least, they said that the motorway service area, with its approach roads and its overbridges, would have a devastating visual impact on the present rural appearance of the site.

I deal now with the inspector's conclusions. The inspector complains that neither Buckinghamshire county council nor South Buckinghamshire district council nor any other local authority has even mentioned an alternative site. What does the inspector mean by that? Is he saying that the planning authority is required to consider a planning application not only on its absolute merits but on its merits relative to the merits of a range of hypothetical alternatives? If so, he is talking nonsense.

As the director of planning services of South Buckinghamshire council said in a letter to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Sir P. Beresford), dated 29 September, local authorities are not in a position to carry out a detailed analysis of propositions concerning alternative sites. Local authorities do not have the responsibility or the resources to do that. Councils have not been asked to do that by the Government; nor did the inspector state that that was required in this case.

If an applicant seeks to demonstrate that an exception should be made to green belt policy, the onus must surely be on that applicant to prove that there are no suitable alternative sites. That was not done satisfactorily in this case. For the inspector to imply criticism of local authorities and to expect an optimum site to be put forward by them is wholly unacceptable. Given that the inspector has not been able to say that Woodlands Park is the optimum site suggests that the decision is flawed.

The inspector's logic is as follows: we need an MSA in the western quadrant of the M25; the whole of the western quadrant is in a green belt area, so we must make an exception to green belt policy and put the MSA in the green belt; no one has come up with a satisfactory alternative to Woodlands Park, so Woodlands Park it must be. That is the logic of the madhouse, but it is, of course, partly due to deregulation.

The Department of Transport abandoned the strategic approach to MSA site evaluation in favour of a more free-market approach. Although that may be acceptable generally, I doubt whether it makes a great deal of sense when there is a presumption against development in the entire area of search.

As I said, the proposed site is 24 miles from the northern motorway service area on the M25, but 39 miles from the southern one. That suggests that the optimum site would be some seven or eight miles further south than Woodlands Park, somewhere to the south of the M4. However, it is not my job to propose alternative sites, nor is it the job of local councils. It is something to which, in these exceptionally difficult circumstances, the Department of transport should once again turn its attention.

The inspector also ignored the cumulative effect of development in the green belt. I am concerned that each planning application should be considered on its merits without reference to what is going on elsewhere. As I said, my hon. Friend the Minister for Railways and Roads knows my constituency well, so I draw his attention to the Eton college rowing lake and the National Rivers Authority's flood relief scheme. They were decided by planning inspectors without reference to each other, even though they impact on precisely the same area.

The South Buckinghamshire district council gave evidence to the inspector on the proposed development but the inspector chose to ignore it. The fact is, however, that every month the fragile green belt is under further attack. This month, it is a proposal from the Central Railway company to build a new railway through my constituency, complete with a 100-acre marshalling yard in the green belt at Denham.

Forty years ago, Iver was a delightful village in a genuinely rural area. Since then, it has endured the construction of the M4 and its subsequent widening, the construction of the M25 and its widening, mineral extraction on a massive scale, substantial dumping of waste, the threat of a large sludge treatment works to be transferred from Heathrow if the fifth terminal there is given to go-ahead—and now this.

I suppose that Iver might today be described as semi-rural, but if the proposal goes ahead and the last piece of green belt between Iver and London is destroyed, a better description might be "suburban". At that point, one will be entitled to ask what is the point of having a green belt if we keep on making exceptions to it, because, in the end, there will be no green belt left.

I believe that the inspector has seriously misdirected himself. He has concluded that Iver is the best site because no one has come up with anything better. He has gone out of his way to criticise local authorities for their failure to produce alternative solutions, although they have no obligation to do so. He has completely ignored the cumulative effect of development in the green belt. I hope very much that the Secretaries of State for the Environment and for Transport will throw out his flawed recommendations.

1.14 pm
Sir Michael Shersby (Uxbridge)

I am pleased to have the opportunity briefly to support my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith). My constituency immediately adjoins his, and the residents of the Cowley area of my constituency are especially affected by the proposal.

I object strongly to the proposed development, which, as my hon. Friend said, would mean a further substantial loss of the green belt. As president of the London Green Belt Council, I share my hon. Friend's astonishment that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment could even consider allowing the proposal to go ahead. However, as my hon. Friend said, there is another reason for not allowing the proposal to continue—the danger to public health that would arise if asbestos deposited on the site years ago were to be removed, even under what are reassuringly known these days as controlled conditions.

The danger is the risk of mesothelioma, which is caused by the inhalation of minute asbestos fibres and which results in death many years later. This has been known to the Government and to the asbestos industry for many years. For example, in 1949, Dr. H. Wyers, who was then the medical officer at the Cape Asbestos Company, now Cape plc—the joint developer of the site—reported 115 fatal cases in which asbestosis was mentioned, and provided evidence of lung and pleural cancers accompanying it. The average age of death was 40.8 years. The late 1950s and early 1960s was the time in history when the ability of asbestos fibres to cause mesothelioma was finally and officially recognised throughout the world.

The assessor who was appointed to advise the inspector who conducted the public inquiry was there to advise on technical aspects, with specific reference to landfill and the associated problems of gas and leachite production. With hindsight, it would have been much better had the inspector been assisted by an environmental assessor to help him consider the inherent dangers of developing the site, given that it has been used to dump quantities of asbestos.

Paragraph 14 of the assessor's report states: it is known that extreme precautions must be adopted by anyone handling the material in quantity". That statement is rather misleading, as the Health and Safety Executive Guidelines refer to the need for precautions to be taken by anyone handling asbestos, not only those handling it "in quantity".

The assessor goes on to state that the fact that it can be handled in safety is highlighted by the common practice now of the removal of asbestos from schools and many public buildings". I suggest, however, that it is very difficult to see the connection between such present-day practices and the very open site of some 44 acres being considered for a motorway service area.

It is well known that the technique used to remove asbestos involves the creation of negative pressure, and the removal inside a plastic tent from which the air is sucked through a filter. That is the best way of keeping all the microscopic death-dealing fibres in the working area. However, those fibres are so small that they are not visible to the human eye, and are absolutely lethal when inhaled.

I understand from the information at my disposal that all three of the common types of asbestos—chrysolite, which is white, amosite, which is brown, and crocodilite, which is blue—are present on the site. How would lorries enter and leave a 44-acre site under a plastic tent, going through the necessary airlocks? It is inconceivable. What about the danger to the workmen involved in carrying out such a hazardous operation? It has been suggested that a soil covering of 500 mm be used to cover the operation at night, but there is no recognition of the fact that the soil will then be contaminated, and will similarly have to be excavated and removed.

I invite the House and the Minister to consider the dangers to the environment and to health inherent in any such work involving large-scale excavation and piling on land contaminated in this way. The assessor goes on to say: This is by no means an ideal site". I completely agree.

I therefore tell my hon. Friend, and his colleagues in the Department of the Environment, that there will be a serious risk to human health if this site is excavated for the construction of a motorway service area. That risk is far too great, and should not be taken. I therefore hope very much that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will change his mind and refuse planning permission.

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

I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith) and for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) on the clear way in which they have expressed the case on behalf of their constituents. They will know that attempts to provide a motorway service area on the western side of the M25 have a long and complicated history.

In November 1989, the then Minister for Roads and Traffic announced that existing plans for Iver were to be abandoned, and a fresh site search for an MSA on the western part of the M25 would be undertaken. The reasons for this return to the drawing board were summed up in the announcement as the very complex problems which make the provision of a single-sided site at Iver very unlikely in the foreseeable future. My hon. Friends may well think that my predecessor's assessment got it absolutely right. They might equally wonder what has changed since 1989. The most important change was that, in 1992, the provision of new MSAs was deregulated. What this means in practice is that it is now for the private sector rather than my Department, as it was in the past, to identify sites for new MSAs, secure planning permission and acquire the land.

It is therefore under these deregulated arrangements, rather than at the Department's instigation, that the present proposals have emerged. There were, of course, three applications for Woodlands Park; all were submitted by the same developer. All three applications were referred to both the Highways Agency and the planning authority. The agency's response was to object to each of them, on the grounds that development of an MSA at this site would prejudice the proposed M4-M40 link roads. That objection, together with the planning authority's own views on the applications, led to all three being refused.

It was the developers' appeal against those refusals that led to the public inquiry which took place in November and December last year. At the start of the inquiry, the agency maintained its earlier objections to all three schemes. As the inquiry proceeded, however, the developer submitted revised drawings showing amended accesses.

The agency's engineers discussed these revised proposals with the developer, and as a result were able to tell the inspector that the revised proposals met the technical standards for connection to the dual four-lane M25. But the agency maintained its objections to all three proposals, on the grounds that they would prejudice the provision of the proposed link roads.

That was the position when the inquiry closed. There have, though, been some further developments since. In particular, we announced that it was not now proposed to build the link roads, and that we would seek instead to widen the M25 from four lanes to five in each direction between the M4 and M40.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment considered that our revised proposals for this section of the M25 did potentially amount to a significant new factor which he ought to take into account in considering the inspector's recommendation. That is why he announced on 25 September this year that he was minded to allow two of the appeals, but that he would defer his decision for three weeks. The additional time was to allow interested parties to make any further representations to take account of the new factors.

I now turn to some of the more specific points which my hon. Friends have raised. I have already made the point that the Woodlands Park proposal is in no sense a Government proposal. The Department has had plans of its own in the past for an MSA at Iver—although not in the same location—but never reached the stage of submitting a planning application.

The Department's only view, which is set out in its advice to local planning authorities, is that MSAs should not generally be more than about thirty miles apart. That is not simply because we like to see regular MSAs for their own sake. It is important to safety that motorists should have a chance to stop every 30 miles or so. My hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield has accepted that there is a case for a motorway service area somewhere on the western quadrant of the M25, although not at this location.

Beyond that, the Department's direct involvement is limited to ensuring that the proposals meet our technical requirements for an MSA. In other words, we need to be satisfied that, if planning permission were to be granted, the MSA could be connected safely to the M25.

A point which I know has been raised in this context is that we have recently begun the trial of a controlled motorway scheme for the M25 between junctions 11 and 15, a little to the south of the proposed MSA. The scheme is a response to the very heavy volumes of traffic using this part of our motorway network. One of the aims is to reduce the need for motorists to switch from lane to lane—weaving, to use the jargon term. Yet the agency is apparently prepared to agree to an MSA on this, another section of the M25 carrying very heavy traffic flows, even though the inevitable result will be increased weaving movements as motorists seek to get into and out of the site.

This seems, I agree, an odd response, but there are two separate considerations. First, departmental standards lay down a minimum distance which must be preserved between successive motorway junctions. That distance is, to use a foreign measurement, two kilometres. On the latest agreed plans for the Woodlands Park MSA, at least this distance is available to all vehicles entering or leaving the MSA on either carriageway.

The second consideration was whether, even though this technical standard had been met, the Highways Agency should continue to oppose the MSA simply because the extra weaving movements might affect the capacity of this part of the road. Clearly there is a balance to be drawn here.

The aim of the controlled motorway experiment is to make more efficient use of the existing capacity by controlling speeds and encouraging drivers to stay in lane. There is no doubt that introducing a completely new access point, as the MSA would do, means that some of the benefit that we might derive if the controlled motorway experiment is a success—I believe that it is—and is extended past the site would be lost.

The Highways Agency therefore had to balance the extra weaving movements that the MSA would introduce against the benefits to motorists of having a new MSA on a very long stretch of motorway which currently lacks any services. This is a difficult judgment, but I have instructed officials in the Highways Agency to consider whether it is sensible to allow an MSA at this location, with the attendant disruption to traffic flow, when it may be necessary to impose permanent traffic management on this stretch of road when it is widened to dual five.

My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge has made very clear his own concerns and those of his constituents about the asbestos contamination which affects the site. He will not, I know, expect me either to comment in detail on the technical issues or to anticipate the outcome of the Secretary of State for the Environment's consideration of the inspector's recommendations.

What I can do is remind my hon. Friend that it was because of the contamination question that the original planning application fell to be considered not by the district council, as would normally be the case, but by Buckinghamshire county council. He will also be aware that the inspector at the inquiry was assisted by an independent assessor appointed by my right hon. Friend specifically to consider the questions raised by the presence of asbestos on the site.

I know that measures to deal with the contamination were discussed very thoroughly during the inquiry. I am assured that, if planning permission were to be granted, the Health and Safety Executive would be involved in considering detailed schemes for the disposal of asbestos, and will be responsible for ensuring that the operation is carried out correctly.

That would be guaranteed by conditions which would be attached to any planning permission that might be granted. The conditions would cover, among other things, further site investigations to assess the degree of contamination; measures to deal with it; implementation of those measures; and monitoring of the disposal operations. That is a comprehensive list, which I hope will give my hon. Friends and their constituents some reassurance.

To conclude, I must stress once again that the current proposals are from the private sector, not from my Department or the Highways Agency. Like any other proposals, they fall to be considered first by the local planning authority and then, in the event of a call-in or an appeal, as here, by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment.

A few days still remain during which interested parties can make representations to my right hon. Friend if they believe that the withdrawal of the Department's link road scheme and the replacement strategy of widening to dual five introduce new considerations which were not adequately aired during the inquiry. Further representations must relate to those considerations. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has not agreed to reopen the entire inquiry.

I know that my hon. Friends will understand if I do not allow myself to be drawn any further into consideration of the merits or otherwise of the planning applications. It would be wrong for me to do so. Nevertheless, I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will note the points that my hon. Friends have made. I have no doubt that he will want to ensure that they have all been covered adequately before he announces his decision.

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