HC Deb 12 December 1996 vol 287 cc508-14

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

10 pm

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Mailing)

The M20 motorway is the main motorway route to the channel tunnel, and therefore to the rest of Europe. Junction 3, at Wrotham in my constituency, is the point at which the two major motorway arms funnel traffic from the rest of England—and therefore from Britain—through to the channel tunnel, along the final section of the M20 through Kent.

The first stream of the motorway comes from the M20, taking traffic from the north of London and East Anglia, and the second stream takes traffic from the M26 spur off the M25, from the south of London and the west of the country. From junction 3 to the east was always going to be an extremely heavily used section of motorway, and for that reason—this was relatively unusual at the time when this section of the motorway was built; it was opened in December 1971—it was built to three lanes in each direction.

Then, in the 1980s, along came the channel tunnel—or, rather along came the channel tunnel again. The channel tunnel project had been signed and sealed under a Conservative Government in the early 1970s, only to be scrapped by a Labour Government in 1975—a decision that seemed extremely short-sighted at the time, and looks even more short-sighted with the benefit of hindsight.

By the late 1980s, it was clear that this section of the motorway, with the channel tunnel then being built, simply would not be able to meet the volume of traffic that would be taken on it. On 18 May 1989, the then Secretary of State for Transport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon), announced in his White Paper "Roads for Prosperity" that the motorway would be widened to four lanes in each direction between junctions 3 and 5.

I might say to my hon. Friend the Minister that I have kept our right hon. Friend's White Paper, and also the statement that he made on 18 May 1989 in introducing it. It seems to me that the case he advanced about the inextricable link in this country between prosperity and a decently functioning road system holds good today.

Following the announcement that that section of the M20 would be widened to four lanes in each direction, there ensued what I can only describe as an extraordinarily unhappy saga for my constituents.

The immediate effect of announcing the widening of that section of the M20 was to create a swathe of blight along both sides of it. That resulted in some 300 houses having to be compulsorily acquired under statutory blight purchase procedures.

It turned out subsequently that virtually none of those houses was going to be required for the widened motorway. That meant that some £30 million of taxpayers' money was unnecessarily expended on the purchase of those properties, and that the lives of several hundred of my constituents were made a misery as a result of secondary blight. The standard of the estates of people with houses immediately adjacent to the statutory blight deteriorated as houses were kept empty. Some unsuitable tenants moved into properties. There was vandalism, and so on. I was obliged to refer the whole matter to the Comptroller and Auditor General for a formal investigation by the National Audit Office.

Amid all the difficulties for my constituents, the statutory procedures continued. There was a long public consultation exercise, an exhibition showing how the widening scheme would take place, a full-scale public inquiry and a final definition of the scheme. A detailed noise mitigation programme was built into the scheme. Everything was finalised and ready to go. Then, a fortnight ago, on 26 November, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport delivered what was in our area a killer blow to the scheme, announcing that it would be abandoned altogether.

The deeply unhappy history of the past seven and a half years is that, since the widening was announced, some tens of millions of pounds of public money has gone down the drain and the lives of many hundreds of my constituents have been made difficult and in some cases miserable as a result of secondary blight. Heaven knows how many tens of thousands of man hours worked by civil servants, local government and housing officers have been devoted to progressing the widening scheme, apart from the enormous involvement by probably thousands of my constituents in their representations on it.

Seven and a half years after the scheme was announced, they have ended up with absolutely nothing, and the whole thing has been a total waste of time and money. My hon. Friend the Minister and I are familiar with the expression, "It's a funny way to run a railway." I can say only that it is a funny way to run a road programme.

I am aware that the Labour and Liberal parties have consistently opposed a decent road programme in Britain, although, on this issue, the Liberals tend to face both ways at once. Locally, they advocate road and village bypass schemes, but nationally they oppose such schemes. It is a matter of great regret and considerable concern that the Government appear to have largely followed the direction of the Opposition parties. I have considerable anxieties and doubts as to whether that is the right course.

I may now be in a very small minority in the House, but I believe that a proper functioning main road system is part of the essential economic lifeblood of Britain. With its small land area and huge range of businesses and economic activity, it will never be economic to shift goods transported in Britain from road to rail. For the great majority of goods, that will never be an economic proposition.

I believe that it is absolutely essential for our competitiveness, for our prosperity, and therefore for our job prospects, that we continue to have a properly functioning motorway system. The Government should consider very carefully the long-term implications of their policy—the impact of which has been felt by those who live between junctions 3 and 5 of the M20.

I was very struck by an article that appeared in the 8 December 1996 issue of The Sunday Times, headed "Warning: 20 years of gridlock ahead as new roads are axed". The article contained two diagrams of England and Wales. One was headed "Motorway Congestion Now", and the other "And in 2015". Each contained black spots in places where traffic grinds to a halt on more than half the days in a year. The first diagram, on current traffic congestion, showed that there were 21 black spots, whereas the diagram for 2015 showed 86 black spots. Based on that forecast, in less than 20 years such areas will quadruple.

I was not surprised to see that a black spot had been placed on precisely the part of the motorway that we are debating tonight, between junctions 3 and 5 of the M20. If that article represents what is likely to happen to the motorway system, there will have to be a fundamental reconsideration of Government policy.

Where does the current position leave my constituents? It leaves them still facing huge growth in the volume of traffic using that section of the motorway. I have obtained, through parliamentary questions, with the assistance of the Highways Agency, projections for the daily average number of vehicles that will use the M20 between junctions 3 and 5 over the next 20 years if—as is now Government policy—the widening scheme is not implemented.

The figures are set out in Hansard, 2 December 1996, column 477, and show that—for the section between junctions 3 and 4 for which a complete set of figures is available—in 1993 there were 66,000 vehicles per day, but that, by 1995, the figure had already risen to 83,100. There were two projections for 2012—a low-growth projection, at 110,000, and a high-growth projection, at 131,000—which effectively show that, according to the Highways Agency's 20-year projections, traffic will double on that section of motorway. I fear that even the high-growth estimate is conservative.

Therefore, my constituents face a serious increase—a doubling—in the volume of traffic using that section of the motorway. Moreover, they also face the loss of the noise mitigation measures that would have been implemented had the widening scheme proceeded. I should be grateful if my hon. Friend, in his reply, will tell me how the noise mitigation measures which were part of the widening scheme can be salvaged from the wreckage of that programme.

I have four specific questions that I wish to put to my hon. Friend: I gave a copy of them to his private office earlier today, so I hope that he will be able to give precise replies.

First, what are his Department's resurfacing plans for the M20 between junctions 3 and 5, and may I have his assurance that the resurfacing materials that will be used, whether porous asphalt or any other material, will be chosen with noise reduction as the top consideration—after, of course, road safety?

Secondly, can my hon. Friend confirm that the legal effect of his written answers to me of 29 November at column 417 and of 10 December at column 103 is that, although the Department of Transport as the highway authority for motorways has a discretionary power under section 282 of the Highways Act 1980 to fund noise barriers on existing motorways—whether constructed before or after 17 October 1969—as a matter of policy it uses that power only in exceptional circumstances for motorways that were constructed before that date? If that is the case, will my hon. Friend consider a change of policy to permit the funding of noise barriers for the M20, given the traffic forecasts and the serious impact that the noise from that motorway is already having on the lives of people who live adjacent to it?

Thirdly, are there any powers under which Kent county council could fund noise barriers along that section of the motorway, on its own or in conjunction with his Department?

Fourthly, I ask my hon. Friend for an assurance that, if Kent county council is able to proceed with a noise mitigation scheme along the section of the motorway between junctions 3 and 5, his Department will give the council all possible assistance, and provide access for the necessary works on the Department's land.

I cannot stress too strongly how deeply I and my constituents feel about the issue. They were told that that section of the M20 was to be widened, and they have suffered blight and ever-increasing noise disturbance. They have devoted time and effort to the public consultation process and to the public inquiry and now they have been told that the whole scheme has been abandoned, even though the volume of traffic will double. I and my constituents insist that noise mitigation measures are preserved, and I look to my hon. Friend to say how that can be achieved.

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

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Mailing (Sir J. Stanley) on securing this debate, and on his strong advocacy of the concerns of his constituents. The proposals to widen the M20 between junctions 3 and 5 entered the road programme with the publication of the White Paper in May 1989, as he reminded the House. Draft side roads orders for the scheme were published, with an environmental statement, in January 1994. The proposals then went to public consultation, and a public inquiry was held in October and November 1994.

Following our review of the roads programme in 1995, the scheme was placed in the longer-term programme, because it was likely to be some time before it could be taken forward. Nevertheless, to remove some uncertainties, my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for the Environment and for Transport announced their decision on the scheme on 4 September this year. Because of unresolved issues about noise mitigation, they decided that the draft orders should be withdrawn.

The inquiry, which closed in November 1994, led to the inspectors' report that we received in the middle of January 1995. Normally, we aim to issue a decision within six months, but in this case the inspector's recommendation with regard to the use of porous asphalt required particularly careful consideration because of technical difficulties in applying it to this type of road, made of jointed concrete.

As my right hon. Friend pointed out, following a further review that we had to undertake in the current year, the scheme has been withdrawn from the programme. Schemes which were in the longer-term programme had little chance of coming to fruition within a reasonable time scale. But keeping them in the programme perpetuated uncertainty and the damaging effect of blight on individuals and neighbourhoods. Now that the M20 scheme has been withdrawn, the local planning authority will be notified that the safeguarding which protects the proposed route should be removed from local plans.

At that point, safeguarding is withdrawn, statutory blight disappears and the powers to use section 246(2A) of the Highways Act for discretionary purchase are extinguished. There are a handful of discretionary purchase cases which have been agreed but for which the acquisition has not been completed. In those cases, the Highways Agency will be contacting the applicants to ask whether they wish to continue with the sale. If they do, we will honour the agreements.

My right hon. Friend has pressed me on the need to consider additional noise protection along this section of M20, and in this respect he has raised a number of specific questions. The Department has powers under section 282 of the Highways Act 1980 to provide noise barriers on any land in our ownership. Mitigation proposals for the withdrawn scheme comprised just over three miles of noise barriers. These proposals, and the noise amelioration they offered, applied only to the layout of the scheme, and would not necessarily be effective in reducing noise impact from this existing section of M20. If noise barriers were to be provided, it would be necessary to redesign the scheme from first principles.

As my right hon. Friend knows, the Department is required to provide noise mitigation in circumstances where we act as a developer by building a new road or substantially altering an existing one. We are not obliged to do so to deal with noise levels resulting from increased use of an existing unaltered road. I made it clear in answer to a parliamentary question earlier today that we have, in exceptional circumstances and where funds have been available, exercised a discretionary policy for providing noise barriers on roads last improved before 17 October 1969, but that policy is not applicable in respect of this section of road, which opened to traffic in 1971.

My right hon. Friend also asked whether Kent county council, as a highway authority, has discretionary powers to provide noise mitigation on this section of the M20.

Sir John Stanley

Can my hon. Friend confirm that, in law, he is perfectly able to use his discretionary powers to construct noise barriers on motorways that were built after 17 October 1969, and that it is merely a matter of policy that he does not do so? I asked whether he would consider a change in policy and make an exception in the context of this scheme, given the traffic forecasts and the terrible position in which my constituents have been placed for a considerable period.

Mr. Watts

My right hon. Friend was entirely right: we have the powers, and it is a matter of policy that we apply them as we do to new roads or substantially improved roads, and not to deal with the problems of increasing traffic on unaltered roads.

Kent county council has discretionary powers under the Highways Act to provide noise mitigation barriers, but only on roads for which it is the highway authority. On the M20, Kent county council acts as our agent. It is open to Kent county council, or indeed any other body, to offer to fund noise barriers on M20. If any such offer were forthcoming, I can assure my right hon. Friend that the Department would not stand in the way of the implementation of such an offer.

Of course, withdrawing the scheme from the roads programme means that, now that resurfacing will not be undertaken as part of the widening works, the M20 junctions 3 to 5 will have to be reinstated into the trunk road major maintenance programme.

My right hon. Friend has asked what steps we are taking to achieve a quieter surface for that section of the M20 when resurfacing needs to take place. First, reassessment of the condition of the carriageway will be a necessary part of that process. Depending on what the assessment shows, measures to repair or renew the surface will be proposed. At that time, choices will need to be taken about the materials to be used for the surface. Clearly, treating any noise impact at source is more attractive as an option than trying to contain it through barriers.

The arguments in favour of porous asphalt in these cases are well rehearsed. Where the criteria for porous asphalt are met, we are willing to use it. For example, it is already in use on several sections of the trunk road network, including parts of the M25 and M1, and it will be used on the A34 Newbury bypass.

One also has to recognise, however, that the material has drawbacks. It is much more expensive and less durable than hot-rolled asphalt, therefore requiring more frequent replacement, which causes disruption to traffic. It also requires more frequent salt applications in winter. We need to be sure, therefore, that the benefits of using it in particular circumstances outweigh those disbenefits.

In addition, the material is not technically suitable for all roads, particularly those that carry exceptionally high flows of heavy goods vehicles, or for use as an overlay on jointed concrete roads, where the thickness required to ensure that the joints do not show through in cracks in the main surface can present difficulties,—for example, in maintaining headroom through structures. Typically, it would need 4 in or so of overlay. That was identified as a potential problem in the decision letter on the scheme that has now been abandoned.

As part of a continuing programme of research, we are seeking to tackle those drawbacks, and we are examining other forms of quieter road surface, including thin surfacing. Some of the new thin surface materials are already in use—for example, on the A1 in Cambridgeshire, the A12 in Essex and the M6 in Cumbria. They are being monitored for their performance and durability, especially their retention of skidding resistance.

Other materials are still in the earlier stages of development. Subject to that work proving successful, when this section of the M20 next requires surface maintenance, we will look closely at the materials available that could reduce noise, and at the possibility of using that section of road as part of the further development of those new surfacing techniques.

The proving of them starts at the laboratory level, considering the results of manufacturer's tests. We then use them on relatively short sections of carriageway to see how they stand up. The final development phase is to use them over a considerable stretch of carriageway to find out how they perform in operation in the live circumstances of a major road.

Clearly, when we are trying a material to test its durability and noise-reducing characteristics, it is sensible to choose locations where we have heavy flows of traffic, a great amount of heavy traffic, and where we are aware of problems with noise that cannot be treated using existing techniques.

I can hold out that hope and comfort to my right hon. Friend and his constituents. If we have the opportunity to use that stretch of road to test the durability and effectiveness of one of the new materials when it is time for it to be resurfaced, we will seek to do so.

Naturally, I sympathise with my right hon. Friend's constituents, who have suffered the uncertainty and blight of schemes being developed and then withdrawn, and who have seen the prospect of noise mitigation being provided as part of an improvement scheme, only to disappear with withdrawal of the scheme. If we are able to tackle the problem at source, rather than seeking merely to contain it, it will provide a better solution.

I give my right hon. Friend the undertaking that we will seek every opportunity to do so and therefore to resolve this long-running problem, which he has brought to the House so many times and so effectively, and with which I have the greatest sympathy.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Ten o'clock.