HC Deb 10 July 1996 vol 281 cc358-64 12.30 pm
Mr. David Shaw (Dover)

I refer to a matter that is of considerable concern to my constituents who live in the Aycliffe area, just outside Dover. The current problems stem from the building of the new A20 road. It would be churlish of me if I did not recognise the wonderful construction of the new A20, which has been operating for some three years. The road has been excellent for Dover. The construction techniques were advanced, and there is an excellent tunnel just through the hills between Folkestone and Capel le Ferne—it must be one of the most technically advanced tunnels that this country has seen in recent years. The road has been welcomed in Dover.

The A20 shows that the Conservative Government are committed to our port and ferry industry. The road has enabled that industry to compete against the channel tunnel in a way that might not have happened if there had been road links only to the channel tunnel. The people of Dover are enormously grateful for the road. The three sections of the road cost almost £100 million, which is a considerable amount of money.

The road is fantastic. It has the most amazing view of Dover—it shows my constituency in all its splendour. As one comes out of the countryside and the hills on the new A20, one has an amazing view of Dover castle and its ramparts, which have protected and defended this nation for some 900 years. The view of the port is absolutely magnificent—as one comes down from the hills, one can see ferries turning around in the port, hovercraft arriving and departing, and the magnificent cruise liners docking at the new terminal. For those who find it necessary, one can see across to France on a clear day.

My constituents have welcomed the new A20, which makes it all the more sad that today I have to raise a number of problems that are making the people of Aycliffe suffer. The A20 passes just to the side of the Aycliffe estate, just on the outskirts of Dover, and it is the area most affected by the issues that I will raise today. The residents of Aycliffe have suffered during the whole road works programme. For example, during the construction they suffered because of noise, dust and dirt, and they have since suffered because of the noise from the road—however, most residents have had soundproofing, which has alleviated the noise to some degree.

A considerable amount of work was done by the predecessor of my hon. Friend the Minister for Railways and Roads at the Department of Transport—Christopher Chope was a Member for Southampton in the previous Parliament, and he is now the Conservative candidate for Christchurch. He did a lot to help my constituents when he was in the Department of Transport, and I shall welcome him back to the House if he is successful at the next election. He is a first-rate candidate, and he was a first-rate Member of Parliament.

My constituents in Aycliffe have also suffered because of the considerable amount of rubbish that was left behind at the end of construction. In addition, a considerable number of minor works have not been completed. They want to know why it is taking more than three years to do these minor works, which involve two car parks and the reinstatement of small pieces of land. The car park and reinstatement saga is a ridiculous story that should never have happened. I am not talking about big projects that cost millions—I am talking about the end of a significant project and small projects that would cost no more than £100,000. In addition, Dover district council will pay considerably towards the total cost.

There are two main areas of contention. The first is the undertaking to provide five car parking bay spaces at Gloster Ropewalk and 11 spaces at King's Ropewalk. Secondly, there was a commitment to reinstate and to landscape the former Trans-Manche link compound connected with the channel tunnel works and the surrounding area immediately beyond Aycliffe on the north side of the A20—including the provision of a fenced playing field for the children of Aycliffe, who have not had a playground for the past three summers. In addition, there is the removal of the foundations of the redundant Callender Hamilton bridge and of the noise bank behind 198 to 204 St. David's avenue in Aycliffe.

I have battled away to try to get the work completed. Two local councillors, Jim and Jackie Hood, and the officers and staff of Dover district council have also tried to get the work completed. I thank all the people who have helped me to get the work completed.

It is ludicrous that this started in 1993, after the road was completed and it was decided that there should be some hammerhead turning arrangement at the end of each access road in Gloster Ropewalk and King's Ropewalk. The residents of King's Ropewalk approached the council about the possibility of using part of the available land for car parking. The Department of Transport and its engineers rapidly explored the suggestion, which was good news.

Unfortunately, three alternative sites were drawn up. However, there was consultation, and the process was quite quick, following a public meeting in September 1993. Following the consultation, the designs for the preferred options were agreed to rapidly, the council's highways engineers and planning officers acted quickly, the schemes were costed quickly, and the council even agreed to pay the bulk of the costs. In fact, I understand that the council found some finances in the 1993–94 budget.

In 1994, the delays started, because there were problems when it was found that an extension or a variation order could not be added to the A20 contract. Unfortunately, the contractor bid a high price and put in a high tender, which could not be recommended—we accept that it was an unreasonably high price. Therefore, other alternatives were explored.

As a result of the delays, the council budget allocation for the works was deferred until 1994–95. However, work continued, and the contract was discussed with Eurotunnel to ensure that the work could be completed. There were further delays through 1994, which extended into 1995. Nevertheless, the council allocated money to the works in its 1995–96 budget.

We were told that tenders would be let during 1995, and the council tried hard to press forward. However, there were more excuses, including references to drought conditions that were affecting the road works. It was claimed that large quantities of water would be required for dust control measures. Despite the delays, the council ensured that finance was available at every stage, and it acted promptly with regard to Department of Transport and Highways Agency approvals. I was involved throughout the process, and I wrote several letters in 1993 in an attempt to have most of the road works completed. However, the real saga began on 10 October 1994, when I wrote the first of a series of letters to the Highways Agency concerning rubbish on the site and the completion of the car park. I wrote to the Highways Agency again on 15 November 1994 and on 11 April 1995. At that time, I also wrote letters to Transport Ministers and to Dover district council, in order to ensure that its work progressed unhindered.

I wrote more letters to the Highways Agency on 26 September 1995 and on 2 February 1996. On 21 March 1996, I wrote to Mr. Lawrie Haynes of the Highways Agency. My letter of 31 March 1996 referred to the completion of the car park and to other works. I wrote again to Mr. Haynes on 17 May 1996 and, more recently, on 21 June 1996. The Highways Agency replied to my letters expressing support for the project. It agreed that the works should be carried out as soon as possible.

For example, in November 1994, Mr. Haynes wrote to me claiming that construction of the proposed car park had delayed the general tidying up of the Gloster Ropewalk area. He assured me that the Highways Agency would complete the reinstatement of the area as quickly as possible. Once these works are completed, I am confident that your constituents will see a general improvement in the appearance of the area. In his letter of 16 December 1994, Mr. Haynes told me that he expected to invite tenders for the work. He said: The car park construction forms part of the additional works contract for which we hope to invite tenders around the turn of the year. That was in 1994. We expected tenders to be invited and the work to be carried out early in 1995. When the work did not begin, I wrote more letters.

I received a reply dated 4 May 1995 in which Mr. Haynes said: I understand the frustration felt by the residents of Aycliffe at the apparent lack of progress to provide the promised car parks and tidy up the Estate; they will be pleased to know that the tenders are expected to be let very soon now. Those tenders had not been let by May 1995, despite the long list of assurances. On 4 July 1995, Mr. Haynes of the Highways Agency wrote to me again saying that he understood the frustration felt by local residents. He gave them the pleasing news that tenders are expected to be let very soon now". He also claimed: the construction of the car parks will be completed at an early stage in the contract". Nevertheless, nothing happened.

In February 1996, Mr. Haynes predicted that work would begin in spring this year. In April 1996—that is, the spring—he wrote saying that he expected work to commence the same month. However, the work did not begin in April or May. As a result, I pressed the Highways Agency on the matter, and I received another reply from Mr. Haynes on 20 June 1996, in which he said that the agency hoped to award the contract in the next few weeks; the works should start shortly afterwards. We waited, but nothing happened.

There were rumours in mid-June, and Eurotunnel heard first that the work would not commence in the next few weeks as I had been told. When I contacted Mr. Haynes at the beginning of July, I discovered that the work had been delayed further. I received a letter on 4 July 1996 confirming another delay to the project. It blamed unique difficulties specific to this project. The Highways Agency claimed that it expected to let the contract in the next few weeks and added: work will start shortly after the contract is let and should be completed by Autumn 1996. Enough is enough. I applied to Madam Speaker for an Adjournment debate on the subject, and I am enormously grateful to her and to her office for allowing me to raise the matter so soon after I applied to do so last week. It is an appalling state of affairs. We want to see some action: we want to know that work has commenced.

My constituents in Aycliffe have suffered enough. Although the road is fantastic, they have been treated very badly: too many commitments and promises have not been met. There should be some way of ensuring that road projects of that nature are completed properly.

Like me, my hon. Friend the Minister is a chartered accountant by profession—we were once employed by the same eminent firm of chartered accountants. He knows as well as I that we would be given a sharp ticking off if the audit file was not completed properly and the work was not signed off. As managers, we had to ensure that the work was signed off properly—we were responsible for that—before it went to the partner. When the partner approved the work, there was a final signing-off procedure before the accounts could be issued.

I think that the procedures that my hon. Friend and I employed in our accounting days should also apply to road projects. There should be a final signing-off procedure, which should be monitored and notified to Ministers. I am a great admirer of the agency principle: the agency system works well, as it provides a good operational focal point for Members of Parliament who want to address constituency problems.

I do not wish to negate the role of the Highways Agency or arrangements between Ministers and agencies. However, Ministers should be informed about the performance of bodies such as the Highways Agency. There should be no final signing off until all the commitments given to residents have been met. I know that sometimes it is not possible to meet all residents' requirements, but commitments have been made to my constituents in Aycliffe that have not been met. It is imperative that, if commitments are made by agencies of the Government, those commitments should be met promptly and signed off by people who accept responsibility for them.

Although it is not possible now to meet all the commitments that were made, I hope that we will get a commitment that I and my constituents in Aycliffe can be certain will be carried out. The residents of Aycliffe, especially of Gloster Ropewalk and the severely affected area in King's Ropewalk, deserve an apology for the way in which they have been inconvenienced. I hope that the Minister will also recognise the considerable work that the two local councillors have done. They assisted me and ensured that I was properly informed about what has been an unsatisfactory situation. I look forward to my hon. Friend's comments, and I hope that I will hear some commitments on which he can deliver.

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

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) on his diligence and persistence in pursuing the cause of his constituents and bringing the issue before the House today. As he has just said, he has also worked closely with the local ward councillors.

My hon. Friend has rightly expressed concern about how long it has taken us to meet the commitments we gave him and his constituents. As he described, we carried out a major improvement of the A20 as part of a road scheme to facilitate better access to the channel tunnel and the docks at Dover. My hon. Friend acknowledged that those improvements have enhanced the competitive position of the docks, and brought benefits to road users.

To avoid delay to the main works, we decided to procure ancillary works in a separate contract. The ancillary works comprise items which are minor in the context of the main scheme, but which are, as I acknowledged, important to the residents of Aycliffe. The intention was that three outstanding items should be combined with other works and contained in one separate contract on value-for-money grounds.

Those works included the provision of two small car parks; the removal of spoil to form a replacement playing field to make good the one that had been affected by road works; and the provision of field access at Court Wood. The provision of car parks was at the request of Dover district council, which agreed to pay the additional costs of providing car parks instead of the turning areas that were originally intended.

Tenders were initially invited in May 1995, and we anticipated that work would be undertaken during the following few months. All the undertakings given to my hon. Friend the Member for Dover over the years were given in good faith at the time, although events have frustrated them. The open space will be provided by using material previously excavated during the road construction and placing it in an area that was the former Eurotunnel compound. That work could not be carried out until Eurotunnel had completely vacated the site, but Eurotunnel required the site until May last year, some six months after the main A20 opened to traffic.

The replacement open space area, which is to be infilled and landscaped, lies close to the main ventilation air intake for the channel tunnel. The electronic signalling system in the tunnel is extremely sensitive to dust. If dust were to enter it, the signalling could be affected, as well as the safe operation of the tunnel. Eurotunnel was concerned that no additional dust be generated by the work, and the original tender documents stipulated that.

Normally, dust is controlled or minimised by watering, but that approach was called seriously into question last year during a period of very dry weather, and it looked likely that a drought order would be imposed. Given that situation, the Highways Agency decided that it would irresponsible to proceed with the award of a contract that needed large quantities of water and that effectively meant a delay to all the works.

Tenders were re-invited in February 1996, and returned at the end of March. Agreement had been reached with Eurotunnel about the acceptable levels of additional dust generated, but concern arose over the magnitude of the potential costs of operating close to the tunnel ventilation shaft, and amendments to the tender documents had to be issued, increasing the insurance requirements substantially and transferring the responsibility for the appointment of dust monitoring specialists to the contractor rather than the engineer for the contract.

I acknowledge that those issues should have been addressed earlier. It is a matter of great regret that they were not so addressed, but when they did come to light, they could not be ignored. We had to be sure that we would not risk the safety of those using the tunnel or cause significant costs to arise if its safe operation had been affected. I appreciate that that is of little comfort to the constituents of my hon. Friend, who have had to wait before work on the car parks and replacement open space could be started. I apologise to them on behalf of the Highways Agency.

The current position is that the revised tenders are due to be returned on 23 July. We shall pull out all the stops to evaluate the revised tenders, so that we can award the contract early in August. Work should be able to start on the site approximately four weeks after the award of the contract, and the contract period covers a total of 18 weeks. The successful tenderer will be required to produce a programme of work for the whole contract, and the contract specifies that, once work on each of the car parks commences, it shall be completed and the site cleared in nine weeks to minimise further discomfort and disruption for the local people.

Clearly, with the benefit of hindsight, completion of the car parks could have been achieved sooner if they had been treated in isolation. The inclusion of all the work in one contract was agreed for good reasons, but it has undoubtedly caused delay. I assure my hon. Friend that we shall press on to see that the work is completed at an early date to try to make amends for some of our past failings.

Mr. David Shaw

Will my hon. Friend also ensure that a proper monitoring procedure is followed as the contract takes place? Many of the residents in Aycliffe were enormously inconvenienced during the main A20 road works, and it would be helpful if his office were kept informed by a proper monitoring and control procedure to ensure that the project proceeds to plan.

Mr. Watts

Yes, I can assure my hon. Friend that I will continue to take a close personal interest in the progress of the contract; perhaps he will invite me to visit his constituency, when the works have been completed, so that we can have a proper, final signing off, as he suggested.