HC Deb 27 November 1996 vol 286 cc309-16 1.30 pm
Mr. Bob Dunn (Dartford)

I am grateful for the opportunity to bring to the attention of the House the problem of traffic congestion on the A2 in north-west Kent. I am grateful too for the presence of my hon. Friend the Minister for Railways and Roads, who will respond to the debate. I am also pleased to see my hon. Friends the Members for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Evennett) and for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold), who share my concerns and anxieties about the A2, as it runs through our constituencies. They hope to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, later in the debate.

The A2 and its problems were the subject of an Adjournment debate initiated by me. On 15 February 1991, I raised the problem caused by continual and continuing roadworks. Many of the descriptive passages that I used in that debate are relevant today, although this debate focuses on a different matter. However, it would be wrong to imply in any way that roadworks and their associated problems are a thing of the past. They most certainly are not.

The House will appreciate that the A2 trunk road is one of the most significant roads in Britain. It provides access to and from London and Dover and the channel ports and cuts across the M25 orbital route near the Dartford crossings. It is also a major access route for Bexley, Dartford, Gravesham and the Medway towns. As a major road, it carries a huge volume of domestic and international traffic, including the private car, passenger carriers and heavy commercial vehicles.

It was stated in 1991, and is certainly true today, that the A2 carries far more traffic than it was built to take. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, in a letter to me dated 18 November, stated: Kent County Council, on behalf of the Highways Agency, recently carried out an accident study of the A2 between the M25 junction with the A2/A282 and the M2 which confirmed that the accident rate along this stretch was relatively high". He continued—this is relevant to north-west Kent— Contributory factors include the very heavy traffic flows, the large number of HGVs using the route, and the number of junctions and accesses to premises. Hon. Members may point out that our arguments and concerns apply to many roads throughout the region, given the increased car ownership over the past decade and more. However, the A2 is a nightmare for my constituents and, although much is being done to improve conditions, it is still an accident black spot in north-west Kent.

I congratulate the editor and staff of the Dartford Times on the responsible and public-minded way in which they have mounted their A2 campaign, which has my full support. Local Members of Parliament are grateful to them for the dossier of sad and tragic events that they have published in recent weeks. It gives me no pleasure, but, out of necessity to enlighten the debate, I remind the House that, in five months, five people have been killed on the A2 in north-west Kent and there have been countless more non-fatal accidents. The accident toll is published by the Dartford Times and certainly makes grim reading.

We all extend our condolences to the families of those who have died in accidents on the A2. We would be failing in our duty as Members of Parliament for north-west Kent if we did not bring our urgent concerns to the Government's attention. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the way in which they have responded during Question Time, in meetings, in letters and in reply to today's debate to our concerns about the nature, incidence and growth of traffic using the A2.

Safety is an important issue and much of what has been done and needs to be done will depend on the ability, tolerance, understanding, expertise and wisdom of individual drivers. However, much can be done, and initiatives are in hand to improve road safety along the A2. When accidents occur, there is a sudden shock for the individual and an immediate and devastating shock for the bereaved family, but we also have to consider the delays in access to work and leisure and in access to the continental ports and the channel tunnel for our goods and services. Any such delay has a huge cost to the national health and industrial well-being of our country.

I wish to make four points to my hon. Friend the Minister. First, I suggest that accident black spot signs be installed at Swanscombe cutting and elsewhere, as appropriate. Secondly, will he consider having anti-speed cambers constructed? They would retard the high speeds that some motorists insist on reaching and thus prevent accidents from occurring. Thirdly, will he consider placing speed cameras—which I know are expensive and a drain on resources—in Dartford and Gravesham to prevent motorists from committing speeding offences? Finally, I suggest that teams of experts from his Department and other agencies conduct investigations on access and sight lines for junctions in particular, building on work already in hand.

The A2 is a matter of huge concern in north-west Kent, given our juxtaposition between London and the continent and the rest of the country. Any attempts to improve matters on the A2 will be gratefully received by me and by the people I represent.

1.38 pm
Mr. David Evennett (Erith and Crayford)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn), who is a good friend and constituency neighbour, for allowing me to participate in his debate. I also congratulate him on securing a debate on the A2, which is extremely important to the people of south-east London and north-west Kent. The issues affecting the A2—traffic conditions and the problems for travellers and residents—remain relevant today. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Minister of State is listening so intently, as I know of his concern about the A2. In his excellent speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford highlighted many of the problems affecting that road.

The A2 cuts the borough of Bexley in half. It is without doubt one of the most important and busy roads in the country. It has seen a dramatic increase in usage during the past decade and is now a motorway in all but name. The level of traffic is way beyond anything that could have been comprehended, let alone estimated, when the road was opened as a dual carriageway in 1971. The road increased in importance and usage following the 1988 opening of the Rochester Way relief road. The opening of the QE2 bridge at Dartford has further increased the A2' s importance and usage through the borough of Bexley.

I regularly use the A2 while travelling home to Crayford from Westminster at night. Ten years ago, the road was relatively quiet outside the rush hour, but today, through Bexley, it is busy for 20 out of every 24 hours each day of the year. The traffic seems ceaseless. The speed at which vehicles travel is worrying; juggernauts and others go far too fast, are a real threat to safety and cause problems on the road. There are also concerns about bottlenecks, cones, repairs and tragic accidents—some of them fatal or serious, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford has highlighted—and there is a lack of facilities on the road for motorists, as my hon. Friend also pointed out. The installation of SOS telephones along my part of the A2, the improvement of lighting between Falconwood and the Black Prince interchange and the planting of shrubs and trees along the road have all been welcome improvements in the recent past. Environmental issues and the consequences and problems of safety for the houses that are close to the A2, however, remain of great concern.

In Bexley, the A2 environmental campaign was established in March 1995, and under the chairmanship of Ian Linden, it has endeavoured to promote improvements to give local residents some respite and at the same time considered traffic conditions and safety on the A2. Responses to the questionnaire "Living with the A2" highlight the residents' concerns and problems, which relate especially to safety, pollution, traffic volume and noise.

Accidents, hold-ups, congestion, increasing traffic levels, delay and safety problems concern and infuriate not only motorists who regularly use the A2, either to go into London to work or socialise or to go out of London into the beautiful Kent countryside, but local residents in my area who live alongside that important road.

More needs to be done to assist traffic flow and co-ordinate maintenance and lane closures. Higher barriers should be erected where there are houses at the side of the road in Bexley to improve safety for local residents. Like the M25, the road is heavily used, and traffic conditions and residents' problems need to be addressed further. Rubbish and refuse comes off the back of huge lorries with open tops as they travel along the road and ends up in my constituents' back gardens. That safety problem has not been addressed. The barriers in Bexley are far too low and not as safe as local residents need and demand them to be.

I am concerned primarily about improving the safety and well-being of residents whose houses adjoin the A2, as well as about improving the safety of motorists who encounter problems of speed and usage day after day. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister has been listening to all those points. I am trying to be constructive and helpful. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford for allowing me the opportunity to participate in the debate and hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will think seriously, long and hard about the problems of the A2.

1.43 pm
Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn) for raising this extremely important matter. During the past two years, five people have lost their lives on the A2 near Northfleet and Gravesend in my constituency. Among those five people was a personal friend of mine. It is no coincidence that Members who represent constituencies through which the road runs—my hon. Friends the Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Evennett) and for Dartford, as well as other Members who represent areas in Kent, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw)—are present for the debate.

The accidents that have occurred—five of which, as I said, were fatal—have been noticed by the local residents and highlighted in the local newspaper, the Gravesend Reporter, the sister paper to the Dartford Times, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford referred. I am grateful to the Government for responding to our concerns and representations, and for commissioning a report on this stretch of road.

I should like to stress especially to my hon. Friend the Minister the problems caused by heavy goods vehicles. The report clearly states that the A2 in my constituency has a very high proportion of heavy goods vehicles passing through. The stress must lie on the words "passing through". North-west Kent is a densely populated area. Ordinary residents use the road in their cars, as do vast tonnages of heavy goods vehicles. It is no coincidence that so many of the fatal accidents have involved HGVs.

I have been encouraged by the Government's response this financial year, as they have given instructions for improvement of the access roads at the Tollgate in Gravesend and at Pepperhill in Northfleet in my constituency. Obviously, the exits and accesses that bring traffic off and on the road can cause accidents through inadvertence or lack of drivers' concentration.

I should also like to highlight the matter of the Little Chef restaurant on the westbound carriageway in the parish of Cobham. Only a year or two ago, there was an accident there, when a sheep transporter proceeding westwards at great speed quite naturally built up speed down the hill with a view to coasting uphill. The difficulty was that the Little Chef was midway. A driver turned into the transporter's path from the access road, the transporter turned over, and sheep—dead and alive—were scattered all over the motor road. That highlights the fact that exit and access roads need adjusting. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will look at the matter of the westbound carriageway and access to the Little Chef.

I was encouraged to learn of the Government's intention to upgrade the road considerably, to four lanes in each direction between the M25 junction and the commencement of the M2 at Three Crutches in my constituency. I know that design consultants have been appointed and I hope that they will look carefully at the problems of HGVs, with a particular view to isolating such vehicles on carriageways of their own. At first glance, that may seem pretty well impossible, but if HGVs were kept separate from smaller passenger traffic, accidents might be avoided. It is a novel idea and, who knows, perhaps the Department of Transport design consultants will come up with such an innovative solution. I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for the considerable time that he has spent looking into the issue and hope that we shall hear more about it in this debate.

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

We are all grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn) for bringing this important subject before the House. Its importance is underlined by the presence of my hon. Friends the Members for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold), for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Evennett) and for Dover (Mr. Shaw), whose constituency is a little further along the A2. I thank all my hon. Friends for their constructive suggestions and comments. My hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford referred to rubbish falling from heavy goods vehicles; clearly, that is unacceptable. He also mentioned what appears to be a fairly thick tome—the report called "Living with the A2". It may be rather rash of me, but I should be delighted to receive a copy and to consider it, perhaps when I am on a long journey to a more distant part of the country than Kent.

As my hon. Friends know, that stretch of the A2 trunk road forms part of the strategic A2-M2 route between London, the M25 and the east Kent coast. Although the M20 is now signed as the main strategic route between London and the M25, the A2 remains an important route to the port of Dover. I was pleased that in our road programme announcement yesterday we were able to reinstate the improvement of the A2 between Lydden and Dover. Recent disruption of cross-channel traffic by other means underlines the importance of ensuring that our ports have good access.

Mr. David Shaw (Dover)

May I say how grateful the people of Dover are that the A2 is to be dualled between Lydden and Dover? We are, however, extremely disturbed that the French lorry drivers' dispute is getting ridiculously out of hand. I heard from the police this morning that some 500 lorries were backed up outside Dover; that could threaten all the roads in Kent with enormous inconvenience. We must ensure that British roads are free for people to travel on and that we are not drawn into that outrageous dispute.

Mr. Watts

I must not be sidetracked into a foreign industrial dispute, but I can tell my hon. Friend that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport will be in touch again today with his French counterpart.

The A2 also provides access to the important industrial areas of south Thamesside and the Medway towns and, further east, to the tourist centres of Canterbury and the Isle of Thanet; it is also the main link to the rest of the national road network for the ports of Chatham, Sheerness and Ramsgate. It is hardly surprising that it carries such heavy volumes of traffic, as my hon. Friends have mentioned already.

The traffic is fast-moving and flows are high. The A2 carries up to 92,000 vehicles a day and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham said, some 13 per cent. of that traffic between the hours of 7 am and 7 pm consists of heavy goods vehicles. In recent years, accident and scheme identification studies have been carried out on that length of the A2. The most recent was undertaken earlier this year by Kent county council for the Highways Agency; it shows that the accident rate on that route is relatively high compared with that on a road of motorway standard, which is the nearest type of road with which comparisons can be made.

That comparison, however, is slightly misleading, since, unlike motorways, the A2 provides direct access to adjacent premises, and motorways have relatively fewer junctions. Access and sight lines were two of the issues that my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford asked me to consider further, and I undertake to do so.

Between 1 January 1993 and 31 December 1995, there have been 285 reported injury accidents on the A2 between the London boundary and the M2. Of those, there have been 12 recorded fatal accidents, involving 13 fatalities, 51 serious accidents and 222 slight accidents. Today, my hon. Friends have reported further, more recent, fatal accidents. Although those figures are higher than the national average rate for motorways over a three-year period, the overall rate for 1995 was lower than in the previous two years. That does not make me complacent, because high accident levels must be tackled.

Many factors have contributed to the cause of the accidents on the A2, including the heavy traffic flows, the large number of HGVs and the high frequency of junctions and accesses to adjacent premises. I am not sure whether it would be feasible to segregate HGVs from other traffic, but I shall take account of that constructive suggestion from my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford when I consider long-term ways in which to improve the road and to enable it to operate more safely. Having said that, the accident study also suggests that many of the accidents could be attributed to driver errors, for which there are no simple engineering remedies. It has been suggested that such errors tend to be more concentrated on the A2 because of the density of traffic and the lack of room for manoeuvre between junctions and accesses, particularly at congested peak times.

The study identified a wide range of options for improvement throughout that length of the A2. Many would require extensive work and would be costly. My hon. Friends will know that the Highways Agency's budget for both national schemes and local network enhancement and safety schemes is constrained, although they can take heart from yesterday's settlement, which took not one penny from trunk road funding and ensured that we will be able to carry forward a £6 billion main programme in the next few years with sufficient funding for three or four major schemes each year.

During the current year, the Highways Agency's funds are fully committed to schemes already in progress to provide low-cost safety improvements, so there is little scope for further major improvements in the short term. However, my hon. Friends will know that we are fully committed to reducing the number of accidents on roads, and we will take action to implement urgent low-cost safety measures where necessary. I am pleased to record that, despite the heavy constraints on our programme and because of the priority that we attach to safety improvement on the A2, the Highways Agency has been able to include some low-cost safety measures for the A2 in its programme of local safety schemes—as my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham pointed out—in this constrained financial year.

At the Pepperhill junction, the on-slip roads, related merge areas and signing are being improved; at the Tollgate junction, similar works are being carried out to the westbound on-and-off slip roads; and at Cobham junction and Marling Cross junction, improved signing is being provided. The persistent and persuasive representations from my hon. Friends may have contributed to the priority that we have given to that work. As part of the package of improvements, the agency has also arranged to carry out improvements to the road markings at the exit from the Little Chef—to which my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham referred—and the petrol filling station at Cobham services. I hope that my hon Friends will be pleased to learn that those works should be carried out early in 1997.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford suggested that we should consider the use of black spot signs and speed cameras in addition to a review of access and of sight lines. I shall give those suggestions further consideration.

My hon. Friends will be aware of the more major improvements now under way between Bean and Pepperhill. Those are associated with the development of Blue Water and are largely being funded by the developer, Lend Lease. The work is being carried out in two phases. Phase 1, which started on 11 November, involves the widening of the eastbound carriageway. The work will take about two years to complete. Phase 2, to improve the A2-B255 junction, is due to start early next year. It will run in tandem with phase 1 and will take about 15 months to complete.

The Highways Agency also has a number of more major proposals to improve the A2 between the A282-M25 junction and the M2. First, the current programme contains the A2-A282 Dartford improvement scheme to improve the M25-A2-A282 junction. If a junction requires such a complicated description, one can understand what the problems are for road users. The junction is becoming more congested and delays are increasing. The main problem arises from the conflict between through traffic bound for the Dartford crossing and local traffic wishing to gain access to Dartford. Also, on the A2 east of the M25 junction 2, there will be insufficient capacity to accommodate existing and predicted traffic demands.

Our scheme will provide for the widening of A2 up to the Bean interchange, and that will complement the schemes to widen the A2 from Bean to Cobham. The Dartford scheme will also provide for an increase in the traffic capacity of the M25-A2 junction, and will address the road safety problem by reducing queuing on the slip roads. It will do that by providing two dedicated slip roads, one of them on a viaduct above the junction, which will cater for traffic travelling between the Dartford bridge and tunnels and the A2 to the east. That, in turn, will reduce the risk of accidents from through traffic running into queuing vehicles.

Secondly, I announced earlier this year a scheme for inclusion in the national roads programme to widen the A2 between Bean and Cobham. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford will be pleased with yesterday's announcement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that, following the Budget settlement, that scheme remains in the main road programme. The first phase of the scheme will increase capacity to four lanes each way on a six-mile stretch of the A2 between Bean and Tollgate. In addition, a second phase between Tollgate and Cobham could, subject to the outcome of statutory procedures, be completed in time for the opening of the Ebbsfleet channel tunnel rail link station.

My hon Friends will also be pleased to hear that the M2 widening scheme between junctions 1 and 4—

It being Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Sitting suspended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 10 (Wednesday sittings), till half-past Two o'clock.