HC Deb 02 July 1997 vol 297 cc255-61 12.29 pm
Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling)

On 12 December last year, I initiated an Adjournment debate about the problem of the ever-mounting noise on the M20 between junctions 3 and 5. I make no apology for returning to the subject six months later. I do so because we have a new Government, and whether they choose to follow or to change the policies adopted by their predecessor is a matter of profound importance to my constituents. The Minister will note that I have broadened the ambit of the debate to cover the area between junctions 2 and 5; I will explain why later.

No doubt the Minister will have familiarised herself with the background of the issues that I shall raise. As she will know, the M20 is the primary route through Kent to the continent, and, by virtue of its geographical position, the primary route from the whole of Britain to the continent. At junction 3, which is in my constituency, two branches of the national motorway system meet. The branch from the north, the M20, carries traffic from London, traffic through the Dartford tunnel and traffic from the north and east of London to the channel tunnel. The other branch, represented by the M26 spur of the M25, carries traffic from the south and west of the country to the continent.

It was inescapable that that section of the motorway would be densely used, especially after the opening of the channel tunnel. Those living along the section of the M20 between Wrotham and Aylesford—following the boundary changes, Aylesford is now in the constituency of the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford—are suffering from the noise and environmental disruption.

Inevitably, the initial projections of the volume of traffic that would be carried on that section of the M20 were substantial underestimates. The section between junctions 3 and 5 was opened to traffic in December 1971, having been built with three lanes in each direction. Less than 20 years later, in 1989, the then Secretary of State for Transport, Mr. Paul Channon, announced in his White Paper "Roads for Prosperity" that the section would be widened to four lanes in each direction. That announcement set in train what I can only describe as probably the single most botched piece of motorway planning since the start of the motorway programme.

First, the announcement was made with no indication of how the widening would be carried out and what new land would or would not be required. As a result, the homes of 2,000 or 3,000 people living near that section of the motorway were blighted, which made them either unsaleable or saleable only at sacrificial prices.

Secondly, the Department of Transport had to spend some £30 million of taxpayers' money on the purchase of some 300 houses under statutory blight procedures. It transpired, however, that the purchase of virtually all those houses had been unnecessary, as the most desirable way of widening the section involved using the existing curtilage of the motorway, and no additional land would be required. Effectively, £30 million of taxpayers' money had gone down the drain. I made a formal complaint about the waste of money to the then Comptroller and Auditor General, who strongly criticised the Department of Transport's handling of the scheme.

The final instalment of this sorry saga came just seven and a half years after the original announcement of the widening scheme. In November last year, the then Secretary of State for Transport, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young), announced that the scheme was to be abandoned. Quite apart from the fact that further millions of pounds that had been spent on design, consultation and planning went down the drain, the announcement was another sad example of the extraordinary mishandling of the scheme.

For my constituents, the widening arrangements had had one potentially redeeming feature. Built into them was the adoption of substantial noise abatement measures, such as noise barriers and new earth contours. Under the last Government's policy, however, because the road had been opened after 17 October 1969, the abandoning of the widening scheme meant the automatic abandoning of all the noise mitigation measures. My constituents are living alongside the main road artery between Britain and the continent, and the Highways Agency forecasts that, even without any widening, traffic on the road will at least double over the next 20 years.

Let me put two specific policy issues to the Minister. The first relates to the Government's policy on noise barriers, and the second to road surfaces. The last Government's policy on noise barriers was set out by the then Minister for Railways and Roads, John Watts, when he replied to my debate on 12 December. He said: the Department is required to provide noise mitigation in circumstance 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.—[Official Report, 12 December 1996; Vol. 287, c. 512.] He went on to confirm that the cut-off date was not statutory but a matter of policy, which means that if the Minister is so minded she can change it without further legislation.

I tabled a parliamentary question to the Secretary of State to find out whether the present policy would continue or whether he would provide noise barriers on the M20 between junctions 3 and 5. The Minister replied: It is not possible to justify the expenditure of public funds on providing noise barriers along this section of the M20, as this would mainly be of benefit to people who either bought property in the vicinity of the M20 in full knowledge of the noise from traffic, or were compensated for the loss of value of their property when the road was first built, in anticipation of the growth of traffic on it.—[Official Report, 25 June 1997; Vol. 296, c. 520.] Will the Minister reconsider that policy, which appears to be—I hope that I am wrong—an endorsement of the previous Government's policy?

There is an extremely compelling case for reviewing the policy. The Minister's statement that the expenditure could not be justified is strange, in that only a few months previously, until November last year, the Department of Transport found no difficulty in justifying the use of public funds for the construction of noise barriers and other noise abatement measures along that section of the motorway. I accept that that was done in the context of the widening scheme, but I do not believe that the Minister would argue that, merely because the widening scheme has been abandoned, there will be a considerable reduction in the noise disturbance.

The Highways Agency's figures show that, even without the widening scheme, the traffic on that section of the M20 will double. There is no evidence to suggest that there will be any material diminution of the volume of traffic using it, simply because the widening will not proceed. The cut-off date of 17 October 1969 for the discretionary policy of constructing barriers on existing roads looks increasingly anachronistic. Surely policy should be determined not by some past cut-off date, almost 30 years distant, but by the present environmental realities.

The present policy is based on the Department effectively disowning any environmental responsibility for what happens on existing roads. The Department is effectively saying that any intensification of existing use, creating increased noise and environmental disturbance, is not its responsibility and that it washes its hands of it. That position is not taken by those who operate airports in this country, and it would certainly not be allowed to be taken by companies in the private sector.

I recently had complaints about a company operating a sawmill in my constituency and I regularly get complaints about quarries. We do not allow private sector companies to say that, because they have planning consent, they can carry on intensifying use and creating more and more noise disturbance at ever-higher decibel levels for any number of hours in the day. We bring to bear on them the planning authority, public health legislation and the Health and Safety Executive. The Department cannot continue to operate a policy under which it simply walks away from the environmental consequences flowing from intensification of use of existing roads.

In the previous debate that I secured, I asked the then Minister for Railways and Roads, Mr. John Watts, whether he could consider whether the new road surfaces being tested by his Department could be applied to the section of the M20 about which I am concerned. I have deliberately extended the geographical ambit of this debate to cover the area from junctions 2 to 5, because on the section between junctions 2 and 3, heavy lorry traffic makes considerable noise as it goes past the village of Wrotham and up the steep gradient of the north downs to the top of Wrotham hill.

As recorded at column 514 on 12 December 1996, the then Minister replied relatively positively to my request for the motorway to be used for testing new road surfaces. When I tabled a question to the present Secretary of State asking him whether that section of the M20 could be used to test the quieter road surfaces being developed by the Department, the Minister replied: When the M20 between junctions 3 and 5 needs attention as part of planned maintenance, the possibility of using it to test novel forms of quieter road surface developed by the industry will be considered."—[Official Report, 25 June 1997; Vol. 296, c. 520.] Will the Minister extend her consideration of using the quieter road surfaces to junctions 2 to 5, for the reasons that I have explained? Will she, either in her reply or by letter, as the matter may require some research, give me the fullest possible information about when the Department plans to carry out resurfacing on that section of the M20? Perhaps she may say more firmly than in her written answer that the Department intends to make every possible effort to use quieter surfaces.

The issue is deeply significant for my constituents and those of the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford. I strongly believe that it will not be sustainable for the Department simply to walk away from the environmental consequences of the intensification of use of existing motorways. I am told that the Department of Transport in the Netherlands has as a policy objective the planned resurfacing of main roads, specifically, to try to reduce noise disturbance, and that it applies that policy on existing roads. I earnestly hope that a similar policy objective will be adopted by the Department in this country.

12.48 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Glenda Jackson)

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley) on securing this debate so early in the life of this Parliament. He has been a tireless advocate for his constituents in the matter and I welcome his raising it in the House, because it gives me the opportunity to explain more fully how the legislation dealing with the adverse effects of roads on the environment works.

There is no doubt that traffic noise is an exceedingly contentious issue, not least when defining what is a serious nuisance, because the perception of noise may vary from person to person and from place to place.

I recognise that people living near the M20 feel that they suffer the adverse effects of the traffic without receiving much benefit from the motorway. I must point out, however, that it plays a vital role in giving access to the single European market. The right hon. Gentleman detailed the precise importance of that stretch of our national road network; I believe that the effect of that access on our trade has benefited the nation. The efficient distribution of goods and other services brought about by that direct link to the continental motorway network has had a dramatic effect on society. Although we have had arguments to the contrary from the right hon. Gentleman, most of those effects have been essentially beneficial.

The right hon. Gentleman argued that the discretionary powers provided by the Highways Act 1980 to mitigate the adverse effect of roads on their surroundings have not been used to their fullest extent. It is important to understand the basis of the legislation and the principles of equity and consistency which underpin the way in which discretion has been exercised.

The fundamental principle originally established under the Land Compensation Act 1973 is that a public body that carries out development under statutory powers should provide compensation for the indirect effects of that development on adjacent land interests.

In addition to providing for financial compensation, that Act also gave the Secretary of State for Transport the power to make regulations imposing a duty or conferring a power on responsible authorities to insulate buildings against noise caused, or expected to be caused, by the works associated with road construction or improvement. That power was implemented in the Noise Insulation Regulations 1973. Further provisions contained in the Land Compensation Act included the power for responsible authorities to carry out additional measures to mitigate against the adverse effects of the construction, improvement, existence or use of the public works.

The provision for compensation was limited to public works completed on or after 17 October 1969. The same operative date was contained in the Noise Insulation Regulations 1973. It was not considered appropriate to specify a retrospective date limiting the power to provide other mitigation measures, because it was intended to cover deserving cases in which properties were affected by roads that had been completed before the specified date, which limited the exercise of the other powers.

It took several years for retrospective cases to be dealt with under the Noise Insulation Regulations. It was not until 1979, under the previous Labour Government, that the power to provide other forms of mitigation was activated. It was made clear at that time that the policy of providing noise barriers alongside existing highways was restricted to roads opened prior to 17 October 1969.

In each case, the decision to provide a noise barrier was subject to the requirement that that would provide a significant degree of relief to a substantial number of properties. It also had to be feasible to erect a barrier within the existing highway boundary as there was no provision for acquiring extra land.

Subsequently, the power to provide measures to mitigate the adverse effects of highway construction was included in the Highways Act 1980. In applying that power to new road construction, it was extended to include a power to acquire additional land on which to construct such measures. That has allowed a much wider view to be taken of mitigating environmental impacts, but the effectiveness of mitigation has always been measured against the number of properties that would otherwise need to be insulated under the Noise Insulation Regulations.

That power has been exercised only in very particular circumstances to provide an additional noise barrier alongside roads built since 17 October 1969. For example, additional noise barriers were placed on the A27 Havant-Chichester route, which was opened in 1988. That was possible because the Noise Insulation Regulations had been revised in that year and specifically provided an allowance for differences between road surfaces. The change meant that a significant number of properties became eligible for statutory noise insulation and it was considered appropriate to provide additional noise barriers instead.

In other cases, barriers have been erected after the road was opened only when the cost has been met by a third party. That has usually been as a consequence of a planning condition attached to residential development. Noise barriers have been provided at the expense of the developer to protect properties, which would otherwise not have been permitted.

This is quite a complicated matter and I have described the provisions of the legislation at some length. In summary, the exercise of discretion to provide noise barriers relates to roads built or improved after October 1969—where a developer or other interested party is prepared to cover all costs—and roads that have not been improved since October 1969 where it can be shown that barriers would provide a significant benefit to a sufficient number of properties suffering unduly from traffic noise.

I understand the argument presented by the right hon. Gentleman that the effects of increased traffic on the section of the M20 to which he referred make his constituents a special case. I am sure that he would acknowledge, however, that there are many sites around the country that are similarly affected by increased traffic noise, both from motorways and within towns.

To consider all those deserving cases equitably would involve substantial costs, even within the existing legislation. There is the issue of whether the public purse should provide benefits in kind to owners of property who either bought at a price reflecting its location relative to the motorway or received compensation when the motorway was first built, to offset the anticipated effect on the value of the property.

When a trunk road is planned to be constructed or improved, an assessment of its environmental impacts and the potential benefits of various types of mitigation takes into account the volume of traffic expected to be using it 15 years after the scheme is first open to the public. I acknowledge that one of the most important concerns discussed at the public inquiry into the proposals to widen the M20 between junctions 3 and 5 was the impact of traffic noise on the surrounding area.

I am aware that the inspector strongly supported the use of porous asphalt, as well as the proposed noise barriers, to reduce the adverse effects. But those measures were discussed in relation to the longer-term effect of the widening proposals.

The right hon. Gentleman was scathing in his criticism of the proposals to widen the M20 and their subsequent withdrawal. However, the draft statutory orders for the acquisition of a small amount of land, mainly needed to provide for additional mitigation measures, were not confirmed. That allowed the local planning authority the freedom to permit development on the land, and released previously blighted properties back on to the market.

I understand the intense disappointment that the right hon. Gentleman's constituents must have felt having been offered some prospect of relief by those widening proposals from the apparently inexorable increase in noise from traffic on the section of the M20 between junctions 3 and 5.

I have to say that the purpose of the mitigation then on offer was essentially to offset the anticipated effect of the widening. However, the assessment of noise impacts arising from the proposals used the updated method of assessing noise levels, which takes account of the type of road surface. It is likely that the original concrete surface and the subsequent surface dressing would probably not have been as quiet as they now can be with the use of modern construction methods.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to the seemingly inexorable increase in road traffic. The Government are committed to developing an integrated transport policy, and the upward trend in traffic growth will be re-examined. For the moment, I must ask the right hon. Gentleman to be patient until the appropriate maintenance programme for that section of the M20 is decided. I have taken careful note of his question and I will certainly ask my officials to respond to it as speedily as possible.

I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that due consideration will be given to noise when the time comes to renew the surface. The technology involved is moving very rapidly and, when the time comes, whatever firm of surfacing is provided should noticeably reduce traffic noise. The resurfacing of the M20 will be determined when an engineering assessment of the existing surface has been done. It is planned for this year and I repeat that I will ask my officials to respond as quickly as possible to the matter.

I referred earlier to the inspector's belief that porous asphalt could have helped in resurfacing. However, the extra costs for that are no more justifiable than those of noise barriers. It is many times more expensive to put down than other forms of surface and involves extra costs if used on existing roads because drainage arrangements have to be modified. It is more expensive to maintain the surface free of ice in winter—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)