HC Deb 11 June 1997 vol 295 cc1108-16

1 pm

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

It is a great pleasure to welcome the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson), to her new position. I wish her well. I am sure that she will enjoy her new role, and I know that she will discover that it is a controversial job.

My contribution is not intended to be controversial. Indeed, it will be completely non-controversial and non-confrontational as long as I get the answers that I need. First, please may we have a decision on the Salisbury bypass, and please can the answer be yes?

As I pointed out in a letter to the Minister's colleague, Baroness Hayman, we have just been through a general election in which I was the only candidate in Salisbury in favour of the bypass. In fact, I have favoured it for about 30 years for the city in which I grew up—long before I became the local Member of Parliament. The Labour party had a sensible attitude about the bypass and said that it should be subject to a review. Its candidate said that he was not opposed to a Salisbury bypass; indeed, he said that he rather favoured a ring road of some sort. Of course, my principal opponent, the Liberal Democrat, was opposed to the bypass. There was a shift in the Green vote, which went up from 609 to 623. That was a small increase despite the fact that every possible opportunity was taken during the election campaign to turn the ballot into a bypass referendum. I rejected that attempt, but I know that some people thought that we had such a referendum, and I know that a lot of views were swayed in my favour on that basis.

Salisbury is a mediaeval city and its transport problems are not soley connected with trunk routes. In fact, there are seven radial routes into and out of the city, but the bypass is a free-standing proposal. That is what makes it different from many other proposals that are connected to trunk road schemes or even trans-European networks. The bypass proposal is probably the most free standing of those considered by the old Department of Transport.

I am sure that the Minister will be delighted to hear that I do not intend to reconsider the evidence of the public inquiry. That does not mean that I and all those in favour of the bypass have not taken it seriously. I have discovered, however, that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, especially for the people who have not lived with the problem for as many years as I have.

I am aware that a lot has happened since the inquiry closed. For example, the bypass has been considered by the Standing Advisory Committee on Trunk Road Assessment and the royal commission on environmental pollution. Planning policy guidance notes have been issued, as well as a sustainable development strategy. We have also had the great transport debate. Many other important changes have taken place, some technical and some political, including the general election, in which transport was, quite rightly, an issue.

I know that Ministers must and will take all those findings into account. They will listen to all the individuals who have expressed an interest—including the lobbying groups and the environmental campaigners—and then they will make their decision. Today, I want to ensure that the Minister is aware that the decision on the bypass should be taken according to a broad view of the problem.

There are lessons to be learnt from what we have been through in Salisbury. First, that bypass is a case study of poor public sector decision making. The same could be said of the private sector if that bypass had happened to be a private sector proposal. That, however, is the subject for another debate.

I have been aware of the problem not just as a long-standing resident—I have lived there on and off since 1947—but as the local Member of Parliament and as a Minister at both the Department of the Environment and the Department of Transport.

It is true that the previous Government made a number of improvements to the system according to which we decide on the transport infrastructure, particularly roads, with the introduction of round-table conferences and changes to the procedures governing public inquiries, but we did not go nearly far enough. I hope that the new Government will have a radical look at the way in which we reach solutions on the transport infrastructure, because it is not just about roads.

I welcome the merger of the Departments of the Environment and of Transport. That will make life much easier and more sensible, because it will remove the destructive rivalry that previously existed, which did none of us any good. If we can concentrate instead on the enormous wealth of talent and expertise at professional and civil service level in those former Departments, we shall be able to contribute significantly to an improved transport system.

The second lesson that I draw from the Salisbury bypass fiasco is that it is quite wrong to make a judgment solely on the ground of flora and fauna. I am not belittling for one moment the arguments of those who have quite rightly put forward the scientific arguments in favour of retaining the environment as it is without interference. Indeed, they have a duty to do so. I have, however, seen remarkable examples of translocation of flora and fauna in connection with various modes of transport including roads, railways, bridges and docks. That means that a sensible approach can be adopted, unless something is so utterly unique that it must not be moved even a few feet.

I want to ensure that the debate on the Salisbury bypass is put in a wider context, because any Government must ensure that that debate is considered in the context of the real world of people. It must be judged according to the quality of life of those who live in Salisbury and its surrounding villages. After all, we are talking about their inheritance, because their forefathers built their communities and shaped the valleys and fields. We are talking about people's employment and their entitlement to the quiet enjoyment of their city and countryside and their local leisure activities.

In the past year or more, we have heard a deafening roar from the green lobby about the Salisbury bypass. Some of its comments have been very silly indeed. I was always brought up to believe that one should not believe what one reads in the papers. Some of the choicest comments about the bypass have been published in some of the flashiest broadsheets. For example, I have read nonsense such as: Labour will halt the controversial Salisbury bypass, which will ruin one of the best-loved views in Britain, if it wins the general election. That was reported under a headline which ran: Immortalised by Constable, threatened by the Tories … saved by Meacher? I have read a number of choice comments that are simply not true. For example, it has been claimed that the bypass would destroy the last open view of Salisbury Cathedral across the water meadows. What tripe. It has been claimed that it will seriously damage the water meadows". In fact, the main water meadows are scarcely touched by the scheme. It has also been claimed that the bypass will do little to ease congestion in Salisbury as only 6 per cent. of the vehicles entering the city are through-traffic. It is extraordinary that anyone should have worked out such figures. All manner of claims have been made. Poor old Constable, he seems to have a lot to answer for.

Some rather more seriously damaging material has also been published by the Countryside Commission, which should know better. I hope that the Minister will always ensure that the information that she is given is high quality and concentrates on scientific or landscape considerations, rather than on sheer emotion.

The Countryside Commission recently published an expensive brochure full of colour photographs. Of the seven photographs of the area of the bypass, four are looking in the wrong direction. Those areas have nothing to do with the bypass. Of the four Constable paintings reproduced in that brochure, not one is anywhere near the bypass or represents any part of the countryside through which that bypass would go. That brochure does not do the standing of the Countryside Commission any good. People must be part of the decision making.

We cannot ignore the built environment. Ministers have to consider not only the countryside heritage, but the built heritage. A main reason for building the Salisbury bypass is to give the city of Salisbury back to the people for whom it was designed. It is a unique mediaeval cathedral city; it was designed in a piece with a chequered pattern of shops and dwelling houses around its heart. It was designed for people and we want it to return to them. The built environment is part of the reason for the bypass, which will take traffic further away. I have seen a lot of press gossip saying that the scheme is dreadful because it puts a motorway close to the cathedral. The reverse is true, but when has the truth mattered when debating environmental arguments?

The built environment and heritage are crucial. Salisbury is at the centre of seven radial routes. We want to ensure that Salisbury is given back to the people and not swamped, either by local people using the roads or by through traffic that does not want to be there. We should make a judgment on all the environmental issues, not just the green issues.

Another lesson to he learnt is that delay is bad for people; it is bad for their quality of life and for their jobs. It is even bad for the very policies about which the anti-roads lobby claims to care. I am president of the Cycling Opportunities Group for Salisbury—COGS—and last Saturday we had a raffle in the marketplace; we had a day of celebrating cycling and cycling policy in the district. The irony is that the Salisbury transport strategy—including county council transport policies and programmes that will do so much to introduce cycle routes around Salisbury—is on ice because of the bypass decision. That is folly.

There is something else special about the Salisbury bypass. It is part of a design, build, finance and operate—DBFO—scheme called the Wessex link, which involves more than simply Salisbury. It is sensible and strategic to consider such matters in one go rather than to tackle them in a piecemeal fashion. There are two groups in the scheme: the A36 scheme, which is the Salisbury bypass, and the Heytesbury to Codford improvement. There are also the A303 schemes—Stockton Wood to Wylye, Mere to Chicklade, which includes the Chicklade bypass, the Ilminster bypass and the Sparkford bypass in the west country. Those schemes are all linked to the decision.

I must also mention the A303 where it passes Stonehenge and the welcome announcement by English Heritage that it wants on-line dualling past the stones, which is what the Department of Transport wanted in the first place and what local people certainly want. Local people might be reconciled to a tunnel if we could find the money for it. I hope that that will not lead to open warfare with the National Trust, but that is a subject for another occasion.

While we wait for the decision, we have a rough time locally. The Brunel link bridge, linking a major industrial estate out of the city centre to the bypass, should have been built 30 years ago or more. When Salisbury rural district council, as it then was, built the industrial estate, it promised the traders and industrialists moving on to it that the bridge was included as part of the deal. They have been scrapping ever since. The Netherhampton road roundabout on the proposed bypass has been put in at the request of Wiltshire county council and would be paid for by the council—that is a measure of its good endeavours.

While we wait for the decision—and my goodness, how we have waited—there is traffic chaos in central Salisbury. Let us consider the situation. There is a mediaeval city; there is a row about a car stack; a multi-storey car park is cancelled; another car park is closed while it is being refurbished; while that is happening, the marketplace is dug up and half the parking spaces are cancelled—a matter over which the traders are taking legal action—parking charges are doubled to compensate for the lack of parking spaces; the area is pedestrianised and the traffic flows in the city centre are changed without proper consultation; a multi-million pound park-and-ride scheme is embarked on without any consultation with the biggest employers in the town; an investigation is conducted into the possibility of introducing into the middle of the mediaeval city trams that will run into Cathedral close.

I am delighted to assure the Minister that neither of us is responsible for that chaos. The Liberal Democrats have presided over that chaos, which has been pathetic and appallingly sad for the ancient city of Salisbury, its modern people and traders. The Minister and I both want to help and I know that she will leave no stone unturned in her attempt to resolve this terrible mess. The best thing that she could do would be to give us a decision on the Salisbury bypass, because so much flows from that.

I wish to ask the Minister a question on a practical point—I do not expect an answer now, but I ask her to consider it. One reason why so many people who are reconciled to the need for a bypass are still anxious about it is the height of the embankment across East Harnham meadows, which is up to 7 m—more than 20 ft. Part of the reason for that is gradient engineering—the road goes down into a valley and up the other side. Another reason involves the height needed to plant trees to screen the road.

The height may also be necessary to ensure clearance across the waterways, although I am not sure who will use them. There have been incidents of canoeists trying to use them, but canoes do not have big clearance problems. The meadows are not put to a lot of use and there is no commercial boat traffic. There is an access problem for farm and National Rivers Authority vehicles travelling along the sides of the road. There is a case for trying to lower the road by several metres; that may be possible even if it means that the road has to undulate slightly over the main river channel. That would help the residents of Bridford, who would not feel so cut off from the city of Salisbury up the river.

There is no ducking or dodging the problem of where the bypass would cross the river. In engineering terms, there is no doubt that it could run through a submerged tunnel, possibly a deep-bore tunnel, but that is not very practical. The one thing that is certain is that if the bypass is not built, traffic congestion—involving both through and local traffic—will become worse. There are various things that we can do. The Minister and I know that we could price people off the road in various ways. But a public transport network, even in Salisbury and its surrounding villages, would do no more than chip away at the edges of the problem in Salisbury—as the inspector who undertook the inquiry acknowledged in his report.

I welcome the Government's new approach to an integrated transport strategy. I am looking forward to hearing what that means in detail. I know that we shall have to wait until next spring for that. We must ensure that an integrated transport policy does not mean simply cancelling bypasses or simply cancelling roads; I am sure that it will not.

Public perception matters more than anything else. Having tackled and lived with the problems that the Minister now confronts on a daily basis, I know that ultimately our attitude to transport will change when individual attitudes change and people ask themselves whether their journey is really necessary. The Department's engineers and policy makers will be able to tell the Minister about all sorts of tricks of the trade, but public perception is important.

The bypass proposal has been around in one form or another for 60 years. The present scheme was first proposed 15 years ago and was first taken to public consultation nine years ago. We then had the longest and most expensive public inquiry into a road. There was more consultation last year and even more consultation this year. I hope very much that we shall not have to wait much longer for a decision. Any decision would be welcome. A "yes" decision would have us cheering the Minister to the rafters.

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

I congratulate the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) on obtaining this Adjournment debate. I regret that there are so few hon. Members in the Chamber. We have been given an object lesson in a Member of Parliament's primary responsibility: the advocacy of his or her constituents' interests, and of constituency interests.

The hon. Gentleman's own advocacy in respect of the Salisbury bypass is, as he has already said, well known and I assure him that I have listened carefully to his speech and taken due note of the points that he made. I am sure that he will agree that this is a particularly sensitive scheme, which has attracted considerable opposition, but which also has its supporters. As he also pointed out, it falls to the new Government to decide whether the bypass should be given the go-ahead.

Following the 1993–94 public inquiry, we are still in the statutory decision-making phase of the proposed bypass scheme. It would not, therefore, be appropriate for me to comment on the merits of the scheme, as Ministers have yet to take a final decision; nor, I regret to say, can I indicate when a final decision might be announced. It might, however, help the House to understand why this case has taken so long without a decision being reached if I explain the steps that have already been taken.

It is true that the proposals for the bypass have been at the planning stage for a very long time. The proposed bypass entered the trunk road programme in 1984 and there followed feasibility studies to identify possible route options. As a former Roads Minister, the hon. Gentleman will appreciate the prime importance of correct route selection if resultant harm to the natural and built environment—an issue which he touched on to great effect—is to be kept to a minimum. The outcome of the feasibility studies identified three possible routes and those were made the subject of a public consultation exercise held in 1988. The result of that consultation was strong public support for a route crossing the River Avon flood plain to the south of the city. In the light of that preference, the preferred route for a southern bypass was announced in 1989. Further design work for that route was then carried out, together with a full environmental impact assessment. The draft statutory orders for the bypass and an environmental statement assessing its impact were first published in 1991.

Objections to the published draft orders triggered the convening of a public inquiry, which lasted for a year, from April 1993 to April 1994. It was an exhaustive inquiry, which explored all aspects of the bypass proposals, including the need for the scheme and its impact on the environment. Twenty-four alternative proposals to the published route were considered, as well as many alternative junction arrangements.

The independent inspector, Sir Peter Buchanan, made his report on the inquiry to the then Secretaries of State for the Environment and for Transport in September 1995. Given the length of the inquiry, it is understandable that it should have taken him more than 12 months to write the report. Some 300 sources objected to the bypass, 20 of which were subsequently withdrawn; there were 280 pro forma objections and four petitions of objection; and some 40 sources registered support. Having weighed all the evidence put before him at the public inquiry, the inspector came to these overall conclusions: that there was a need for the A36 between the terminal points of the proposed bypass to be upgraded to modern trunk road standards; that there was a need to remove A36 through traffic from Salisbury and from the Wylye valley villages to the north-west of the city; and that, despite its adverse impacts, the published route for the bypass—with certain modifications—would provide the best solution.

Having heard the arguments of the Department of Transport justifying the published bypass proposals, the expressions of support for the bypass, and the arguments put forward by objectors, the inspector had come down in favour of giving the go-ahead to the bypass. However, the inspector could not take into consideration developments after the public inquiry had closed and the further representations about the scheme that were subsequently received. Those had to be taken into consideration by the then Secretaries of State for the Environment and for Transport, alongside the inspector's report.

Three significant post-inquiry developments occurred in the case of the Salisbury bypass. First, in December 1994, the report "Trunk Roads and the Generation of Traffic" by the Standing Advisory Committee on Trunk Road Assessment was published. In its response to that report, the then Government undertook that the effects of generated traffic would be considered in connection with all schemes at the planning stage, which included the Salisbury bypass. The economic benefits of the scheme were reassessed, taking into account new technical guidance on induced traffic issued by the Department. The report on that assessment was received in September 1996.

Secondly, in September 1995, English Nature notified its intention to designate East Harnham meadows as a site of special scientific interest. The site's designation was confirmed in February 1996. If the Salisbury bypass were to be built as proposed, it would mean taking just over one hectare of land from the south-eastern edge of the 17 hectare site. The hon. Gentleman referred to the parliamentary brief published today by the World Wide Fund for Nature, which claims that four hectares would be taken. I asked my officials, who repeated that they believe that claim to be inaccurate and that only one hectare would need to be taken. Although at the time of the inquiry the site had not been designated as an SSSI, the high ecological value of East Harnham meadows was acknowledged in the environmental statement and considered by the inspector in reaching his conclusions. Nevertheless, the subsequent notification of the site was a material change that had to be taken into account.

Thirdly, at the time of the inquiry, the intention to notify the River Avon system as an SSSI was known. Subsequently, however, English Nature, through the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, advised the Secretary of State for the Environment that, in its opinion, parts of the River Avon and its tributaries qualified for consideration as a possible special area of conservation under the European Community habitats directive.

Having considered the inspector's report, the developments to which I have just referred and other post-inquiry developments and representations, the then Secretaries of State announced at the end of last October their views on the bypass. Those were set out in detail in an interim letter sent to all interested parties. At the same time, the inspector's report and the induced traffic assessment report were published.

Although they were minded to confirm the orders authorising construction of the bypass, before taking a final decision, the Secretaries of State instructed the Highways Agency, in consultation with English Nature, to review the bypass route across the River Avon flood plain and investigate mitigation of its possible impact on the proposed River Avon special area of conservation. The main reason for that review was to see whether it would be possible to avoid the newly designated East Harnham meadows SSSI. The agency was also instructed to review, in consultation with the Countryside Commission, mitigation of the overall landscape impact of the bypass on the sensitive area south of Salisbury. The agency was given four months to report on those matters.

The Secretaries of State also afforded interested parties an opportunity to make further representations on two issues: the economic benefits of the scheme in the light of the report on the effects of induced traffic; and the adoption, as recommended by the inspector, of a modification to the bypass route to take it further away from housing on the southern outskirts of Salisbury. The Highways Agency review report, including reports to the agency by English Nature and the Countryside Commission, was published on 21 March. It identified two alternative route options for the bypass across the River Avon flood plain that avoided the need to take any land from the East Harnham meadows SSSI. Interested parties were invited to comment on the review report by 2 May.

We have now received more than 3,000 representations about the bypass since last October's announcement. Around 90 per cent. have arisen as a result of organised campaigns for or against the bypass. The remainder have addressed the specific issues on which interested parties were invited to comment, including the Highways Agency review report. No decision on the bypass will be taken until the comments on the agency's report and other representations received have been considered by Ministers. At the same time, we shall want to look at the bypass proposals in the context of our strategic review of the trunk road programme. We expect to make an announcement about that review shortly.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the height of a particular embankment and he had the great courtesy to contact my officials about the matter yesterday, thereby giving them and me the opportunity to respond. It appears that the height is not necessary to facilitate farm vehicles underneath the bridges crossing the three main waterways. The bypass would come down off high ground to the west of the flood plain. After crossing, it must go over an elevated junction at Petersfinger to the east. The need to avoid sharp changes in gradient and to give adequate clearance of the bridges in the event of flooding dictates the embankment height—so I am informed by officials.

I appreciate that the continuing uncertainty about the bypass is frustrating, but I know that the hon. Gentleman understands that the bypass proposal is particularly sensitive. We must consider all aspects—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. We must move on to the next debate.