HC Deb 04 March 1997 vol 291 cc809-16

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

9.57 pm
Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South)

I am grateful to have been granted this Adjournment debate about road traffic issues in Wilford, Nottingham. I do so because in many ways they seem to represent a microcosm of the transport clashes of interest that we would find in almost every major urban area. I do so also with some sadness, because this debate follows an extremely successful public meeting, at which it came out that many reasonable complaints, which appear to have been made over many years, have been completely unresolved or are still being disregarded by the Highways Agency, at which they were initially directed.

I want to break the issues down into two parts: internal transport and traffic movement on the estate, and the broader issue of trunk road traffic movements that affect the edge of that part of Wilford in Nottingham.

To take local issues first, there are clashes of interest between drivers, pedestrians and cyclists. The interests of vehicle traffic collide with environmental interests, public safety interests and public spending priorities. In some circumstances, the word "collision" is sadly appropriate and involves people colliding with vehicles. In others, it results in the victims of those clashes affecting other aspects of the problem, the most obvious being children travelling to and from school.

Many children on the estate have to travel along Wilford lane or Ruddington lane to reach the local secondary school. Most parents no longer allow their children to cycle to school.

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

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

Mr. Simpson

It is worth noting that, 20 or 25 years ago, eight out of 10 children would have travelled to the secondary school by bike. Today, however, one, or at most two, out of every 10 children cycle to school. It is not that they are uninterested in exercise or in travelling by a more responsible means; they and their parents know that far greater risks are associated with travelling to school by bike. Cyclists in Britain are 10 times more likely to be involved in a road accident than cyclists—adults and children—in Germany, for example, because we have forced vulnerable road users on to the same narrow roads on which the main and overriding priority always seems to be the car.

As a result, parents driving their children to school add to the other risks and the traffic congestion on the estate, not because they wish to do so, but because there are few safer alternatives on which they can rely to protect their children's health and well-being.

The accident statistics, particularly on Ruddington lane, make a sufficient case for recognising that it is a serious problem. In 1993, the county council conducted a survey of road traffic schemes. It found that more than 50 per cent. of cars on Ruddington lane were travelling at more than 35 mph and one in six cars were travelling at more than 45 mph—this in a 30 mph zone with a secondary school right on the main road. The police and local authorities recognise that in no way could that be described as safe and sensible driving.

Between 1991 and 1996, there were two fatalities and six serious accidents. In addition, there have been numerous witnessed incidents in which people have narrowly escaped serious injury. One would have thought that there were grounds for local authority action. Neither the police nor the local authority has expressed indifference to the plight of local people in respect of traffic problems, but they have drawn attention to two problems: insufficient cash resources to do anything and the complexity of the rules, which appear to exclude far more possibilities than they include.

For example, this year we asked for two initiatives to be taken, one involving traffic-calming measures on Ruddington lane and the other involving a pedestrian phase in the traffic lights at the junction of Ruddington lane and Wilford lane. Our first thought was that it could be paid for out of the transport supplementary grant, but the council pointed out that all the money had been allocated to what was referred to as the "Greater Nottingham (package bid) area" and that capital funds for minor schemes would therefore be devoted to areas outside the city boundary.

We therefore examined what would be available from the Greater Nottingham package funding programme. However, it was made clear that that funding was available only for the strategic road network. As neither Wilford lane nor Ruddington lane is part of the strategic road network, funding from the package was not applicable to the problems faced by people in the Wilford area.

We then thought that it might be appropriate to pursue the matter in another context—under supplementary credit approvals, which the Government make available for their local safety scheme. However, that approach also drew a blank. In a letter, the county council stated: The Highway authority has the ability to bid for monies for traffic calming schemes … However the funding does not come in the form of grant but as part of Supplementary Credit Approvals … The Department of Transport's Guidelines on this matter are quite clear—'The resources earmarked must be used to deal with locations where there have been recurrent accidents in the last three years, which can be reduced by engineering measures. They are not intended for sites where there appears only to be a risk of accidents'.

The dilemma—the Catch-22 or strike three position in which Wilford residents were caught—is that, although statistical evidence on accidents is available, it is not sufficient for the previous three-year period to trigger entitlement to the supplementary credit approval schemes.

There is ample evidence of accidents that were averted or of near-misses, yet we have the absurd position in which we have to wait for serious and predictable accidents to occur before money is triggered so that we can prevent them from recurring. We are essentially looking for people who will volunteer themselves or a member of their family to be seriously injured so that we can protect the rest of the community. I really cannot understand the logic of such a situation.

In policing practice over the past few years, the police have quite rightly said that crime prevention is better than crime detection; that, although stolen items may be recovered, people never properly recover from the effects of being burgled; and that it is better to implement measures to prevent burglaries from occurring. The same logic should apply to accidents. It is better to avoid accidents by design rather than waiting for them to happen and then introducing policies to clear up the mess, yet "prevention" is clearly not the framework within which the current rules were made.

It seems that only minute obligations are built into the ways in which moneys are passed to local authorities to ensure public safety. There are more rules to exclude one from entitlement than to include one. Moreover, access to those funds is triggered by accidents or by death rather than by calculations of avoidance. It would be helpful if the Minister would re-examine the rules to determine whether we can find a more sensible starting point.

In trunk road policies, the problems faced by Wilford residents have been seriously compounded by the improvements to the A52—Nottingham's ring road—which is a major conduit for traffic coming into and going around the city. No one disputes the importance of the ring road, although whether the improvements were done in a manner that minimised disturbance to local people is another matter. Those complications have added to local residents' frustrations. Local people believe that the Highways Agency has pursued an almost bizarre twist of logic in assessing noise impact and their compensation entitlements.

The effects of improvements on that part of the trunk road system have been enormous, and have been particularly bad for the residents of Bradbourne avenue, in Wilford. I am particularly indebted to Mr. and Mrs. Mason, who have fought not only their own cause but that of many others who have to deal with very high levels of noise and air pollution shrouding every aspect of their daily lives. It has turned the urban dreams of many into urban nightmares.

Residents have to face unacceptably high levels of noise every day. As if that were not bad enough, the worse news is that the noise levels are set only to increase. The Minister will know that a base noise level of 68 dB is needed to trigger noise compensation, together with a 1 dB increase in noise levels expected during the following 15 years and resulting directly from the improvements to the trunk road system.

The noise level assessments in 1994 for properties on Bradbourne avenue, Newholme drive and Barnfield were, respectively, 70.4 dB, 76.3 dB and 77.5 dB. That is before the additional calculations for the growth of noise impact in the 15 years ahead. Those noise levels qualify the properties to get over the first hurdle, but not the second, of a 1 dB increase. After enormous difficulty, we obtained answers from the Highways Agency about the calculations that it used for that assessment: all come just under the 1 dB increase.

Some of the ways in which those figures have been arrived at leave me bemused. It is worth looking into the difficulties that the Highways Agency puts in the path of people who are trying to find out the basis of the calculations. The Highways Agency says that it has used the low growth estimates for traffic growth and noise growth. I know of no trunk road improvement that has failed to hit the high growth levels that were feared. The success of a trunk road improvement can be measured partly by how rapidly the additional road space is filled up. That has been the compelling argument for further trunk road improvements. Whether that is a sensible choice is a separate matter, but to assume that only the low growth figures will apply is absurd. The high growth figures would bring about a 2 dB increase in noise levels, which would automatically entitle a greater number of people thus affected to compensation in the form of noise insulation to their properties and environmental improvements in the area.

I have been able to raise the matter only as a result of doing a huge amount of work and putting great pressure on the Highways Agency to get the information. Local people were not able to get the information despite their persistent, reasonable and courteous inquiries to the Highways Agency. One of the strongest criticisms about the culture in the Highways Agency is that it appears to run on a premise of coned-off thinking that excludes the public from access to legitimate information about plans for future road improvements and any assessment of their impact.

The Highways Agency also appears to run on an Alice in Wonderland use of words—that words will mean no more than it chooses. First, it told local residents that there had been no road widening. During our negotiations and exchanges, however, it was accepted that there had been road widening. The agency cannot say that the incorporation of what was previously the hard shoulder into the main carriageway is other than an extension of that carriageway. It has not altered the parameters of the road, but it has increased the size of the carriageway quite significantly.

There has also been a recognition that road widening has occurred on a 40 m stretch of road very close to the Bradbourne avenue part of the Wilford estate. In addition, alterations to the Clifton underpass immediately in front of the estate have added an extra lane to the A52 and the trunk road going out—on the A453—towards the motorway. An extra lane of trunk road traffic is now part and parcel of the intersection that touches the edge of the estate.

My concerns about how the matter has been managed go through a series of fairly simple stages. As I read the law and regulations governing the matter, it became clear that the Highways Agency ought to have conducted an impact assessment on all properties within 300 m of the end of the trunk road improvement. Clearly, that has not happened. If one draws a line showing a 300 m radius, it becomes clear that a tranche of properties on the Wilford estate was never included in any impact assessment. In that sense, the Highways Agency failed to carry out the statutory duty imposed on it by the House and by Ministers' regulations. That failure has denied residents in that part of the Wilford estate information from the assessment that they should have had at the start of the scheme. Even the current findings are still inaccessible to people, because of the way in which the calculations were made; yet the way in which the agency has tried to say that there have been no significant alterations to the trunk road is bizarre.

I should like to raise with the Minister the notion that the agency may also be pursuing a way of avoiding compensation by making improvements by increments. Let me explain how this works.

If the Minister and I bought properties at the end of a long stretch of road and over 15 years the traffic on that road increased, it might be unreasonable for either of us to claim compensation for such natural growth on a road that was there when we arrived. I would probably think that it would be presumptuous of us to lodge such a complaint. If, however, back down the road, the improvements that have taken place on the A52 had occurred, I think that both the Minister and I would be a bit miffed.

First, a major underpass at the Queens Medical Centre and university intersection reduced congestion and enabled traffic on the A52 to flow much more quickly, effectively and in greater volume. The next significant stage of the improvement was the Dunkirk flyover, which was supposed to speed up traffic flow, reduce congestion and increase traffic volumes, and has done so fairly successfully. The third part of the improvement was to add an extra lane to the Clifton underpass. That has speeded up traffic flow and provided an extra lane on the southbound carriageway, which separates traffic at an earlier stage so that two lanes of traffic can still join the ring road and two can swing round out towards the motorway.

All the improvements have been fairly successful, but if the Minister and I owned properties just beyond the end of them, I suspect that we would both argue that each of the improvements materially affected the traffic flow past our properties. It would not matter whether the pavements or whatever in front of our properties had been tinkered with; all the improvements in the tranche of road that preceded our properties would significantly change the nature of the road.

That is precisely what has happened to the residents in Wilford and in part of the constituency of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in the continuation of the A52. However, the Highways Agency tried to argue that all those improvements should be ignored because they happened at earlier stages. It said that earlier increments could be written off and that calculations of impact should not carry through.

In addition to the natural traffic growth, there has been serious growth by design and construction on the A52. There has been growth in volume, speed and noise. I do not argue against that, but the effect of those changes on the environment in which people live should be acknowledged. It should also be reflected in compensation.

The Highways Agency is supposed to advertise to invite claims by those who have suffered from noise intrusion or loss of value. The agency chose to advertise in two free newspapers and one other newspaper that circulates only at the other end of the city. If people in Nottingham were asked which was their local newspaper, 99 out of 100 would say that it was the Nottingham Evening Post; yet that was the one newspaper in which the Highways Agency chose not to advertise. It is hard to escape the common conclusion that that was a strategic choice to deter claims for compensation rather than encourage them.

The budget for environmental repair forms only a minute part of the multi-million pound cost of today's trunk road improvement schemes. I ask the Minister for his assurance that he will consider several key points about strengthening this element.

Will the Minister consider raising the status of non-motorists' interests in road scheme budgets? Could a designated minimum of 5 per cent. of the budgets be earmarked for environmental repair and improvement? Could local authorities determine the placing of compensation advertisements? Will the Minister investigate the Highway Agency's negligence and its failure to undertake the statutory impact calculations for the Wilford area? Will he review the use of incrementalism as a way of avoiding compensation claims? Will he also make a commitment to a shift in emphasis—to public protection rather than budget protection—in the trunk road improvement programme, and to recognise the reality of the impact of high growth on people's lives?

It would be a real help too if, within the guidelines for the appropriate local government budgets, commitments were made to prioritise public safety over faster traffic; to allow integrated budgets that would facilitate sensible movement of moneys towards identifiable priorities; and to place a duty on local authorities to ensure that public safety and environmental protection are the preconditions of road improvements rather than their first victims. If the Minister could make those commitments, he would be thanked not only by the people of Wilford but by people throughout the length and breadth of the United Kingdom.

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

I shall consider carefully the points that the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) made at the end of his speech, and I will send him a more considered response than I can achieve off the cuff this evening. We try to build environmental features into all major trunk road schemes in mitigation of their effects. Clearly, the hon. Gentleman does not believe that we have succeeded in the scheme that he mentions.

I shall start with trunk roads. Of course, the hon. Gentleman is more familiar with the ones that he mentioned than I am, but I acknowledge that the traffic flows on those trunk roads have grown strongly in recent years. The A52 at present carries a daily flow of some 44,000 vehicles on the section to the south of the A453 junction, and the section to the north of the Clifton bridge is used by up to 76,000 vehicles each day.

The A52 to the north of the river crossing has recently been widened from a dual two-lane road to give three lanes in each direction. The Clifton bridge has been reconfigured to give four lanes in each direction. That work was completed in March 1995 and the extra capacity has been welcomed by road users in Nottingham but, as the hon. Gentleman explained, not so enthusiastically by those who live near it.

Major maintenance has also been carried out on the road both north and south of the river crossing. Through Wilford, the reconstruction has raised the level of the road by up to 8 in. Existing noise fences were therefore renewed and set at higher levels to compensate for the change in the height of the carriageway.

Those works to the A52 have brought entitlement to compensation under the terms of the Land Compensation Act 1973, for the effects of increased traffic noise and other nuisance. I shall certainly investigate what the hon. Gentleman said about the way in which entitlement to compensation was advertised. It is generally our practice both to advertise and to cover such matters in a press notice, so that it can be reported as a news item. I shall investigate whether that was done in this case.

Claims are still being lodged by local residents and so far more than 300 have been received, two thirds of which have been processed. The total paid in compensation to date is about £17,000, and the average payment per successful claim is around £550. Compensation is set independently by the district valuer with recourse to the lands tribunal in the event of an unresolved disagreement.

The Noise Insulation Regulations 1975 cover the provision of offers for noise insulation necessitated by new or altered roads. The hon. Gentleman referred to some difficulties in agreeing a definition of improvements that fall within that compass, but I hope that the matter has been resolved satisfactorily.

The works carried out on the A52 did not bring any statutory entitlement to noise insulation. The hon. Gentleman explained the reason: the increase in noise fell short of the 1 dB required. Only one property was insulated: a restaurant to the north of the river. That insulation was offered because of the expected high levels of noise during the carrying out of the works rather than because of the effect of the road in use.

There is discretionary power to offer noise insulation, but the Highways Agency does not make offers where the expected increase in noise is low, as is forecast in this case, even though the absolute level of noise is already high. I am aware that the hon. Gentleman has taken up many of the detailed issues about the calculations with the chief executive of the Highways Agency and that that correspondence is continuing. If it does not come to a successful conclusion, he can revert to me on that matter, too.

The agency does not try to withhold information about how the calculations are done, but I, as a non-technical person, have sometimes found its explanations extremely difficult to follow. It is certainly the case that a layman, as I consider myself to be in this instance, cannot really understand the calculations unless he has an expert to monitor and validate what is being explained.

The Secretaries of State for the Environment and for Transport announced on 5 February their decision to approve the A453 Clifton lane improvement, following consideration of the inspector's report into the public inquiry. The scheme has a long history that the hon. Gentleman knows, and I am aware that he has not supported it. It has, however, been approved through the full democratic processes and it is still our view that it offers the most sustainable and economically robust solution to the trunk road problem.

It is obviously for the county council and, after April this year, for the city council as a new unitary authority, to manage the non-trunk network. As the hon. Gentleman said, a package bid for Greater Nottingham was first accepted by the Department in December 1994. It remains one of the most successfully supported packages within shire authorities, with £1.3 million of supplementary credit approvals allocated in the current year, and we are happy to continue that level of support into 1997–98.

Within the package, the local authority has considerable flexibility about which elements it progresses. The proposals include park and ride schemes, bus priority measures, traffic calming and cycling and pedestrian schemes. From what the hon. Gentleman said, I gain the impression that he felt that the authority—

The motion having been made at Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Ten o'clock.