HC Deb 02 April 1998 vol 309 cc1475-82

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

7.23 pm
Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey)

Mr. Deputy Speaker, thank you for giving me the chance to put the case for the second crossing of the Swale. I have placed copies of this speech on two of my local constituency websites: Swale chamber of commerce, www.fenet.co.uk/swale; and Swale borough council, www.swale.gov.uk.

I am sorry that it is not possible to show a video of the current problems with the bridge or even colour slides in the Chamber tonight. I hope that one day this will be a Chamber of the 20th century of which we may be proud. In the meantime, I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister this evening. I hope that he will watch—and persuade the whole transport team to watch—the video depicting the problems with the bridge. It was made by Ray Featherstone, the youth leader of Sheerness county youth centre, with the help of local youngsters on the Isle of Sheppey a few years ago.

When I was parliamentary spokesperson for the new constituency of Sittingbourne and Sheppey in 1996, I was asked by Councillor Dennis Grover whether I could arrange a meeting on behalf of the Sheppey Industry Association with the then shadow Minister of Transport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short). I duly did so. The day before we were due to meet her in the House, she was transferred to what was then Overseas Development. I called Dennis to tell him that the meeting was off because my right hon. Friend had been moved to Overseas Development. As quick as a flash, he responded, "That's all right. The island has a better chance with her there—after all, we've been overseas for 1,000 years."

Although Great Britain is an island, there are people in our country who share a different understanding of the word "island". They are the people who live on Mull, Skye, the Isle of Wight, or, in my case, the Isle of Sheppey. They call themselves "islanders" because, for 1,000 years or more, they have been detached from mainland Britain. Islanders possess a different view of life and increasingly, because the islands have suffered greater hardships in terms of employment opportunities, health care, education and housing, they feel that they have been unloved and left out in the cold because no one in government understands their unique problems.

Our legal offshore islands suffer, at a micro level, all the problems of the United Kingdom mainland—but they suffer them at a level that is much more personal and debilitating. For instance, in the community of Leysdown on the east end of the Isle of Sheppey, where I recently conducted a Saturday surgery, it costs the population of 1,060 £4.20 return to go to the nearest shopping centre in the town of Sheerness. The bus runs once an hour and stops at 6 pm. The nearest accident and emergency unit is at Medway hospital on the mainland, which is only 20 miles away. As that hospital's A and E record is not what we would wish, many people travel to the A and E unit at the Kent and Canterbury hospital, which is only 32 miles away and is currently facing closure. Our new Sheppey community hospital has been delayed and delayed and delayed.

Worse still, if plans to close the magistrates courts in both Sheerness and Sittingbourne go ahead, it will cost citizens £6.80 to go to Chatham, or more to go to Maidstone magistrates court. They will have to travel across the bridge every time. Public transport currently takes more than three hours to get from Leysdown to Chatham—and longer to get to Maidstone—but it does not necessarily run at a convenient time when cases may be heard, and there is a considerable cost to the individual. Those problems have been compounded by the bridge. Nevertheless, they have been borne with some stoicism for generations, not just by the people of Leysdown, but by the people of Warden Bay, Eastchurch, Minster, Halfway, Queenborough, Bluetown and Sheerness.

The 1991 census gave the population of the island as 35,500, and today it is close to 40,000. The population almost doubles at weekends—especially when the clocks go forward—as many Londoners travel to Sheppey to visit their caravans at the east end of the island. The traffic is constantly delayed by the bridge.

Thirty-eight years ago yesterday, the then Conservative Government closed the naval dockyard at Sheerness, which caused unemployment on a scale never before experienced in our community. It broke up our community. Long-term unemployment continues to be a huge problem on the island, and stands at 23.8 per cent.—one of the highest levels in the south-east of England. Today, the port, under the ownership of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board, is thankfully booming. It is the fifth biggest port in the United Kingdom and is perfectly placed to serve continental Europe—if we could only sort out the bridge.

Two years ago, the port was in competition with other United Kingdom and continental ports for a huge contract with a car importer. The port already imports cars for Citroen, Mazda, Volkswagen, Peugeot, Hyundai and Chrysler. The deal was done in that hands were shaken on it. The port management was chuffed as it had again proved the excellence of the port. Twenty minutes or so later, the car importer phoned from his car cancelling the contract—he was caught in an horrendous tailback of traffic as a result of the bridge being up.

The current bridge is a single-span lifting bridge. At the time of the closure of the docks, Percy Wells—our best ever Member of Parliament for the old constituency of Faversham—had campaigned for 20 years for a new bridge. He had been told by the Admiralty that it had to be a single span, as the other two bridges had previously been. How amazing—just before the bridge was built, the Admiralty left Sheerness. The bridge design was already redundant.

Every time a small yacht or a small tanker goes through it for pleasure or en route for Ridham dock, the bridge has to go up. In the summer, because it is a concrete bridge, it expands, and it has to be hosed down manually before it will come down again. It might be thought that such a small irritant, causing a waiting time of perhaps 20 to 30 minutes, is not much to shout about in the general scheme of things, but that would be wrong.

Ridham is expanding. In 1987, there were 442 liftings a year caused by the dock. By 1995, that had risen to 1,034 liftings a year or three a day—an increase of 120 per cent. The bridge was built in 1960 for traffic flows with a design capacity of 13,000 vehicle movements a day. Now the flow is just over 24,000 vehicle movements a day, or 85 per cent. over the design capacity. At the weekends it can double or treble. In April 1997 the Kent county council 12-hour traffic flow recorded 21,063 vehicles, including 3,003 heavy goods vehicles.

The heavy goods vehicles equate to 14.25 per cent. of all traffic using the bridge and according to a Swale borough council report, there would be serious problems for the port, should the HGV traffic continue. We hope that it will continue, because Railtrack wants to make Sheerness a nodal point for rail freight, linking the port ultimately through the channel tunnel to Europe. That would not only create more jobs for Sheerness, but substantially increase the HGV traffic over the bridge.

As public transport declines—it cannot get any worse for us on the island—more and more people have to consider the car as the only way of getting around, notwithstanding the helpful changes in the Budget for rural transport. Over the past three years the problems relating to the bridge have been compounded by the new A249 dual carriageway, as well as a series of awful accidents on the bridge itself and either side of it, leading to delays of up to 10 hours and queues of 12 miles or more.

The Conservative Government, in their wisdom, decided that the solution to the bridge was to build the new A249 first. The A249 connects the M2 motorway to a roundabout, which in itself has caused unnecessary accidents because it is so poorly designed. The roundabout is 200 yd short of a single road leading to the bridge. In other words, 1,750 cars and lorries an hour travel on the new dual carriageway, only to meet a roundabout and then a single track across the bridge, which in the summer goes up eight times a day, but sometimes fails to come down.

It is not surprising that the group of Tory Ministers responsible for that decision are known as the East Ham group—East Ham being one stop short of Barking on the underground. Of course it had been their intention to build the bridge. Plans had been drawn up and £2 million of public money—our taxpayers' money—was spent on its design before the public inquiry was due to get under way last June.

The scheme was seriously flawed. It was back to front. It was the island that needed to be connected to the mainland, not the other way round. The islanders' needs should have been addressed first.

I support the transport review being conducted by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, even though it has led to a delay in our bridge, because it is wrong to waste taxpayers' money on schemes that have no Treasury Bills attached to them and which do not fit into a UK-wide transport strategy. Moreover, I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Paymaster General, who has reversed the previous Government's private finance initiative policy, by not insisting that PFIs take the risk of paying for planning inquiries.

The results of the current review will be published in July. Whether our bridge goes forward fully funded depends on five criteria: accessibility, safety, economy, environment and integration. On accessibility, safety, economy and integration, I make the score 10 out of 10. I could be biased. On environment, we have had some problems, but all the environment groups have bought into the need for the island to be connected to the mainland. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds must be especially congratulated on seeking a practical solution for the bridge.

To those like the Council for the Protection of Rural England who want a tunnel, the Highways Agency responded earlier in the week. It stated: A tunnel crossing has been considered in detail but rejected primarily on environmental grounds. You will be aware that the Swale and its surroundings are Special Protection Areas under EU legislation, Sites of Special Scientific Interest under UK legislation and an internationally important Ramsar wetland site. Our proposals are required to have the smallest possible ecological effect on any option considered.

The Highways Agency went on: In conclusion, the ecological effects of the proposed bridge would be less than those of a tunnel, and it must be borne in mind that it is the ecological aspect of the environment for which the Swale area is protected.

There is one criterion missing from the list: the Isle of Sheppey's psyche. Such a concept does not fit neatly into the way in which civil servants frame regulations, and cannot easily be understood by Ministers who never visit the island and have no real understanding of it.

In spite of the existing bridge, the Isle of Sheppey has some world-class businesses—Weidmuller, a family-owned German company in Halfway, is expanding by one third and hopes to open a new extension at the end of June; Abbott Laboratories, a Chicago-based pharmaceutical company listed on Wall street, in Queenborough; and the port of Sheerness, especially its fresh fruit operations and its car imports, as well as Co-Steel from Canada. There are businesses that have aspirations to become world class, such as Danepak, a Danish company, and our own local furniture maker, Regis Ltd.

In the global economy that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has asked us to embrace, those industries will not stand: they will fall if the bridge is not built. That would plunge the community into a new economic scenario worse than anything it has ever experienced.

Mr. Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this Adjournment debate. The second crossing over the Swale is not only important for the good people of the Isle of Sheppey; it is essential for the regeneration of my constituency, the Medway towns and further afield, right down the Thames gateway area. That is reflected in the early-day motion tabled today by Kent and London Members of the Thames gateway group. Does my hon. Friend agree that the crossing is essential not just for Sheppey, but for the wider area of Kent and east London?

Mr. Wyatt

I thank my hon. Friend, and of course I agree with him. One of the problems is that we are running out of space on the mainland of Sittingbourne to develop new factories. We have space on Sheppey, but we have no bridge that works.

I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to fulfil a pre-election pledge, which apparently emanated from Millbank tower and is frequently quoted in my local papers, that the bridge would be built before the end of the century. I urge the Minister to sign the cheque this evening for the second crossing of the Swale.

7.37 pm
The Minister for London and Construction (Mr. Nick Raynsford)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt) on his success in securing the debate. I appreciate that the matter is important not just for him, but for all the people of north-east Kent, those who live and work on the Isle of Sheppey, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw) emphasised, others who live in the Medway area.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey made a powerful case for a second Swale crossing. As he knows, the Government have embarked on a fundamental review of transport policy. The case for this scheme must be considered in the context of that review. Our objectives are a strong economy, a sustainable environment and an inclusive society. Transport links are a vital part of those aims.

Good communications, including transport links, are central to the economy and quality of life. However, the backdrop to the fundamental review is a candid recognition that we need a shift in direction. Revised national road traffic forecasts published last autumn show traffic increasing by almost 40 per cent. over the next 20 years. If current policies continue, congestion will get worse, the impact on the environment will be even more severe, and those who have no access to private transport will be even more disadvantaged.

Therefore, we must develop an integrated transport system that makes the best use of the contribution that each transport mode can make, and ensures that all options are considered on a basis that takes into account from the outset considerations of accessibility, integration, safety, the environment and the economy—factors which my hon. Friend highlighted, because he has taken account of our review, and he knows that those are the criteria by which schemes are being assessed.

Above all, an integrated transport system must be sustainable. One of the encouraging aspects of what is an ambitious task is the degree of consensus on the need for change. We cannot achieve that in isolation, and we are actively engaging those involved in transport. It is a feature of the policy development work now under way that we are involving a wide range of external advice and expertise, including local authorities, businesses, trade unions, transport professionals and transport users. That is the context for the roads review—examining the role that trunk roads should play in an integrated and sustainable transport policy.

My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister returned from the successful Kyoto summit at the end of last year with a legally binding target for the European Union to reduce greenhouse gases by 8 per cent. The United Kingdom contribution towards this target, which has to be determined by the spring or the summer, is likely to be above the average, but, for CO2 emissions, it is still likely to be somewhat lower than the domestic 20 per cent. reduction aim.

To meet that target, measures will need to be taken in all sectors of the economy. Under unchanged policies, emissions from transport are projected to rise at a faster rate than any other sector. The Government have signalled their intention to tackle the growth of emissions from the transport sector. A number of measures to reduce CO2 emissions from transport, in addition to the fuel duty strategy, are being considered as part of the integrated transport policy review.

Against that background, and the background of increased congestion, we have three broad options for roads: first, to make better use of existing infrastructure; secondly, to manage demand; and, thirdly, to provide new infrastructure. I shall briefly cover those options.

The first option is to make the best use of the existing road network. It is the obvious first choice to make best use of existing infrastructure. It has been provided at substantial cost, and we must optimise that investment. Technologies old and new can help us to make better use of our roads network. They include variable speed limits on, for example, sections of the M5, variable message signs to guide motorists away from congested areas, and the dedicated bus lane on the M4 to Heathrow airport. Those are examples, and I readily accept that none of those options would tackle the problem that my hon. Friend has rightly identified— the difficulty with a bridge that opens, but does not always close, on the link to Sheppey.

Some of the measures to which I have referred may also bring safety benefits, and we shall need to ensure that those are given proper priority. However, we need to be realistic about the benefits that the various options can bring. I hope that I have made it clear that I recognise their limitations in relation to the circumstances of the case that my hon. Friend has raised.

The second option is managing demand, to which we must give serious consideration. Managing demand encompasses reducing the need to travel, by land use planning—for example, an assessment of the extent to which a shift to other modes can be encouraged—and, inevitably, the question of controlling demand by pricing or rationing mechanisms. At a local level, many local authorities are exploring, by means of integrated transport packages, how to combine those measures so that mobility is maintained, but the adverse environmental consequences of that mobility are reduced.

The third option is providing new infrastructure. The Highways Agency's programme of small safety schemes is continuing, but all major new construction is under review. Providing new infrastructure is a difficult option, financially and in terms of the impact that it may have on the environment. Our starting point is that we shall not proceed with major new road construction unless we are satisfied that there is no better alternative; even then, there will be difficult choices to be made within the limited resources available.

There is no substitute for a rigorous case-by-case examination of the options. The second volume of the roads review consultation document, which we published last year, sets out, region by region, the perceived traffic problems and the roads programme inherited from our predecessors. We are carefully examining all the responses, and we expect to publish the outcome of the review later this year.

The existence of a scheme in the inherited programme is seen as prima facie evidence that there is a transport problem. We sought from our regional consultations a view on whether those are the most important problems or whether others deserve greater priority. We envisage two outputs from this part of the review: first, a firm short-term investment programme and, secondly, a programme of studies to consider the remaining problems out of which the medium and long-term investment programmes will emerge.

As my hon. Friend rightly said, the A249 trunk road provides the only road link between the Kent mainland and the Isle of Sheppey, with its important deep-water port at Sheerness. The single-carriageway road is heavily trafficked, and the Swale has to be crossed on the lifting road-rail Kingsferry bridge, which is raised to shipping several times a day. Long queues often form, and traffic can be delayed, which is of considerable concern for a variety of reasons. Individuals are inconvenienced and, as my hon. Friend has suggested, investors may be deterred from investing because of concern about congestion. The emergency services and the region's national health trust, whose nearest accident and emergency hospital is located off the isle, are also concerned.

The prospects for Sheppey's commercial and industrial development are significantly hampered by the current poor access arrangements for the isle. The Government recognise that.

The second Swale crossing scheme has been proposed to improve the reliability of access to and from the isle for the benefit of local residents and businesses, and to provide a second emergency access. The scheme would provide a fixed-bridge crossing with a 29 m clearance for shipping. It would improve a 5 km section of the trunk road route up to Queenborough. I note that implementing the scheme would complete the programme of improvements from the M2 to the port of Sheerness. My hon. Friend rightly said that the rest of the programme had been put in place, but that that crucial element had been left behind by the previous Government.

The Swale and surrounding areas are recognised nationally and internationally as important sites for birds and their habitats. My hon. Friend has rightly and fairly mentioned the potential environmental difficulties that might arise from the proposed scheme. Great care will need to be taken to minimise the impact of the scheme on these important ecological sites. The project will allow intended developments such as the Thames gateway project to help to generate employment, enhancing the commercial prospects of the isle. The cost of the scheme is estimated at £79 million, which includes the cost of preparing and supervising the project, but excludes value added tax.

The Government office for the south east held three day-long seminars last autumn as part of our consultation process on integrated transport. A seminar in Ashford on 14 October considered transport corridors in the east of the region, including links with Sheppey.

Strong representations were made in support of the second Swale crossing scheme, and there was a clear consensus among delegates that the scheme should be given high priority. That view has also been strongly reflected in the written contributions that we have received about the scheme. My hon. Friend has been diligent in pressing the case for the scheme, and has been in regular correspondence with my noble Friend Baroness Hayman, who is responsible for roads policy within the Department.

I recognise the importance of a second Swale crossing scheme for the local community, and I take this opportunity to assure my hon. Friend that we shall be taking all these views, as well as the points that he and others have made, fully into account in the current review.

Developing a forward-looking integrated transport policy that supports a strong economy, contributes to a sustainable environment and helps to create a just and inclusive society is a huge challenge. Through the work now under way on trunk roads, we want to achieve a robust short-term programme and a system for planning future investment in the road network—whether by measures to make better use of the existing network, or by providing new infrastructure—that is fair and seen to be fair, and which addresses transport problems squarely in the context of an integrated strategy.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing these important transport issues to the attention of the House. I know that he has been consistent in his advocacy of the proposed second Swale crossing, and I am sure that he will continue to press the case for this project in the months ahead. However, I am sure that he will also appreciate that, until we have completed our review, we cannot say what conclusions we shall reach on the proposed Swale crossing.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twelve minutes to Eight o'clock.