HC Deb 11 February 1998 vol 306 cc328-36 12.30 pm
Mr. Archie Norman (Tunbridge Wells)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the acute problem of the A21 main trunk road, which connects the M25 with Hastings.

I am also grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson), for attending the debate. I am fully aware that there has already been a series of Adjournment debates on various roads; it must seem at times that every Member of Parliament has a particular road project that he wishes to pursue. I admire the Minister's patience and tenacity in sitting through every debate and repeating time and again her mantra about the Government's roads policy and their integrated transport strategy. I have studied carefully the roads review documents and the Minister's remarks made in previous debates. I am grateful to the Minister for Roads, Baroness Hayman, for her feedback on the consultation process on the south-eastern roads review. I shall come to that in a moment.

The point of this debate is to highlight the acute anxiety felt in Kent and East Sussex about the state of the A21. This is not a new issue, but one of long standing. It is a matter of importance every day for my constituents and those of colleagues who have to sit gridlocked in traffic because the improvement to the road, which has widespread support across the south-east, has not been implemented.

The improvement to the A21 is not a new proposal. There was a public inquiry in 1992, and various projects have been prepared over the past 20 years. Indeed, the improvement proposal had been brought to a state of readiness for implementation before the roads review was announced. If the House will excuse the expression, the proposal was kicked into the long grass as a result of the roads review, and has been a victim of the consultation process. I am not contesting whether or not we need a roads review, but the simple fact is that the A21 has not been improved because of that time-consuming process.

It is important to recognise that we are talking not about a new road but about improving the existing one. At the moment, there is an hour-glass effect on the A21—in other words, the initial stretch from the M25 has been dualled, as has the stretch past Pembury, but the piece at Castle Hill is still a single lane, which creates a dreadful bottleneck.

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling)

Does my hon. Friend agree that, of all the sections of the improvement scheme along the A21, the one that would yield the greatest single cost benefit and the one which should be proceeded with on its own if necessary, is precisely the one to which he has referred—the completion of the dualling between the end of the Tonbridge bypass and the Pembury bypass? Without that, the whole of the triangle formed by Pembury, Tunbridge Wells and Tonbridge will remain more or less a permanent traffic jam during the day.

Mr. Norman

I entirely share my right hon. Friend's view. The economic argument for improving the Castle Hill stretch is overwhelming, and I shall mention that again in a moment.

What we are seeking from the Minister is not a recitation of the arguments about the roads review but reassurance that the facts about the A21 are being fully taken on board and that, subject to the outcome of the review, there will be no further delay in taking action.

The Minister has outlined the new criteria for the roads review, and I want to show that the A21 improvement programme meets those criteria fully. It commands virtually universal support from individuals and organisations in the south-east, including Kent county council, East Sussex county council, Hastings council, Tunbridge Wells borough council, Kent police, Kent ambulance service, Pembury local parish council, which is most affected by the Castle Hill stretch of the road, the West Kent chamber of commerce, the Freight Transport Association, all the hon. Members—I believe—with constituents living along the route, and the vast majority of my constituents in Tunbridge Wells. In other words, this is a relatively non-contentious road proposal, if there ever is such a thing.

Incidentally, the A21 improvement scheme came out extremely well from the initial feedback from the roads review, as reported to us by the Minister for Roads. As we understand it, not only is the Castle Hill stretch seen as a priority today, but the Lamberhurst route will be an important route for decongestion purposes later.

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden)

East Sussex county council also considers the scheme to be part of a strategic integrated transport system. If the improvements are not made, things will become even worse than they are now.

Mr. Norman

I share my right hon. Friend's views. He makes an important point, which shows that the proposal meets entirely the requirements of integration, which is one of the important criteria set out in the trunk roads review.

I deal now with the criteria that I understand are being applied, quite reasonably, to new trunk roads project. They are accessibility, safety, economy, the environment and integration.

Mr. Charles Wardle (Bexhill and Battle)

Before my hon. Friend goes into those details, does he accept that what he says about the A21 in Kent applies with equal force to its southern reaches in East Sussex, especially between Flimwell and the bottom of Silver Hill, and also between the southern end of the Robertsbridge bypass and the intended junction with the proposed Hastings eastern and Hastings western and Bexhill bypasses? I am sure that the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Foster) will confirm that.

I think that my hon. Friend will understand why I tell many of my constituents who are exasperated by the blockages on the A21 that the probable reason that Harold lost the battle of Hastings was that he was held up on the A21.

Mr. Norman

I concur and sympathise entirely with my hon. Friend. The A21 is the only viable route to many parts of the constituency, areas to the south and, of course, Hastings.

One of the criteria of the roads review is accessibility. Congestion is acute. The superintendent of Kent police tells me: The Castle Hill section of the A21 is a nightmare. It add at least 25 minutes to the journey into Tunbridge Wells. Police movement, despite the assistance of sirens, is inhibited by the current situation. That is clearly unacceptable.

Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye)

The time problem is one that my constituents regularly bring to my attention. In fact, business movements from Hastings to the M25 are increased by some 25 minutes, the very figure to which hon. Gentleman referred. As a consequence, not only are companies now saying that they will not come to Hastings, but many leading companies are saying that they will leave the town, thus adding to the existing deprivation.

Mr. Norman

It is important to remember that Hastings, unusually for a town in the south-east, is a relatively deprived area, with unemployment running at, I believe, about 10 per cent.

On safety grounds, the case for improvements to the A21 is overwhelming. There have been 227 accidents—serious accidents, I believe—on the relevant stretch of the A21 in the past five years. The current cost-benefit analysis apparently suggests that the road is costing £24 million a year in safety problems and delays, although I appreciate that the COBA criteria are being flexed. I understand that they will be changed to take into account environmental costs.

In environmental terms, the project is relatively benign. In fact, there are substantial environmental gains to be had from improving the route, not least in Lamberhurst, a village in a conservation area which is seriously blighted by the volume of heavy traffic flowing through it.

The environmental situation in Lamberhurst is serious. Milk rounds have to be specially scheduled and postal deliveries rearranged because it is unsafe to deliver milk or post at certain times of day. The head teacher of Lamberhurst primary school tells me: Frequently at school medicals the children are unable to respond to hearing tests because of the level of traffic noise. I am seriously concerned for the safety and health of the pupils of my school, which borders the A21.

The public inquiry of 1992—traffic has increased since then—concluded: Carbon monoxide concentrations at those properties in Lamberhurst close to the A21 were at peak hours just above the threshold which would trigger the requirement for a special air quality report. A bypass would decrease these concentrations by about half. There are strong environmental reasons for improving the route.

The scheme fits into the East Sussex plan, the West Kent plan and the local plan for the economy. Tunbridge Wells council informs me that there are six commercial developments, mostly at the Longfield road site adjacent to the A21, for which planning permission is being held up because of the uncertainty about the road. Economic development is being retarded because of that uncertainty. Everybody in the area expected the scheme to be going ahead at the time of the Wealden Down design, build, finance and operate agreement.

The scheme fits in with the integrated transport strategy for Tunbridge Wells. The park and ride site identified at Woodgate corner is just off the A21. It also ties in with the new hospital project under preparation. Access to the Pembury site is off the A21 and is affected by the congestion problems that I have referred to.

The managing director of AIM Plastics, a local Tunbridge Wells business, says: I truly believe the frustrating bottleneck will become a real limitation on the commercial development of the town. Companies like mine will very soon move away rather than waste our time in a daily unavoidable traffic jam. That is a clear illustration that the road improvement will affect economic development in Tunbridge Wells, which some may call a relatively prosperous town, and in Hastings, which is a relatively deprived town on the south coast.

Using the Minister's criteria, the proposal is relatively uncontentious. It should have gone ahead already, although we understand why that was not possible. We are not asking for another roads review—I trust that the Minister will not tax our patience by explaining the integrated transport policy yet again; we have studied and understood. We want reassurances, subject to the outcome of the roads review. We fully appreciate that the Minister cannot pre-empt the outcome of the roads review.

Will the Minister give us some idea of when the roads review will be published? We understand from Baroness Hayman that it will be during the time when the daffodils are out. Daffodils come out early in Tunbridge Wells, and we have had a mild winter. Will the Minister give us an assurance that the daffodils will be out before May?

May we be assured that, once the roads review is published, no time will be wasted in developing priority projects—of which this is one—to be proceeded with? We do not want to hear that the roads review has precipitated another review of what the priority projects should be. If the criteria are properly applied, will we be able to move ahead with the project?

Will the Minister be prepared to consider the project pragmatically and, if necessary, incrementally? If there are specific problems of timing or public expenditure, it would be better to proceed with parts of the de-bottlenecking than to wait many years until a massive project can be put together. We would rather pursue the project incrementally over the years, with a bit now and a bit later, than have nothing for many years.

Will the Minister reassure us that she is fully aware of the extent of the problem, of the acute anxiety and distress that it is causing in Tunbridge Wells and of the damage to property and injuries to people? One constituent had a juggernaut in his front room last October. That was the third such incident. I am pleased to report that it was a Somerfield lorry.

We want reassurances that, subject to the criteria that have been set out and subject to the roads review, the acute problems suffered by my constituents and those of other hon. Members present will be heard. We want to move not from review to review, but from review to action.

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

If I had not been aware of the acuteness of the problem before the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) spoke, I certainly would be now, not only because of his detailed and informative speech, but from the presence of other hon. Members on both sides of the House who regard the issue as particularly important for their constituencies. I congratulate him, and thank him for his generosity in allowing interventions from the right hon. Members for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) and for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley), the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Wardle) and my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Foster).

I suggest to the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle that, if the archer had become bored by the delay, Harold might have won the battle. I say to the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells that the Government would be irresponsible to time a review on an issue as important as our roads and an integrated transport strategy on the appearance, disappearance or non-appearance of daffodils. The climate in this country is such that they may be flourishing in February and flat on their backs dead at the beginning of March.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells for raising the topic and for his generous concerns about my appearance at the Dispatch Box. As he rightly says, every hon. Member has a road for which they want to argue. That is right and proper. I am sorry that he regards the Government's pronouncements on why we have a roads review and why we have taken such pains to consult on an integrated transport strategy as a mantra. I know that I have talked about it many times, but, as it is the structure within which we are approaching the problems, it is worth repeating.

Our decisions have to be put into a wider policy context. The hon. Gentleman should be particularly aware of the importance to the economy and to the quality of our life of good communications. He must also be aware of the backdrop against which the Government are approaching the issues. Forecasts published last autumn predicted a nearly 40 per cent. increase in traffic over the next 20 years. If current policies continue unchanged, congestion will get worse, with an even more severe impact on our environment. Those who have no access to private transport will find it even more difficult to get around.

We need to develop an integrated transport system that makes the best use of each mode, ensuring that all options are considered on a basis that is fair—and, even more important, is seen to be fair—and takes into account from the outset considerations of accessibility, integration, safety, the environment and the economy. All those issues have been raised today, with direct relevance to Tunbridge Wells and the other constituencies that have been referred to.

Above all, an integrated transport system must be sustainable. One of the encouraging aspects of what we acknowledge is an ambitious task is the consensus on the need for change. We cannot achieve our aims in isolation. We are actively engaging those involved in transport, with a wide range of external advice and expertise. Local authorities, businesses, trade unions, transport professionals and transport users are involved in our work.

That is the context of the roads review—examining the role that trunk roads should play in an integrated and sustainable transport policy. Against that background, we have three broad options for our roads: first, to make better use of infrastructure; secondly, to manage demand; thirdly, to provide new infrastructure.

To make the best use of infrastructure is the obvious first choice. The infrastructure has been provided at substantial financial and environmental cost, and we must make the best use of the investment. My noble Friend the Minister for Roads recently launched the Highways Agency toolkit of a selection of techniques and ideas for making better use of our trunk road network as part of an integrated transport system. Technologies old and new can help to make better use of our roads network, but, realistically, there is a limit to the benefits to be gained simply from using such techniques, which means that we must also look seriously at other, harder options, such as managing demand and providing new infrastructure.

The management of demand is a vast topic, encompassing 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. Many local authorities are seeking by means of integrated transport packages to combine demand management and other measures so that mobility is maintained, but the adverse consequences of it are reduced. The hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells referred to the steps that his local authority is taking in that area.

Mr. Norman

I understand the Minister's points. We have of course heard them many times before. We fully appreciate that they are part of the script. The proposed A21 improvement is part of an integrated transport policy, fits the park and ride scheme and uses existing roads. We are simply saying, "Let us improve the road we have." The proposed scheme is highly economic and fits with the criteria that she has described.

Ms Jackson

I well understand the hon. Gentleman's points; he is reiterating what he said earlier. Essentially, he is asking for a specific decision now on one specific road. I am sure that he accepts that, given the complexity of the problem with which the Government are faced, it would be wrong simply to dismiss an entire consultation process that has been engaged throughout the United Kingdom. We have to make a change. We have to devise an integrated transport strategy that can meet the transport and traffic needs of this country and its people—for not only the short term but the medium and long term.

Mr. Norman

I hope that the Minister will forgive me for repeating myself again. We are not asking for a specific outcome of the roads review now. We are asking for a reassurance that, as soon as the roads review is complete, and if, as we expect, it is proven that the A21 scheme fits the criteria, we will be able to move rapidly to a stage where a project can be drawn up and put forward. Are we instead to be faced with another series of delays and reviews?

Ms Jackson

I make no criticism of the hon. Gentleman repeating himself. I am about to do precisely the same. There is little point in asking for the conclusions of a review until that review has been completed. That, in essence, is what I believe he is asking for.

To return to policy rather than script, in the local transport settlement that was announced in December by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport, I was particularly pleased that the Government were able to continue to support Kent county council's transport package for Tunbridge Wells, and provide increased support for packages for Maidstone, Ashford and Canterbury. All those packages will help to alleviate congestion. The Government also provided a special allocation of supplementary credit approvals to be targeted on measures designed to improve public transport, cycling, walking and traffic calming in Dartford and Gravesend.

Providing new infrastructure is a very difficult option, both financially and given the impact that it may have on the environment. Our starting point is that we will not proceed with major new road construction unless we are satisfied that there is no better alternative.

Mr. Michael Jabez Foster

Does it follow that, if my hon. Friend is satisfied that there is no alternative, approval is given? The feeling in my constituency is that there is no alternative, no rail link—unless we are to come into London by sea. That is perhaps the only option apparent to the people of Hastings and Rye.

Ms Jackson

I congratulate my hon. Friend on what I would dub a very nice try. I should point out that the Government have already stated that they are looking at incorporating all transport modes, not least inland waterways and coastal shipping. I shall leave him to decide what he will make of that reply.

The Highways Agency's programme of small safety schemes is continuing, and includes several schemes for the A21. It includes providing improved turning facilities, improving junctions, minor realignments of the route, and providing footways.

Despite the arguments put forward in the debate, which I well understand, the Government believe that there is no substitute for rigorous case-by-case examination of the options. Volume two of our roads review consultation document, "What Role for Trunk Roads in England?", sets out region by region the perceived traffic problems and the roads programme inherited from our predecessors.

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 other problems deserve greater priority. We envisage two outputs from that part of the review: a firm, short-term investment programme, and a programme of studies to look at the remaining problems—out of which the medium and long-term investment programme will emerge.

Turning to the particular concerns of the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells, as he said, the A21 is a road of regional significance, linking Hastings, which has assisted area status, and Tunbridge Wells to London and, via the M25, to the rest of the country. It is the only radial trunk road between the M20 to Folkestone and the M23/A23 to Brighton. It is paralleled in the transport corridor by the London-Tonbridge-Hastings railway. It is predominantly a single carriageway road with a number of local bypasses: Sevenoaks bypass, built in 1968; Tonbridge bypass, built in 1970; and Pembury bypass, built in 1988.

The residential areas in the towns along the A21 generate significant commuter traffic, which uses the A21 to access the M25 and the national network. The A21 also acts as a distributor road for the local network.

I understand the desire of the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells for early decisions on the schemes that have already completed their statutory processes and have been through a number of reviews, but I repeat that we must first complete our on-going review.

The Government office for the south-east held three day-long seminars in autumn as part of our consultation process on integrated transport. One in Ashford in October looked at transport corridors in the region of the Government office for the south east, including north-south routes between the M25 and the south coast. Many of the points that the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells made about the importance of safety, the environment and of achieving the regeneration objectives for Hastings with regard to the A21 Tonbridge bypass to Pembury bypass dualling and the A21 Lamberhurst bypass schemes were also made by delegates at the seminar and in the written responses that we received to the roads review.

My noble Friend the Minister for Roads recently met hon. Members who represent the south-east region, including the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells, to discuss the views expressed by delegates at the seminars and to hear any further views that hon. Members wished to add. We shall be taking all those views into account in deciding how best to proceed.

Our roads review is a vital part of our work in 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. Through the work under way on trunk roads, we wish to achieve a robust short-term programme and a system for planning future investment in the road network, whether that is through measures to make better use of the network or by providing new infrastructure—which, as I said, is fair and seen to be fair; which allows a proper opportunity for all concerned to make their contribution; and which looks at transport problems squarely in the context of an integrated strategy.

The first output will be an integrated transport policy White Paper, which we hope to publish in the spring. The second will be the outcome of the trunk roads review, which will be published in a report—no more than a few months later, we hope. That will flesh out the Government's integrated transport policy as it affects trunk roads and will outline which schemes are to be taken forward to construction in the next few years—subject, in some cases, to satisfactory completion of the statutory procedures.

As I said earlier, I am grateful to the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells for bringing the issues relating to the A21 in Kent to the attention of the House. I am sure, however, that he understands that, until we have completed the roads review, we cannot say what conclusions we will reach about the A21.

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