HC Deb 11 February 1998 vol 306 cc526-32

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Ms Bridget Prentice.]

1.33 am
Miss Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale)

I welcome the opportunity to outline briefly to the House the case for the completion of the road link between the port of Heysham and the M6.

In recent years, Heysham port has been a story of continuing expansion, investment and success. Its ever increasing importance as a port, particularly in relation to trade with Ireland and the Isle of Man, is clearly demonstrated by the spectacular growth in the tonnage that it handles. In 1983, about 1,000 ships carried just over 500,000 tonnes of freight. By 1993, some 2,700 ships had more than quadrupled that tonnage to 2.2 million tonnes. In 1997, 3,500 ships increased the freight handled to in excess of 3 million tonnes. According to the 1995 figures, Heysham handles the second largest amount of roll on/roll off traffic from any single port on the Irish sea, just 2 per cent. less than the port of Liverpool and significantly more than any other west coast port.

The opening of the third roll on/roll off linkspan berth in August will undoubtedly lead to further growth in the port's market share of traffic. There are 11 scheduled services per day to Belfast, Dublin, Warrenpoint, and Douglas on the Isle of Man. The new berth will allow that number to increase to 13 per day. The port also accommodates a substantial private shipping operation, North Lancashire Stevedores, which has its own warehousing, wharfage and cranage.

On the north quay, British Gas has located its service base for the Morecambe bay gasfield, which is one of largest on the United Kingdom continental shelf. Another significant contributor to the port's success is the passenger and freight service to the Isle of Man, operated by the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company.

Heysham port has a natural advantage over its west coast competitors because it can operate around the clock throughout the year without regard to tidal conditions. It is expertly managed; has a dedicated work force; and has the physical capacity for much further expansion. I am convinced that the hard-earned growth and success of that port will continue, and that will be most welcome in an area of high unemployment.

I know that the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson), is already aware of much of what I have outlined because she opened the new linkspan berth on an extremely wet and windy day in August. I can assure her that her visit and interest were most appreciated by all those involved with the port.

Heysham port is a success story, but its phenomenal growth has put enormous pressure on the local road systems between the port and the M6. It is estimated that in excess of 1,000 heavy goods vehicles per day start their journeys from Heysham port, swelling the congestion on the overloaded A683. The daily traffic flows on that single-carriageway road from Morecambe to Lancaster are in excess of 36,000, almost high enough to warrant motorway status in its own right.

The east-west traffic on the road meets up with north-southbound traffic on the Lune bridges at Lancaster. The traffic flows over those bridges are in excess of 56,000 vehicles per day, which is almost as high as that on the six-carriageway M6 north of Lancaster.

Heysham port is sited a mere nine miles to the west of the M6 junction, south of Lancaster, yet it frequently takes an hour to complete that short journey. Such unacceptable delays need to be addressed urgently.

In addition to the high costs caused by such delays, and the anger and frustration felt by the commercial and private motorist alike, numerous other problems are caused by the traffic congestion in the area. One is the ever increasing problem of air pollution from exhaust emissions. The daily deluge of poison released from the crawling traffic blights the lives and health of residents along the route and adversely impacts on the environment of the historic city of Lancaster.

There is growing evidence that the appalling traffic congestion is hampering the commercial development—especially the tourism industry, on which the area relies heavily—of both Morecambe and Heysham. Potential visitors to the resorts are deterred by the congestion.

The police, fire and ambulance emergency services are frequently snarled up in the traffic and, as a result, lives and properties are placed at risk. In the event of a serious incident at Heysham nuclear power station, speedy evacuation of the area would be impossible to achieve. The potential casualties that could arise from such an incident are almost too horrific to contemplate.

Another major area of concern is that, due to traffic congestion, bus operators are unable to maintain regular and reliable local services. That has led to a decline in the number of passengers using the services, which has led to increased costs to the operators, leading to increased bus fares, leading to further decreases in passenger numbers and increased use of private cars, which once again adds to the congestion; so the vicious circle continues.

It is clear that a modern integrated transport system will need to ensure that maximum use is made of public transport in our towns and cities. It is equally clear that that will not happen unless public transport offers regular, reliable, comfortable, safe and affordable services. In the Morecambe, Heysham and Lancaster areas, such services will not be available unless the traffic congestion problem is solved. In my opinion, the key to that solution is the completion of the Heysham port M6 motorway link.

The link, which will provide an additional crossing over the River Lune and bypass the city of Lancaster, will cater for the high percentage of through traffic generated from, and leading to, the large industrial conurbations to the south. I am convinced that the provision of the link would bring immediate and sustained relief to many thousands of beleaguered commercial and private road users and, undoubtedly, would be of significant economic and environmental benefit to the area.

Establishing an extra crossing over the River Lune and a motorway link is by no means a new concept. The need for them was recognised many years ago and, accordingly, they were embodied in the Lancaster district local plan. The first stage of the link was opened in 1994 but, because of environmental concerns regarding the original route, the completion of the link was put on ice. Several alternative routes have since been examined, and the decision on the preferred option is imminent.

Extensive local consultations have taken place, and two significant facts have emerged. First, the overwhelming majority of individuals, business and interest groups that participated in the consultative exercise support the completion of the link. Secondly, of those who support the motorway link, the vast majority are in favour of it being made to the south of the city of Lancaster.

Although I fully appreciate the difficult position that the Government inherited from the previous Administration—the Tory party, which often quotes the laws of supply and demand, singularly failed to supply the integrated transport network that the country has been demanding for years—I feel that the problems in the Morecambe, Heysham and Lancaster area are so acute that they warrant priority treatment. In view of that, and of the years of delay, I invite the Minister to give me an assurance that the case for the completion of the Heysham port motorway link will be considered as a matter of urgency, and that the decision can be taken at the earliest possible date.

1.43 am
Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre)

I want to support my hon. Friend, and neighbour, the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Miss Smith), and to congratulate her on her tenacity in securing the debate and on her energy in keeping going at this late hour.

The best route for the final leg of the Heysham M6 link would take the road through my constituency of Lancaster and Wyre. This is a road of vital strategic importance. It would boost the regeneration of rundown industrial areas in my constituency and raise the profile of Glasson dock as well as Heysham port. Most significantly for the historic and congested city of Lancaster, it could form a vital part of an integrated transport system, which could radically reduce traffic to the great benefit of my constituents.

A new road link to the M6 at junction 33 could provide an exceptional opportunity for park and ride, a base for a new station and a transport interchange featuring car hire, taxis, cycling and light delivery vehicles. Road pricing on the A6 south of Lancaster, coupled with a bypass, would return Galgate village to its inhabitants. It would create road space, increase safety and reduce noise and pollution.

Coupled with our history, the quality of our built environment, our natural advantages and other assets far too numerous to mention in this short space of time, the investment—which we in Lancaster and Morecambe have missed out on for decades—and the vision of radical traffic reduction could make Lancaster simply the best city in which to live, do business and visit.

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

I wonder whether it is appropriate to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Miss Smith) on obtaining this debate, given the lateness—or rather the earliness—of the hour. However, I congratulate her on setting out so cogently. clearly, strongly and in such detail the interests of her constituents and the particular problems that they face.

I recognise those problems, as highlighted by my hon. Friend, and the ones faced by the city of Lancaster. Our hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) added his voice to the debate and underlined the problems that are being experienced in his part of the country.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale said, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to visit Lancaster and Heysham, when I witnessed some of the problems at first hand. Regrettably, traffic congestion blights many of our town centres. As part of the forthcoming integrated transport White Paper, we are considering ways of tackling congestion. I also appreciate the desire to provide better access to the port of Heysham.

Clearly, we will wish to look at how to address those needs in the context of our integrated transport policy. Before I turn to the situation around Lancaster, it may be helpful if I set out the reasons why we need to develop such a policy. As my hon. Friend will be aware, the Government are looking afresh at why and how we travel and move goods. We are also looking at the role each mode can and should play in meeting the demand for travel, and are seeking to develop a consensus on how national transport requirements should be met in the medium and long term in a way that contributes to greater integration, improved accessibility and safety, sustainable economic growth and the achievement of the Government's goals for a better environment. Above all, an integrated transport system must be sustainable.

One encouraging aspect of what is, in reality, an ambitious task is the degree of consensus in favour of change. We cannot achieve that change in isolation, and we are keen actively to engage 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.

The roads review is examining the role that roads should play in an integrated and sustainable transport policy. Against the background of increased congestion and a need to reduce pollution levels, 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, but only as a last resort.

To make the best use of existing infrastructure is the obvious first choice. It has been provided at substantial cost in both financial and environmental terms, and we must make the best use of that investment. Technologies old and new can help to make better use of our roads network. A number of measures can also bring safety benefits, and we will need to ensure that those are given proper priority. However, we must be realistic about what the various options can deliver.

We must also consider seriously more difficult options, such as managing demand and providing new infrastructure. Managing demand is a vast topic. It encompasses reducing the need to travel by, for example, land use planning, an assessment of the extent to which a shift to other modes is encouraged and, inevitably, controlling demand by pricing or rationing mechanisms. Many local authorities, including Lancaster, are seeking through integrated transport packages to combine demand management and other measures so that mobility is maintained while its adverse consequences are reduced.

Providing new infrastructure is a difficult option, both financially and in terms of the impact that it may have on the environment. Our starting point is that we will not proceed with major new road or rail 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 that are available. That is the background against which future investment decisions will be taken. We make no apologies for setting it out at length, because it is a message which needs to be heard.

Perhaps I could now move to the specific issues that were raised by my hon. Friend. As she said, I visited her constituency on 21 August to open officially the port of Heysham's new £2 million linkspan—a road bridge which allows freight to load on and off the ferries. During my visit, I saw some of the work that is already being done to tackle Lancaster's traffic problems, and I discussed with councillors their proposals for improving access to Morecambe and Heysham. I congratulate the city on what has already been achieved in reducing congestion.

The opening of phase 1 of the Heysham to M6 link in July 1994 removed a significant volume of traffic from the built-up areas of Morecambe and Heysham, including a large number of heavy goods vehicles travelling between the port of Heysham and the M6. Completing the link could further improve access and reduce congestion. As my hon. Friend knows, Lancashire county council is still considering which route its proposed link road should take, following consultation last year.

The proposed road has some history. Following public examination of the Lancashire structure plan, the independent inspector's report recommended that the Lancaster western bypass should be deleted, as the traffic benefits were unlikely to outweigh the combined effects of the visual impact on the landscape and the estuary and the potential harm to conservation interests. Lancashire county council accepted that recommendation, and recently consulted the public on three different routes to complete the road link from the M6 to Heysham. I understand that the consultation showed considerable support for completing the link. My hon. Friend spoke about that.

Three routes are now being considered. They are the so-called orange route, a northerly bypass of Lancaster; the green route, a western bypass of Lancaster and Galgate; and the blue route, a shorter route to the west of Lancaster which involves the construction of new junctions on the M6 south of Lancaster.

When Lancashire county council has decided which of those routes to pursue, it will be able to apply for funds from the Department in the usual way as part of the annual local transport settlement. When it does, we will assess the merits of the scheme in line with the approach that I set out earlier. As my hon. Friends will appreciate, I cannot at this stage tell whether funding will be available. I know that the council is seized of the need to look at other alternatives. Clearly, improving access to the port of Heysham for freight traffic is important if the port is to develop and grow. A better road link could undoubtedly help, as could enhanced use of the rail network.

If we are to achieve our transport objectives, it is important that more freight should travel by rail where that represents a viable alternative to road transport. To help to achieve that, we are working to establish more effective and accountable regulation and to establish a new rail authority to provide a clear, coherent and strategic programme for the development of the railways so that the aspirations of rail freight operators and users can be met. We have already taken account of that to boost the take-up of freight grants, and that is proving successful. We have also secured commitments from the French Government and Eurotunnel designed to get a better deal for rail freight through the channel tunnel and beyond.

I assure my hon. Friend that the issues that she has raised will be closely examined.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at six minutes to Two o'clock.