HC Deb 19 January 1998 vol 304 cc789-98

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

10.18 pm
Mrs. Virginia Bottomley (South-West Surrey)

I am grateful for the opportunity to address the House on a matter of enormous concern to my constituents and to people throughout the south-east. The extent to which the road problem causes concern throughout the region is shown by the number of hon. Members present this evening—my hon. Friends the Members for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), for Havant (Mr. Willetts) and for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), who has taken a close interest, and the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Rapson).

I had not anticipated the degree to which the road problem is a priority for people who work in the House. Since I arrived this evening, I have spoken to a Senior Office Clerk in the Vote Office, the Principal Doorkeeper, a Deputy Principal Doorkeeper and three other Doorkeepers, all of whom have informed me that their journey to work is hampered by the nightmare at Hindhead. They have asked me in the strongest possible way to reinforce the sense of priority that they hope the Minister and her Government will give to the proposals.

The case is essentially simple; the many arguments are technically compelling. I hope to demonstrate how the plans fit the criteria set out by the Minister's Department as a test for priority action. The criteria are integration, economy, safety, the environment and accessibility.

The Minister should be clear that the issue evokes enormously strong feeling in my constituency. Week in, week out, I have heard of the frustration and alarm of local people, and of the danger, delay and pollution they face on the stretch of road. The concern is not new, but it is mounting. It reflects a unity of purpose across political and geographical divisions that something must be done, which has built up over decades. It is not good enough that the road improvement scheme should simply feature in the consultation document. People want action, not words. They need a firm plan for when work will begin.

Over the years, there have been enormous improvements to the A3. It is an excellent road from London to Portsmouth and round to Southampton, but the difficulty lies on the only four-mile stretch of single carriageway at Hindhead in my constituency. Over more recent years, there have been proposals for improvements at Hindhead. In 1987, a red route was proposed, but the following year there was disappointment over it. That was followed by a proposal for a yellow route, and a modified yellow route. In June 1992, the approval of tunnel proposals was announced following consultation, and, since March 1993, that has been the preferred route. Since then, I regret to say that there has been relatively little progress.

My constituents are obviously becoming progressively more alarmed and concerned as the volume of traffic builds, and since the rest of the road is so very much better. In recent months, I have been collecting signatures for a petition, with which my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire has helped. The volume of signatures has meant that we have had to extend the period during which people are asked to complete the forms. I hope that, like my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride), I shall then be able to place the petition in the Bag behind your Chair, Madam Speaker.

The petition declares that unacceptably long delays are constantly suffered by A3 road users. Local towns and villages are adversely affected by the volume of traffic, which damages the environment and causes danger to residents. Businesses in the area and across the region suffer from costly and wasteful delays. The Hindhead commons provide exceptional landscape and national history, which should be protected for all to enjoy.

I shall quote from a sample letter from Andrew Robb, one of my constituents: Everyone is united on one point, namely the desperate need to relieve the existing bottleneck, which worsens every day, which gives rise to major risk of accident on the existing single carriageway and roads leading to and from it and which causes considerable atmospheric pollution. Please would you give the absolute highest priority to reaching a decision on this issue as quickly as possible. Further delays would be disastrous. I turn to the technical case. The A3 is a road of strategic regional importance, with links to Europe. It provides a key route from the coast at Portsmouth to London. It has already undergone exceptional and extensive improvement. Nigel Bourne of the CBI said in his submission to the Highways Agency, which the Minister has probably seen: It is really quite illogical that the main road from London to Portsmouth should suffer from such ridiculous levels of congestion, particularly when the remainder of the road is generally built to a good standard. The bottleneck is all the more intolerable because it has caused substantial blight in the surrounding area. The major route between Portsmouth, the second busiest international passenger port in the country, and London, with its international airports and road links to the north, is severely disrupted.

Mr. Syd Rapson (Portsmouth, North)

Is the right hon. Lady aware that Portsmouth city council's interest is in economic development and that the strangulation of the A3 is causing concern in the council? Potential developers and visitors to the city are being dissuaded because of the bottleneck which, linked with the awful train service, does not do much for the city. That is the main strength of the council's argument, although it would agree with most of the points being raised by the right hon. Lady.

Mrs. Bottomley

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I am well aware of the economic opportunities—and problems—facing Portsmouth. I hope that the millennium celebrations—in which the Millennium Commission has invested some £50 million—and the regeneration of the dock area will result in great opportunities not only for Portsmouth, but for the Isle of Wight. The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Dr. Brand) stopped me on his way in this evening to say how strongly his constituents feel about this matter. All the time that business is jammed at Hindhead, constituents face extremely difficult circumstances. I appreciate the contribution from the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North and the city council's work in this regard.

As the hon. Gentleman is well aware, the road is a regional gateway to Europe. Regeneration and regional prosperity require a sound road infrastructure. To quote from the CBI: Continued consultation with our members reveals their increasing concern with the state of the roads in the South East, particularly in view of it being the gateway to Europe. There is no doubt that the future of wealth creation in the region is dependent on the infrastructure and schemes are needed now to bring roads up to the barest minimum requirement. The need is here and now. We must not hide behind strategies as excuses for delay. As the CBI said: Discussion on an integrated transport strategy should not be allowed to be a further reason for delay. The roads schemes will be required in any event and are long overdue. My constituents—like those of the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North and my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn)—will welcome any rail improvements, which may help to ease the situation for A3 users along other stretches of the road. I do not wish to ignore that.

An integrated transport policy requires the road link between Portsmouth, Southampton, London and the airports to be of a suitable standard. At present, it is not. I welcome the fact that the Minister's consultation document recognises that an effective trunk road network is crucial to UK competitiveness. Congestion and uncertain journey times are adding to business costs. I entirely agree with businesses in my constituency—and those of other hon. Members—who are counting the costs of congestion. The Hindhead blockage is bad for business locally, regionally and in Europe. Time, fuel and money are wasted in the bottleneck.

The chairman of the Headley Down housing association speculated that the commercial costs of the delays over the years must be enormous. He points to the many individuals, including himself, who have suffered financial loss.

That local assessment is in line with the trend analysed by Trafficmaster, who showed that, in the third quarter of 1997 alone, 38 million man hours were lost to congestion, costing UK businesses £1.8 billion in time, resources and lost appointments. Nowhere is that truer than at Hindhead.

My third argument relates to road safety. In my constituency between January and September of last year, there were 37 collisions, with three deaths and a further 64 casualties. In the past five years, there have been 255 collisions. That is too many, and without urgent action, the numbers will grow. With the investment in Portsmouth, Southampton and throughout the region, I do not wish the stretch of my constituency to emerge as people's final resting ground on the stretch between London and Portsmouth.

Of course, it is not only on the A3 that the danger is growing. We are witnessing a disastrous effect. Traffic is ingeniously, speedily and recklessly rat-running throughout the entire area. All the delightful villages of north-east Hampshire and south-west Surrey are being invaded by reckless drivers, desperately trying to beat the jam. Residents both old and young are put at risk, the quality of life is being damaged and the danger is mounting. On those grounds, they urgently ask the hon. Lady to look carefully into the situation.

In "What role for Trunk Roads in England?", the Government set out the objectives for the A3 improvement scheme, which are: to reduce congestion and delay to road users; to enhance road safety; and to provide additional capacity. I welcome those objectives, but the report does not do justice to the overwhelming environmental case for action on the A3. That road bisects a landscape of national and international significance.

In Kyoto recently, the Secretary of State said that the Government were committed to environmental protection. This debate provides the Minister with the ideal opportunity to endorse a project that will have substantial environmental gains. The Hindhead commons, through which the A3 runs, are National Trust land. It has been designated a site of special scientific interest and, on a European dimension, it is a candidate special protection area.

In its letter to the Department, the National Trust, echoing local views, writes: We urge that the A3 Hindhead scheme be retained in the programme, and considered for early implementation. It is near Draft Orders stage of design; and is one of the few schemes that satisfies the majority of transport and environmental objectives". With encouragement like that from the National Trust, how can the hon. Lady possibly resist? The Hindhead commons are a national asset. The combination of high landscape, ecological and heritage value make a significant contribution to the country's environmental capital. The enhancement and protection of such assets carry a high priority in Government planning policy. The replacement of the existing surface road with a tunnel would achieve such objectives.

I can also inform the hon. Lady of the comments from the Council for the Protection of Rural England: The Devil's Punch Bowl is a landscape feature that is completely dominated by the present level of traffic congestion. Relieved of traffic it could once more be an incomparable place where the public could experience the quiet enjoyment of the rich Surrey countryside. Finally, the Countryside Commission says: We have, since the proposal for a road scheme improvement on the A3 at Hindhead was submitted for consultation, consistently support the option for a tunnel development as the only acceptable proposal. We believe that this is the only scheme that has fully considered the impact of development upon the landscape, local character and wildlife of the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty". However, the CPRE letter sums up what is happening, stating: The whole area of minor rural roads around the junction is plagued at peak times by traffic seeking out rat runs. Dramatic topography, tranquillity, panoramic views and the diverse habitats all combine to give this area a nationally significant scenic quality an international wildlife value and make it a regionally important resource for recreation. As the National Trust rightly says, the only detracting feature is the intrusion resulting from traffic on the A3, as it skirts the rim of the Punch Bowl, which is both visible and audible over a wide area. The tunnel solution would see the National Trust lands reunited, with the present road fully restored to heath land. Obviously, there are local reservations about the adverse impact of the scheme on areas such as Boundless copse and Tyndall's wood, but the significant benefits that would arise from the provision of a tunnel, combined with the closure of the existing road, would be of national and international importance.

I have spoken about the effect of rat runs on the environment. They also damage local accessibility—another of the criteria against which the hon. Lady's Department is judging the trunk road proposal.

It should have become clear by now that one of the most severe problems facing my constituents is the increasing volume of traffic seeking to avoid the A3 and using roads that are unsuitable. In the Government document, the Minister says: Accessibility is about making it easier to reach the places we need to get to. Growing congestion on the A3 at Hindhead clearly prevents that, and diminishes the concept of equity, the final criterion in the document, which says that we should be fair to every group of people, with all their differing needs.

The current situation is not fair to commercial traffic, long-distance commuters, holiday makers or local residents; or, indeed, to those of us coming into work in the House. The National Trust said: A tunnel would pose no constraints on accessibility. It is the obvious solution, and the only way in which to tackle the existing bottleneck.

I appreciate the Minister's presence at this late hour. I hope that I have made clear to her the strength of feeling about the proposal. It is vital that it achieves priority and that, in the response to the trunk road review, the people of Hindhead and the region are told what the timetable is and what steps they can take next. They are affronted and outraged, and becoming increasingly angry.

A young man of 15 from Rodborough school in Witley, Sebastian Coulthard, wrote to me. I hope that he will be able to look forward to the road being completed before much longer. He said: My family and I suffer every day the consequences of the excesses of traffic in Haslemere and every time we pass by the Hindhead crossroads I feel very sad to see how blighted the area has become … I also feel sad at the extraordinary amount of accidents that have happened in the stretch and how it has become a cause of concern and irritation for those who live near it. I hope this letter helps you convince the Government of the misery that people have been experiencing in this area and decide to start building the tunnel NOW. I agree with Sebastian.

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

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley) for the opportunity that she has afforded the House to discuss this topic, which is clearly of importance to hon. Members of all parties, and not exclusively to her constituency. She has highlighted that importance by pointing out the presence of the hon. Members for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) and for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn). I also thank her for her generosity in affording an opportunity to my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Rapson) to intervene in the debate.

Mrs. Bottomley

I am also delighted to see the hon. Member for Putney (Mr. Colman) here. He too feels extremely strongly about this, not only because many residents of Putney spend their holidays in the Isle of Wight and so, I hope, plague him on the matter.

Ms Jackson

I hardly think that anyone would regard the representations of constituents as a plague, but I am none the less grateful to the right hon. Lady for pointing out my hon. Friend's presence.

I congratulate the right hon. Lady on setting out her arguments so clearly and strongly, within the context of the importance of safety, the environment, economic sustainability and community issues.

The A3 is a road of regional significance, linking the port and city of Portsmouth to London and, via the M25, to the rest of the country. It is paralleled in the transport corridor by the London-Portsmouth railway, which also provides a significant link between the communities of Portsmouth, east Hampshire, west Surrey and London.

As well as providing access to Portsmouth, the A3 acts as a commuter route, carrying a large traffic flow of about 80,000 vehicles a day to the north of Guildford. I understand that some of the commuter problems were made clear to the right hon. Lady by some of the Doorkeepers who work in the Palace.

The flows decrease to the south of Guildford, with traffic flows around Hindhead in the order of 27,000 vehicles a day. As it is a route to the ports, there is not much seasonal variation in its use. The proportion of heavy goods vehicles on the A3 is near the national average of 10 per cent. Congestion occurs around Guildford, and it is severe at peak periods on the single carriageway through Hindhead.

The built and natural environment of Hindhead provides challenging constraints in finding a solution to its problems. I have in mind the Devil's Punch Bowl, to which the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey referred and which is a dramatic landscape feature to the north of Hindhead and part of the Hindhead Commons heathland site of special scientific interest. The alignment and the number of direct accesses on to the trunk road at Hindhead contribute to the poor safety record on that stretch of road.

I understand the desire of the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey for early decisions on the A3 Hindhead improvement scheme, which has already been through a number of reviews. As she knows, the Government have embarked on a fundamental review of transport policy. Our objectives, as a Government, are a strong economy, a sustainable environment and an inclusive society. As the right hon. Lady pointed out, transport is a vital part of all those aims.

Good communications are central to the economy and our 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 nearly 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 find it even more difficult to get around.

My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister recently returned from the successful Kyoto summit—the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey also mentioned it—with a legally binding target for the European Union to reduce greenhouse gases by 8 per cent. The United Kingdom's contribution towards this target, to be determined in spring and summer of 1998, is likely to be above the average. To meet the target, measures will need to be taken in all sectors of the economy.

The Government have signalled their intention to tackle the growth of emissions from the transport sector through policies such as the integrated transport strategy. A number of measures to reduce CO2 emissions from transport, in addition to the fuel duty strategy, are, therefore, being considered as part of the integrated transport policy review.

We must develop an integrated transport system that makes the best use of the contribution each mode can make; ensures that all options are considered on a basis that is fair and is seen to be fair; and takes into account, from the outset, considerations of accessibility, integration, safety, the environment and the economy. Above all, an integrated transport system must be sustainable. One of the encouraging aspects of such an ambitious task is the degree of consensus that we do need to change.

We cannot achieve that change in isolation and we want 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. That is the context for the roads review, which is examining the role that trunk roads should play in an integrated and sustainable transport policy.

Against 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. To make 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. We need, however, to be realistic about what the various options can deliver.

We must also consider seriously other harder options: 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 can be encouraged and, inevitably, controlling demand by pricing or rationing mechanisms. Many local authorities are seeking through integrated transport packages to combine demand management and other measures so that mobility is maintained while its adverse consequences are reduced. In the local transport settlement recently announced by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport, I was pleased that the Government were able to continue to support Surrey county council's transport package for Guildford, which will help to alleviate congestion and provide increased support for its safe routes to school transport package.

The Highways Agency's programme of small safety schemes is continuing, but major new construction is under review. Providing new infrastructure is a very 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 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 rigorous case-by-case examination of the options. Volume 2 of our roads review consultation document, "What Role for Trunk Roads", 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 prima face 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: a firm, short-term investment programme; and a programme of studies to consider the remaining problems, out of which the medium and long-term investment programme will emerge.

The Government office for the south-east held three day-long seminars last autumn as part of our consultation process on integrated transport. At an integrated transport policy seminar in Woking last September, which was attended by my noble Friend the Minister for Roads, delegates agreed that more work was needed to encourage the transfer of freight movements from road to rail, particularly on the strategic transport corridors serving the ports.

Seminars in Ashford and Reading last October looked at transport corridors in the Government office for the south-east region, including the A3 transport corridor between the M25 and the Hampshire ports. Many of the right hon. Lady's points about the importance of the A3 Hindhead improvement scheme for safety, the environment and support of the economy were also made at the seminar. Strong representations were made and there was a clear consensus on the importance, regionally, of high-quality, reliable routes, both road and rail, to the south-east ports, including Portsmouth.

The Hindhead problem was highlighted as requiring particularly urgent attention. Many delegates were in favour of the 1996 road programme scheme going ahead as quickly as possible to bring the route up to a consistent standard and to alleviate the environmental and traffic problems. That view was also strongly reflected in the written contributions that we received about the A3 at Hindhead. Others favoured a study that would first establish what role there was for rail to assist in managing demand, both at Hindhead and more generally on the A3, and whether there were alternative, smaller scale improvements that could address the problems. We will take all those views into account in deciding how best to proceed.

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—

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

Adjourned at twelve minutes to Eleven o'clock.