HC Deb 23 July 1998 vol 316 cc1343-50

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

9.24 pm
Helen Jones (Warrington, North)

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise two matters that are of great concern to my constituents: traffic congestion and the need to create more jobs. Those matters crop up week after week in my surgeries and in letters and telephone calls from the people whom I represent. The missing junction 8 on the M62 could be part of the solution to both problems.

Warrington's traffic is a nightmare because the town grew very rapidly without the necessary roads infrastructure. Problems are particularly acute, first, for those who live in the Westbrook and Callands areas of my constituency, where residents often cannot even get out of or into their homes because of congestion along Cromwell avenue and around the Gemini area, where Warrington's big retail developments are. Secondly, those who live at Winwick and along the A49 in Warrington also suffer congestion because of the knock-on effect on junction 9 of the M62.

The new junction 8 is intended to relieve both problems, but it should also open access to the Omega site, which is one of the most important sites for economic development in the north-west. Not only is that vital for my constituents; it has strategic importance for the entire region.

My constituents have been very badly served by the way in which the project has been handled. When the M62 was built in 1972, it had two junctions: junction 7 at Rainhill near St. Helens and junction 9 at Winwick near Warrington. Provision was made for a junction 8 to be added later as the Warrington new town expanded.

We are still waiting 26 years later. The project entered the Government's trunk roads programme in 1994, and my constituents are becoming very impatient waiting for progress. I should make it clear that the reason for the delay has nothing to do with money, as the project is a section 278 scheme, which will be funded by the Commission for the New Towns—no Government money is involved.

We might reasonably have expected that the project's path would be fairly smooth, subject to the usual statutory inquiry procedures. However, that has not been the case. Over the past year in particular, some of us have felt that we were living in a "Through the Looking-Glass" world—the twists and turns of the plot were becoming very complicated.

I must give some of the details of that plot to explain why my constituents feel angry and frustrated waiting for the new junction. When the Government announced their roads review on 19 June last year, the sponsors of the scheme were told that it would be put on hold pending the outcome of that review. That caused consternation in Warrington—we could not understand why a section 278 scheme would be affected by the review. Telephone calls went back and forth between my office and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, and I must tell my hon. Friend the Minister that it was very difficult to get an answer from the Department about whether the scheme was included in the review.

Eventually, the Department confirmed that the scheme was not included. On 7 July last year, I received a letter from my noble Friend Baroness Hayman, in which, she said: I have decided that, in line with other section 278 funded schemes, it should be allowed to proceed through the approval process in the normal way. At last we thought we were getting somewhere, and matters proceeded. There were discussions between the various interested parties, and the Highways Agency told my local authority that it expected the scheme to proceed to public inquiry in June or July this year. However, there were yet more delays.

In January this year, I wrote to the Highways Agency and to the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, only to be told that the timetable had slipped again. In a letter to me on 6 February, Baroness Hayman said clearly and unequivocally that the scheme will go to Public Inquiry this autumn". Sighs of relief all round. We were disappointed that the timetable had slipped, but at least we thought that we had a firm date.

Perhaps we should have known better. When we did not get a date for public inquiry, I put down a further question. On 12 May, I was told: The scheme is being considered as part of the … Roads Review."—[Official Report, 12 May 1998; Vol. 312, c. 62.] Letters went back and forth, and the Department corrected the answer on 14 July. The letter I received at that point, while confirming that the scheme was not in the roads review, did tell me that the public inquiry could not start now until early next year.

The reasons given for that were that the Government's new transport policy would include a new approach to the appraisal of such projects, and that the Highways Agency would need to show that the appraisal of the scheme had taken account of the new policy. I accept that that is the case—this scheme must be decided according to the new policy.

I do not accept that that is an argument for delay, because much of the work on the scheme has been done by the Highways Agency, and much of the information is there. In any case, if the scheme had proceeded according to plan, that inquiry would be up and running and would not have been affected at all. Instead, my constituents have been subjected to further delays, yet more traffic congestion and—most importantly—a denial of job opportunities.

As far as we in Warrington are concerned, this is an economic development issue and not just a roads issue. The Omega site, which the junction would open up, is a key strategic employment site for the whole region. It has 500 acres which, it is estimated, could supply 10,000 jobs—jobs which are badly needed, not simply in my constituency but in the area round about. Moreover, the aim of the site is to supply manufacturing jobs, which are needed badly in Warrington. The manufacturing sector has lost more than 8,000 jobs since 1981—that is 18 per cent. of the total. That is higher than the figure for Cheshire as a whole, and more than the figure for the north-west. It is more than the average for the whole country.

Without junction 8, Omega cannot be developed. The consequences of a failure to secure that development cannot be underestimated. Not only is the site one of the nine identified as major inward investment sites for the north-west, it is generally considered by the market to be the best opportunity in the north-west of England for major economic development.

To understand why, it is necessary to know about the location of the site. It lies at the axis of the north-south and east-west transport spines, and has been identified in regional planning guidance as the primary development corridor for the region. It is also halfway between Manchester and Merseyside, and is well placed to take advantage of international transport links, whether by sea or by air. It is only two miles from the west coast main line, so it can be served by rail freight traffic as well. In fact, if one had to design a development site from scratch, it would be difficult to come up with a better one, or one that would fit more neatly with the Government's integrated transport strategy. Also, it is close to areas with objective 1 and 2 status, so the development of Omega would help to provide jobs and spin-off benefits for some of the most depressed parts of the region.

If my hon. Friend the Minister looks at the early-day motion, she will see that it is signed, not only by hon. Members representing the immediate vicinity, but by those representing Liverpool and Manchester as well because they recognise the benefits of the development. That is why about £9 million has already been invested in the site, in acquisition, site clearance, services and marketing. I cannot see the logic of promoting the development of the region and trying to reverse the decline in manufacturing industry, while at the same time delaying the development of a road that is vital to both.

I represent a constituency that, despite many of its economic successes, still contains some of the most deprived areas in north Cheshire—areas that have suffered second, and even third, generation unemployment. My constituents look to the Government to develop the employment opportunities that they so desperately need in such sites. We are still waiting, and while we wait the traffic chaos increases.

I mentioned the problems of people living in the Callands and Westbrook areas of my constituency. I can testify to those at first hand. I have turned back in that area at peak periods because the traffic simply does not move along Cromwell avenue. That situation has arisen because the Commission for the New Towns and the previous Secretary of State granted planning permission for major retail development without the necessary road infrastructure and without building that road junction. For instance, a huge Marks and Spencer store is in the area, and an Ikea store that attracts 2.2 million visitors a year.

Regional car traffic comes on to the roads in Warrington, which are simply not equipped to deal with it. Often, the result is almost gridlock-level traffic around Cromwell avenue, up the A49 and back to junction 9 on the M62. Indeed, at peak times one sees traffic queuing to get off at junction 9 to go into Warrington—stationary traffic on the motorway. That situation is beginning to concern the Cheshire police because of the potential for accidents. Furthermore, traffic in Winwick and down the A49 to Warrington is a constant problem, because all the traffic has to come off at one junction.

The Highways Agency has confirmed that pollution is increasing because of that traffic. On the A49 south of the motorway, standards for carbon monoxide, benzene and oxides of nitrogen are already exceeded, and there is no chance of that improving while the current situation continues because traffic levels north and south of the motorway are expected to increase significantly if the new junction is not built. This is not a case of the often-quoted equation, "More roads equals more cars." In fact, the opposite is true. The lack of a planned highway infrastructure is a major contributor to the congestion that is plaguing local residents, hampering the development of local businesses and damaging the environment in the area.

It is also true to say that there have been objections to the proposed junction and the scheme around it, although they are few in number compared with the massive support that those have received in the constituency. I believe that most of the objections can be met. Indeed, a number of discussions have taken place among the various parties involved.

Noise fencing, mounding, tree and shrub planting and full cut-off flat glass lanterns can minimise the impact on the surrounding area. Detailed traffic calming measures are to be put in place in Burtonwood, to discourage traffic from going through residential areas. For both those who support the scheme and those who do not, there has to he an end to the uncertainty, and a decision has to be made.

I believe that the scheme is important and right for my constituency. It also fits the objectives of an integrated transport policy. It would allow us to create dedicated bus lanes, ease congestion and improve safety for people in residential areas, encouraging them to make more journeys on foot. I certainly would not walk in Callands and Westbrook with the current amount of traffic.

The scheme will be better for the environment, allowing us to improve air quality and reduce pollution along the A49. It would also allow priority improvements to be introduced for cyclists around junction 9, so we could perhaps encourage more people to cycle from Winwick, on one side of the junction, into the centre of Warrington. Those are the Government's objectives; they are right, and the scheme would help to meet them.

The scheme is one of those rare creatures, a green road, and people want it. It should be a flagship development, because it is a way of showing how the integrated transport policy can work. Instead, while we wait, the costs are escalating by possibly £1.5 million a year and my constituents are living with chaos.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will accept that the difficulties that we have experienced over the past year cannot go on. For the sake of the environment, of my constituents who need jobs and of a proper integrated transport policy, which we do not have in Warrington at the moment, the junction needs to go ahead. I hope that she will be able to tell me when the public inquiry will be. We need a firm date for it at last. I hope that, after 26 years, we will finally get some progress and the scheme will become a reality.

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

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) not only on securing this debate, but on her wealth of detail and the no small passion with which she has raised a matter that is obviously of very real concern to her and her constituents. That concern is shared and, indeed, expressed with a similar passion to Ministers, by my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South (Ms Southworth). The issues are not only transport and traffic congestion, but job creation and regeneration in one of the areas of our country that so desperately need it.

The House will know that the Government are committed to developing a sustainable and integrated transport policy to tackle the serious problems of congestion and pollution that we face, and the publication on Monday of our White Paper "New Deal for Transport: Better for Everyone" has significantly advanced that process.

We changed policy and direction away from the previous Administration' s fragmented provision of infrastructure and services towards an integrated approach that will serve the country's needs for a strong economy, a sustainable environment and an inclusive society. Good communications are essential to delivering those aims, so we must reduce our excessive dependency on the car and lorry if we are not to be choked by increasing pollution and gridlocked by increasing congestion. Those problems plague my hon. Friend's constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South even now.

The scheme formally entered the roads programme in November 1995, although preliminary work had started earlier. It is being undertaken by the Highways Agency on behalf and at the expense, of the Commission for the New Towns, via an agreement under section 278 of the Highways Act 1980 between the agency and the commission, signed in March 1997.

The scheme provides for a new grade-separated junction on the M62 north of Warrington, between junction 7, which serves the A568 to Widnes, and junction 9, which serves A49 access into Warrington. The M62 would also be widened between the proposed junction 8 and existing junction 9, and there would be new access arrangements for the Burtonwood motorway service area. The scheme is designed to serve major retail and business sites, and to open up new areas for development in Warrington. It will relieve local roads, and junction 9, of traffic congestion related to existing major retail sites.

In February 1997, draft orders were published as required by the Highways Act 1980, and my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport announced to the House on 19 June 1997 that work on such developer-funded schemes would continue because the schemes either had been or would be scrutinised through the appropriate planning processes. The inquiry did not take place immediately, however, because the Commission for the New Towns asked the Highways Agency to consider reducing the scope, and hence the cost, of the works by deleting or deferring some or all of the motorway-widening element of the proposals.

Following detailed investigations, the Highways Agency concluded that, for safety reasons, widening should remain an essential component of the scheme from the outset, a conclusion that the commission accepted. A public inquiry was programmed to convene in the autumn, but we had developed our approach to road schemes within the context both of our roads review and of our work on an integrated transport policy. Ministers agreed that the scheme lies outside the scope of the roads review because it is 100 per cent. developer-funded, but it is not exempt from our new appraisal approach. It remains a major road scheme, and we must be able to show that we have taken into account all aspects of its impact.

That impact will be assessed in line with the new approach to appraisal announced in the White Paper on integrated transport. The new approach operates within the framework of our five objectives for road schemes. My hon. Friend has referred to our objectives of integration, safety, accessibility, economy and environment because of their importance to the development and regeneration of her constituency and to the easing of the traffic situation. Although much of the approach uses established techniques and will build on work already done, a considerable amount of data gathered—for example, data on air quality, noise and landscape impacts—needs to be analysed again and re-presented.

The prospect of further delay to the programme has disappointed the Commission for the New Towns, as well as my hon. Friend's constituents and others in Warrington. The Omega site, situated in the south-west quadrant of the new junction on land that formerly housed the RAF Burtonwood airfield, represents one of the major regeneration opportunities in the north of England. Planning authorisation for employment use having already been secured, it has the potential to generate thousands of new jobs. The commission sees provision of ready access to the M62 as fundamental to its success, and the opening up of the Omega site remains the commission's primary objective in funding the works. A secondary objective is the release of remaining development land on the adjoining Gemini site, with improved motorway access via the proposed Gemini link.

The scheme will be the first large road scheme to go to public inquiry following publication of the integrated transport White Paper and the roads review report. We have taken the view that the Highways Agency should explain the scheme in terms of our new approach to appraisal, and that will require extra work. If the agency arrived at the public inquiry without applying the new approach, people would rightly criticise it for failing to do so, and that could lead to the inquiry being adjourned. We believe that the extra costs and delays involved in an adjournment would far outweigh those that will stem from the further preparation work that we are undertaking. We have concluded that the earliest possible start date for the public inquiry would be February next year.

Our new approach is designed to draw together the large amount of information collected as part of the appraisal of a transport problem and alternative solutions. It looks at the contribution of different forms of transport in developing alternative solutions and the potential effect of the new integrated transport approach, including the scope for and the effect of demand-management measures. It is our intention that that new approach, once finalised, will be applied to the appraisal of all transport projects, not only all road schemes.

As part of the appraisal, the economic impact of road investment is taken into account, largely through the estimated benefits of reduced journey times for commercial, business and other traffic. Techniques are being developed to assess the economic value of journey-time reliability and to identify those improvements which contribute most to reliability. In the interim, the current review has sought to identify such benefits in qualitative terms.

Each case must be assessed on its merits. In some cases, road access is essential to provide access to sites that could not otherwise be developed, and the contribution to regeneration is a complex issue. We agree with the Standing Advisory Committee on Trunk Road Assessment that improvements are needed to the methods used in local and regional economic impact studies, so that the contribution of transport investment to regeneration can be better assessed.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing these important issues to the attention of the House. She has been consistent in advocating, as has our hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South, that the proposed scheme should proceed as quickly as possible. However, given the reasons I have already outlined, I ask my hon. Friend to remain patient over the coming—and, given the time that it has taken for the scheme to begin, comparatively few—remaining months.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes to Ten o'clock.