HC Deb 26 January 1999 vol 324 cc248-56

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

10.26 pm
Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon)

The very fact that I have secured the debate shows that persistence pays off. I have applied religiously for Adjournment debates week in, week out, and I will not allow tonights sparse attendance to prevent me from making my points as strongly as I can on behalf of constituents who will be affected by the problems created by, and caused around, the A34 where it passes through my constituency. In fact, the strength of feeling in my constituency is in inverse proportion to attendance here tonight—but I am delighted to see that the transport Minister is present, and I look forward to hearing her response.

I want to take the Minister for a journey along the A34, visiting some of our local black spots. That is a sad thing to have to say about an otherwise beautiful constituency. On our journey, I shall endeavour to paint a holistic picture of the problems surrounding the road, and ask the Ministers Department and the Highways Agency to adopt an equally holistic, and co-ordinated, approach to some of the problems—for problems there most certainly are.

During my relatively short time as a Member of Parliament, I have met a previous Transport Minister in the present Government to discuss the matter. I have also met Highways Agency officials on the site, and have received, and read carefully, many petitions and papers on the subject. I am sure that the Ministers pile of correspondence and documents on the subject is as daunting as mine.

If the Minister and I were indeed to drive down the A34, the first section down which we would drive would be the stretch between the M40 at Wendlebury and the Peartree intersection, which is the turning to north Oxford. Such is the noise of the road that if we were trying to talk, we would have to turn up the radio, or at least speak up. Obviously, the problem is not great for people in cars, but it is huge for people living nearby whose lives are blighted by the noise on that section of the road. They cannot use their gardens, because there is constant noise from a busy road down which cars and lorries travel, including heavy goods vehicles. The road has become increasingly busy since the opening of the M40 and the Newbury bypass, and since—apparently—the amount of goods transported by road has increased.

It is obvious, and cannot be disputed, that the noise is not solely due to the volume of traffic—which, although the extent of some developments was not clear when the road was built, might have been anticipated. Much of the noise is plainly caused by the surface on the section concerned. Not for nothing is the road known as the noisiest in Britain. It is a concrete road whose surface grooves were constructed too deeply: I do not think that there is any doubt about the fact that they were constructed more deeply than they should have been. The only issue now is whether the Government are liable to make reparation.

A major problem has been caused to people living in parts of my constituency—Gosford, Water Eaton parish, parts of Kidlington and parts of north Oxford. Other areas are also affected, such as Islip in the constituency of Banbury, and villages on the western side of the A34.

In 1983, the then Department of Transport calculated the expected noise from this section of the road—an increase of about 3 to 8 decibels by 2004. In 1990—a year after the road was opened—the Department recognised that, by 2004, the noise increase would be greater than that expectation, and in 1992 it confirmed that the depth of the grooves were greater than expected. The county council produced data from the Transport Research Laboratory, a respected independent body, showing that noise levels were significantly higher. The area was recognised, at the time of the building of the road, to be noise sensitive, because of the earth mounds that were created then.

There was little joy from the previous Government about dealing with the problem. Indeed, the letters that we received from Ministers in response to requests for amelioration of the surface ranged from the disappointing to what was considered to be rude. Expectations were raised by the election of the Labour Government. In spring 1997, Kidlington, Oxford and Abingdon Labour News showed the Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Equal Opportunities, the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith)—who was then shadow Secretary of State for Transport and who I have notified of tonights debate—pictured with local Labour candidates and councillors, saying that they were getting together

to try to solve the noise problems of the A34 near Kidlington. The right hon. Gentleman took up the issue with the Secretary of State following representations from the area, drawing attention to the severity of the problem and seeking clear guidance on the criteria which need to be satisfied to get the case for action considered further. He added that Labour was very concerned at the damage that road noise made to peoples quality of life and an incoming Labour Government would review programming to see if more priority could be given to noise reduction. A local Labour county councillor, who has long campaigned on this issue—I pay tribute to him for that—welcomed the beginning of a solution to this unbearable noise pollution that people have suffered since 1991. And so say all of us, but it is time for those expectations to be realised by a Government who, we note, have acknowledged that noise pollution can blight peoples lives.

I refer to the interesting—and, in many respects, worthy—paper entitled A New Deal for Trunk Roads in England. Chapter 6.4 talks about: A budget for noise mitigation on existing roads. The document, which was published in July 1998, states:

There are a number of cases where local residents are particularly concerned about noise from existing roads and where re-surfacing cannot be justified on normal maintenance grounds. I digress to say that one of the benefits of the concrete section is that it is long lived; therefore the misery of my constituents, and of residents of neighbouring areas, will also be long lived, unless there is some amelioration of the road surface on grounds other than normal maintenance. The road is not scheduled for resurfacing maintenance for many years to come.

The document continues: In these cases, alternative measures such as noise barriers might be appropriate. We wait to hear whether that would be considered here as a temporary measure. The document goes on: Up to now the policy has been only to consider cases on roads built before 1969 and to apply extremely rigorous criteria with the result that very few cases have qualified for relief. These criteria were tightened by the previous Government. We propose— that is the Labour Government—

to establish revised criteria and a ring-fenced annual budget. These should enable the Highways Agency over a reasonable period of time to deal with some of the most serious and pressing cases. We shall make a separate announcement about this in due course. As far as that goes, I welcome those sentiments. There is recognition, as there is in other documents, that noise pollution is as serious an environmental problem for the people affected by it as pollution by exhaust fumes or other, more recognised—in a sense, popular—forms of pollution. We still await that further announcement, and I say directly to the Minister that we are looking at this road as a test of whether the Government are able to provide sufficient money and sufficiently appropriate criteria to allow the case of this road to be considered among the bids that I imagine will be made. The Minister will know that the case of the road has gone to the parliamentary ombudsman. I understand that she will not be able to comment on the detail of the case, but the fact that the ombudsman has had the case for two years and that it has not been dismissed in that time suggests that there must at least be a reasonable case as to whether there is already a necessity for government of whatever sort—the Highways Agency or Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions—to make good the damage that was done.

I continue the journey down the A34. We enter the section between Peartree and Botley, which passes relatively close to the beautiful hamlet of Wytham in my constituency. That does not have the concrete surface, but is still a cause of noise pollution, albeit on a lower scale than the more northern area.

I am pleased to say that the section now has a quiet thin-layer surface. We are grateful that that has been done, but it has been at a certain cost to Oxford. I want to take the opportunity of the debate to ask the Minister whether she can take action to deal with the disruption to the lives of people in Oxford caused by avoidable actions of the Highways Agency in managing the resurfacing of parts of the road.

Consultation at the end of last year about the work on that section of the road was poor. A meeting was held in Wytham village hall in August. I was not even told about that meeting as the sitting Member of Parliament.

As soon as I heard about the proposals—it was just before the work had started—I wrote a letter pleading for a quiet, thin-layer surface to be used. I am delighted that I received a letter back saying that a thin surface would be used, albeit the letter came on the last day that roadworks were taking place, so it was informing me of historical fact.

A decision was made by the Highways Agency not to use a contraflow and completely to close the northbound section. It was also decided not to do night working, but to have day and night working. Chaos resulted, with the complete diversion of northbound traffic through neighbouring areas, particularly along Botley road, which needs no further excuses for transport chaos. It is difficult to calculate the damage that was caused to peoples life styles, to the ambience in that part of Oxford, and to the businesses along Botley road.

I have received representations from businesses along Botley road about how their passing trade suffered by the logjam that was created. I know that the right hon. Member for Oxford, East was concerned about the extra traffic along the eastern bypass, which jammed that up completely.

Can the Minister reassure us that, in future, if roadworks are done on that busy road, separate steps might be taken to allow traffic still to flow north-south, to avoid diverting traffic through Oxford, or, as the Automobile Association has suggested, to signal much earlier that alternative major routes could be used and that people should not go anywhere near Oxford? It is alleged that the signing of potential diversions was not clear enough and that people missed the eastern bypass as a possible route and then tried to head through Oxford town centre.

We then come on our journey to the Botley section of the A34. I declare an interest in that I live in that area. I was keen in making my complaints not to prioritise that part of the A34 simply because I live there; it might have been seen as the reason for raising the matter. That is why looking at the whole road holistically is the appropriate way to go forward.

In that section of the road, the houses are closer to the A34 than any other section of the highway. Therefore, there are problems with the thundering vibrations of heavy goods vehicles using that road, with noise and fumes and with vehicles travelling at speed, which raises safety concerns. There have been instances of vehicles ending up in peoples gardens along Westminster way because of gaps in safety barriers—such gaps may or may not be inevitable—and because of bends on that road.

Just before the last general election, a temporary 50 mph speed limit was put in both as a safety measure—in fact, it was headlined as a safety measure because that is the only basis on which the police will support speed restrictions that they do not have the resources to enforce—and to reduce the noise problems. The problem with the temporary speed limit, which was welcome although politically timed, was that it was inadequately enforced. The police said that they would have had difficulties enforcing it even if they were minded to do so because of what appeared to be the dubious legality of the consultation process. We are still awaiting enforcement.

The temporary speed limit was made permanent last September. Despite the lack of enforcement, there has been a reduction in speed, and therefore noise pollution, along that section of the road. Enforcement would produce further improvement. We are delighted that the Government are considering allowing the revenue raised from speeding fines to be used by the agencies involved in setting up speed cameras and administrating the fines system.

Oxfordshire county council in partnership with Thames Valley police plans to install more speed cameras. However, that would require a manpower reduction in Thames Valley police—which is not what my constituents want—to provide the funds to build and run the cameras and process the fines, since the police receive none of the revenue. I am delighted that on 9 December, after representations from many Members and from the Liberal Democrats in particular, the Government agreed that hypothecation was feasible and that either some of the money could be reuperated by those authorities or, as the police would prefer, an administrative charge could be added to the fine to make sure that enforcement was not carried out at a loss.

I am delighted that the northbound stretch of the part of the A34 that was due for maintenance was resurfaced with a noise-reducing thin layer. That, combined with the limited but significant effects of the speed limit, has made a considerable difference to people living on the western side has not yer had a thin-layer surface applied. It was unforunate that both sides could not have been resurfaced at the same time. The benefit of the noise reduction on the northbound side is partially lost by the fact that heavy goods vehicles thunder along a noisy road surface southbound. There are patches of thin layer, but that only serves to make the distinction even more profound.

According to the police and the Highways Agency, there are plans for more signing into the 50-mph zone. We are still waiting for that to happen. I am curious to know why signing changes could not have been made in the northern part of that section at the same time as the Peartree to Botley resurfacing.

There are further problems in that section of the road in respect of some of the junctions. In particular, the northbound slip road on to the A34 from the A420 junction is rather a blind corner. I believe that it is an accident waiting to happen. I have inspected it with local councillors and campaigners—the Hinkseys A34 action group—who have worked very hard on all the issues that I have mentioned. The Highways Agency agrees that it is a dangerous junction and that if the opportunity arose something could be done to improve it.

There are difficulties in egress from Stanley close and slightly less but still significant difficulties in egress from North Hinksey village, North Hinksey lane and Southern bypass. There are also difficulties in egress on to the northbound section of the road from Westminster way and Harcourt hill. There are many students in the area and there has been a fatality. Investment must be made to prevent accidents.

I wish to end by asking the Minister to agree that a strategy needs to be adopted so that we do not suffer either continued disruption or untackled problems.

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

I congratulate the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) on his persistence in securing this debate and in presenting the concerns of his constituents ever since he was returned to this House. He kindly took me on what was virtually a three-part journey down the A34, and he displayed in some detail the roads significant impact on his constituents who live so close to it, and on the neighbouring community of North Hinksey.

The hon. Gentleman rightly highlighted the fact that the considerations being undertaken by the ombudsman on the difficulties experienced on the first part of our journey down the A34 are not ones upon which I may comment. I would like to thank him for highlighting the work undertaken by the now Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Equal Opportunities, my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith), before the general election on noise pollution. That campaign has produced a policy on the part of the Labour Government. I will touch on that issue in more detail later.

I would like to take the House not down the A34, but back in time. The A34 originally formed the Winchester to Preston trunk road and, with the A33 to the south of Winchester, formed a strategic link between the port of Southampton, the midlands and the north-west. It was not, however, purpose built, being predominately a single carriageway, passing through the centres of many towns and cities along its route, including Oxford.

The current route of the A34 through Botley was built in the early 1960s as part of an extensive programme of improvements, primarily to take long-distance through traffic out of Oxford city centre. However, it also forms part of the city's ring road, aiding local traffic movement around Oxford. It follows the western edge of the valley cut by the River Thames and its tributaries, and there is no obvious alternative route.

At the time it was built, there were few, if any, concerns regarding the long-term consequences of traffic growth. We now know that the old predict-and-provide method of road planning was flawed, as it took little or no account of the fact that improving the road network itself generates traffic growth. By then, the M40 had been built, as had the Peartree hill to Wendlebury section of the A34; with one notable exception, this completed the upgrade of the A34 into a high-speed dual carriageway route—a fact borne out by the subsequent unexpectedly high levels of traffic growth along the A34, resulting in a large number of lorries driving through Botley and North Hinksey. I know that some of the hon. Gentleman's constituents fear that the recent opening of the Newbury bypass to the south will have a similar impact.

In effect, what we have heard from the hon. Gentleman is a microcosm of a problem that can be replicated across the whole of the UK as a direct result of the failure of previous Administrations to tackle the issue of how we create a properly integrated transport system and how we make the best use of our existing infrastructure. There was a failure to move away from expecting our roads to be the main movers of people and goods. That is why the Government have introduced an integrated transport strategy.

In this instance, the hon. Gentleman is concerned with what can be done to improve conditions for his constituents. Much of the problem has resulted from the way in which our transport system was allowed to grow in such an ad hoc and unregulated way. This is something that we are determined to address.

I would like to take this opportunity to remind the House of one or two aspects which are relevant to the situation which was so graphically detailed by the hon. Gentleman. The situation on the relevant part of the A34 has resulted from the high levels of traffic growth experienced in recent years, as the A34 provides a vital link between the Hampshire ports and our industrial heartland, giving access to the single European market and our other trading partners.

It is the Governments aim to move more of our goods by rail. Central to that aim will be the establishment of a strategic rail authority, which will have the remit of bringing coherence to the railway system, ensuring that it meets the needs of the passengers and freight customers whom it serves, and encouraging the shift towards the use of rail freight, but much freight will still need to travel by road. We aim to publish proposals to improve the efficiency of our lorry fleet and, on a local level, to encourage co-operation between the freight operators and local authorities on lorry routing and delivery hours.

Our transport White Paper and the associated paper, A New Deal for Trunk Roads in England, also contain proposals to deal with the more immediate problems associated with living close to a busy road.

On the second part of our journey down the A34, the hon. Gentleman highlighted the difficulties caused by recent road works on the A34 north of Botley. It is my understanding that, under health and safety legislation, the Highways Agency is required to provide a safe working environment and to ensure the safety of the travelling public. With older dual carriageways such as the A34, it is not possible to achieve that without closing one carriageway fully.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the agency does not close one carriageway of a busy road without an in-depth consideration of the consequences and consultation with the police. The hon. Gentleman said that the work could have been done more quickly, and the debate in the Oxford newspapers centred, I understand, around the time taken to reconstruct the Seacourt stream bridge, but it overlooked the fact that the contract length was determined by the need to rebuild large sections of the carriageway. I will certainly raise with the Highways Agency the issue of the failure to consult adequately or in sufficient time.

I understand that, at the hon. Gentleman's request, Michael Ford, the Highways Agency's area manager for the A34, visited last May the area that constituted the third part of our journey, and discussed these issues with the parish council and other interested parties. Following that meeting, the Highways Agency commissioned its managing agents, P. B. Kennedy and Donkin Ltd., to carry out two studies to investigate what improvements could be made.

The first study will consider safety-related issues, such as the improvements to the north-facing slip roads at the Botley interchange and safer access to the various minor roads that join the A34 in the area. The second will concentrate on environmental aspects, such as the replacement of the chain-link fence between Westminster way and the A34. Depending on those studies, which are expected to be completed later this year, the agency will consider a package of improvement measures.

Noise is perhaps the most frequent cause of complaint from people living alongside trunk roads. We have announced that we will tackle the problem on several fronts. Much work has been done in recent years on developing road surfaces, and the newest quieter surfaces can reduce noise by the same amount as halving the traffic flow. We have instructed the Highways Agency to specify that noise-reducing surfacing will be considered when carrying out resurfacing works in noise-sensitive areas.

Indeed, as the hon. Gentleman said, that work has already been done on the northbound carriageway of the A34 through Botley, and I know that his constituents appreciate the resultant reduction in traffic noise. The southbound carriageway does not at present need resurfacing, but I can assure him that, when it does, the most appropriate noise-reducing surface will be used.

The hon. Gentleman has asked the Department about porous asphalt, although he did not mention it tonight. It is true that using that material would bring a further reduction in traffic noise. However, that material cannot be used when merely resurfacing the road. The nature of the material requires special drainage. It needs to be laid in a relatively thick layer compared with the more recently developed quieter surfaces and that often means that additional works are required. For example, the central reserve safety fencing may need to be raised and there can be problems in maintaining headroom. Those factors dramatically increase costs and the length of time needed for the work. Using porous asphalt is really only an option with a new road, or where a road is being completely rebuilt.

I touched on the campaigning efforts of my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East, to which the hon. Gentleman paid tribute before the general election. He also drew attention to the fact that the Government have announced that we intend to establish a ring-fenced budget to provide noise mitigation along some of the worst-affected sections of the trunk road network. To implement that policy, it is important that we use selection criteria that are as fair as possible—

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

Adjourned at four minutes to Eleven o'clock.