HC Deb 04 April 2001 vol 366 cc464-72

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

11.36 pm
Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye)

I am grateful for the opportunity to address the House on an issue that was central to my election four years ago in 1997. I said at that time, and I have my election address to prove it, that I would work relentlessly until the Government acknowledged the special needs of Hastings, particularly the need for a transport infrastructure to support social and economic regeneration.

For us, joined-up government means that Hastings needs to be joined up physically to the prosperity of the south-east and beyond. I say "us" because I am lifelong resident of Hastings. Indeed, I can claim a really boring statistic in support of that, as I have never left the town for more than two weeks in my whole life. I know that that will not impress most people, although I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning will be impressed by my knowledge of the needs of my constituency.

Everyone has heard of Hastings—1066 and all that. Its historic pedigree is first-class. Indeed, until the 1930s it was a thriving seaside resort, the fourth most popular in Britain. Its underground car parks and covered promenades were slate-of-the-art developments. Regular train services brought thousands of holidaymakers to our town and prosperity to our local economy. After the war, all that changed. Years of underinvestment meant that the town was impoverished by the 1960s. The local Tory council's manifesto was: Not a penny on the rates". Neither Labour nor Tory Governments came to our aid. Most people thought that it was a safe parliamentary seat for the Tories, so Tory Governments did not bother because they thought that they could not lose and, sadly, Labour Governments did not bother because they thought that they could not win.

That was the environment in which I grew up, went to work and entered local politics. It is true that, from time to time, Governments suggested improvements to the A21. About 30 years ago, the Tonbridge and Pembury bypasses were built, but south of Tonbridge the A21 became a snail trail. Without a transport infrastructure, even more businesses moved out of Hastings, so our economic future looked increasingly bleak.

To abridge the history lesson. 1997 arrived, and with it new hope and new ambitions. With the return of a Labour Government, a Labour Member of Parliament for the first time and a Labour council for the first time, hopes were high.

The campaign for regeneration, to which John Cosson of the 1066 Enterprise and Christine Goldschmidt of the Hastings Trust were committed, gained pace. Single regeneration budget fund moneys came into the town, and the Labour Government made massive investment in social regeneration through sure start, the education action zone and, more recently, neighbourhood renewal schemes. Last year, the European Commission agreed to objective 2 status. Such aid was needed because the local economy was in tatters, with unemployment rates higher than in the former coalfields of the north, and social deprivation left Hastings 28th in the deprivation index.

Policies such as the minimum wage and the working families tax credit have brought hope to a town that still has more workers earning less than £250 a week than anywhere else in Britain. The minimum income guarantee, which has helped about 3,000 of our pensioners, and the winter fuel payments have alleviated much pensioner poverty, but although things are better, we remain the 28th most deprived town in Britain. Although the unemployment rate has virtually halved and youth unemployment is down by 85 per cent., we remain the unemployment blackspot of the south-east.

What will bring about the sea change? What will bring jobs and prosperity, and improve our local environment? What will restore our fortunes to pre-war days? To my mind, and in the opinion of 80 per cent. of my constituents, according to a local poll the solution is the creation of integrated transport access to Hastings, which will improve our economic fortunes and relieve our urban environment.

I support the Government's transport policies. It must be right that we should look first to public transport before private. It must be right that we look to rail, rather than road. For that reason, I have supported the Government's initiative in seeking a multi-modal solution from among the options for access to Hastings.

Before the study was commissioned, there were putative plans for improvements to the A21 and for a bypass around Hastings. That was a road-based solution to access, which, alone, would have been a lost opportunity. The multi-modal study therefore has as its objective to improve access to Hastings and find solutions to regeneration and land use planning pressures, and to see whether options other than roads could achieve those objectives.

The A21 improvement is the most important aspect of the road links between the M25 and the industrial estates in Hastings: it is not just business opportunity that is lost by the A21 track that masquerades as a trunk road, but many lives as well. The appalling carnage on the A21 and the resultant financial costs would justify the improvements that we seek.

The environmentally contentious bypass is of equal importance. I wish that it was unnecessary. The question that the study was intended to address was whether a non-road solution would achieve the objective. In my opinion, and in the opinion of the access study that was presented to my right hon. Friend's Department at the end of February, economic regeneration of the town is not possible without building the roads and the bypass.

Public transport elements of the package are of immense importance, as the rail links are as archaic as the roads. The Charing Cross line on which I travel most days takes one hour and 45 minutes to cover the 60 miles from Hastings to London in 40-year-old trains. The link to Europe through Ashford is served by a single track, non-electrified line on which the trains are even older.

The Government were right to commission the multi-modal study, but now that the result is known the time has come for decision. Although parts of the study were somewhat woolly, it made clear recommendations: first, the electrification of the Hastings-Ashford rail line, with new stock providing a direct link to the Euro service and an alternative route to London; secondly, new in-town stations and a Bexhill-Ore metro across the town, using the existing rail structure to provide for greater local transport usage; and, thirdly, improvement to the Hastings to London Charing Cross line, including, presumably, new stock.

All that is fine and dandy, and the sooner decisions are made and implemented, the better, but the report makes it clear that public transport improvements alone will not solve the fundamental economic weakness of the area. There must also be, according to the report, improvements to the A21 and the construction of the Hastings bypass. The A21 is perhaps one of the worst roads in Britain. It is said that King Harold was so delayed in coming down the A21 to meet William the Conqueror that William claimed victory when Harold failed to show.

I know that the bypass in particular is environmentally sensitive. I do not rubbish the ideas of the environmental groups that oppose the bypass; I simply think that they are wrong. Their objectives are laudable, but their approach is too narrow. The roads are essential; without them, we cannot secure economic gains or relieve the urban environment. I shall briefly explain those two objectives. Hastings has little employment land available within the borough. Likewise, housing land, as required by my right hon. Friend's Department in Hastings and Rother, is difficult to identify. However, at Woosnam farm in north Bexhill, which would be opened up only by the building of the bypass, the opportunity exists to create some 3,800 jobs and meet Rother's house building obligation, all within a four or five-mile radius of the unemployed of Hastings.

As far as I am aware, the A259 is the only main trunk road in Britain that transverses the seafront of a major town. It blights the lives of 10,000 of my local constituents and shakes apart some six conservation areas. There is, therefore, a trade off between the rural environment and the urban environment. For my part, I consider both to be equally important. To some extent, I think that the urban environment should have priority when the lives and health of so many of my constituents are so badly blighted by the current pollution and traffic jams that they must endure. In many ways, it should be said that people are more important than plants.

Let me tell the House about the lady whom I met in hospital last Christmas. She was suffering from asthma, and from behind her oxygen mask, she said, "Please, Mr. Foster, get that traffic off the Bexhill road." It was there that she lived. She and many of her neighbours are suffering a higher incidence of asthma that cannot be explained other than by traffic pollution.

Of course, the Government are trying to limit pollution from motor vehicles and are giving incentives. That is to be commended, but in order to make changes of significance here and now, the environmentally conscious Labour council in Hastings needs space to create traffic management measures to reduce traffic flow on the A259. It cannot do so without an alternative route, and no such route exists without the bypass. In Hastings, the bus companies will not even run extra buses on the A259 Bexhill road, because congestion is such that they cannot guarantee a timetable.

I know that the opponents of road building claim that the package will not mean extra jobs, because the new homes that the scheme envisages will create additional demand for jobs. That argument is invalid, because as the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions is requiring additional housing to be built in any event, it follows that any additional need for jobs will arise whether or not the bypass is built. Without the bypass, however, there is no opportunity to provide the jobs that would be demanded.

I want to impress on my right hon. Friend the Minister that, although a vocal minority, which comes mostly from outside the area, is opposed to the bypass scheme, this is not another Newbury. It is not a precedent or the start of a south-coast motorway. All that we ask for is a modest single-track relief road around the north of Hastings and Bexhill. In Newbury, the town was divided. In Hastings, it is united. There is all-party support. East Sussex county council and Hastings borough council are 100 per cent. behind the total package. The South East England regional assembly—the very body that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State set up to advise on these matters—voted by 100 votes to eight to recommend that the integrated package be approved. If local democracy means anything, that must be taken into account. In Hastings, regeneration is vital. My constituents do not want handouts for ever more. They want a hand up, which is what the package will provide. It means prioritising rail and public transport, but as my right hon. Friend the Minister has accepted elsewhere, it also means that roads may form part of a solution.

So, what I ask my right hon. Friend tonight is this: first, will either he or one of his ministerial colleagues visit my constituency to see the problem for themselves? I know that such a visit will graphically express the need for a positive decision, more than any oral submission could ever do. I have never understood the logic—or, for that matter, the legal authority—of the advice that Ministers have received to avoid such a visit. It may have been given because a visit would take too long, and I can understand that. I ask, therefore, that he and his colleagues think again.

Secondly, my constituents need an early answer. I acknowledge that my right hon. Friend's ministerial colleagues in the Department have had the report only since the end of February, but it was accompanied by overwhelming advice from SEERA and other authorities, so surely the decision cannot be that difficult. I would welcome an indication from him on when a decision will be made.

Thirdly, if the decision on the bypass is so sensitive that, despite the clear unequivocal advice of all those who have been asked to comment, it is still to be further reviewed, cannot the balance of the package, including the A21 improvements, be approved, as has occurred elsewhere? I understand my right hon. Friend's dilemma, although I do not appreciate it, but I am a pragmatist, so I would welcome an immediate decision on the parts of the package that are not hotly in dispute.

Fourthly, I would welcome assurance from my right hon. Friend that the position remains that which was set out in a letter that I received from Lord Whitty on 28 March. The letter said that the decisions made on that day in respect of other schemes had no impact on the outcome of the Hastings study, as some believed. In particular, I was informed that no decision whatsoever has yet been made".

Finally, although an ultimate "yes" to the integrated package is expected, it would be helpful to those who want to invest in our town, but who are awaiting a decision, to know the timetable within which a decision will be made.

11.49 pm
The Minister for Housing and Planning (Mr. Nick Raynsford)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Foster) for raising this extremely important topic and for his lucid, cogent presentation of his case. It was interesting to learn of his lifelong commitment to his town and to hear at first hand the impact that congestion is having on the economic and environmental well-being of Hastings and the surrounding areas. He set out the economic and social case for transport improvements very clearly. He treated us to fascinating speculation about how the course of British history might have been altered if some of the improvements that he seeks had been in place some 935 years ago.

The Government recognise that both quality of life and a prosperous economy depend on transport. Motor vehicles have revolutionised the way we live, bringing greater flexibility and widening horizons, but the way we use our vehicles has a price for the economy, for our health and for the environment. Integrated transport is designed to extend choice and to provide a transport system that is safe, efficient, clean and fair. It will provide more choice, better public transport, less pollution and better protection for the environment.

The environment-transport interface, which is important throughout the country, is especially prominent in the south-east, where population pressure is strong, car ownership and usage levels are high and one third of the land is designated as an area of outstanding natural beauty. Good communications are central to the economy and our quality of life. These are complex issues, and there is no single panacea.

It may be helpful if I first set the multi-modal study in its wider policy context. The Government's 1998 roads review, "A New Deal for Trunk Roads in England", a daughter document to the White Paper, "A New Deal for Transport: Better for Everyone", set out for the first time our view of the role of trunk roads within a fully integrated transport policy. It reviewed the long wish-list of trunk road schemes that the Government inherited against our key criteria for transport: accessibility, safety, economy, environmental impact and integration.

As a result of the review, we introduced a well-focused, targeted programme of improvements, or TPI, to the trunk road and motorway network. The TPI originally included 37 schemes that met the criteria that I have set out, and following further announcements since 1998, it now includes 49 schemes, all of which we are committed to delivering.

However, the roads review also recognised that there were many serious and urgent problems on our trunk road network which were not addressed by that programme of improvements. Many of those problems were particularly complex and could be addressed only by looking across the piece at all transport issues. We therefore commissioned a series of major transport studies to consider those issues in depth.

The programme of studies, finalised in March 1999, included the "Access to Hastings" multi-modal study. We recognised that as one of the most urgent cases and put it into our first tranche of studies. The aim of the multi-modal studies is to investigate problems in all transport modes and to seek balanced solutions that contribute to our integrated transport policy by protecting the environment and supporting sustainable economic growth.

The primary aim of the "Access to Hastings" study was to consider how transport could contribute to regenerating the economy of the area in and around Hastings and Bexhill, while minimising the impact on areas of outstanding natural beauty and sites of special scientific interest. In particular, the study was asked to consider the role of four existing trunk road schemes in providing a solution: the A21 Tonbridge-Pembury bypass, the A259 Bexhill-Hastings western bypass, the A259 Hastings eastern bypass and the A259 Pevensey-Bexhill improvement. As my hon. Friend said, the multi-modal study also covered rail links to London, Ashford and the channel tunnel.

The scope and content for the A259 schemes within the study was set out in the Secretary of State's interim decision letter of July 1998. That set out his "minded to" decision to make the orders for the A259 Hastings western bypass, subject to the scheme's regeneration impact, as determined by the "Access to Hastings" multi-modal study.

My hon. Friend has invited me or one of my colleagues to visit Hastings to see at first hand the case for the A259 bypass. I put it to him that that is not possible, because of Ministers' quasi-judicial role in this process. As my hon. Friend expressed some uncertainty, it may be helpful if I put on record the nature of that quasi-judicial role.

Draft statutory orders are published under the Highways Act 1980 and the Acquisition of Land Act 1981. An environmental impact assessment is published alongside the draft orders. When made, those orders give the Secretary of State the statutory authority to carry out a road improvement scheme. If there are any unresolved statutory objectors to the published orders, a local inquiry is held. The inquiry, like the one held into the Hastings schemes, is conducted by an independent inspector.

After considering the inspector's report of the inquiry and his recommendation, the Secretary of State issues his decision on the orders. If the decision is that the scheme should proceed, the orders are made taking into account any modifications recommended by the inspector that the Secretary of State has accepted.

If a proposed modification makes a substantial change to the published orders, the views of interested parties affected by those modifications must be taken into account. Circumstances can arise that require supplementary draft orders to be published which would be subject to the same procedure as the main orders, and an inquiry would be held if necessary.

The Secretary of State acts in a quasi-judicial role in taking decisions on orders authorising trunk road schemes that have been to local inquiry. The guiding principles for taking such statutory decisions are that the Secretary of State must be evenhanded in dealing with all interested parties, must follow the procedure rules scrupulously and must have regard to the rules of fairness and natural justice as developed by the courts.

Mr. Foster

I understand my right hon. Friend's point about the statutory obligations, but do those obligations prevent the visit from taking place, provided that the Secretary of State is not subject to canvassing or lobbying by any group? Perhaps he could see both groups at the same time. Is there anything in the provisions that says he cannot attend an area over which he is making a decision?

Mr. Raynsford

It is difficult for the Secretary of State or a Minister to visit an area and see all the factors that may be considered relevant by all the people who may have an objection, and to make himself available to all the parties who have an objection. In such complex matters, there may be modifications that could lead to further objections. It would put the Secretary of State in an almost impossible position to make a visit and to maintain the principle of evenhandedness, which is fundamental to the performance of the quasi-judicial role. That is why the Secretary of State, by custom, does not visit an area that is subject to a major inquiry of this nature.

I speak with some authority on this subject as the Minister responsible for planning procedures with an analogous quasi-judicial role. Planning Ministers must be extremely careful about accepting invitations to visit sites where planning applications may be considered by the Secretary of State in due course. I hope that my hon. Friend understands and accepts that there is not a reluctance to see the circumstances of an area. I visited his area some time ago at his invitation, when I had no involvement in this process.

I reassure my hon. Friend that we recognise the urgent need to encourage a social and economic renaissance in Hastings. As he emphasised, the index of local deprivation recognises Hastings as one of the most deprived areas in the south-east. As such it receives significant regeneration funding: around £35 million is already committed to the area in the period to 2007, mainly under the single regeneration budget, but also from objective 2 funds and through the neighbourhood renewal programme.

We recognise that if we are to maximise the investment, we must get the provision of transport infrastructure and services right. However, the relationship between economic regeneration and transport improvements is extremely complex. The right transport investments can open up areas to new markets, opportunities and investors; but get it wrong, and new transport schemes could drain further an already depressed area. That difficult issue was central to the Hastings study.

As I have said, the issues are complex. It may be helpful if I say a little more about the process involved in the study. A consortium led by Steer Davies Gleave was appointed, following competitive tender, in November 1999. This was the first study to get under way. The Government office of the south-east led and financed it, but we thought it essential to involve all other key interests on an equal basis. Thus, as with all the multi-modal studies, we established a steering group that was responsible for the management and direction of the study. Membership was wide, incorporating all district and county councils directly involved in the study's coverage, as well as the Strategic Rail Authority, the Highways Agency, the regional development agency, and other business and local environmental groups.

The study went through a well-structured process. It analysed in depth the economic transport and planning issues in the study area; the consultants identified a range of possible measures to address the problems, and assembled them into a number of strategies. The possible impacts of the packages were then appraised in detail, to obtain a broad picture of the costs and benefits of the different options. The focus of the work concentrated on the economic and environmental impacts. The consultants broke new ground in their analysis of the potential impact of transport measures on a local economy, and provided a comprehensive analysis of the existing economies of Bexhill and Hastings.

Fundamental to the process was a comprehensive consultation exercise. Emphasis was placed on giving people and interested organisations opportunities to participate in problem identification, strategy formulation and the derivation of solutions. It was intended that inviting greater involvement, including newsletters and telephone interviews, would make the solutions more appropriate, and—importantly—more fully understood by a broad spectrum of the community.

The consultants' final report was agreed by all members of the steering group at the end of November 2000. The report provided an analysis of current and future transport problems in the study area, identified solutions based on transport, economic and environmental data and the extensive consultation process, and recommended solutions in the form of a preferred strategy.

The preferred strategy identified by the consultants is in four parts, to which my hon. Friend referred. The first concerns the public transport elements. The consultants recommended the provision of a Bexhill-to-Ore metro service and a new railway station at Glyne Gap, the electrification of and infrastructure improvements to the Ashford-to-Hastings line, an enhanced local rail service between Wadhurst and Tonbridge, strengthened quality bus partnerships, and other supporting measures.

Secondly, the consultants made firm recommendations on highway improvements. They recommended that an online widening of the A21 from Tonbridge to Pembury to "dual two" standard be taken forward to statutory processes; they also recommended that the A259 Pevensey-to-Bexhill dual carriageway improvement should not proceed.

Thirdly, the consultants concluded that more work should be undertaken to investigate opportunities for further improvement in a multi-modal context along the A21 corridor, particularly in the light of sensitivities surrounding the area of outstanding natural beauty through which the route passes.

Fourthly, the consultants considered the case for the A259 Bexhill and Hastings western bypass and A259 eastern bypass schemes. They analysed the potential impacts of the bypasses. In terms of regeneration, they concluded that the bypasses could provide between 2,500 and 3,000 additional jobs; however, they also felt that the balance of argument was such that they could not make a recommendation on whether the bypasses should proceed. While they might improve the potential for regeneration, that needed to be balanced against the Government's strong presumption against schemes that would significantly affect environmentally sensitive areas, or important species, habitats or landscapes.

In the case of the Hastings study, the western bypass would need to proceed on a viaduct across the Combe Haven site of special scientific interest; and a modified junction, at the western end of the bypass at the junction with the existing A259, is within the Pevensey levels SSSI, which is also listed as a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar convention on wetlands.

The eastern bypass runs through the sensitive Brede valley area within the High Weald area of outstanding natural beauty. The consultants thus concluded that decision makers should consider the output of the study on the basis of two strategies, one with and one without the proposed bypasses. The consultants estimated that the strategy without the bypasses would cost £90.3 million at 1999 prices, and that, with the bypasses, the cost would be £225.8 million.

The steering group commended the consultants' report to the regional assembly, suggesting consideration in the context of wider regional objectives. A covering letter reflecting the considerations of the steering group accompanied the submission to the regional assembly. The letter reflects the fact that the group reached consensus on many issues and, indeed, many of the recommendations. There was not a consensus view in the steering group, however, with regard to the bypass schemes. A majority considered the case was sufficiently strong to proceed, although the case was not overwhelming.

As my hon. Friend said, the regional assembly considered the final report at its plenary session on 14 February and submitted its recommendations to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions on 21 February. The assembly reported that the transport strategy on the bypasses would, in its view, give the best chance for the effective renaissance and regeneration of the area. It qualified its support by considering that the transport package should be viewed as part of a wider strategy for regeneration.

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 six minutes past Twelve midnight.