HL Deb 13 October 1993 vol 549 cc191-4

3 p.m.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale asked Her Majesty's Government:

Who will conduct the public inquiry into the proposal to widen the M.25 between junctions 12 and 15, and what are his, or her, qualifications.

The Minister of State, Department of Transport (The Earl of Caithness)

My Lords, an inspector has not yet been appointed.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale

My Lords, I am obliged to the Minister for that Answer, which was not entirely unexpected. In view of the unprecedented nature, immense scale and cost of this 14-lane proposal, is there not much to be said exceptionally for having the inquiry conducted by someone independent of government and not by an officer of the department? Will it be open to the person holding the inquiry, if so persuaded by the evidence, to report that the whole project is misconceived, notwithstanding the fact that the department appears to be acting as though the issue is cut and dried and is happily engaged in discussing compensation terms with some of those affected?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, a nomination for an inspector is made by my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor from a panel of suitably qualified independent inspectors. The appointment is then made jointly by my right honourable friends the Secretaries of State for Transport and for the Environment. With regard to the remit of the inspector, he will look at a variety of evidence that is put before him. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, will agree that something must be done about this highly congested sector of the M.25.

Viscount Mountgarret

My Lords, does the Question not raise a further issue: that transport in this country should be looked at in greater depth and detail? Does my noble friend agree that we appear to stagger from pillar to post, thus generating the necessity to add to a motorway of a certain width because no one has thought through the transport requirements? I suspect that I shall be told that my question goes wider than the original Question but, nonetheless, perhaps my noble friend will bear it in mind.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, my noble friend was right to say that his question was considerably wider than that on the Order Paper. When this section of the M.25 was designed the best assessment was made of the traffic forecast. It is now the most heavily congested motorway in Europe.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, will the Minister reply to the final point made by the noble Lord, Lord Allen? He sought information about the authority on which the department is discussing compensation terms before the new road has been agreed.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, so far as I am aware, nothing that the department is doing at the moment is outside its remit and outside the law.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is the Minister aware that his attitude and replies give the impression that the whole issue is cut and dried? The scheme is important and will have far-reaching effects on a wide area, not only in regard to the landscape and the way in which people are affected but in regard to the additional traffic which will be attracted into a sensitive area. This House and the country wish to be assured that the person who conducts the inquiry will take all those issues into account and will take a truly independent view of the situation.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the situation is far from cut and dried in the sense mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon. There has been a consultation period; it is hoped that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State will be laying draft statutory orders later this year; there will be a public inquiry next year; an inspector will be appointed at that time; there will be a full environmental statement; and the inspector will take into account a range of issues. However, what is in no doubt is that that part of the M.25 is highly congested. About 200,000 cars use that section of the motorway and 60 per cent. of them travel for only two junctions. That is about 120,000 cars, which is the equivalent of the number using the M.2.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, further to the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, accepting that the inspectors are independent and leaving aside the merits to which my noble friend the Minister referred, will these independent inspectors have the remit to reject the scheme on any ground?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the inspector will consider all relevant issues arising from the published draft orders. They have not yet been published.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, in view of the increasing evidence of an association between motor vehicle pollution and asthma, will the Minister tell the House whether local environmental health officers working around that section of the M.25 have been consulted about the proposal? I ask now because I recently asked in a Written Question but received no Answer.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, there has been a wide consultation exercise. If any environmental health officer in the area wished to make representations he or she was perfectly free and able to do so. As a result of that consultation exercise and the draft statutory orders which my honourable friend the Secretary of State will be laying in due course, there will be a public inquiry with an independent inspector.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, is it right, as the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, suggested—and the Minister has not replied—that compensation terms are being discussed by his department? If so, is that not taking the situation a little for granted? Are not the Government making a habit of taking things for granted, as they did in the House only yesterday?

As regards the widening of the motorway, is it right that 83 per cent. of road users represent private motor cars? Is there not therefore a need to deter such widespread car usage? Furthermore, is there not overwhelming evidence, which should be available to the department, that widening proposals of this character will not solve congestion and that that can be mitigated only by a sensible transport strategy affecting the south-east of the country as a whole and the development of alternative rail schemes such as CrossRail and Thameslink 2000?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, has raised a number of interesting questions, none of which is related to the Question on the Order Paper.

Lord Mowbray and Stourton

My Lords, I was amazed to hear the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, threatening to return to mummying the whole country and saying how many cars should be allowed on the road. Is Britain not falling behind the ability of other EC countries to build roads where it is thought necessary for the efficiency of industry and the enjoyment of the population? Noble Lords may remember that in 1970 I answered Questions about the Winchester bypass and even now protests are still being made about that. Is this the way to efficiency?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, there are considerable concerns by those who wish to see industry prosper, by allowing it to move goods as quickly as possible from one port of manufacture or arrival to another, and who also wish to allow people to move freely. However, we have to go through certain processes, one of which is being carried out at present. We have had a consultation period which will be followed by the draft statutory orders.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, will the Minister show the frankness that he normally bestows upon the House? The noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, and my noble friend Lord Clinton-Davis asked whether it was a fact that compensation was being discussed by departmental officials. Is that true? If it is true, why are things being taken for granted in this way?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, things are not being taken for granted because the draft statutory orders have still to be laid, and that will be followed in due course by a public inquiry with an independent inspector. There is nothing of which I am aware that the department is doing at the moment that is outside the law.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, will the Minister please answer the question? Is compensation being discussed?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, whatever discussions are taking place at the moment in the department, I am told that they are within the law.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, whether or not they are within the law, will the Minister reply to the question which has now been asked four or five times? Are the Government doing that or not?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I confirm to the noble Lord that, to the best of my knowledge, there is nothing that the department is doing at the moment as regards this proposal that is outside the law.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, I must appeal to the Leader of the House to use his influence to make sure that a simple question is answered from the Dispatch Box.

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Wakeham)

My Lords, I believe that we have pursued this as far as possible. The Minister has given an answer. There are other ways to pursue the matter if the noble Lord wishes to do so.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, is it not a fact, however—

Noble Lords

Oh, oh!

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, this is a matter about which the Minister is not being straight with the House. It is rather like a Minister giving evidence to the Scott Inquiry. Surely the Minister is capable of answering a simple question.

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, my noble friend was asked a question by the noble Lord. My noble friend gave an answer. The noble Lord did not like that answer. I believe that it is better to leave the matter there.