HL Deb 16 March 1995 vol 562 cc997-1006

7.57 p.m.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether, in the light of the report of the Standing Advisory Committee on Trunk Road Assessment (SACTRA), they will abandon their present proposals for link roads on the M.25 in Surrey.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, my Question relates to the possible abandonment of the M.25 scheme following the SACTRA report. It follows a Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, on 2nd March when I raised the subject of the SACTRA report as a possible reason for delay in the public inquiry on the M.25 link roads in Surrey. Just to remind your Lordships, SACTRA is the Department of Transport's Standing Advisory Committee on Trunk Road Assessment. Its job is to assist the department to select methods of assessing its own possible schemes for building, modifying or enlarging trunk roads, including motorways, so as to ensure that they solve problems, and do so in a way which offers good value for money. Incidentally, SACTRA was established by my noble friend Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank when he was Secretary of State for Transport.

The report to which we are referring is that entitled Trunk Roads and the Generation of Traffic which was submitted to the former Secretary of State for Transport, the right honourable John MacGregor, on 16th May 1994 and published, together with the department's response, in December last.

The committee had been asked: 'To advise the Department [of Transport] on the evidence of the circumstances, nature and magnitude of traffic redistribution, mode choice, and generation [resulting from new road schemes], especially on inter-urban roads and trunk roads close to conurbations; and to recommend whether and how the Department's methods should be amended, and what if any research or studies could be undertaken".

This is an important subject because it is becoming obvious to most people that the more road space that one provides, the more traffic there is. There has been considerable dispute, but there are very many engineers and other practitioners who are convinced that that is what happens. So SACTRA was addressing an important question. It obviously considered a great deal of evidence from the department, other government departments, local authorities, interested parties and professionals at home and abroad. No one doubts the committee's competence to carry out its work. I do not propose therefore to deal with a very comprehensive report in great detail.

The main conclusions to which the committee came were, first, that induced traffic can and does occur, probably quite extensively though its size and significance is likely to vary widely in different circumstances".

Secondly, it states, that the economic value of a scheme can be overestimated by the omission of even a small amount of induced traffic… This matter is of profound importance to the value for money assessment of the roads programme".

I am sure that I do not need to remind those brave Members who have remained in the Chamber to hear my speech that value for money in huge and financially important programmes is a great aim for us all.

The report speaks of the need for stronger area-wide strategic appraisal for environmental reasons and for measuring the knock-on effects of changes in one part of the network so that the effect on land use can be considered; for studying the combined effects of several changes in long-distance routing; and for considering the induced traffic effect which arises as a result of traffic stimulated in other parts of the network when one part is improved in quality. Finally, the report recommends changes in methodology of assessment and suggests that at least one scheme currently awaiting public inquiry should be reassessed using the new methodology.

The Government's response would be best described as cautious. I shall not go into it in great detail, although I assure the Minister that I have read it with great care. Indeed, I read most of the original report, which was not totally beyond my O-level mathematics, although some definitely was. To be welcomed in particular is the fact that the department issued revised guidance to its engineers. That requires them to take into account when assessing road schemes at least some of the points emphasised by the committee. Some engineers may believe that the instructions do not go far enough; but that is a little beside the points I now wish to make.

The scheme for link roads in Surrey along the M.25 between junctions 12 and 15 was first foreshadowed in 1990 in the M.25 action plan which dealt with capacity beyond dual four-lane carriageways. A version of it was shown to Surrey County Council at a private presentation in autumn 1991. The details of the scheme continued to change but it went out to consultation in July 1993. The inquiry into the scheme should have started in May 1994. The inquiry was postponed until October 1994 and in July 1994 it was postponed until this year. The Question of the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, asked when the public inquiry stage of the project would be reached. The Minister responded by saying that an announcement would be made. I have re-read his answers and we cannot get much further than that.

The proposals have been extremely unpopular. The Minister mentioned the 12,000 letters of protest that had been received by the department. The county councils surrounding the whole of the M.25 have joined together in support of the stated opposition from Buckinghamshire and Surrey. Large groups of local authorities are working against the proposals as are important groups of protesters, green organisations of various kinds, local residents associations, and so forth.

The relevance of SACTRA to the scheme lies in the following facts. First, the scheme is large. It proposes to add along 7½ miles of the M.25, between the M.3 and M.4 junctions—they are junctions 12 to 15—three additional lanes on each side of the dual four-lane motorway. Furthermore, there will be two additional lanes on each side of the dual four-lane motorway on to the M.40. In other words, there will be 14-lane and 12-lane motorways, which will be the largest section of motorway in Europe. It is the centrepiece of a further series of schemes to widen the M.25 beyond four lanes in each direction from junctions 10 to 12; the rapid widening of the whole of the northern half of the M.25 from junction 16 (the M.40) to junction 29 (the A. 127 in Essex); and the eventual increased capacity over that dual four-lane section from the M.40 to the M.I. The cost of the proposals is at least £350 million.

Projects for widening or link roads on the M.4 on either side of the M.25, on the M.40 near the M.25 and on the M.3 will bring the total cost of all that road widening to almost £1 billion in 1994 prices. I can hardly over-emphasise the relevance of everything that can bring to bear close analysis of value for money when we are talking about schemes of this size. It must be properly assessed for value for money. If induced traffic were created by the schemes that value for money would be less than is currently supposed. That is one of the main points made in the SACTRA report.

Secondly, much of the network is currently congested and the M.25 is a motorway encircling a town. They are just the conditions in respect of which the report suggests that induced traffic might be expected to clog up a new trunk road capacity.

Thirdly, the government assessment of the knock-on effects of the 14-lane M.25 from junctions 12 to 15 covers an area only one kilometre on either side of the new road space. Again, that is totally contrary to SACTRA's recommendation that a wide area is essential, in particular where, because of existing congestion, induced traffic might occur on the networks surrounding the new or improved road. It so happens that a joint Surrey-Bucks modelling exercise on a far larger scale than that adopted by the Government indicates that traffic would increase on the local networks to such an extent that on roads and in many towns along the M.25 congestion would increase dramatically with a consequent decrease in the quality of life. Indeed, congestion on the local network would, to a considerable extent, not permit the traffic to reach the link roads with the consequent diminution of their value for money.

Perhaps I may try to clarify that point. The congestion in the local network in Surrey would, according to the modelling exercises of Surrey and Buckinghamshire county councils, be so great that traffic would not be able to reach the new widened section of the M.25, although it would try to do so. Therefore, it would not achieve what the Government have consistently told local residents it would achieve; namely, the transfer of traffic from the local network on to the motorway. On the contrary, there would be more traffic both on local roads and in local towns.

The section of the M.25 which goes past Heathrow is extremely congested, particularly now that there are roadworks, although it is always very busy. I do not believe that many people would accept that that should be left the way it is. Again, all modelling exercises that have been carried out indicate that that is not a sensible option. If that is the case, we must think of other options.

One of those options would be improved rail access to Heathrow, which is currently being looked at by the Sweltrac Group. Heathrow has 52,000 employees. It is the single largest generator of traffic in the United Kingdom not just because of the 51 million passengers who fly in and out—not all of whom, of course, leave the airport—but also because of the movement of employees in and out. Their movements, particularly in the morning, coincide exactly with the general morning peak. Rail access could be provided from Guildford and Woking via Staines and from Richmond, Kingston, Wimbledon and other points via Feltham and from Reading. The modelling of those new links shows excellent loadings.

It is interesting to note that under that scheme, the M.25 goes on filling up. In other words, the trips that are taken away because of the provision of well-used rail connections to Heathrow are replaced by other trips. That suggests that there are good reasons to suppose that there is a great deal of suppressed demand and that induced traffic is a major problem in the area if more road space is provided.

On the other hand, although the M.25 continues to be used heavily, more journeys are enabled to take place if rail access is provided, without expensive and environmentally disastrous link roads. My first question to the Minister is whether the Government can encourage those schemes. I phrase the question in that way because I am not at all sure, in view of the forthcoming privatisation programme—in particular the privatisation of Railtrack—that the Government are in any position to encourage sensible provision of new rail services which require new rail tracks, at least to some extent.

It would be possible to provide a better option for the transportation of goods by heavy goods vehicles. In contrast to the £167 million which the short seven-and-a-half-mile section of link roads will cost, according to research which the Government have supported it would cost about £70 million for infrastructure to be created from the Channel Tunnel through to the north west—incidentally, with a connection also to Northern Ireland—which would enable the piggy-back transfer of freight from the north west straight through to the Continent. I refer to Dr. Mawhinney's recent speech in which he seemed to suggest that additional transportation of long distance freight by rail was highly desirable.

On a far smaller scale, the prevention of overloaded lorries would be of benefit because one overloaded lorry causes more damage to the road way than literally hundreds of thousands of cars. Road repairs are a potent source of congestion on the M.25. However, Kent and Oxfordshire have been unable to maintain their trading standards officers because of cuts in government support and the vehicle inspectorate has been cut by 25 per cent. Will the Government do anything to ensure that freight vehicles do not drive about overloaded and/or will they assist promotion of the piggy-back scheme?

The traffic on the motorway could be managed. One way is to introduce speed limits as the motorway becomes congested. I welcome the experiment which is about to take place on that very section to see whether variable speed limits are effective.

Moreover, better policing of the 70-mile-an-hour limit would be a great mercy. On the whole, the faster people go, the more room they take up on the motorway. The accidents which are caused by bad driving and speeding are another source of congestion, as well as being tragic in their own right. Could local police authorities have the income from fines from speeding vehicles to help meet the cost of patrolling the motorways, as happens now in relation to parking controls in the London boroughs?

Finally, part of the section from junction 13 to junction 15, which goes past Heathrow, could be widened to five lanes in each direction, as is currently proposed by the British Airports Authority as its fall-back position as it advances to a public inquiry on terminal 5.

I have tried to respond to the Secretary of State's request for dialogue on this most contentious of subjects. What happens on this small section of motorway is of far greater importance than its effect merely on the residents of Surrey. It is the key to the Government's future policy. I very much hope that the Government will follow SACTRA's advice and at least reassess the proposal. Best of all, they should abandon it altogether.


Lord Haskel

My Lords, I have sympathy for the noble Viscount this evening not only because he has a bad cold but also because the SACTRA report puts him in rather a difficult position. The noble Baroness has told us about the report and I shall not repeat all the various details. She told us that the draft areas for the link roads were published in April 1994. No date had been announced for the public inquiry by December when the Government published the SACTRA report which cast doubt on the validity of the original assessment. The Government must have pondered for some time on the report because their response was published on the same day.

The noble Baroness has told us about a scheme for the link roads in Surrey. Those link roads are expensive. They will cause noise and emissions pollution; they are unpopular locally; and to cap it all, the report of the Government's own advisory committee now casts doubt on the net present value.

The Minister's right honourable friend Dr. Mawhinney said that he accepted the report and that his department is now looking at all national road schemes in the planning stages to see whether the changes in traffic considered by SACTRA are likely to be significant. He called for a debate and quite right too. This is part of that.

But while the debate takes place, the prolonged planning blight continues on the surrounding neighbourhood. That is why the Minister is in a difficult position. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Government want that debate because they find it difficult to determine what should be their policy. However, with a debate of that kind, it is sensible for the Government to put up a policy for discussion in order to provide a lead. Otherwise, the debate ranges over vast, irrelevant areas outside the subject and is prolonged endlessly.

The Government cannot afford to do that because meanwhile, several Conservative Back-Bench MPs in the area are becoming increasingly unpopular with their constituents as the uncertainty and pollution blights their lives. Politically, the Government cannot afford that. Nor can they afford to fall out with the British Road Federation Ltd. Delay is damaging and so it may be that the Minister will tell us this evening what the policy will be.

Perhaps I may be helpful and advise the Minister what to do. Unless he raises taxes yet again by introducing road pricing or raising motoring taxes, he has very few options. He needs the money which motorists pay to fund non-transport expenditure. As a result of poor management of the economy, he does not have the money for the additional public transport which the Government should have introduced years ago.

In reality, all the Minister can do is to tackle the problem at the margins, spend a little more on public transport and carry out some sensible but minor road improvements to ease traffic flow. My advice to the Minister is that he must face up to the inevitable and tell us this evening that, for those reasons, he will abandon the link roads and that, therefore, not very much will happen.

8.20 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport (Viscount Goschen)

My Lords, tonight's debate has indeed been a select one. There was a wide variety of topics in both speeches but there was a certain discrepancy in the length and detail of them. Therefore, I shall try to make my response fall somewhere in the middle which, it is to be hoped, will not cause any anxiety, first, to the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, because it is too long, and secondly, to the noble Baroness because I have not covered the matter fully.

The M.25 receives much criticism and has, in some quarters, become the butt of many jokes. But, in all seriousness, we must not forget that it has been extremely successful in removing through traffic, particularly heavy lorries, from London. The M.25 provides a complete orbital route around London and the suburbs and it is the country's busiest motorway. It has successfully served more traffic than forecast when it was originally planned.

It is an essential part of the country's strategic road network and its success can been seen in the very heavy use made of it. Nearly 700,000 drivers use it every working day. Although it represents only 6 per cent, of the mileage of our motorway network, it carries 14 per cent, of all motorway traffic. That popularity has resulted in many sections becoming congested, especially at peak times. The busiest section between junctions 12 and 15 alone carries up to 200,000 vehicles per day.

It is vital for our economy that the motorway continues to perform its proper function of distributing traffic around London. It is an old saying, but still a true one for all that, that "time is money" and, without doubt, that congestion wastes valuable time. Without improvement, congestion on the motorway will increase and traffic would endeavour to find alternative routes using unsuitable local roads.

The proposals for link roads between junctions 12 and 15 were first published in June 1992. In the following year it was announced that the scheme would be taken forward to the next stage in the planning process; but, in view of the concerns raised, a commitment was given to hold a public inquiry once the formal proposals had been published. At the same time, an assurance was given that 70 per cent, of the motorway would not need to be widened beyond dual four lanes.

Following that announcement, the link roads scheme was worked up in more detail, and draft highway orders and an environmental statement were published in April last year. The draft compulsory purchase order was published in June and comments on the formal proposals were requested by 15th July 1994. As the noble Baroness told the House this evening, nearly 12,000 objections have been received. Most people expressed concern about noise and air quality and many requested more investment in public transport as an alternative.

It had originally been anticipated that the public inquiry would be held towards the end of last year but, in the light of the considerable number of objections received, the then Minister for Roads and Traffic, announced last July that the inquiry would not start before this year. As I explained to the House recently in response to a Question tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, an announcement about the inquiry arrangements will be made as soon as possible.

The noble Baroness raised the issue regarding the recent report produced by the Standing Advisory Committee on Trunk Road Assessment. As we have heard, SACTRA was asked in 1989 by the Department of Transport to advise on the circumstances, nature and magnitude of traffic generation and to recommend whether and how the department's methods should be amended. I appreciate the sympathy extended to me by the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, for my cold. However, I can assure the noble Lord that his sympathy in policy terms is not required. Nevertheless, his kind sentiments are always appreciated.

SACTRA was asked to report on traffic generation because the department recognised that, as economic growth over the past 15 years has greatly increased traffic levels, the number of congested areas has gone up and with them the cases where a road scheme might bring costs as well as benefits. There was also a growing feeling that there ought to be a more general examination of whether roads do, to some degree, increase traffic as well as relieve congestion. The report published in December 1994, with the Government's response, is the result of that study.

We welcomed the comprehensive and detailed work carried out by SACTRA in such an extremely difficult area. My right honourable friend, the Secretary of State for Transport, said that he was determined that important, and often very difficult, decisions on road schemes are taken on the basis of the best and, indeed, the most up-to-date methods of forecasting their effects.

However, contrary to assertions from some quarters, SACTRA did not imply in its report that, in general, schemes should be abandoned because the provision of new road capacity is futile. That would only be so if there was full and immediate filling up of an improved road, without relief to any other part of the network— an occurrence which SACTRA says is unlikely.

Although it would not have been proper for SACTRA to comment on specific road proposals, the committee did conclude that there is likely to be a significant proportion of schemes where there is a real possibility of extra traffic, but the amount of induced traffic, and its significance for a road scheme, is likely to vary widely in different circumstances. It is, therefore, important to look carefully at individual cases on their merits. That is what the Government have undertaken to do in their response to the SACTRA report. The department is now looking at all national road schemes in the planning stages to assess the likely significance of induced traffic and, as appropriate, to take account of induced traffic effects in scheme appraisal. The M.25 at junctions 12 to 15 is one of the schemes undergoing extra assessment, the results of which will be available at the public inquiry.

The noble Baroness discussed a number of measures, apart from the provision of additional capacity which she felt would be important in the consideration of the matter. Some of those alternative measures are already being actively implemented. In particular, a pilot scheme for variable mandatory speeds is due to be introduced between junctions 10 and 15 of the M.25 in the spring of this year. Experience from other countries indicates that an increase in throughput of between 5 per cent, and 10 per cent, may be achieved. Junction arrangements and signalling have also been approved. However, while those measures help ease the problems and enable more traffic to utilise the capacity provided by the existing motorway, they cannot replace the need for extra capacity.

The noble Lord, Lord Haskel, raised the issue of investment in public transport. The Government share the importance that the noble Lord attaches to that issue. Investment in our national railways has been at record levels in recent years. Some £15 billion at today's prices has been invested since 1979. However, the fact remains that we cannot simply wish away road traffic. In 1993, nearly 94 per cent, of passenger travel in this country was by road. Even a 50 per cent, increase in travel by rail would reduce road travel by only 3 per cent.—less than the average annual growth in road traffic over the past 10 years. The position is similar with freight. In 1993, over 90 per cent, of freight was moved by road and a 50 per cent, increase in rail freight would be equivalent to a 5 per cent, reduction in road freight.

The M.25 caters for a vast number and variety of journeys which public transport would not realistically be able to meet. I am delighted that the noble Baroness has recognised this evening that simply doing nothing is not an option in these circumstances. Additional capacity would cater for existing and forecast traffic taking into account both the national and local trends. For the longer term, the Government have already put in place measures which will help, such as planning guidance, which is intended to reduce the need to travel.

Although there has not been complete agreement in the short debate we have had this evening, I think we all agree that there is a serious problem of congestion on the M.25, and particularly on the stretch we are discussing. I am grateful to the noble Baroness for raising this matter and for putting forward her suggestions as to how this issue should be best addressed.

House adjourned at half past eight o'clock.