HC Deb 29 February 2000 vol 345 cc2-9WH 11.30 am
Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge)

An A-Z plan of Surrey would show that my constituency has at its centre, like a giant bull's eye, the intersection of the M25 and M3 motorways. To some extent, the area is dominated by its transport infrastructure. As a district, Runnymede suffers from the problems of economic success, which are, of course, different problems from those of economic failure suffered by other parts of the country, but real none the less. There are tremendous development and land use pressures as well as dominant transport problems. The transport infrastructure, principally the M25 motorway and Heathrow airport, together with the proximity of Runnymede to London, are important drivers of prosperity in the area, but they are also a threat to the quality of life. Our challenge is to achieve the right balance between economic prosperity and the quality of life.

The M25 has been under pressure since it was completed in 1986. The section between junctions 12 and 15 has already been widened to dual four-lane for most of its length and dual five-lane for the other part. The previous Government considered introducing parallel link roads alongside the motorway—three-lane roads, which would ease the pressure on the main motorway and deal with the problem of weaving by removing non-through traffic from what traffic engineers call the main line. Those proposals gave rise to considerable local opposition including that from local Members of Parliament, led by my immediate predecessor. The proposals would have involved a significant additional land take in a green belt area and would have imposed considerable environmental impacts.

In 1995, the previous Government, listening to the concerns expressed by local people, scrapped the proposals for the link roads and put forward an alternative scheme, which would have involved dualling to five lanes the stretch of motorway between junctions 12 and 14, and to six lanes the section between junctions 14 and 15 but, importantly, with no additional land takes. The whole expansion was to take place within the existing curtilage of the motorway. No doubt, the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions will have in her brief today the comments of the then Opposition. In June 1995, the right hon. Member for Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), now the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, described the proposal as lunacy. When the previous Government went out to consultation in 1996, the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen), the then Opposition spokesman on transport, described it as "£100 million motorway madness".

In 1995, as a prospective parliamentary candidate new to the area, I recognised the pressures on that section of the M25 and the need for an immediate solution to the bottleneck that it had become. In 1997, I fought the general election on a platform of support for the scheme under which there would be a final widening with no additional land take, of commitment to the environmental benefits as a spin-off for the local community, and, crucially, of the need for longer-term solutions to ensure that there would be no further widening. The Labour party, reckless as ever, clearly implied that it was against the scheme and would scrap it. Indeed, Ian Peacock, the Labour party candidate who stood against me in Runnymede and Weybridge at the general election, said in a public meeting that a Labour Government would scrap the M25 widening scheme on day one. Labour says one thing and does another. That is now familiar to those of us who watch the Government's style, but the public were more gullible then and believed what was said. Perhaps even the candidate believed it; perhaps he is one of the great disillusioned.

As on many other subjects, Labour lied to the electorate in a reckless and unprincipled way in order to be elected. Many disillusioned electors in Egham who voted Labour for the first time in 1997, largely because of this issue, now feel betrayed. Labour came into office in 1997 with what my constituents thought was a clearly stated position on the M25 widening programme, but it did not announce the scheme's scrapping on day one. Instead, it put it into a review, which is new Labour-speak for a cold store for difficult decisions. After review, it was put into a further review, and on 31 July 1998—the last day of the parliamentary Session—a newly appointed Minister for Transport announced a 180 deg U-turn and confirmed that the scheme would go ahead.

It is curious that, on the same day, the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions published a document entitled "M25 London orbital motorway: the future strategy". Among other things, the document stated: Building our way out of congestion on the M25 is not an option. That kind of thinking leads to 14-lane monster highways which simply fill up with traffic within a few years. The Government totally reject that approach. So much for integrated transport policy. There is no sign of coherent thinking, even between two announcements on the same day by the same Department.

Why did the Government decide to make the U-turn? The official answer was that the congestion problems on that section of the M25 were "immediate and acute" and had "a broader economic impact". As for immediacy and acuteness, the building work will not start until 2002–03 and will take two years, so something that was "immediate and acute" in 1998 will take at least seven and possibly eight years.

Local cynics suspect that "the broader economic impact" is a reference to terminal 5, but the Government have always denied that. Terminal 5 will access the motorway via a spur road from the planned dual six-lane section. It has not gone unnoticed among my constituents that some of the greatest advocates of terminal 5 have been ardent enthusiasts for the Government's other great building project at Greenwich. There is a strong belief locally that the Government have already decided the outcome of the terminal 5 inquiry, and that the decision to widen is to facilitate terminal 5 and create a scenario in which the inspector at the inquiry cannot use traffic as grounds to recommend refusing the terminal.

An interesting exchange took place during the inquiry, when a witness from the Highways Agency said that its position was that there would be no terminal 5 if there were no M25 widening. The inspector said: You are effectively saying that T5 depends not merely upon the spur but upon a widened M25. The official replied: Yes, I think that that is the department's position, sir. When the inspector asked: How do I report the department's position? Have I got to tell the Secretary of State that T5 should be permitted only if and when there is a guarantee for M25 widening? the official responded: Yes, I think that that is the position, with respect, sir, that you find yourself in as of today. In July 1998, the Government resolved that problem for the inspector by confirming the scheme. In November 1998, the then Minister of Transport, now the Secretary of State for Scotland, told me on the Floor of the House that terminal 5 was in no way taken into account in any of the deliberations in arriving at the widening decision. That is an astonishing suggestion for a major infrastructure decision, and it has little credibility among my constituents.

We were told in the summer of 1998 that the widening had to go ahead because of an immediate, acute need, but it will not be in place until seven or eight years after that date. Coincidentally, that is around the same time that the construction of terminal 5 will be under way—if, as I am confident will happen, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions approves its construction, following the inquiry's completion.

As far as my constituents and I are concerned, the contract has not been let or even informally discussed. We do not know whether it will be a contract to design, build, finance and operate, or some other form. Suspicion exists that the Government are delaying widening that section of the M25 in order to link it explicitly to consent for terminal 5, and to squeeze BAA for a substantial financial contribution to the costs of widening. Such suspicions abound in my constituency and it is time for the Government to approach the problem with some openness so that we know exactly what is going on.

I am opposed in principle neither to widening the M25 within the existing motorway boundary nor to constructing terminal 5. However, in both cases I expect local communities to be given substantial environmental benefits as a quid pro quo for playing host to major pieces of national infrastructure. In the case of terminal 5, those benefits will most importantly include ending early-morning flight arrivals, for which there will be no justification once the terminal is built. I shall later detail the benefits that my constituents expect in relation to M25 widening, as some compensation for having it imposed on them.

I am not opposed to those two projects, but I am opposed to a Government who say one thing and do another by recklessly pandering before an election to lobby groups—whether they are campaigning against the building of roads, or for animal rights or human rights abroad—only to abandon them cynically afterwards. All those groups, and many others, were exploited by the Labour party in its lunge for office in 1997, then abandoned once they had served its purpose. I can speak for campaigners in my constituency who opposed widening of the M25, and I assure the Minister—should she be in any doubt about it—that they have long and bitter memories of the treatment that they received at the hands of new Labour.

Nearly three years into the Government's term of office, there has been a complete U-turn on the widening of the M25—the building will not start for another two or three years and the jams continue. There is a denial, which no one believes locally, of any link to the terminal 5 project. There is no sign from the Government of any serious, longer-term solution to pressure on the M25 that would avoid the demand for further widening in future. However, while Labour's deceit still rings in my constituents' ears, we need to move on to fight the next battle. The Government's only real action in the so-called management of the transport problem has been a vicious, swingeing increase in taxation of the motorist, with no effective alternative transport proposal, at least in the suburban areas of the M25.

I wish to focus on that huge pot of billions of pounds of additional tax money that the Government have confiscated from motorists. I want some of the money to be used to reduce the environmental impact on communities that include major transport facilities and I seek a commitment from the Minister that the Government will spend some of it on appropriate solutions to transport problems, even if they are more costly. Motorists are paying for their necessary but sometimes anti-social activity. Let us at least ensure that their money helps minimise the impact that they make on others.

The technology of road surfaces has developed dramatically in recent years. Quieter surfaces have been in use on the continent for some time and have finally been accepted and used by the Highways Agency. However, the Government's announcement last year of a £5 million noise mitigation fund is ludicrously inadequate. The new surfaces are obviously more expensive, but they are quieter, quicker to lay which means less disruption to motorists when repairs are required—and have better skid resistance and, in some cases, better spray characteristics. Those surfaces should always be used on trunk roads. Motorists should pay, and it is certain under this Government that they will.

I should like the Minister to specify a definite time scale for the start of the work to widen the M25. When will the work start, and when will the tender be published? I should like an assurance not only that porous asphalt or a similar surface will be used, which I believe we have already received, but that the contract will include a noise specification that represents the best technology available at the time, that there will be full transparency in arriving at that specification and that there will be proper consultation to reassure the local community and the local authorities involved.

I should also like an assurance that where the motorway passes through residential areas, especially in Egham and Thorpe, the most effective sound barriers will be used, and that before the contract is let the specification will be published in draft form for consultation, either as a performance specification or as a build specification. I am not specifically asking that sound-absorbent barriers be used, because I realise that the choice involved may be more complex than simply absorbent versus reflective. However, I should like an assurance from the Minister that effectiveness, not cost, will be the determining factor, because the cost of sound barriers is a trivial component of the total cost of the scheme. I should also like an assurance from the Minister that details of the contract and the performance specification will be made publicly available so that my constituents and the local authorities in my area can discuss them openly and transparently.

I recognise that such measures will be expensive, but, as the Government have ensured, the motorist will pay. If my constituents are to be asked to host an expanded piece of motorway infrastructure, and if the motorists using it are to be asked to pay through the nose for the privilege, the least that they can jointly ask of the Government is that the financial pain felt by the latter is applied at least in part to reduce the environmental pain suffered by the former.

I should like an assurance from the Minister on those matters not only for my constituents in Runnymede, but in the interests of communities everywhere and of responsible motorists who acccept the impact that transport infrastructure makes and would like some of their taxes used to mitigate that impact on the communities through which they pass on their journeys.

11.46 am
The Paliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Beverley Hughes)

As is usual, I congratulate the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) on securing the debate. I thought that he would take the opportunity to use the maximum time possible to discuss the possible effects of a major scheme on his constituents and use the time productively to discuss how to minimise those effects. However, he wasted his Adjournment debate time by making yet another empty political gesture that bears little relation to the needs of the area, with only a quick run-through right at the end of his speech of the major issues involved, about which people who live locally are worried. I shall discuss those issues in my response.

As the hon. Gentleman is aware, the M25 London orbital road is a key part of our motorway network, as well as a London outer ring road. It is effective in keeping lorries and other long-distance traffic out of London, and is one of the busiest motorways in Europe. As he said, pressure on the M25 is all too evident, especially at peak periods. All parties are united that something must be done, especially during peak periods.

In our 1998 White Paper entitled "A New Deal for Trunk Roads in England", we announced a programme of 37 schemes for the following seven years and a series of multi-modal and roads-based studies. We also announced our refocused investment priorities for the trunk road network—to give priority to maintenance, make better use of existing roads and tackle some of the most serious problems through a carefully targeted programme of improvements. We have viewed the problems of the M25 in that context since we came to office.

The Highways Agency has been charged with developing sustainable solutions to be used wherever possible as an alternative to building new roads. Building our way out of congestion on the M25 is not an option. Such thinking would lead to a 14-lane highway, which would fill up with traffic in the next few years. The objective is therefore to develop a long-term management strategy for the motorway that embraces all modes of transport, changes in land use and interaction with local transport networks to secure safe and efficient operation in an environmentally acceptable way. That is what distinguishes our proposals from those of the previous Government.

Mr. Hammond

The cornerstone of the Government's transport policy for road users seems to be to increase tax. What estimate has the Minister's Department made of the impact of the tax increases on motorists announced so far on peak-hour usage of the M25 between junctions 12 and 15?

Ms Hughes

I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman that in this debate, but I shall write to him. I am dealing now with proposals for M25 widening and the hon. Gentleman's allegations, particularly on an alleged Government U-turn.

The problems between junctions 12 and 15 are acute. Maximum capacity has been squeezed from this section by traffic management techniques. Controlled motorway operation has helped to smooth flows and reduce accidents, but there are still stop-start driving conditions for many hours on most days. More capacity is needed to provide the necessary headroom to evaluate other measures at this location and to allow a breathing space while wider, integrated transport policies take effect.

A scheme to improve this section of the motorway entered the roads programme in 1989, as the hon. Gentleman said. The scheme that we are discussing today would widen the M25 to five lanes in each direction between junctions 12 and 14 and to six lanes in each direction between junctions 14 and 15, within the existing highway boundary.

The hon. Gentleman has made much of statements made on the previous scheme by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, when he was in opposition, and of subsequent U-turns. An environmental impact assessment was published in 1996, and public exhibitions were held. Representations were then made by individuals, local authorities and statutory and representative bodies, all of which the Government considered when we came to power in 1997. We announced that we would review the roads programme that we had inherited against the criteria of accessibility, safety, economy, environment and integration. We listened to all the views that were expressed during that period. We concluded that additional capacity was needed where the amount of traffic was causing severe congestion at times and threatening jobs and prosperity over a wide area. We felt that widening should be a key part of a long-term strategy for managing traffic on the M25.

The hon. Gentleman talks about the previous Government's attitude and action—or inaction—in putting forward what would have been a disastrous scheme, but withdrawing it following representations, particularly from local people. Yet he calls it a U-turn when the Government try to implement the environmental impact assessment by producing a much improved widening scheme, having listened to the views that have been expressed—including his own—that the scheme should go ahead. He accuses us of lying and of U-turns, when what we have done is not dissimilar to what the previous Government did: we have listened to people. The difference between us and the previous Government is that we are proceeding with a necessary scheme that will mitigate the effects that local people are concerned about and provide a sustainable future for the M25 and the surrounding area.

Mr. Hammond

With respect, the difference is that the Labour party's official candidate told public meetings during the 1997 general election campaign that a Labour Government would scrap the scheme on day one. That did not happen, and my constituents feel that they have been misled. In the light of her defence of the Government's views on this matter, will the Under-Secretary accept and invitation to address a public meeting in Egham, at which she can express those views and judge for herself local people's attitudes towards them?

Ms Hughes

The contorted positions that the hon. Gentleman is obliged to adopt on this matter defy belief. A Labour party prospective parliamentary candidate is not a member of the Government, so it is absolute nonsense to accuse the Government of making a U-turn in respect of something said by such a candidate, and the hon. Gentleman knows it. As I made clear, we undertook a review on taking office. We responded to the views of local people and people such as the hon. Gentleman, who support the scheme, so I find his contortions incredible. I shall mention his point about a public meeting to my colleagues, who will doubtless respond.

On terminal 5, the hon. Gentleman should be in no doubt that the Government's proposed widening scheme would go ahead in any case. That is made clear by road congestion assessments that have been in the public domain for a long time. We have sensibly decided to put on hold the start date, which is now planned for 2002–03, when the decision on terminal 5 and the potential need for a spur road will be known. Unlike the previous Government, we are planning sensibly. It would be nonsense to begin major road works now, only to discover that we must revise the building and construction schedule and add the spur road to a section that has already been widened. The hon. Gentleman prefers to deal in the currency of political chicanery, and accuses the Government of duplicity. However, as any straightforward person can see, we are approaching two major building projects in a sensible way and making sure that their time scales are co-ordinated and additional problems not created.

One of the main subjects for debate should have been the potential impact of construction work and widening on people who live in the area. However, and doubtless to the regret of many of his constituents, the hon. Gentleman chose not to focus on those important questions because he was more interested in making cheap political capital from his time in this Chamber. We have made a thorough assessment of the impact of traffic noise, air quality, motorway lighting and so on. Traffic noise is a major concern, and the hon. Gentleman knows that we plan to use porous asphalt throughout the scheme. It provides a quieter road surface, and will ensure that, notwithstanding the increase in traffic, householders will experience no more motorway noise in 2010 than they do at the moment. Porous asphalt will reduce noise levels experienced by about 850 of the 1,100 householders who live near the motorway. The scheme will provide a significant overall benefit in terms of noise, air and water quality, lighting and landscaping.

The hon. Gentleman has missed an opportunity. He has failed to raise issues that are of most concern to his constituents.