HC Deb 07 March 2000 vol 345 cc149-55WH

12 noon

Mr. Howard Flight (Arundel and South Downs)

It is rather a suitable day to discuss the Arundel bypass, which is not untypical of projects in other parts of the south-east. We shall hear later about the hundreds of thousands of new houses to be built in the south-east without properly considering whether the infrastructure is in place to service them. Road infrastructure is crucial, but other aspects of the infrastructure, too, do not have adequate facilities to accommodate the increases anticipated for the next six years.

I initiated the debate in order to express the extreme frustration—nay outrage of my constituents, the county council and Arun district council that a sensible proposal that dates back to 1985 has been kicked into the long grass. The strongest cross-party, cross-community support exists to solve the problem, whether it is referred to as congestion, a bottleneck or a pinch point.

As the Minister will be aware, a two-mile stretch of the A27 going through Arundel is dual carriageway both from Worthing and to Chichester. That stretch experiences appalling congestion in both directions, especially in summer. The roads programme for the bypass started in 1985 and, following substantial public consultation in 1987, in 1989 the Department sharpened up the proposal. In 1993, broad agreement was reached among the Department, the community, the environmental lobby, the county council and the district council for what is known as the pink-blue route, following a 10-volume environmental study and substantial local discussion. The pink-blue route would result in minimum damage to the environment.

In December 1996, the proposals was elevated to the main roads programme, to be implemented as soon as funding was available. Regrettably, as a result of the 1998 roads review, it was shelved. Since May 1997, I have handled more than 4 in of correspondence with constituents and the Department. At the end of last year, a private finance initiative was proposed to break the deadlock, but was dismissed without adequate consideration. The proposal is for a bypass of 6.6 km which, as projected in 1997, would cost £23.1 million.

The roads review of July 1998 remitted discussion of the scheme to a study of the scheme to be carried out at some time in the future—it used the words "expected in 2000–01", which probably means beyond that—and an environmental study of the area from Folkestone to Southampton, with its mandate worded in brave new world terms rather than dealing with the specific immediate problems of congestion. I am not commenting on the transport needs from Dover to Bournemouth, although there may be a sound case to be made for a motorway along the crucial east-west corridor. Any recommendations that may come out of that study, presumably in four or five years' time, will need to be considered by the South East England regional assembly—SEERA—and the Secretary of State. Yet again, that means further delay while the new regional development agency structure has its finger in the pie.

The local community's impression is that the Government have negated all the previous work, and ignored the urgent and growing needs of the community. Indeed, land is being designated adjacent to the A27 for most of the housing in the southern part of West Sussex. The study deals with congestion, safety and environmental problems on the south coast route between Folkestone and Southampton. Although "congestion" is referred to, the study really misses the point that there is an urgent economic need to relieve serious pinch point congestion spots. The July 1998 White Paper referred to that problem.

The issue of needing further environmental consideration was not entirely genuine, given that the environmental issues were analysed in great depth— in 10 volumes—earlier in that decade. I requested clarification on whether the bypass had been relegated to tranche 2 of the study programme, although I am not quite clear what "tranche 2" means in that context. I was told in correspondence with the Department that the Government were not convinced that the Arundel bypass scheme offered the most appropriate or sustainable solution to the problem. I would like to know how the Government feel the problem of acute congestion can be solved, other than by a bypass.

Mr. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham)

My hon. Friend will be aware of the similar problems that we face next door to him in Worthing, where a bypass has been on the cards for the past 30 years. Is he aware that one can travel from Newcastle to Portsmouth entirely on motorway or dual carriageway until one arrives at Worthing, or coming the other way, until one arrives at Arundel? Is it not absurd that, on the day the Government are confirming the building of thousands of new homes in the county of West Sussex, there is no infrastructure to take them and no road plans have been made to take those new residents and their cars?

Mr. Flight

I thank my hon. Friend for making that fundamental point. I stress that it is not thousands of new homes, but hundreds of thousands. That will affect this piece of road because the area is used extensively by people for holidays. Given the Government's proposals to turn the downs into a national park, the volume of tourists will increase dramatically.

Locally, it is regarded as a disgrace that the matter has dragged on for 15 years, wasting a fortune in terms of inquiries and mere paperwork. The problems are simple. Residents have to cross a highly dangerous road. Arundel is situated either side of it. The number of accidents is substantial. The proposed new site for the doctor's surgery is on the road that needs to be bypassed. The junction with the road from Burpham is dangerous, and there have been many serious accidents there. Inconvenience is caused to hundreds of thousands of local citizens and summer visitors. Moreover, the absence of a bypass is causing an environmental problem, because it inevitably causes back-up congestion on rural roads. Problems are also caused when people attempt to avoid congestion in summer by cutting through such roads.

In that part of the world, people typically cannot work where they live. Thousands work at Gatwick. There is no great degree of employment in Arundel or along the south coast, and it is unrealistic to suggest that all residents can deal with their transport needs through trains and some magic integrated transport system which does not exist.

Four years ago, the Department of Transport acknowledged that there was a major problem with the embankment to the bridge over the railway on the existing route. A study as to what would be required to render that safe was promised, and was completed in July 1997. For some extraordinary reason, the study was not permitted to be made public. I cannot see what it could have contained that was not appropriate for public consumption unless there was something of concern. Three years later, I am not aware that anything has been done to make the embankment safer. If the bridge were out of action and rebuilding had occurred for a considerable time, the congestion would be completely impossible. The only practical suggestion would be to build the bypass and make the bridge hold up as long as possible, but revolution would be on our hands if it were repaired in the meantime. Looking through my files, it struck me that the administration over the past 16 years of inquiries into the matter must have cost as much in obstructing and obfuscating the bypass as the £23 million cost of building it in the first place.

As we are all aware, shortly before Christmas, the Government announced additional expenditure for rural bypasses. The chief executive of West Sussex county council received a nine-page letter from the Government on the south-east—much of which was not especially relevant to West Sussex—which failed to mention the issue. Eight rural bypasses and two urban bypasses were announced. I inspected some of those rural bypass areas, and I must say with absolute integrity that their problems are considerably less severe than those of Arundel.

The 1998 White Paper specifically referred on page 17 to the objective to tackle pinch points in transport networks that lead to major congestion. I was also perturbed to receive the following comment in a letter from the Minister for Roads and Road Safety in December 1998: We should not presume that any scheme coming out of the study would have the same aims as the previous bypass scheme nor that its routes would be similar. What are the aims of such a scheme if they are not to release the pinch point and the congestion? The possible routes have been discussed to many times that there is no merit in raising the issue again. My advice to the Minister would be not to presume at all.

We have spent 12 years agreeing the optimum route. What have the Government unearthed that they believe is sufficiently environmentally damaging to cause them to tear up the proposals? My constituents and I are fed up with the bureaucratic obfuscation and the money that has been wasted. This is a simple issue of dealing with a problem which can be solved because the work has been done to solve it.

I close by reading a letter sent to me three years ago by a constituent, who wrote: I am writing from my office at Arundel station as I view the police helicopter, fire and emergency services extricating another poor victim from an accident on the section of the A27 from Arundel to Crossbush—that is the part that needs to be bypassed— The radio reports another 12-mile tailback of traffic and those coming to see me are lost in a traffic jam a few miles away. The slightest breakdown or hitch on this wholly inadequate section of road causes massive disruption to everyone. It is high time the new route was completed. I ask the Minister to reconsider the Government's answer in the light of the number of people who will be moving into the area in the next six years. This is a serious problem; it is dangerous and it causes chaos and inconvenience to hundreds of thousands of people who are going about their everyday lives.

12.17 pm
The Minister of State for Local Government and the Regions (Ms Hilary Armstrong)

I thank the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight) for raising the topic. Few can deny that the volume of traffic that passes through Arundel daily has an impact on the quality of life both of residents and of those who must use this section of A27 for their journey. Some 25,000 vehicles a day travel along this section of road, bringing with them congestion, noise and pollution. The mixture of local and through-traffic brings with it a conflict that impacts on the local environment and compromises the safety of road users and residents alike. The A27 forms part of the south coast route between the M27 and Folkestone, which provides an important link in the stragegic road network. Therefore, it is important that the route performs efficiently and effectively as part of the trunk road network.

The hon. Gentleman asked why the Government did not address the issue of the A27 in their December announcement of the local government capital finance settlement for 2000–01. The A27 is a trunk road, and investment decisions relating to specific schemes are not announced as part of the local authority capital settlement. That is why there was no reference to the road. However, that settlement represented a determination to take forward the work that local government does on highways, and to make sure that it has the appropriate funding to do it.

The Government have placed the issues that concern the residents of Arundel and the users of the A27 high on their transport agenda. In publishing the transport White Paper, we emphasised that we would seek to deliver an integrated transport system that was safe, efficient, clean and fair. The White Paper set out a policy framework that will help to extend choice in transport and secure mobility in a way that supports sustainable development. Trunk roads are a vital part of the nation's strategic transport infrastructure and must play a full part in an integrated transport system. Shortly after the publication of the transport White Paper, the Government published their stategic review of the national roads programme against criteria of accessibility, safety, economy, environment and integration.

Mr. Loughton

Given the great emphasis that the Minister rightly places on trunk roads, why was one of the Government's first acts the dropping of every trunk road improvement scheme in West Sussex?

Ms Armstrong

I am here to answer about issues concerning the A27 in Arundel and shall carry on doing that.

The review was informed by wide consultation. In the south-east, that took the form of seminars, involving representatives of local authorities, business, transport providers and environmental interest groups, to consider problems affecting the region's trunk roads and priorities for action. In several instances, although it was accepted that a transport problem existed and needed a solution, the need for a road-based solution was not considered to have been proved. In addition, schemes were not considered for inclusion in the targeted programme of improvements if they were not sufficiently developed. The A27 Arundel bypass was one such scheme.

The roads review identified the need for a study of the south coast corridor from Southampton to Folkestone, to include the M27, A27 and A259 and rail and other public transport. That aimed at improving access to and between the regeneration areas and other areas of economic activity along the south coast. The review also announced that the future of the A27 Arundel bypass would be considered as part of the study.

The Government understand and appreciate the disappointment that many local people may feel at the decision to remit the bypass to a study. Proposals for the A27 Arundel bypass have twice been the subject of detailed public consultation. That has highlighted many residents' and road users' concerns about traffic conditions on the A27 in Arundel. Congestion brings added cost in the form of delay, pollution and accidents. To date, the debate on a solution has focused on a bypass, but that would mean costs to the environment—notably in the visual impact of the scheme as it crossed the River Arun flood plain and the effect on Tortington common and Binsted wood.

The roads review set a new strategic aim and objectives for the Highways Agency as a network operator, with a higher priority to be given to improving the use of existing roads and greater emphasis placed on environmental and safety objectives. In that context, investment decisions affecting the development of the trunk road network need to be consistent with the Government's integrated transport policy. It is therefore important for decisions that directly affect the relevant section of the A27 south coast trunk road corridor to be taken not just in a wider strategic context but after consideration of how the demand for travel could be satisfied by widening choice in transport.That cannot be done without considering how the demand for travel will change as the policy framework set out in the White Paper is implemented.

The Southampton to Folkestone multi-modal study provides the opportunity to examine all those issues in a considered and balanced manner. It is intended to deal with congestion, safety and environmental problems along the south coast route between Southampton and Folkestone. In addition to the A27 Arundel bypass, the study will consider the future of the Selmeston bypass, Wilmington bypass and the Southerham to Beddington improvement scheme. The study will also provide a forum in which to consider any strategic issues relating to the A27 south coast corridor that are identified as part of the access to Hastings multi-modal study and the M27 south Hampshire and A27 Worthing-Lancing integrated transport studies that are now under way.

The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs said that the area was one of the pinch points identified in the White Paper, and although it might be identified as a pinch point in the network, it is important that any investment proposals that address that issue are considered in the wider strategic context that reflects the role of the A27 south coast corridor.

The Government are aware of the importance to the local community of completing the study at the earliest opportunity. The Minister for Transport announced in March last year that the Southampton to Folkestone study would be included in the second tranche of multi-modal studies, and work on the study is anticipated to commence during the next financial year. Given the scale and complexity of the study, it is anticipated that it will take approximately 18 to 24 months to complete. Any recommendations made will need to be considered by the regional planning body, which will, in turn, make recommendations to the Secretary of State on the future of the Arundel bypass.

The Government acknowledge the importance of the A27 south coast corridor and the very real concerns of the residents of Arundel and road users. The multi-modal study provides the opportunity to address those concerns in a positive way as part of a wider strategy, which will seek to realise the potential to widen travel choice and reduce dependency on the private car. In the meantime, the Highways Agency will continue to focus its efforts on making the best possible use of the existing A27 corridor. A study has recently been completed on the junction of the A27 with Burpham road to the east of Arundel. That study examined safety concerns raised by the local community and identified a potential solution, which must now be considered further.

The structural condition of the bridge that carries the A27 over the Arun valley railway line has been the subject of some concern. A potential scheme to refurbish the structure has been developed and is being considered further.

I understand that the decision to remit the Arundel bypass will be seen by some as delaying a much-needed scheme. The truth is that even in the most favourable circumstances, the need to complete the due statutory procedures would preclude the delivery of a completed scheme within probably the next seven years. Such a time scale makes it all the more important that the Highways Agency should work closely with West Sussex county council, Arun district council, Arundel town council and other interested parties to identify and tackle many of the issues associated with the A27 through Arundel in order to limit and minimise the extent of its impact on the local community.

The Government also appreciate that economic growth and regeneration could bring further pressure to bear on both the A27 corridor and adjoining local roads. In there transport White Paper, the Government emphasised the need to integrate transportation planning with land use planning and with policies on education, health and wealth creation. I am sure that all stakeholders with an interest in achieving a more sustainable pattern of development will look to maximise the opportunity for that development to contribute positively to the development of the transport system in the area.

The Government are actively seeking to address the need to provide an efficient and effective trunk road network as part of a wider integrated transport system. To that end, they seek to ensure that the issues and concerns associated with the A27 trunk road that passes through Arundel are addressed at the earliest possible opportunity.