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Column 982Skinner, Dennis
Smith, Andrew (Oxford E)
Smith, Chris (Isl'ton S & F'sbury)
Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
Squire, Rachel (Dunfermline W)
Steel, Rt Hon Sir David
Strang, Dr. Gavin
Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Walker, Rt Hon Sir Harold
Wardell, Gareth (Gower)
Wareing, Robert N
Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Sw'n W)
Williams, Alan W (Carmarthen)
Wright, Dr Tony
Young, David (Bolton SE)
Tellers for the Noes: Mr. Stephen Byers and Mr. Peter Mandelson.
Column 982Question accordingly agreed to.
That the Police Grant Report (England and Wales) 1995-96 (House of Commons Paper No. 164), which was laid before this House on 30th January, be approved.
That Mr. Edward Garnier be discharged from the Home Affairs Committee and Mr. Walter Sweeney be added to the Committee.--[ Sir Fergus Montgomery, on behalf of the Committee of Selection.]
That Sir David Madel be discharged from the Administration Committee and Mr. Derek Conway be added to the Committee.--[ Sir Fergus Montgomery, on behalf of the Committee of Selection.]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Willetts.]
Sir David Mitchell (Hampshire, North-West): I am grateful to Madam Speaker for the opportunity to raise in this Adjournment debate the matter of the Newbury bypass and the delay in its start. In doing so, I am supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter), and by the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel), who I see in his place across the Chamber.
I am glad that my hon. Friend the Minister for Railways and Roads will reply to the debate. I should like to take him briefly through crucial aspects of the matter. I shall give, first, what I would call a geographical description of the position of Newbury; secondly, the history of events; thirdly, the economic case for an early start; and, fourthly, the environmental aspects as they affect my constituents. With your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the hon. Member for Newbury will talk about the effects on his constituency.
The town occupies a pivotal position on the A34, a road that is designated as Euro-route E05 and that has, as its southern approach, thre and a half miles of single carriageway from Tothill. It is the only single carriageway section of the route between Madrid and Glasgow. We are talking about a Euro-route, yet there are at this point three and a half miles of 7 metre- wide single track. The average daily flow of traffic is 26,000 vehicles on what is known as the new town strait, the bit south of Newbury. On the dual carriageway part in Newbury itself, the daily average flow is some 50,600 vehicles. That figure almost meets the Treasury requirements for an M road. One should bear it in mind that they are average figures and that within those figures there are peaks and troughs. Although, during the troughs, not many people are trying to get through Newbury in a reasonable time, the delay is intolerable in peak hours. I am talking about five-mile traffic jams to the south of Newbury and five-mile traffic jams to the north.
The history of the bypass is that there have been two public inquires, one in 1980 and one in 1988. The Department's consultants examined no fewer than 39 possible routes. There was widespread consultation, and the second inquiry took no less than five months and involved 2,000 hours of examination and 150 witnesses. All possible opinions were trawled, and all alternative routes were examined. The inquiry recommended the western bypass.
Inevitably, there was--and still is--a small vocal minority opposed to having the bypass at all, and especially on the western route. Of course I respect the desire to preserve the environment but--I say this as an aside- -it is interesting to note that, on his arrival, the inspector was at first against the western route on environmental grounds but, as the inquiry proceeded, he found that the Department's case got stronger and more convincing. That is why he finally found in favour of it. Also as an aside, 6,000 petitioners expressed their approval.
At the 1988 inquiry, the Department of Transport estimated that there would be 21,000 vehicles on the single carriageway south of the town by the year 2000. The reality is that there are 25,000 vehicles now, so the
Column 984expectations of traffic going through the town and the need for the bypass were substantially understated at the time of the public inquiry, which found in favour of the western route.
I deal now with the economic aspects of the case. The A34 is an arterial link between Birmingham and the country's manufacturing base there and the ports of Southampton, Portsmouth and Poole. North of Newbury, there is often a five-mile traffic jam involving vehicles heading to the coast, and 19.5 per cent. of them are lorries, because of the road's strategic importance as a route to the ports. The five-mile traffic jam heading north to the midlands comprises vehicles carrying raw materials and semi-finished goods needed by industry, and cannot represent anything other than a substantial and unnecessary burden on industry.
I have stood in the Minister's shoes, and I am aware of the Department of Transport's problems with the Treasury when it comes to securing the resources that one would like for many desirable forms of expenditure. Therefore, I hope that the Minister can use the economic cost as a strong argument so that the Treasury accedes to the resources needed.
I have been talking to the Confederation of British Industry about the matter, and it thinks that it is reasonable to argue that "congestion on the A34 adds millions of pounds every year to the costs to businesses who use the road, not only in the South but also in the Midlands and the North."
That, too, is part of the economic cost.
I turn from that to the environmental case. I accept that there is an environmental cost to a bypass. Any route inevitably incurs that. But there is also an environmental plus for Newbury, because of the reduction of congestion, pollution, vibration, damage to buildings and accidents involving people as well as vehicles. There is an environmental advantage for my constituents, because at present, they cannot get in and out of Newbury at the times when they want to travel. It is all right when nobody is commuting to work or back. At the slack time, there is no great difficulty. But when people want to travel, there is considerable delay.
Many of my constituents live on roads immediately adjacent to the A34 south of Newbury. Because of the traffic jam, they are virtually sealed into the roads on which they live and cannot get out to get into the traffic to move either north or south. That is a considerable complication for people trapped there.
For all the reasons--the strategic block on a Euro-route, the history of the public inquiries, and the economic and environmental cases--it is essential that that bypass should proceed, and proceed shortly. The Secretary of State has referred the matter to the Highways Agency and told me that he wishes to be quite sure the proposed bypass is the right solution, and he has asked the Highways Agency to review all practical options.
I recognise that we have a new Secretary of State for Transport, who cares deeply about the environment. I can well understand his wanting to ensure that such a major scheme involving a substantial bypass has been totally and thoroughly investigated. But the bypass has been through two public inquiries, as I said. It has been examined critically, and every alternative route has been examined critically. So it is difficult to discern what can
Column 985be discovered at this late hour as an alternative route. That is the heart of the problem which I draw to the attention of the House and the Minister.
If the Secretary of State had said that his budget was so constrained, that it was part of a national effort to get a balanced budget so that we did not get inflation again and did not enter a Lawson boom and bust cycle, that he did not have the money, and that the bypass must be postponed for a year, we would grumble, but we would accept it as not unreasonable. However, we face the prospect of an alternative route.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will clarify the position that the road is to be moved only a couple of yards. Even if that is so, we need to hold a fresh public inquiry. That means a five-year delay, which would be totally intolerable against the background of figures which I have given to the House.
I plead with the Minister: if he cannot give us an answer, will he at least take the problem away? Will he recognise that it is very important on commercial, economic, and environmental grounds and because of the undertakings given in the past that we know the time scale for a decision and where we stand on the future of the road? I now hope that the hon. Member for Newbury may be able to join the debate.
An extraordinary letter has reached my hand. It was sent from the Highways Agency to the director of development services of Newbury district council, and it states:
"If even minor changes are made to the route new legal Orders may be needed. These could take some years to go through the statutory processes, so for the purposes of development control I recommend that we now work on the basis that there will be no additional capacity through Newbury before 2003."
That may be in the totally different context of a rather conservative approach to advice on planning and development, but it is a frightening suggestion from the Highways Agency. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to clarify the position and the status of that document.
Mr. David Rended (Newbury): I thank the hon. Member for Hampshire, North-West (Sir D. Mitchell) for inviting me to join him in supporting the idea that the Newbury bypass should be constructed with the minimum possible delay. I am particularly grateful for the opportunity to take part in this Adjournment debate, having already had the opportunity to take part in an Adjournment debate on the subject on the very afternoon that the infamous decision was announced to postpone yet again the start of the construction of that road.
The hon. Gentleman has already made many of the arguments in favour of the Newbury bypass on a general ground, and I wish to concentrate particularly, as he suggested I should, on the effects on the town of Newbury itself-- that lovely old market town which lies right at the heart of my constituency. I shall start by talking about the effects on business in the town, because they are very important. Businesses in Newbury are, without question, suffering badly from the effects of the current hold-ups in the town. Clients and customers are unwilling to risk coming into
Column 986Newbury town to visit businesses because they are aware of the huge delays and hold-ups which happen all too often in and around the town.
Even more important, I want to talk about the environment in Newbury and the effects on the people of Newbury--the people who are suffering day after day from the pollution that is spewed out by the cars and lorries moving all too slowly straight through the centre of our lovely town. Those people are, perhaps, children in school playgrounds. They might be people going shopping, or people going about their business, visiting banks and building societies or whatever, in Newbury. Those people are suffering from the noxious fumes and the pollution that is being spewed out at present all over our town.
Let me quote a letter which I received recently from a young girl who tells me that, for the past two years, she has been an asthmatic. Until last summer, she had been able to come off her medication for two months. She told me that it took her one and a half hours to travel the seven miles through Newbury. She said:
"My breathing got very bad and by the time I got to my destination I was having a full blown asthma attack, needing to double up medications and start taking the steroids again . . . I cannot be the only one who suffers in this way due to traffic fumes . . . So why are the Government enforcing a growing number of the local and passing population of Newbury to suffer in this way?" That is not a politician trying to get a bypass for the town: it is a young girl just at the start of her life, looking for some way to overcome the health problems she meets as a result of the dreadful traffic in our town.
Let me remind the Minister what he himself said in a letter written on 27 October last year:
"I recently visited Newbury and saw for myself the pressing need for a bypass. A bypass is needed to remove the noisy smelly traffic from the town."
The Secretary of State says that he has to review all the options, but all the options have been reviewed time and again. As the hon. Member for Hampshire, North-West has said, inspectors' reports have shown that all possible options have been reviewed. We cannot simply go back to square one yet again.
The route that has been chosen is the least environmentally damaging route possible. The bypass will bring huge environmental benefits to the town of Newbury. How many more inquiries must we have? How many Secretaries of State do we have to persuade that this really is the right route?
At present, Secretaries of State are changed every year and a half. Every new Secretary of State demands a new inquiry, which takes a year. We then have a year to set up the new tenders to get the work done, but the next Secretary of State will be in place before the tender can be signed again. It could go on for ever. Each new Secretary of State makes a new decision. That is not good enough. How many more Secretaries of State will do this? How long will it last? Will it really take until the millennium and beyond before we achieve our bypass for Newbury? Newbury needs its bypass, and it needs it now.
Column 987debate on this important subject which has invoked much interest in the House and outside. Over the years, my hon. Friend has taken a close personal interest in the A34 Newbury bypass, as his speech to the House today has shown. I am pleased to have this opportunity to respond to the points which he and the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) made.
As I live in Berkshire and represent a constituency at the other end of the county, the congestion problems in Newbury are well known to me, as my letter of 27 October, from which the hon. Member for Newbury quoted, indicates. I believe that there is an urgent need to find a solution to the problems of congestion in Newbury and the surrounding area to which my hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman referred in graphic terms.
It may be helpful if I say a little about the background to the scheme and the decision to review it. As my hon. Friend said, this scheme has been the subject of full public consultation and two public inquiries held by independent inspectors. The decision to proceed with the western bypass route was therefore not arrived at quickly or easily.
The environmental sensitivity of the area around Newbury has rightly been an important issue in considering the route options for the scheme. Indeed, most of the 1988 public inquiry was concerned with the environmental effects of the western bypass proposals, which were considered very carefully and taken into account before the decision to proceed was taken.
Despite this very thorough environmental assessment of the proposals, there has been some criticism that a formal environmental statement under EC directive 85/337/EEC was not published for this scheme. However, the Government have long held the view that the directive, which is essentially concerned with procedural requirements relating to the granting of development consent, does not apply to cases in which the application for development consent was made before the date of entry into force of the directive, as indeed was the case with the A34 Newbury bypass.
The Government disagree with the European Commission's interpretation of the law on this matter, and have explained their position fully to the Commission. It has also been argued that, since the decision to proceed with the scheme was taken in July 1990, there have been a number of new factors which are of such significance that the western bypass route should be looked at again. These include the proposed designation by English Nature of new sites of special scientific interest in the Kennet and Lamborn valleys across which the proposed western bypass route would pass.
In a position statement published by English Nature on 9 September last year, it said that it had not defined a boundary for the proposed sites, although an "area of search" had been identified within which it is likely that the final boundaries of the designated sites will fall. Nevertheless, English Nature has made it clear that the rivers were being proposed for notification as SSSIs in the full knowledge that the Newbury bypass could be constructed through the "area of search".
It has also been suggested that the proposals are in breach of the European Commission's habitat and species directive. To date, no designations under this directive have been made.
Notwithstanding this, we are conscious of our obligations and, in the context of the western bypass route, we have been taking appropriate action to ensure
Column 988that any endangered species are protected by approved means. In this connection, we have been working closely with English Nature to ensure that the requirements of all relevant legislation are met. Some concern has also been expressed about the effects of the proposed western bypass route on the battle of Newbury sites. I fully understand that concern, although both those sites have suffered serious encroachment from the urban expansion of Newbury in the recent past. Nevertheless, the proposed route would cross only the western extremities of the battlefields and, contrary to some people's assertions, would not destroy them.
The channel tunnel has also been cited as a new development, since the 1990 decision on the bypass, which should be taken into account before we proceed with the scheme. I assure the House that we have carefully considered the effect of the channel tunnel on the use of the A34. We have concluded that the tunnel would have no significant effect on the needs of heavy goods traffic using that trunk route. Finally, it has been suggested that concerns raised by the National Rivers Authority have not been adequately addressed. Since it was established under the Water Act 1989, the NRA has been involved in discussions on the design of the scheme. Among other things, the discussions focused on the disposal of surface water and the proposed structures for the new road.
The NRA has expressed its concern about the risk of flooding and the effect on the ecology of the River Kennet and Lamborn corridors. Having considered those representations and commissioned further studies, we have been satisfied that further changes to the geometric criteria of the bridges over the rivers are unnecessary.
The House may be assured, therefore, that all the legitimate concerns that have been raised have been properly addressed. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State wants to be sure that we have the right solution before proceeding. I understand the frustration of the hon. Member for Newbury, who asked what would happen if every succeeding Secretary of State reached the same point and wanted another review.
It is not unreasonable, however, that my right hon Friend should be satisfied that the scheme that he is authorising is the best possible solution before he takes decisions that will have a long-term effect on the area and will commit substantial sums of money. For that reason, he asked the Highways Agency to look again at the plans for the bypass, review the options for relieving congestion in Newbury and report back to him as soon as possible.
The review is being undertaken by an independent team within the Highways Agency, comprising staff not previously associated with the project. They will reconsider the published route and other practical alternative options. All factors relevant to the choice of route will be considered.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, North-West said, a great deal of time and resources have been spent in public consultation and public inquiries to find a satisfactory solution to the problems of congestion on the A34 through Newbury. It has been suggested that the decision to put the scheme on hold renders all that abortive. That is not the case. The scheme has not been abandoned, or cancelled, and the statutory orders for the western bypass route remain in force. The scheme is on hold.
Column 989I fully recognise the importance of the A34 route, however, and the problems of congestion in Newbury. I also understand the concern that has been expressed by local businesses and residents of Newbury and by a number of right hon. and hon. Members of this House, both in the Chamber and outside, about the delay that the review is causing. That is why we have asked the Highways Agency to carry out the further review as a matter of urgency. I assure the House that another announcement will be made as soon as possible after my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has considered the further report. I cannot put a precise date on that, but I assure the House and my hon. Friend that there will be no undue delay in completing the review, or in putting matters before my right hon. Friend for a decision.
There has been much speculation about the reasons for putting the scheme on hold. I assure the House that there is nothing sinister in this. It is my practice and that of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to visit the sites of proposed rail or road developments, so that we can see them for ourselves and make our assessment in addition to the professional advice that we are given. There is nothing sinister about that.
The decision to put the scheme on hold was not taken in response to the royal commission report on environmental pollution or the report by the Standing Advisory Committee on Trunk Road Assessment on induced traffic, although the Government welcomed both reports and are responding to them. All the schemes within the roads programme will be the subject of assessment under the new modelling techniques, which we have adapted in the light of the advice from SACTRA. The relevance of the SACTRA analysis will be considered case by case. I reject the idea that the decision to review the scheme is "a victory for the green lobby". We mounted a strong and successful defence against the recent application to the High Court for judicial review to establish the fact that we were legally entitled to implement the scheme, which had completed all statutory procedures, and the court's decision fully vindicated our action. That is an important point of principle.