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10.17 pm

The Minister for Railways and Roads (Mr. John Watts): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley) on securing this debate, and on his strong advocacy of the concerns of his constituents. The proposals to widen the M20 between junctions 3 and 5 entered the road programme with the publication of the White Paper in May 1989, as he reminded the House. Draft side roads orders for the scheme were published, with an environmental statement, in January 1994. The proposals then went to public consultation, and a public inquiry was held in October and November 1994.

Following our review of the roads programme in 1995, the scheme was placed in the longer-term programme, because it was likely to be some time before it could be taken forward. Nevertheless, to remove some uncertainties, my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for the Environment and for Transport announced their decision on the scheme on 4 September this year. Because of unresolved issues about noise mitigation, they decided that the draft orders should be withdrawn.

The inquiry, which closed in November 1994, led to the inspectors' report that we received in the middle of January 1995. Normally, we aim to issue a decision within six months, but in this case the inspector's recommendation with regard to the use of porous asphalt required particularly careful consideration because of technical difficulties in applying it to this type of road, made of jointed concrete.

As my right hon. Friend pointed out, following a further review that we had to undertake in the current year, the scheme has been withdrawn from the programme. Schemes which were in the longer-term programme had little chance of coming to fruition within a reasonable time scale. But keeping them in the programme perpetuated uncertainty and the damaging effect of blight on individuals and neighbourhoods. Now that the M20 scheme has been withdrawn, the local planning authority will be notified that the safeguarding which protects the proposed route should be removed from local plans.

At that point, safeguarding is withdrawn, statutory blight disappears and the powers to use section 246(2A) of the Highways Act for discretionary purchase are

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extinguished. There are a handful of discretionary purchase cases which have been agreed but for which the acquisition has not been completed. In those cases, the Highways Agency will be contacting the applicants to ask whether they wish to continue with the sale. If they do, we will honour the agreements.

My right hon. Friend has pressed me on the need to consider additional noise protection along this section of M20, and in this respect he has raised a number of specific questions. The Department has powers under section 282 of the Highways Act 1980 to provide noise barriers on any land in our ownership. Mitigation proposals for the withdrawn scheme comprised just over three miles of noise barriers. These proposals, and the noise amelioration they offered, applied only to the layout of the scheme, and would not necessarily be effective in reducing noise impact from this existing section of M20. If noise barriers were to be provided, it would be necessary to redesign the scheme from first principles.

As my right hon. Friend knows, the Department is required to provide noise mitigation in circumstances where we act as a developer by building a new road or substantially altering an existing one. We are not obliged to do so to deal with noise levels resulting from increased use of an existing unaltered road. I made it clear in answer to a parliamentary question earlier today that we have, in exceptional circumstances and where funds have been available, exercised a discretionary policy for providing noise barriers on roads last improved before 17 October 1969, but that policy is not applicable in respect of this section of road, which opened to traffic in 1971.

My right hon. Friend also asked whether Kent county council, as a highway authority, has discretionary powers to provide noise mitigation on this section of the M20.

Sir John Stanley: Can my hon. Friend confirm that, in law, he is perfectly able to use his discretionary powers to construct noise barriers on motorways that were built after 17 October 1969, and that it is merely a matter of policy that he does not do so? I asked whether he would consider a change in policy and make an exception in the context of this scheme, given the traffic forecasts and the terrible position in which my constituents have been placed for a considerable period.

Mr. Watts: My right hon. Friend was entirely right: we have the powers, and it is a matter of policy that we apply them as we do to new roads or substantially improved roads, and not to deal with the problems of increasing traffic on unaltered roads.

Kent county council has discretionary powers under the Highways Act to provide noise mitigation barriers, but only on roads for which it is the highway authority. On the M20, Kent county council acts as our agent. It is open to Kent county council, or indeed any other body, to offer to fund noise barriers on M20. If any such offer were forthcoming, I can assure my right hon. Friend that the Department would not stand in the way of the implementation of such an offer.

Of course, withdrawing the scheme from the roads programme means that, now that resurfacing will not be undertaken as part of the widening works, the M20 junctions 3 to 5 will have to be reinstated into the trunk road major maintenance programme.

My right hon. Friend has asked what steps we are taking to achieve a quieter surface for that section of the M20 when resurfacing needs to take place. First,

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reassessment of the condition of the carriageway will be a necessary part of that process. Depending on what the assessment shows, measures to repair or renew the surface will be proposed. At that time, choices will need to be taken about the materials to be used for the surface. Clearly, treating any noise impact at source is more attractive as an option than trying to contain it through barriers.

The arguments in favour of porous asphalt in these cases are well rehearsed. Where the criteria for porous asphalt are met, we are willing to use it. For example, it is already in use on several sections of the trunk road network, including parts of the M25 and M1, and it will be used on the A34 Newbury bypass.

One also has to recognise, however, that the material has drawbacks. It is much more expensive and less durable than hot-rolled asphalt, therefore requiring more frequent replacement, which causes disruption to traffic. It also requires more frequent salt applications in winter. We need to be sure, therefore, that the benefits of using it in particular circumstances outweigh those disbenefits.

In addition, the material is not technically suitable for all roads, particularly those that carry exceptionally high flows of heavy goods vehicles, or for use as an overlay on jointed concrete roads, where the thickness required to ensure that the joints do not show through in cracks in the main surface can present difficulties,--for example, in maintaining headroom through structures. Typically, it would need 4 in or so of overlay. That was identified as a potential problem in the decision letter on the scheme that has now been abandoned.

As part of a continuing programme of research, we are seeking to tackle those drawbacks, and we are examining other forms of quieter road surface, including thin surfacing. Some of the new thin surface materials are already in use--for example, on the A1 in Cambridgeshire, the A12 in Essex and the M6 in Cumbria. They are being monitored for their performance and durability, especially their retention of skidding resistance.

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Other materials are still in the earlier stages of development. Subject to that work proving successful, when this section of the M20 next requires surface maintenance, we will look closely at the materials available that could reduce noise, and at the possibility of using that section of road as part of the further development of those new surfacing techniques.

The proving of them starts at the laboratory level, considering the results of manufacturer's tests. We then use them on relatively short sections of carriageway to see how they stand up. The final development phase is to use them over a considerable stretch of carriageway to find out how they perform in operation in the live circumstances of a major road.

Clearly, when we are trying a material to test its durability and noise-reducing characteristics, it is sensible to choose locations where we have heavy flows of traffic, a great amount of heavy traffic, and where we are aware of problems with noise that cannot be treated using existing techniques.

I can hold out that hope and comfort to my right hon. Friend and his constituents. If we have the opportunity to use that stretch of road to test the durability and effectiveness of one of the new materials when it is time for it to be resurfaced, we will seek to do so.

Naturally, I sympathise with my right hon. Friend's constituents, who have suffered the uncertainty and blight of schemes being developed and then withdrawn, and who have seen the prospect of noise mitigation being provided as part of an improvement scheme, only to disappear with withdrawal of the scheme. If we are able to tackle the problem at source, rather than seeking merely to contain it, it will provide a better solution.

I give my right hon. Friend the undertaking that we will seek every opportunity to do so and therefore to resolve this long-running problem, which he has brought to the House so many timesand so effectively, and with which I have the greatest sympathy.

Question put and agreed to.

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