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1.15 pm

Mr. Roy Hughes (Newport, East) rose--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Geoffrey Lofthouse): Has the hon. Gentleman the leave of the right hon. Member for Northavon (Sir J. Cope) or of the Minister to speak?

Sir John Cope indicated assent.

Mr. Hughes: I wanted to endorse the sentiments expressed by the right hon. Member for Northavon(Sir J. Cope) about noise levels. I represent an area on the Welsh side of the crossing that was formerly very quiet and secluded. The way of life has changed quite a lot since the opening of the new bridge. Apparently, the prevailing wind is from the west and residents in the Rogiet and Caldicot areas get the worst of all worlds, so to speak.

The main environmental problem that arises from the opening of the new bridge is caused by the fact that tolls are collected only on one side, so people tend to drive down the A40 through Monmouth and on to the A449, do whatever business they have to do and travel back across the bridge toll free. That seems detrimental on environmental grounds, besides being most unfair. I hope that the Minister will be able to consider those two matters.

1.16 pm

The Minister for Railways and Roads (Mr. John Watts): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Sir J. Cope) on his diligence and persistence in pursuing the cause of his constituents and bringing these matters before the House today.

As my right hon. Friend acknowledged, the new Severn crossing is a magnificent structure, but he rightly expressed concern about the impact that the opening of the second Severn crossing and the Avon approach roads have had on his constituents. The hon. Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) also referred to the impact on his constituents in Wales. I am not sure whether I am permitted to reply on behalf of the Welsh Office, but if I do not have the opportunity to do so during this brief debate, I shall ensure that he receives a written reply.

The roads were constructed in pursuance of the Severn Bridges Act 1992. During the planning and design stages, great care was taken, in decision making, to maintain the sensitivity of the local environment. The environmental

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statement that was published in 1990 identified and limited construction access routes. It also required separate drainage networks and outfalls, as well as environmental protection and landscape planting.

Extensive consultations were held with local authorities, landowners and representatives of others with key interests, including environmental bodies, prior to and during the planning and construction stages of the scheme to ensure that local views were taken into account. Regular liaison meetings continue to be held to discuss any outstanding matters.

The choice of motorway alignment was made carefully to balance its impact on local communities. As a result, environmental bunds have been constructed at several places adjacent to properties along the M4 and M49, to provide visual and noise mitigation. Where the M49 joins the M5, environmental noise fencing has been erected. As the construction contract has progressed, the bunds have been increased in height where possible to improve visual screening and further to reduce traffic noise.

My right hon. Friend will be pleased to know that we have been able to accommodate the request for screening from the majority of residents of New Passage by the provision of a new earth bund to the north of Pilning interchange, up to 5.5 yd high, which will replace the temporary topsoil bund left over from the construction works for the second Severn crossing. The replacement bund is an additional measure. Preparatory work for its construction is under way, and it should be completed by this summer. My right hon. Friend referred to the agreed timetable, and I believe that the bund will be completed on time.

Landscape planting of the area is programmed for later this year and will help to screen the motorway from properties. Unfortunately, as my right hon. Friend said, we have not been able to accommodate his constituents in New Passage with an extension to the bund, because the motorway rises as it approaches the second Severn bridge, and any extension to the bund would be below the level of the motorway and therefore would not provide any further protection for the residents. There is also a lack of available land to produce a bund that would be wide enough to support a height above the level of the motorway and provide protection.

Following representations from my right hon. Friend and from residents in the Redwick road area, we propose to erect a fence to fill the gap in screening over the River Pill. A planting programme to screen local views and integrate the roads into the surrounding landscape was started this winter, and eventually about 250,000 to 300,000 trees will be planted both off and on site along the motorways.

Among the many indigenous species to be planted will be oak, ash, field maple, hawthorn and blackthorn. Evergreen species and species tolerant of pollution will be used in strategic locations to provide visual screening for properties along the route. Owners of 138 properties identified as eligible under the Noise Insulation Regulations 1975 have received offers of noise insulation, and about 70 have already accepted. A public notice will be issued early this month giving advice on the appeals procedure for insulation against traffic noise to anyone who has not received an offer but considers himself to be entitled to one.

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Following representations from my right hon. Friend, and complaints from residents, including two petitions, a study to examine the benefits of noise fencing in the vicinity of Pilning interchange was undertaken. It showed that fencing would not provide a noticeable improvement in noise levels, and would be visually intrusive to properties in New Passage and the Redwick road area, so the estimated cost of about £300,000 could not be justified. Properties in the eastern part of New Passage are shielded by an earth bund provided as part of the environmental mitigation, varying in height from 1.3 yd to 3 yd high above the motorway adjacent to properties.

My right hon. Friend referred to porous asphalt. He will recall that the approach roads construction contract began in March 1993; porous asphalt, which can reduce traffic noise by an average of 3 to 5 dB(A), was not approved for use on motorways and trunk roads until 1994. It was therefore not possible to specify its use in the contract, and to incorporate it would have required extensive modifications to the water drainage system, leading to delays and disruption to the completion of the contract.

In addition, porous asphalt is considerably more expensive than conventional surfacing materials, as well as being less durable, so it is doubtful whether value-for-money considerations would have permitted its use. Although it can be extremely valuable in the appropriate circumstances, it cannot be used everywhere and will not always provide good value.

I give my right hon. Friend the assurance, however, that when we resurface the road, as must inevitably be done, we shall consider using whatever quieter appropriate surfacing materials are available, which can be used without completely rebuilding the road. Porous asphalt was laid on the M4 west of Cardiff in 1996 to reduce surface water spray and ameliorate a poor wet weather accident record.

Some new proprietary products for renewing existing road surfaces can help to reduce surface water spray and traffic noise, but many of them are not yet approved for general use on trunk roads and motorways, and could not have been employed in place of the conventional materials used in the contract. All available materials will be considered when the road needs to be resurfaced at some time in the future.

As well as trying to offset the effects of the scheme by both physical and financial means, we have examined the safety issues. At the Church lane footbridge, timber fencing will be provided to the path on the eastern approach embankment. On the western side, both the steps and the alternative ramp approach have pedestrian guard railings and there is considered to be sufficient ambient lighting for use during the hours of darkness.

South Gloucestershire council has expressed concerns about a pedestrian crossing on the A403 at Church road. My right hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that a revised location has been identified for the crossing, north of the Church road junction, and that discussions will shortly be held with the council. The site chosen should allay the concerns about poor visibility of approaching vehicles for pedestrians trying to cross the A403. Clearly, we want to provide the safest facilities that we can for pedestrians.

Pilning and Severn Beach parish council has sought changes to directional signs on existing roads, for fear that otherwise heavy goods vehicles will continue to use unsuitable local roads. The signs are the responsibility of

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South Gloucestershire council and Bristol city council, but we have already agreed to reimburse the reasonable costs of necessary consequential signing undertaken by those authorities, and we await their proposals.

A request has been received from South Gloucestershire council to provide a cycle track at the south side of the M4 between Redwick road and Northwick road. Although it is not part of our remit, as it would fall outside the motorway boundary, we have made provision within the works on the A403 overbridge, and by modifications to earthworks, for a future cycleway to be provided by South Gloucestershire council and local transportation groups. As my right hon. Friend said, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State would be very much in favour of such a development of cycling facilities.

We have recently discussed the issue with South Gloucestershire council, and have agreed to allow the proposed route to cross over part of the adjacent land that we acquired for the schemes. During construction of the approach roads, one bridleway was diverted over the new M4, and an equestrian bridge parapet was provided. Replacement routes have been provided for all bridleways stopped up as a result of the scheme.

In accordance with national policy, we have not provided those higher equestrian parapets on the other overbridges, which are frequented by horse riders but are not part of the bridleway network. We have, however, provided mounting blocks to assist riders. Discussions are taking place with South Gloucestershire council on its proposed alterations to a bridleway route at Awkley hill, to move it further away from the motorway, and on an addition to the bridleway route between Holm lane and Greenditch street, to provide a continuous route for horse riders in the area.

My right hon. Friend spoke about the effects of the second Severn crossing on salmon fishing in an area known as Oldbury lake, about six miles upstream from

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the new bridge. The Government carried out several studies prior to the construction of the second Severn crossing to determine any effects on siltation in the Severn estuary, including hydraulic model studies and bathymetric surveys, which have continued after construction.

The earlier studies predicted that the bridge would have only a local effect on flow, and that was confirmed by recent surveys. It is also considered that any effects caused by the bridge would be insignificant when compared with natural changes occurring in the estuary.

Oldbury lake is not covered by any of the studies, but it is not considered possible for the bridge to have had an effect there without having a discernible effect on the waters nearer the bridge. Oldbury lake is very close to Oldbury nuclear power station, which outfalls into the estuary, and that may be of some significance.

I am happy to say that completion of the outstanding works is progressing well, and it is expected that they will be substantially completed by Easter. Progress has been somewhat delayed by additional works resulting from the safety audit process and by extra works requested by local councils. Remedial works will continue from time to time until the end of the contract maintenance period in January 1998.

Responsibility for the side roads was formally transferred to South Gloucestershire council on 24 October 1996 for the M4 and on 11 November 1996 for the M49. There are, however, some outstanding matters to be resolved. Inevitably, a scheme on that scale creates disruptions, although we do our best to keep them to a minimum. I hope that the major problems for my right hon. Friend's constituents are at an end. I ask him to thank them for their patience and forbearance during construction--

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