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4 Nov 1997 : Column 221

Roads (East Sussex)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Clelland.]

10.28 pm

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise an issue of massive importance to my constituency and to East Sussex. It is of no small importance to those of my colleagues who made the trek to Eastbourne recently for what the press deemed to be our bonding session. It is a great pleasure to see the Minister in her place, with her minder.

The importance of the issue to East Sussex is borne out by the presence in the Chamber of my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Wardle) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith). I have also had a note from the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Foster). Almost all parties are united by the need for a variety of improvements to our local roads. I know, for example, that my right hon. and hon. Friends and the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye feel strongly about improvements to the A259 and related schemes. I pay special tribute to our former colleague, Tim Rathbone, who was Member for Lewes until the general election and a doughty fighter for the road schemes about which I am going to talk.

The first scheme involves the A27 between Lewes and Polegate. My preference would have been for complete dualling of that stretch, which is a massive traffic bottleneck. After much investigation, the previous Government produced a scaled-down project involving three schemes: the A27 Wilmington bypass, the Selmeston bypass, and the Southerham-Beddingham improvement. In his announcement of the scheme the then Minister responsible for roads noted:

How right he was. Had those improvements been pushed forward, they would have not only increased dramatically the road's effectiveness for business and tourism but made it a much safer carriageway for local people and visitors.

In a letter about the A27 to a local paper, the then county engineer stated:

which was all that the scheme involved and which would have produced an accident rate of approximately one third of that of the present single carriageway. The scheme would also have addressed all substantive environmental objections to the original A27 plans. As far as I can tell, that scheme lies a long way ahead and may have to wait for the next Conservative Government to see the light of day.

This evening I want to concentrate on the Polegate bypass, which in turn was part of the Weald and Downland design, build, finance and operate scheme. As the Minister will know from her briefing, the bypass is not a new idea but was envisaged before the war. Polegate is no longer in my constituency. In its wisdom, the boundary commission moved it into Lewes. The routes that go through Polegate are vital to my constituents. There are almost always major traffic problems in and near Polegate. The road is vital to our local road system, linking it to the M23, M25 and the port of Newhaven.

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Those wider connections are the reason for the presence of my right hon. and hon. Friends and of the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye. The issues go far wider than just Polegate.

I have taken delegations to meet more than one Minister. Most recently, in early July I took a delegation of constituents to meet Baroness Hayman to go through the issues. We represented a wide range ofbodies: all the local authorities without exception; business organisations, including Sussex Enterprise; and representatives of the tourist industry, which is, of course, very important in our part of the world. That was backed up by hundreds of letters from large employers and others.

I pay tribute to Councillor Peter Wallis, chairman of the transport and environment committee in East Sussex county council and his excellent director Mr. Bob Wilkins, both of whom have been very supportive of my efforts and those of my colleagues.

In a recent document which was available to Baroness Hayman, East Sussex county council made the following point:

It says that in the public inquiries over the scheme the inspector made it clear that

    "the Orders for the A22 should be confirmed unless the Polegate Bypass was removed from the National Roads Programme."

The new A22 route in my constituency, that would take traffic from the industrial areas and the Sovereign Harbour area of Eastbourne up to Dittons Corner by Polegate, is a major road project costing £28 million which is nearing completion. If it linked up with the Polegate bypass, if that were built, there would be considerable benefits for the area. According to the county council, there would be immediate benefits of some 1,500 jobs in the new business parks in the Eastbourne Park area as part of the Eastbourne borough plan. As the county council points out, these sites are currently landlocked and need to be opened up by the development of the new route.

High-quality office developments will create about 1,000 jobs in Sovereign Harbour, the new marina development incorporating many berths for yachts, houses and in due course shops and a hotel. There is also the possibility of commercial development.

It is no exaggeration for the county council to say:

We need a dual carriageway paralleling the south coast between the A23 and the A21.

The improvements are supported by every local authority in the area and by Sussex Enterprise. The Polegate bypass scheme had gone through all its statutory stages and was ready to start construction at the time of the general election. The Polegate bypass must be a dual carriageway as it not only carries east-west traffic around Polegate, but north-south traffic into Eastbourne.

Hon. Members can imagine my concern and that of the councils involved and many residents in the area when, as part of the Government's roads review earlier this year,

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it was decided that the scheme would be put on hold at least until next spring and possibly would never see the light of day. As the county council said, that would have a devastating impact on the area.

I have received hundreds of letters of support for the project and expressions of disappointment and distress at its suspension or possible cancellation. A company called T. Cox & Son Ltd. wrote:

One of our major local employers, Anglo Dutch Meats, employing more than 300 people, wrote:

    "We have continued to invest in the area because of the previous Government's commitment to improving the road system. However, if this commitment is now not to be honoured, we will be forced to consider relocation of our factories which will result in an increase in unemployment for Eastbourne and Hastings."

Mr. Charles Wardle (Bexhill and Battle): May I assure my hon. Friend that his important message will be endorsed by every sensible thinker in the county? May I link with his remarks about Polegate the importance of the Hastings eastern and the Hastings western and Bexhill bypasses and, with them, the Marsh road link over the Pevensey levels? Those matter to local development as well as to through traffic to and from the channel tunnel.

Mr. Waterson: My hon. Friend is absolutely right--this is a seamless robe of projects that hang together.

Another letter I received came from the leading surveyors and valuers Stiles Harold Williams and referred to one of its clients. The letter states:

Just to show that there is almost total unanimity on the subject of the Polegate bypass, I have a press release issued by Councillor Roy Martin, who is not only town mayor of Polegate and someone with whom I have worked from time to time, but a leading local Liberal Democrat. He writes:

    "I now consider it is time for the silent majority in Polegate who are concerned about the lack of a dual carriageway By-Pass around the town to relieve the intolerable noise, vibration and air pollution problems experienced by residents, to speak up."

I entirely agree with that.

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden): I should add that those in the industrial estates to the north of Eastbourne have told me in strong terms that they regard it as a bad decision to postpone these improvements, seemingly indefinitely.

Mr. Waterson: My right hon. Friend and I have received correspondence on this subject from many of the same companies.

I have three important questions for the Minister. First, how much compensation is being paid, or is to be paid, to the successful contractors--money that could be spent on the bypass itself? I have seen a variety of figures quoted. The Times, referring to the Paymaster General, spoke of

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    A local newspaper quoted a figure of £143 million, but I believe that that covers all the projects that were put on hold at the same time. Both are amazing figures, nevertheless.

Secondly, does the Minister accept that there are substantial benefits for the local communities from the project going ahead? On that subject, it is interesting to see the document attached to the very press statement announcing the Minister of Transport's decision on 28 July. On safety, that document states:

    "Improvements in standards of routes have been forecast to bring accident savings"

and on environment, it states:

    "Lamberhurst Bypass, Polegate Bypass and the A259 Hastings schemes would remove through traffic from settlements"--

settlements being that rather unsatisfactory word used to mean places where people live.

Thirdly, when can we expect a decision? I know that the Government are all about rolling programmes of reviews and more reviews, but sooner or later--surely--there has to be a decision. Originally, we were told that the review would be completed by next spring, yet, only last week in the Sussex Express, fears were expressed that

because of an announcement by the Minister of Transport, who said that

    "the Polegate scheme is one of eight 'case studies' to be reappraised in an attempt to find a better way of taking decisions on new roads."

I can tell the Minister a better way, which is to take a decision of some sort.

In conclusion, the Minister must be aware from all the representations, letters and other documents that she and her colleagues have received that there is anger and disappointment, which I share, among my constituents on this subject. It is no good fobbing us off with talk of yet another review. We need the Polegate bypass now. If we do not have it now, first we shall have contractors who will be paid not to build it; secondly, we shall have spent £28 million of taxpayers' money on the new A22, which ends in the middle of a field--the biggest and most expensive cul de sac in Europe and a monument to the Government's inability to make decisions; and, thirdly, my constituents will face ever more job losses in a shrinking local economy, not to mention a massive inconvenience to both local residents and visitors to the area. Furthermore, my constituents living along or near the existing A22 can expect no improvement whatever--indeed, a deterioration--in both road safety and the local environment.

I urge the Minister to give us some hard indication tonight that that project and the whole of that DBFO scheme will be taken out of the review and initiated so that work can start as soon as possible.

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