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31 Jul 1998 : Column 653

Roads Review

11.9 am

The Minister of Transport (Dr. John Reid): With permission, Madam Speaker, I will make a statement about our strategic review of trunk roads, the report on which, "A New Deal for Trunk Roads in England", is published today. I begin by paying tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh (Dr. Strang) and to my noble Friend Baroness Hayman for their tremendous work on the review, of which I and my colleagues have been the beneficiaries. Copies of the report explaining our decisions will be available in the Vote Office after this statement. I have sent details to all Members of Parliament with English constituencies.

The Government are committed to modernisation and prudent public finances. Those themes formed the backdrop to the roads review. The outcome is not the grandiose but impractical notions of our predecessors, but realistic, practical decisions that will help business, help people and help Britain.

Trunk roads are vital for business and personal travel. They carry a third of passenger traffic and more than half of freight. Traffic is expected to grow over the next 20 years by about 50 per cent. By 2016, a quarter of our trunk roads will be seriously congested if we do nothing, so to do nothing is not an option. We need a new approach, building on that set out in our integrated transport White Paper. "A New Deal for Trunk Roads in England" is based on the fundamental principle that trunk roads must have a central role in our integrated national transport system.

There are four other key points in our approach. We will make better use of the existing network--building new roads will not be the first option--help motorists by investing more in road maintenance; reduce the negative impact of trunk roads on people and the environment through safer roads and less noise, pollution and intrusion; and ensure that trunk road planning is integrated with regional land use and transport strategies.

We are giving the Highways Agency new objectives, putting more emphasis on its role as the operator of the network rather than simply a road builder. We intend to consider options for charging users on trunk roads and using the revenue to maintain and improve the network and provide new income streams for the Highways Agency. We have already announced that we are considering continuing charging on the Dartford crossing and using the income to help to deliver integrated transport objectives on the M25. Today, I can announce that projects to make better use of the network will benefit from 60 per cent. more funding by 2001-02.

Roads are a vital national asset which has been poorly maintained. Without a change in direction, the state of the roads will worsen. We shall begin to put that right. We have already increased the provision for capital maintenance of roads by 50 per cent. for the current year. I am pleased to tell the House today that, in addition, maintenance spending overall will go up by a further 20 per cent. by 2001-02. We shall progressively tackle the backlog and maintain trunk roads at minimum whole-life costs. Together with our proposals to encourage less damaging six-axle lorries, that strategy will save money, enhance safety and reduce disruption.

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The trunk road network has a good safety record and we shall establish targets to reduce road casualties further. I am pleased to announce that we have set up a ring-fenced budget for small safety projects that will grow steadily to £50 million in 2001-02.

Well-planned bypasses and certain other road improvements can improve the environment and transform towns and villages without doing serious harm to the countryside. The key is to ensure that the environment is given full weight from the outset. From now on, there will be a strong presumption against new roads affecting environmentally sensitive sites.

In that context, the House will be pleased to know that we are reducing the number of sites of special scientific interest affected by the programme from 49 to eight. We will also use low-noise surfaces for new roads and, where appropriate, when an existing road is resurfaced. We will also have a dedicated budget to tackle some of the most difficult existing noise problems.

Getting the planning framework right is absolutely crucial. I can outline three measures to ensure that such a framework is put in place. First, future trunk road planning will be part of the regional planning system and set in the context of the overall transport and land use strategy for each region.

Secondly, we propose to transfer about 40 per cent. of the existing trunk road network to local highway authorities. Those roads should be managed by local authorities as part of local transport plans.

Thirdly, we have ended the discredited "predict and provide" approach to road building. Instead, our new appraisal approach is based on the five criteria of integration, environment, safety, the economy and accessibility. The new approach will become an increasingly important tool for appraising alternative options across all forms of transport.

For the first time ever, we conducted a wide-ranging public consultation on our review of the trunk roads programme, with meetings in each region, in which my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh played a prominent part. My noble Friend Baroness Hayman met Members of Parliament to hear their views. About 14,000 written representations were received. Together, that gave us a clear picture of regional priorities.

For the first time ever, we analysed objectively the problems that we were seeking to address using broadly based criteria; for the first time ever, we have provided financial stability through our three-year spending programme and seven-year transport investment plan, which will enable our programmes to go ahead; for the first time ever, we have a practical and focused programme. Gone is our predecessors' massive wish list of 150 schemes, most of which would never have been built, over a time scale that was never specified and for which money was never assured.

We have considered the schemes that could be started in the foreseeable future and produced a programme that is funded and delivers our objectives. That comprises the 37 schemes in our targeted programme of improvements, all of which can be started within seven years.

The largest category is safety and healthier communities, reflecting the importance that we attach to those objectives. The programme includes much-needed

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bypasses that will take large volumes of traffic out of towns and villages, thereby improving the quality of life. It also includes schemes designed to improve sections with poor accident rates.

The next category, regeneration and integration, includes junction improvements to remove bottlenecks that are hampering development; dualling schemes to improve access to remote areas; and schemes to facilitate access to a rail freight terminal and an airport. The final category, jobs and prosperity, includes schemes to deal with bottlenecks and other schemes needed to support economic growth in particular locations.

Many of the schemes not gone ahead with reflect serious transport problems that need to be addressed. There will be a programme of studies to consider practical options and develop integrated transport solutions. The House will not expect me to give details of every scheme, but I should cover two particular issues.

The motorway network is the core of the road system and is essential to the nation's economy. A number of schemes for widening the existing motorway network were under consideration. We had to balance their potential economic benefits against the impact on the environment and local communities. In some cases, such as proposals to widen the M6 between junctions 11A and 19, we propose to study all integrated transport options, including shifting traffic from road to rail, in order to develop the best integrated transport solution to deal with serious problems on that important route between Birmingham and Manchester. For the first time, we have brought together Railtrack and the Highways Agency under a concordat that allows them to work together on such problems.

The M25 is a strategic motorway important to the entire country. It is severely congested, and that is bad for the economy and the environment. There are no easy answers. We need a package of measures including traffic and demand management and attractive public transport alternatives. We are setting in hand a major study to develop such solutions. Meanwhile, we propose a number of short-term measures, such as closed circuit television cameras covering the whole motorway and the extension of variable speed limits. We shall also investigate using the hard shoulder as a climbing lane, subject to safety considerations.

However, problems between junction 12, with the M3, and junction 15, with the M4, are so acute that providing some extra capacity has to be part of the strategy. It is the most heavily used section of our motorway network, with flows of up to 200,000 vehicles a day. The most up-to-date traffic management measures have already been applied to that section. More capacity is needed to allow a breathing space while wider integrated transport policies take effect, and to allow for gradual introduction of necessary traffic and demand management strategies. We have concluded, therefore, that the widening scheme should go ahead, but we are cancelling two other widening schemes on the M25 between junctions 15 and 19.

One other scheme brings together economic, environmental and heritage issues. Stonehenge is unique. It is a world heritage site. Yet its setting has been described by the Public Accounts Committee as a "national disgrace". The solution developed by my Department, by the Department of Culture, Media and

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Sport and by English Heritage is to put the 2 km section of the A303 that passes the stones in a cut and covered tunnel. At least a third of the costs will be found from heritage sources. The scheme will have major heritage and environmental benefits. It will remove a bottleneck and improve traffic flow on the A303. Above all, perhaps, it shows what can be achieved by cross-departmental working and integrated transport thinking.

Judgments about roads are never easy. The policy that I have announced today is good for the economy because it gives priority to maintenance, to making best use of an asset, and to investing in a number of urgent schemes. It is good for safety and the environment. We have dramatically reduced the number of sites of special scientific interest affected by the programme. It makes good financial sense with a practical, deliverable, programme for the future. "A New Deal for Trunk Roads in England" sets out a radical approach to trunk road policy that is based firmly on our integrated transport strategy. I commend it to the House.

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