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3 Mar 1999 : Column 1052

Road Congestion (West Kent)

1.30 pm

Mr. Archie Norman (Tunbridge Wells): I am glad of the opportunity to raise this matter, and grateful to the Minister for listening to what I have to say.

About a year ago, when some of us raised the question of the A21 and traffic congestion in the west Kent area, the Minister for Transport in London chose to give us a short lecture on the integrated transport policy. We understand the need for such a policy, and, in many respects, we sympathise with its objectives; but I hope that today we shall be able to deal specifically with the acute problems experienced by those in west Kent and areas to the south, caused by traffic congestion and the inertia in regard to transport policy--inertia that is blighting the area. This is the No.1 issue in west Kent. It is the No. 1 issue for residents and businesses in the area. It affects families, including people taking their children to school; it affects economic development; and it means serious blight for areas south of west Kent as far as Hastings, which is a relatively deprived area.

In response to a recent survey of businesses in the Tunbridge Wells area, no fewer than 39 per cent. of people said that they were considering moving because of the extent of the traffic congestion, while 92 per cent. said that they saw an urgent need for upgrading of the main trunk roads and the A21. Further delay in the improvement of trunk roads in the area will lead to acute problems. It will mean more and more rat-running through local villages--Speldhurst, Southborough, Pembury, Goudhurst and Horsmonden--which is blighting lives, and affecting areas of acute environmental sensitivity. It will also affect areas to the south, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Wardle).

Safety considerations are also important. In a moment I shall refer to the great dangers on the A21, but other areas will be affected, notably Colt's Hill. Kent county council's inability to finance--because of lack of Government support--a link road or bypass is blighting the lives of local residents, and what is effectively a country lane is carrying some 13,000 vehicles a day, more than a quarter of which are lorries. That is serious.

This is not just a business issue; it is not just a transport issue. It is an issue which affects human lives. I, like others, have received thousands of letters on the subject. Elizabeth Romaine of Bishops Down Park road in Tunbridge Wells writes:


Another letter--a very interesting letter--came from the head teacher of William Parker school in Hastings, who is a resident of Tunbridge Wells. He writes:


    "Frankly it is scandalous that such a main artery to the coast should be of such poor quality. The drive is beautiful, yet slow and dangerous, especially at night. Now, like many Tunbridge Wells inhabitants, I avoid the Castle Hill section for journeys north, but only add to Southborough's traffic congestion."

That is a very good illustration not just of the pain that is felt, but of the blight that is afflicting surrounding villages.

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We fully recognise the need for any road improvement to be seen in the context of an integrated transport policy. Such improvements must not be viewed in isolation; they must be viewed in relation to bus services, park-and-ride schemes and railway schemes. At present, however--I am thinking of the conurbation of Pembury, Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells, and the routes to the south--no road improvement is taking place, apart from the Lamberhurst bypass. That has been given the go-ahead, for which we are deeply grateful. The integrated transport policy, however, has been translated into no policy at all.

Mr. Charles Wardle (Bexhill and Battle): I am glad that my hon. Friend is focusing again on problems in west Kent and the area to the south. The A21 runs into east Sussex, and links with the A259.

Does my hon. Friend recall that on 16 February, in a helpful letter, the Minister for Roads and Road Safety, Lord Whitty, said that it had not yet been decided whether the access to Hastings study would be included in the first tranche of the national studies programme? Until that study has been completed and the report has been submitted, the Secretary of State will not be able to deal with representations on the A259 schemes relating to Hastings, Bexhill and the Pevensey marsh, and no work can be started on those schemes for a minimum of two years after that. All those schemes were included in the Conservatives' road building programme, but the timetable applying to the studies programme is now uncertain.

Mr. Norman: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Time is now of the essence. I have the Minister's letter with me, and it is obscure about the timing. It seems that, whatever happens, it will happen some years from now. We accept that there will be a further review, but today we seek clarification in regard to its timing and purpose.

The fact remains that, so far, there has been no road improvement in the area. Nor has there been any rail improvement: it is well known that the Connex service has deteriorated over the past two years. Moreover, there has been no improvement in bus services. I am at a loss to identify a single bus service that has been added in the last couple of years. All that we have is a £380,000 grant for Tunbridge Wells borough council to put bus and bicycle lanes on the A26. Undoubtedly that money will prove very useful to the white paint industry, but it has done little to lessen traffic congestion. When I visited Arriva, the bus company, recently, I was told that since the bus lanes had been put in, not one extra bus had run on the A26, and there had been no increase in passenger traffic.

That illustrates something. It does not illustrate the fact that bus lanes are a bad idea; it illustrates the existence of a catch-22. Until the roads are improved and scope is created for park-and-ride and inter-modal connections, painting white lines on the A26 will not make any difference. In other words, without an integrated transport policy we cannot have road improvement, and without road improvement we cannot have an integrated transport policy. We are going round in circles.

In fact, the position is worsening. The roads review identified the A21 as a red spot area. At present, 100,000 vehicles are entering Tunbridge Wells each day between

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7 am and 7 pm, and it is estimated that a 4 per cent. increase in that traffic--which is very likely in the next few years--would cause an extra 2.5 km of traffic jams.

The heart of the problem lies in a short stretch of the A21 at Castle Hill, about 2.5 miles long. It is the connection at the dual section at Pembury, between the main entry to the industrial estate and the heartland of Tunbridge Wells and Tonbridge. It is also a vital part of the arterial route to the south coast. At present, the first part of the A21 is dualled, while the second part is a single lane; then there is a dual bit, and a single lane; then, with the Lamberhurst bypass, there is another dual bit; then there is another single lane, and then another dual bit. It is go-stop, go-stop, go-stop. Every bit of the investment that has been made in the past is being under-utilised as a result of the subsequent bottlenecks.

This is the main route between Tunbridge Wells, Tonbridge, Pembury and Hastings, and it plays a vital role in providing access to amenities. Tunbridge Wells is a huge schools area: literally thousands of kids go to school there every morning, and have to sit in traffic jams for inordinate lengths of time. We hope to build a new hospital, but the site of the hospital will depend on the road. The emergency services are very worried about delays: ambulances may have problems in dealing with blue-light emergencies. The traffic generated by the hospital will pose a problem unless the road is improved.

At the last count, some six planning developments on the industrial estate were awaiting news of those improvements, some of which will have to be put off. We are talking about a stretch of only two and a half miles. There are many other local issues, but that section of road is the key to unlocking an improved and integrated transport policy for the area.

It is not a new issue, and there have been reviews in the past, including the 1992 public inquiry, and the Weald and Downs design, build, finance and operate programme, which was cancelled at a cost, we believe, of £6 million compensation to the contractor. Incidentally, the whole scheme costs £21 million--meaning that it need only have cost £15 million. A lot of money has been wasted, and we are getting review fatigue--as, I am sure, are the Government.

We understand that we must go through the next stage, but we need some specificity on timing, and a guarantee that the issue will be considered. We believe that the case is very strong, and that it was strong on the evidence submitted to the roads review. The document summarising the outcome of the review, "A New Deal for Trunk Roads in England--Understanding the New Approach to Appraisal", listed the statistical analysis conducted on each trunk road.

The Minister for Roads and Road Safety said that he felt that the case for Castle Hill was not strong, but analysis of his own data suggests that of all the A roads analysed in the report, the Castle Hill stretch of the A21 was the most stressed. That means that the volume of traffic in relation to the volume that the road was designed to bear was the worst of all the roads examined. The road had the fourth highest death rate of any A road analysed, and the sixth highest recorded accident rate. It had the seventh highest number of vehicles travelling on it per day of any A road--yet many of the A roads ranking far below the A21 were given the go-ahead. I hope that the

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Minister can explain why, despite the strength of the Department's own analysis, other road schemes were given preference.

The Minister for Roads and Road Safety has said that if a dual-lane road were adopted--as opposed to a three-lane road--it would cost between £14 million and £15 million, giving the scheme the 11th highest cost-benefit ratio of any A road analysed. In other words, the economics of the scheme are strong on the data presented.

More seriously, we find on analysing the figures that there are some baffling flaws in the evidence, suggesting that the review has relied on outdated data or sloppy analysis. First, the journey time delay at peak times of the day at Castle Hill was estimated and quoted at only three and a half minutes. Locally, that figure is regarded as risible. Every morning and evening, people are waiting in long queues for between eight and 15 minutes--not three and a half minutes. Therefore, the economic benefits of the scheme--which were already strong--have been fundamentally underestimated.

Secondly, the environmental detriment of the scheme does not appear to be supported by any worthwhile analysis. We recognise that there may be an environmental downside, but there is an upside as well. The most alarming section--although no great weight has been attached to it--refers to one of the environmental detriments being that damage might be done to the great crested newt. I am sure that the Minister will join us in our sympathy for the great crested newt, but we have no evidence of its presence on the route of the scheme. I do not know whether officials have any evidence. No one locally has any evidence. Quite simply, we have been neutered by the great crested newt.

We were disturbed to hear from the Minister for Roads and Road Safety that very few representations had been received in favour of the scheme. That came as a staggering declaration to local people--most particularly because a petition of 8,000 signatures was handed to the former Minister for Roads and Road Safety outside this House immediately before the trunk roads review was completed. In other words, 8,000 signatures were as nothing, and considered not worthwhile representations.

Anybody with local knowledge will know that this is the No. 1 issue, and that it is not contentious. There will be some objectors to any road proposal, but local support is overwhelmingly in favour of the Castle Hill schemeat every level of the community, including local government, the county council and regional government. There is near unanimous support, and the strength of feeling is high. However, the sense of frustration is enormous. We have been delayed and delayed, and we find ourselves now confronted with another uncertain time scale.

I would like some assurances from the Minister. If he cannot give them today, perhaps he would be kind enough to write to explain the position. We accept where we are, and that we are to consider the access to Hastings study--yet another review. Incidentally, the A21 is only partly to do with access to Hastings. It is part of the picture, but the surrounding conurbation is as big as Hastings in aggregate, and the use of the road is not just to do with access to Hastings.

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Will the Minister reassure us that the access to Hastings study will be in the first round of reviews, and will start as soon as possible? Can he tell us the dates on which he hopes to get the review off the ground, and when he hopes to have a report? Can he reassure us that the review will be able to consider not just road improvement as it affects Hastings, but road improvement as it affects towns along the route to Hastings? In other words, can we take into account the specific major congestion problem in west Kent caused by the bottleneck on the A21 at Castle Hill?

Can we consider the benefits to the communities in Pembury, Tunbridge Wells and Tonbridge of road improvement in that area, recognising that further benefits to Hastings are incremental to that? Even if the access to Hastings study concludes that little can be done further south, can we have a reassurance that that stretch of the A21 will be improved if the analysis proves that that is the right thing to do? We are strongly convinced that it will.

Will the Minister undertake to publish the background to the fatally flawed analysis in the document, so that local people have the ability to respond and to make corrections to the analysis? There is no downside for the Government--or anybody else--in being open about the underlying assumptions. Can he reassure us that, in the study, there will be adequate representation of the communities along the road down to Hastings--particularly the residents of Tunbridge Wells and Tonbridge?

We are asking the Minister to focus specifically on an acute problem--a serious issue for those who live in that part of west Kent and to the south. He must recognise the severity of a problem which affects everybody's daily lives in the area, and which is a major blight on economic development and on the environment. We are asking for clarity on the way forward, recognition of the need to get the next review completed and for a start in getting on with improvements to the roads.


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