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1.48 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Alan Meale): First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) on securing this debate on a matter of great interest to him. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Wardle), whom I have known for many years in this place, on his contribution. He has always taken any opportunity available to him to refer to the transport infrastructure in his area.

It is both interesting and useful to hear at first hand about the impact that congestion is having on the economic and environmental well-being of west Kent. The hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells pointed out that that sometimes concerned the great crested newt--which some may have failed to appreciate. It is also useful to have the case for road and other transport infrastructure improvements in west Kent set out so strongly and clearly in their community, environmental and economic context.

Good communications are central to the economy and to our quality of life. As a trading nation--which is especially relevant to Kent--we need efficient transport links with our international markets and a transport system at home that functions effectively. Estimates vary, but the costs of traffic congestion to the nation are substantial, amounting to billions of pounds a year.

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I would like to set the situation in west Kent in its wider regional context. As the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells said, it is not a matter of one particular road: one must consider the whole economic and environmental structure of an area in dealing with such an important matter.

Transport infrastructure in the south-east is a strength, not a weakness. I know that the hon. Gentleman is fully aware of that, having spent his previous life outside the House being concerned about traffic flow and congestion. The range and quality of the region's international connections, its closeness to mainland Europe and its generally good transport connections to London benefit business and promote foreign and domestic investment. The region has the highest density of rail network in the country, which is an opportunity on which we must build. That is not to say that there are not some problems that we need to tackle.

The environment-transport interface, which is important throughout the country, is especially prominent in the south-east--excuse me for a moment, I seem to have a frog, or perhaps a great crested newt, in my throat--where population density is among the highest in the country outside London, development pressure is strong, levels of car ownership and use are high and about a third of the land area is designated as an area of outstanding natural beauty, 7 per cent. is green belt and about a tenth is urban or suburban.

West Kent has its share of designated areas--the Kent downs and High Weald areas of outstanding natural beauty--and historical sites, including Chartwell and Hever castle. Major roads in the south-east are the most heavily used outside London and nearly a quarter of the motorway network in England is in the south-east. Again, west Kent has its share. Eight in 10 households in the south-east have a car, compared with seven in 10 in the United Kingdom as a whole. The figure for Kent is just above the national average.

The region has one of the highest population densities in the country outside London, and household projections show it generating a higher number of additional households than any other region. In common with other regions, the trend in the south-east has been towards increasingly dispersed travel patterns and journey lengths. People living in the south-east also travel further than the average for the country as a whole--on average 8,100 miles a year, compared with a United Kingdom average of 6,500 miles. In 1997, 15 per cent. of the UK's road freight of 1.74 billion tonnes originated or was unloaded in the south-east.

Having outlined the scale of road use in the region, I would like to discuss the situation in west Kent, as I know that the hon. Gentleman is deeply interested in my getting to that point. As he said, on various parts of the trunk road network motorists suffer serious congestion and queuing. We are in that situation because past transport policies focused on road building, which is precisely why we announced a new direction in transport policy in "A New Deal for Transport", published last year.

The hon. Gentleman referred to congestion at some locations on the A21, notably at North Farm roundabout,

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Castle Hill and between Pembury and Lamberhurst. In particular, he asked that the Tonbridge and Pembury scheme be speeded up and considered separately from the access to Hastings study, but I have to remind him that the scheme was remitted to the study because we were not convinced that, taken to public inquiry, it represents a sustainable solution to the problems.

There are outstanding questions about whether dual three-lane standard is appropriate and we have concerns about the effect of the scheme on the landscape. I know that the hon. Gentleman is also concerned about that. We need to investigate further whether, and if so to what extent, the scheme contributes to the regeneration needs of the Hastings area. That is why it is right to consider the scheme as part of the access to Hastings study.

On present trends, and without action to implement "A New Deal for Transport", traffic is forecast to grow by more than a third on all roads over the next 20 years and by more than half on trunk roads. Few would suggest that such traffic growth should be accommodated by new road building programmes. All Kent Members would be horrified if that were to be the case.

That level of growth represents millions of additional and longer journeys. The impact of that amount of traffic growth and congestion on people, the environment and the economy would be substantial and adverse. The tranquillity of the countryside would be further eroded and the rush hour would become longer.

Mr. Norman: We know that road building cannot go on for ever, but does the Minister fully appreciate the fact that improving the relevant stretch of the A21 is crucial to creating the other integrated transport schemes, such as park and ride and access to stations, that would allow us to get traffic off the roads, and that the dualling will take traffic that is currently rat-running through the villages off those village roads and put it on the main trunk road where it should be?

Mr. Meale: I assure the hon. Gentleman that I am aware of the Tunbridge Wells area, although I have no elderly relatives, who seem to represent the shareholding population of the UK. I am well aware, from letters received in the Department, of difficulties with rat-running. I hope to deal with that a little more when I come to more localised responses to his queries.

The cost to business would soar if traffic growth were allowed to continue unchecked, and there would be grave damage to the environment and to our health. Transport--along with skills, site availability and housing--has been identified in the competitiveness strategy for the south-east as the highest priority for the region.

If sustainable solutions are not found, the economy will respond by losing activities that require better access than is currently available, becoming less flexible and competitive, and its potential for growth will become increasingly constrained. I believe that most people realise that the way in which we travel is changing our environment for the worse. Light pollution and noise from transport have changed much of our countryside. Road construction and car parking have made heavy demands on land, and climate change is one of the greatest environmental threats facing the world today.

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That is why we are delivering the integrated transport agenda set out in the White Paper, which marked a turning point for transport policy in this country, setting out for the first time in 20 years a strategic framework for extending choice and delivering a transport system that is safe, efficient, clean, fair and available to everyone. It is clear that there is widespread support for the overall aim and objectives of our policy. Indeed, I am much encouraged by the work that is going on throughout the country to turn the objectives into reality.

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The hon. Gentleman raised an awful lot of issues about certain junctions and side roads and requested dualling. I know that he has already met my noble Friend--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order.

It being Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Sitting suspended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 10 (Wednesday sittings), till half-past Two o'clock.

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Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--

EU Structural Funds

1. Mr. Denzil Davies (Llanelli): If he will make a statement on the impact of Agenda 2000 negotiations on the European Union structural funds. [72453]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Hain): The Agenda 2000 negotiations include preparing the European Union for enlargement and providing for simpler, fairer and more accessible European structural funds programmes.

Mr. Davies: My hon. Friend will have heard and read the figure of £1.5 billion to £2 billion as the possible amount that Wales would receive if it obtained objective 1 status. Can he confirm that such a figure is ring-fenced, or will it be affected by the current deadlock between the French and Germans in the negotiations? Will my hon. Friend clear up a slight mystery by confirming which is the lead Department involved in the negotiations on the structural funds? Is it the Department of Trade and Industry, the Foreign Office or the Treasury?

Mr. Hain: On the latter point, all three Departments are involved and the Welsh Office is taking a close interest. The negotiations as they are proceeding in Brussels at the moment are slow, but we hope that the issues will be resolved within the next month.

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