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12.15 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Glenda Jackson): I congratulate the hon. Member for Bedfordshire, South-West (Sir David Madel) on securing this debate. As he has been at pains to point out, the A5 is a trunk road on the core network, of which the High street in Dunstable forms a part. I am aware of the hon. Gentleman's misgivings about the experimental bus lane.

The Government want to make buses a real and attractive alternative to cars, especially in busy town centres such as Dunstable where there are congested roads such as the A5. Our intention to do this was set out in last summer's White Paper entitled "A New Deal for Transport", and the detail was provided in the daughter document published in March, "From Workhorse to Thoroughbred--A Better Role for Bus Travel". With the national picture showing that a quarter of all car journeys are now of less than two miles, it is surely sensible to examine and, I hope, change our travel habits.

The Highways Agency, responding to the challenge of making best use of our trunk roads, has discussed the management of traffic on the A5 in Dunstable with the local authorities, the bus companies and the police. It has recognised that bus priority in Dunstable High street would be a positive benefit.

The idea is not new. It was first suggested in 1994 by the South Bedfordshire district council as a means of encouraging the use of public transport. This was subsequently carried forward in the booklet entitled "The Future of Our Town Centre--A Draft Strategy for Dunstable" as promoted and published by the Dunstable town centre management committee. In December 1996, a seminar attended by local authorities, industry and road user groups concluded that there was a need for a southbound bus lane to improve the reliability of bus services through the town centre. This was regarded as a precursor to any town centre improvements and as a valuable means of encouraging the shift away from the car to public transport.

The Highways Agency proceeded with caution and decided that the bus lane should be introduced on an experimental basis. Its success would be monitored before

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the decision was taken to confirm or remove it. The trial southbound bus lane--360 m, or 400 yd, in length--was set up in High street north on 9 March 1998. A monitoring exercise has been under way since that time. That has shown that bus patronage has increased by about 18 per cent., and that bus journey times have reduced by up to four minutes and reliability has improved. The A5 through Dunstable is congested, and queueing has always been a factor, but the monitoring has shown too that journey times for other road users have not been significantly affected, and that safety for cyclists, permitted to use the bus lane, has improved.

The Highways Agency received nine letters objecting to the confirmation of the bus lane, and the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire has also raised four issues that are of concern. The main worry cited by the nine objectors was that the bus lane had increased queueing and congestion in the town centre, leading to rat running along adjacent roads. However, the monitoring exercise has shown that the bus lane has not created significant problems for other road users. Surveys have shown that journey times and queues have remained much as before the bus lane was introduced. All the objectors have received individual letters of explanation from the Highways Agency.

The concerns of the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire, which he outlined, focus on four aspects of the bus lane--the hours that it operates; the days of the week on which it operates; whether it should be open to other users, such as taxis and motorcycles; and whether it should be suspended, by electronic signing, when an incident occurs on--and so when traffic diverts from--the Ml. The hon. Gentleman is also worried about the possible costs of painting the lane.

I know that the hon. Gentleman feels that the bus lane is premature until the future of the A5 Dunstable eastern bypass has been decided. Indeed, he said that the proposal was a case of putting the cart before the horse. The hon. Gentleman discussed these points at a meeting with officers from the Highways Agency, and as a result the agency consulted further with its partners on this initiative--the district, town and county councils, the Arriva bus company and the Bedfordshire police.

The consensus was that the hours of operation were appropriate, and were producing real benefits, but that the facility need not operate on Sundays. Therefore, the Sunday operation would not be confirmed.

It was felt that usage of the bus lane should not be extended to taxis and motorcycles. The use of bus lanes by motorcycles is a complex issue, but here, it was felt that the mixture would not be a happy one. As taxis in Dunstable are not generally of the black cab type, the police felt that there could be enforcement problems.

The police did not want special signing or suspension of the bus lane during an incident on the Ml, as this southbound section of the A5 was not on the recognised, signed diversion route. Painting the relevant part of the road would reinforce to road users that they were not allowed in the bus route.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned bus routes in my constituency on the Finchley road but neglected to point out that the part to which he referred is also a red route. I am not aware that anyone has advocated making the A5 through Dunstable town centre a red route.

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The A5 Dunstable eastern bypass was part of the trunk road programme reviewed last year. The report "New Deal for Trunk Roads in England" did not include the scheme in the targeted programme of improvements, but listed it as a scheme that will be considered in the London to south midlands multi-modal study, subject to the views of the regional planning conference. The bypass, if eventually built, will not be a reality within the short to medium term.

Although I understand the hon. Gentleman's argument, I cannot agree that the bus lane is putting the cart before the horse. If measures are not taken to deal with congestion now, the situation for all our constituents could become intolerable and have a most deleterious effect on the life of city centres by making it so unpleasant that people did not wish to live, shop or introduce businesses there. I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman's assessment of which is the cart and which the horse in this debate.

We need to make a difference to people's travel habits now if we are to bring any change for the better to hard-pressed communities such as Dunstable. The Highways Agency is right to set about making better use of trunk roads such as the A5. There is always a duty to ensure that new initiatives are effective and bring real improvements and, on balance, do not make conditions

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worse for road users. In this case, I am content that the cautious approach and monitoring work that the Highways Agency has carried out has amply demonstrated that the bus lane is a good investment, and fully in accord with Government policy.

Last November, my noble Friend Lord Whitty, the Minister for Roads and Road Safety announced the success of the trial bus lane and his intention to make it permanent. A draft traffic regulation order was published in January to start the process of confirmation. That order attracted the nine objections to which I referred.

The Highways Agency's divisional director has considered in detail all the comments and objections received, and recommended to Lord Whitty that the objections should be overruled. He is minded to accept that recommendation and confirm the order but wishes to consider the issues raised in this debate.

For a modest investment, a process of real change in travel habits to make better use of our trunk roads and support bus services has been started in Dunstable. The quality partnership approach that the Highways Agency has adopted is sound and has enabled it to demonstrate the support for, and benefits of, the project. I believe that the bus lane is effective and I look forward to Lord Whitty confirming that it will be made permanent.

Question put and agreed to.

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