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3 May 2000 : Column 104WH

Swale Crossing and Queenborough Roundabout

1.30 pm

Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey): I welcome this opportunity for a further debate on the second crossing of the Swale and the vexed problem of the proposed Queenborough roundabout or traffic lights. It is particularly important to the people of north-east Kent and especially so to my constituents, who have waited far too long for the second crossing--I was tempted to say the second coming--at Swale.

The House may be familiar with some of the issues that I raise. I had an Adjournment debate about the second crossing two years ago, which led to the scheme being included in the 1998 review. I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister to the debate and look forward to explaining once more the reason that the new crossing is so important to Sheppey's industry, economy and local community. I hope to make it clear to my hon. Friend that I place great store by the Government's road safety strategy, which was published recently by my noble Friend Lord Whitty. I hope, as do other hon. Members and our constituents, that his vision of making the roads safer for everyone is realised.

For that reason I am leading the campaign for a roundabout at the Queenborough corner junction, in which I have the support of many constituents. I am supported also by Bob Eatwell, head of the governors of the local school, and many major businesses, which have had the courtesy to write to me. They include: Jonathan Fowler of ASW Sheerness Steel Limited; Del Monte's managing director, Mr. Peter Miller; Neil Fenn of Abbott's Laboratory in Queenborough, one of the great pharmaceutical companies in the world; David Cottam of Coolchain in Tenham-which is not in my patch but close to it; he has a huge road haulage company; and Les Harris, the managing director of Kent United Contractors Limited, on the island.

At present there is only one way across from the mainland to the island--the single-lane lifting bridge. Built in 1960, the crossing is not suitable for traffic flows today or for the needs of the economy for the 21st century. A growing population of 40,000 often doubles during summer weekends, because there are between 30,000 and 40,000 weekend caravans. Congestion is a perennial problem for my constituents, and especially for local businesses. We have acknowledged that the existing bridge cannot cope. Only last Friday, a major accident close to the bridge resulted in traffic flowing back almost three miles on either side of the bridge. Indeed, it so upset Mr. Peter Cooper, the managing director of Britannia, who was in the queue on the bridge, that he faxed me that day to ask when the bridge would be coming and whether we could have a roundabout. Little did he know that I was caught in the same queue.

The single-span lifting bridge has to go up every time a smallish yacht passes underneath. Thus the problems faced by those who use the bridge are greatly increased by the flow of traffic on the Swale itself. It has always been my contention, but I have not always won the debate, that the bridge and the new A249 link from the M2 have been built back to front. We wanted to enable Sheerness port and the people of Sheppey to connect to

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the mainland, but instead we built a dual carriageway from the M2 to the bridge and did not change the infrastructure on the island at all. We still have not solved the dilemma of how to gain access to the island. That is just one vexed problem in the argument of the traffic lights versus the roundabout.

However, the lack of an adequate link to the mainland only exaggerates the problems of social exclusion felt by my constituents, who refer to themselves proudly as islanders. In fact, we have the highest rate of home births in the United Kingdom. People are nervous about coming off the island. It is not that they necessarily feel that they need a passport, rather that they prefer to have their children at home. I am sure that hon. Members will agree that the term "islander" does not reflect the reality of an area so close to the heart of Europe. Sheppey should be able to share in the prosperity of the rest of south-east England, one of the top 10 areas in Europe.

Public transport on the island is unreliable and inefficient. If that is to improve, the infrastructure needs to be in place before the operators can be expected to deliver an improved service. Improved infrastructure is the carrot with which to persuade public transport operators to improve their services. That is why the bridge is important.

I am confident that, with a second crossing, we can manoeuvre our way around those obstacles; without it, I fear that those obstacles will only increase in number and size. The local economy needs a second crossing and, as I have shown, local industry rightly demands and deserves it.

Sheppey has high long-term unemployment, and some of our wards are among the poorest in the United Kingdom. However, matters are looking better. Economic prospects are much more positive and unemployment has reduced for the first time in many years. Much credit for that must go to the Government's new deal initiatives and single regeneration budget funding.

Medway port, in Sheerness, is the fifth largest port in the United Kingdom. If it is to be developed into the fourth largest, it needs the bridge. Those who visit the island say, "What a fantastic port", but we consistently lose contracts because people cannot leave the island when the bridge is raised. We need to resolve such problems, but the issue of the traffic lights versus the roundabout contributes to them.

I am pleased that we have a major port, but we also have a number of professional small businesses and leading international companies, to which I have referred. The previous Government failed to provide them with the infrastructure that they need to develop. The White Paper "A New Deal for Trunk Roads in England", published by this Government in 1998, included the second crossing in its targeted programme of improvements. But two years later, my constituents expect to know when the Labour Government will make good that provision. Businesses have had to endure uncertainty not merely for the past two years, but for the 40 years since the last bridge was built.

Without a second crossing, the Isle of Sheppey cannot prosper. It would be wonderful if, for a change, we could be a plus in the Treasury's notebook, rather than a minus. With access to a second crossing, the island's

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potential for economic growth could be realised, and businesses would be better able to attract further investment. That would also create new jobs, which we badly need.

In the light of my comments, I hope that the Minister and other hon. Members have no doubts about my commitment to the new crossing, which I want to see built as soon as possible. Nevertheless, having waited for decades, I want us to get the crossing right. That is the core of my argument. My constituents are entitled to a scheme that does not repeat the errors of the 1970s, but reflects the best design techniques of the 21st century. As I have said, the design of the M2 system was fundamentally wrong--it was back to front.

I turn to the proposal for the Queenborough corner roundabout. The current Highways Agency scheme for the second crossing proposes a complex junction of traffic signals at the Queenborough corner junction that will require pedestrians and cyclists to negotiate seven sets of lights. Although I welcome the fact that the Government instructed the Highways Agency to look again at proposals for the second crossing--I hope that completion of the public inquiry is a positive sign for the scheme--I am not yet convinced that the agency has put forward the best possible design for the junction at Queenborough corner. My concerns about the design are reflected in a supplementary report produced by Ove Arup and Partners, which, hon. Members will recognise, is one of the world's leading consultant engineers.

The layout of the junction proposed by the Highways Agency poses a direct threat to the future of the local service station and family pub. Those two small businesses, which each employ 20 people from Queenborough, play a significant role in our community by providing different but important services. My constituents want the new road to bring new jobs to the area. Without a roundabout, the opportunity for the pub to be developed into a hotel and conference centre will be thwarted, and we see no reason why existing jobs should be sacrificed.

In response to the threat to the service station that it owns and operates, George Hammond plc commissioned the further work by Ove Arup, which examined an alternative roundabout scheme to the Highways Agency model. George Hammond commissioned that work because it was properly motivated by concern for its business and employees. It has done a service to the local community by identifying a design that is better than that currently proposed. I am grateful to the company for that, and in particular for highlighting safety issues.

The report from Ove Arup and Partners stated that safety at Queenborough corner junction would be greatly enhanced by constructing a roundabout instead of creating a monstrous network of traffic lights. The traffic signal layout proposed by the Highways Agency will require cyclists and pedestrians to navigate seven sets of signal-controlled crossings to travel from one side of the road to the other.

I have a copy of the safety audit response to the Highways Agency's proposal, which was produced by the agency's own safety auditors. I do not want to take too much time, but it stated:

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The key recommendation was that

That comes from the horse's mouth.

The Highways Agency ruled that the safety auditors' recommendation be rejected and that the view of the designers, Mott Macdonald, be accepted because

There is a difference of opinion between two sets of contractors.

In its conclusion, the Highways Agency stated that the safety audit team had been slightly alarmist in its language when describing the problem, that some issues are subjective and that different engineers have different views on the acceptability of a design. The view of the Highways Agency was that its scheme, although not an ideal solution, provided a perfectly adequate design. We know all too well that when accidents happen, complacency is often the cause, and I am sure that the Chamber will agree that "adequate" is not good enough when referring to public safety, especially for our children. The Government make it clear in their road safety strategy that safety is the number one priority in transport. That is a commendable objective and many of the practical measures that they want to implement are designed to achieve that objective.

My concern is that the current layout at Queenborough corner will not meet those objectives. That is particularly important because the local school is located at the junction. Can we seriously expect young children to wait patiently to cross seven sets of traffic lights to get from home to school and the same seven sets again on the way home? I am sure that I am not alone in believing that we would all fail if we exposed children to such a risk. That is why I am campaigning for the alternative.

The Ove Arup report sensibly supports a reduction in the number of crossings because the potential for children to take risks will be reduced. Parents, staff and governors at Queenborough school all recognise the safety improvements that the roundabout would bring and have written to Lord Whitty supporting the design. I hope that the Government will listen to those people Many local businesses have also written in support of the roundabout. The Government's strategy states that there must be recognition that good engineering reduces the risk of accidents. The Ove Arup design does that and it is important that the Government consistently stand by their safety objectives.

A secondary consideration is that the Ove Arup design is £350,000 cheaper than the Highways Agency's proposal. Not only is it safer, it is cheaper and I am sure that that will not be lost on the Minister. That is due primarily to a reduced land take requirement, and I urge the Minister to think again about the scheme.

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In the House next Monday evening I shall hand in a petition signed by 850 local residents urging the Government to adopt the alternative roundabout scheme. This is a serious local issue for all of us.

I should be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minster would confirm that there is nothing in principle to stop my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions from issuing a letter stating that he is minded to approve the road project in total, subject only to modifications to the proposed layout at Queenborough corner. I understand that that process need not be lengthy.

I urge my hon. Friend to do what he can to help me in my campaign for the new road, but, primarily, to ensure that the safety issues at Queenborough corner are understood. I realise that he has a quasi-judicial role and will not commit himself this morning, but he might give us a clue as to his intentions.

I hope that I have done my constituents a service by making the case for the second crossing. Percy Wells, whom I have described in the past as our best-ever Member of Parliament for the old Faversham constituency, began the campaign for a new crossing in 1945, but it is only since the election of the new Labour Government in 1997 that any progress has been made. However, we need to move on. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to do all that he can to offer my constituents something concrete to reassure them that we will get the road and that it will be the safest possible road.

In my maiden speech, I mentioned that after the 1997 general election, some mischievous islanders erected an eight-foot sign saying, "Scotland, Wales and the Isle of Sheppey: A Tory-free Zone". I would dearly love to return to this Chamber to inform my hon. Friends that islanders had erected a 10-ft sign saying, "New Labour; New Crossing; New Roundabout".

I hope that under the Freedom of Information Bill that is currently being considered in the other place, my constituents will soon have access to all the Highways Agency's work on the issue, so that we can better understand how it reaches decisions on the basis of the overall advice that it is offered.

We are moving to three-year spending reviews. The 1998 roads review said that the second crossing scheme would be spread over seven years. Will the Minister consider putting into the public domain, at the appropriate moment, not only the scheme bit by bit, but the whole scheme--that is, its approval, funding mechanism and build date?

1.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt) on his success in securing the debate. I fully appreciate that it is an important matter not only for him, but for all the people who live and work on the Isle of Sheppey.

Naturally, I listened carefully to my hon. Friend's points, especially to his arguments in favour of the second crossing and the roundabout. With regard to the latter, as he knows, the inspector's report on the local inquiry into the scheme that took place last November is before the Secretary of State awaiting a decision.

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The inspector's report was received in my Department on 21 October 1999. In the normal course of events, we would have issued the decision on the scheme before now. However, post-inquiry correspondence arguing for the introduction of new evidence was received from an affected party while the inspector's report was being considered. We therefore decided, in the interests of fairness and natural justice, that the views of all interested parties should be sought before reaching a final decision on the published orders for the scheme.

On 5 April, my Department wrote to some 60 parties with a direct or indirect interest in the matter, enclosing a copy of the report. They were given until 26 April to comment. The Secretary of State is considering those comments and the conclusions and recommendations in the inspector's report. My hon. Friend will be interested to learn that the Secretary of State's decision on the scheme will be issued later this month.

The Secretary of State and his Ministers act in a quasi-judicial role when taking decisions on schemes and orders authorising trunk road proposals that have been the subject of a public inquiry. My ministerial colleagues and I must therefore be seen to be even-handed in dealing with all interested parties, scrupulously following the statutory procedural rules and having regard to the rules of fairness and natural justice, as developed by the courts. Failure to observe any of those principles carries the risk of making decisions vulnerable to legal challenge. At worst, that can result in schemes or orders authorising a road proposal being quashed by the High Court.

The period between the close of an inquiry and the announcement of a decision is especially sensitive. Ministers must avoid giving the impression that the decision might have been influenced by private representations or factors that were not put before the inquiry. My hon. Friend will appreciate that I am bound by that legal framework, and cannot discuss the merits of the scheme or any issue that the Secretary of State will need to consider in making the decision.

I am able to say, however, that on 2 April 1998 my hon. Friend made a powerful case in the House for a second Swale crossing. As he knows, the A249 Iwade bypass to Queenborough improvement scheme, which includes the proposal for a new crossing at the Swale, is in the Government's targeted programme of improvements announced in the 1998 roads review. At that time, a commitment was given that all schemes in the programme would definitely start within the next seven years, subject to satisfactory completion of the statutory procedure. The importance of the scheme to the Isle of Sheppey is fully understood. That is why its primary objective is given in the roads review as regeneration and integration.

The A249 Iwade bypass to Queenborough improvement scheme was one of the 37 schemes in the targeted programme of improvements, or TPI. A previous Transport Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, North and Bellshill (Dr. Reid), announced the programme on 31 July 1998, at the time of the publication of the roads review report, "A New Deal for Trunk Roads in England". In the roads review, the Department carefully scrutinised what my right hon. Friend described at the time as a "vast, unfunded 'wish list'" of 150 schemes, most of which would never have

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been built. They were inherited from the previous Government's programme, which had already been scaled down from more than 500 schemes, the time scale for which was never specified and for which the necessary money was never guaranteed. The schemes included in the TPI had to be robust, ready to be taken forward quickly and consistent with the five criteria that were drawn up for the new approach to appraisal, or NATA--safety, the environment, the economy, integration and accessibility.

"A New Deal for Trunk Roads in England" sets out a radical new approach, designed to deliver a road network capable of meeting the challenge of the 21st century, bringing the policy on building and operating roads into line with the Government's integrated transport White Paper, "A New Deal for Transport: Better for Everyone". There were seven schemes that were not sufficiently advanced to be considered for the TPI at the time, but which addressed serious and pressing problems, to which there were no realistic alternative solutions. Those schemes were to be taken through their preparatory stages and statutory processes so that, if they passed assessment under NATA, they could be taken forward.

On 24 March, my noble Friend Lord Macdonald of Tradeston announced how the transport fund of £280 million in the Chancellor's March Budget would be spent. He announced four more schemes--two of which were from the list of seven to which I referred earlier--to be added to the TPI. There are now 41 schemes on the TPI, although that will be reduced to 40 when the Mayor of London takes over responsibility for most of the trunk roads in Greater London on 3 July.

All 40 schemes in the TPI are important to the Government. It is a realistic, focused programme of schemes, all of which can be started in the next seven years. The schemes will help to create an integrated transport network in a manner that is environmentally sound, as safe as possible and which can help to develop the economy and promote an integrated and accessible transport network.

The Government wish the road proposals to proceed as soon as they have completed the remaining statutory procedures. However, what the Government want is not the only matter for consideration. Like the majority of road schemes and other major development proposals, the schemes must undergo a process of independent scrutiny by an inspector nominated by the Lord Chancellor and appointed by the Secretary of State. The inspector's duty in a local inquiry is to listen to all the evidence and submissions and ask questions, as necessary, in order to obtain a full understanding of all the matters raised. The inspector will submit a report, containing the salient points of the cases and a recommendation to the Secretary of State on whether the published orders for the scheme should be made. All major road schemes must pass that statutory procedure before the Secretary of State can give the go-ahead.

That is the stage that we have reached with the A249 Iwade bypass to Queenborough improvement scheme. The inspector's report on the local public inquiry held at the beginning of September is with the Secretary of State, and the inspector's conclusions and recommendation will be considered alongside the post-inquiry representations. The Secretary of State will make a decision on whether the published orders should

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be made, taking into account the inspector's recommendation and all the available evidence. That decision gives the go-ahead to the scheme.

I noted my hon. Friend's earlier debate, when he explained most eloquently that the Isle of Sheppey, although part of the United Kingdom, has been detached from mainland Britain for more than 1,000 years. That creates unique problems for its full-time population of 40,000 and its weekend population of almost 80,000. I appreciate that those problems are not helped by the current inadequate transport link with the mainland. As my hon. Friend has said, it prevents industry and commerce on the island from expanding and developing as easily as they would like. I acknowledge that a new crossing of the Swale would assist regeneration of the Isle of Sheppey. That is why the A249 Iwade bypass to Queenborough improvement scheme is in the TPI and has been given the primary objective of regeneration and integration in the roads review.

The scheme would also deal with the problems that are caused by the Kingsferry bridge, which has a central lifting span and carries a single-track railway. Earlier, my hon. Friend said that raising the bridge on demand for shipping on average six times a day causes long delays and congestion for vehicles. The A249 is an important link between Maidstone and Sheerness, and it shares junctions with the M20, M2 and A2. In October 1996, a 9 km stretch of the M2 to Iwade was opened.

In response to a parliamentary question in December 1998, Lord Whitty announced that, subject to the successful completion of the relevant statutory procedures, the A249 Iwade bypass to Queenborough improvement scheme was one of three major trunk road schemes in north Kent that will be taken forward under the proposed Kent design, build, finance and operate contract. Final decisions are yet to be taken on the procurement process. Such public-private partnerships remain central to our plans for modernising the way in which vital public sector projects and services of the highest quality are delivered more cost effectively.

Mr. Wyatt : On a point of clarification, does the Minister mean that we need to wait for the other two

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schemes to be approved before the Queenborough-Iwade development is approved, or will that project be independently funded?

Mr. Hill : I assure my hon. Friend that we do not have to wait for the other two schemes to be approved. I hope that that gives him some comfort.

The Government have revitalised the private finance initiative. Only three weeks ago, on 12 April, we awarded a £200 million design, build, finance and operate contract for managing and improving the A13, which will boost jobs and improve the environment in east London and docklands. Under that arrangement, the Government are building improved roads and purchasing miles of properly maintained and operated highways that deliver the best possible service to users. The public-private partnership encourages contractors to keep traffic lanes, footways and cycleways open, to improve facilities for public transport and goods vehicles and to minimise the disruption that is caused by utilities' work.

I appreciate my hon. Friend's desire to give a firm date for the start of work on the Iwade-Queenborough scheme. However, for the reasons that I gave, I am unable to do so while the matter is still subject to the statutory processes. I do not want to prejudice the outcome of those procedures. My hon. Friend has my assurance that, subject only to the satisfactory outcome of the outstanding statutory procedures and the need to provide a solution that offers the best value for money to the taxpayer, we are committed to providing improved accessibility between mainland Kent and the Isle of Sheppey at the earliest possible moment.

I believe that the Prime Minister will soon respond to my hon. Friend's letter of 4 April. If my hon. Friend's constituents needed it, that is yet another demonstration of his assiduous pursuit of their interests in this regard.

I am sure that my hon. Friend appreciates the legal constraints that have required me to be somewhat guarded in my response to his representations. I am grateful to him for raising this matter, which is of urgent concern to the people of the Isle of Sheppey. I congratulate them on electing to Parliament such a zealous advocate of their interests as my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey.

Question put and agreed to.

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