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31 Oct 2000 : Column 176WH

Morecambe-Lancaster Bypass

11.29 am

Miss Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale): Once again, I welcome the opportunity to put the case for completion of the road link between the port of Heysham and the M6 motorway. On 11 February 1998, during my previous Adjournment debate on the matter, I and my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson), who is in the Chamber today, told the House why it was essential that that link should be completed at the earliest possible moment.

It is not my intention to reiterate those arguments today, because the need for the road has been established; indeed, it has been incorporated into the strategic plan of the relevant local, county and regional organisations. As long ago as 1995, the panel that conducted the public examination of the Lancashire structural plan concluded that improved links between Morecambe and Heysham were needed and that another river crossing would help improve the movement of traffic in Lancaster. Since then, Lancaster city council, Lancashire county council, the North-West regional development agency, the North-West regional assembly, the local planning inspector, the Confederation of British Industry, the Morecambe and Lancaster chambers of commerce and the overwhelming majority of people who live in the area have recognised the need for the road. I invite the Minister to confirm that the Government, too, recognise that need.

My purpose today is not to give global reasons why a link road should be built, but to put on record the reasons why the bid for that major scheme, submitted by Lancashire county council as part of the Lancashire local transport plan for the years 2001-06, should be supported by the Government. The proposed Heysham-M6 link would be a 9.7 km, single-carriageway, all-purpose road. It would extend from stage 1 of the Lancaster-Morecambe bypass at White Lund, pass through open countryside to the west of Lancaster city centre and join the M6 at junction 33. It would allow traffic travelling between the M6 and the towns of Morecambe and Heysham to bypass Lancaster. It would provide access to new and existing areas of employment in Morecambe and Heysham and to the west of Lancaster and it would improve access to the major port of Heysham and the smaller port of Glasson dock.

Improved access would considerably enhance the prospect of attracting much-needed new business and employment into areas of high unemployment and social exclusion. Lancaster and the surrounding areas suffer a significantly higher rate of unemployment than the average for Lancashire--or for England. As a result, all the existing and proposed employment areas, except for the Bailrigg business park, would be in wards that qualified for European objective 2 status and regional selective assistance; the business park would qualify only for the latter. The Lancaster single regeneration budget also provides special funding for the inner wards of Lancaster--including, as an industrial area improvement scheme, the Lune industrial estate. It also identifies the Marsh estate and the adjoining private housing area as one of its main communities. It would be highly perverse of the Government to recognise that

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the district urgently needed assistance to regenerate itself but fail to remove the biggest barrier to regeneration--the appalling road links.

The new road would be of particular importance to Heysham port, which is the only port on the north-west coast that is accessible at all states of the tide. There are four daily freight sailings to Belfast, three to Dublin, two to Warrenpoint, two to the Isle of Man and two passenger Seacat sailings to Belfast. It is also the main port that serves the Morecambe bay gas field. Between 1990 and 1998, foreign and domestic traffic increased from 1,485,000 tonnes to more than 3,585,000 tonnes. Ship arrivals have increased from 1,729 to 3,278 and container units have risen from 98,000 to 273,000. Such developments have resulted in a significant increase in heavy goods vehicles using the port, 85 per cent. of which arrive from or proceed to destinations south of Lancaster.

While there is no doubt that Heysham is the fastest growing port on the north-west coast of England, it faces severe competition from other ports such as Liverpool, Holyhead and Stranraer. There is growing evidence that Heysham's further development is being put at risk by its poor road access. Surely it would be a grave mistake to allow a flourishing enterprise to be strangled by its own success. The Government must ensure that that does not happen.

The proposed new road would provide much more than the economic benefits and regeneration opportunities to which I have referred. It would relieve the awful congestion on the approach roads and bridges into Lancaster and reduce dramatically the number of traffic movements within the city. It would bring environmental improvements to many thousands of people whose lives are currently blighted by traffic, noise and air pollution. It would also enable the full implementation of the Lancaster transport strategy, a package of measures aimed at promoting alternative modes of transport in and around Lancaster, and bring about a significant reduction in road accidents and injuries.

If opened in 2005, the Heysham-M6 link would carry 20,500 vehicles a day over the River Lune and more than 16,000 vehicles a day south of Ashton road. It would remove 10,600 vehicles per day from Skerton bridge, 9,700 vehicles per day from Greyhound bridge and 15,300 vehicles per day from Morecambe road. The real significance of the traffic reductions is probably best understood by considering them as a percentage of the existing traffic levels. For example, traffic on the A6 would be reduced by 56 per cent. at Galgate and 57 per cent. at Scotforth. Traffic would be reduced by 27 per cent. on the city centre northbound gyratory road and by 23 per cent. on the southbound road. The A683 Morecambe road would benefit from a 37 per cent. reduction in traffic. The traffic on the Skerton and Greyhound bridges would be reduced by 33 per cent. and 30 per cent. respectively and the traffic on the A683 Caton road would be reduced by 25 per cent.

Such a considerable reduction in traffic levels would allow the further introduction of bus priority measures, such as bus lanes over the Lune bridges, thereby improving timetable reliability, which will significantly increase the attractiveness of bus travel as an alternative

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to car use. It would also allow the extension of cycling facilities in the centre. Such reduction in traffic would provide a much-improved environment for pedestrians and lower levels of noise and pollution. More than 10,000 properties would be subject to lower noise levels and almost 6,000 would benefit from better air quality. It is estimated that in excess of 30 road accidents a year would be prevented as a result of building the link road.

The estimated cost of the road is £55.6 million, and its net present value is more than £104 million, with a benefits-cost ratio of 3.577. If provided, it would meet all its stated objectives, which are to improve communications between Morecambe and Heysham and the M6 motorway; to release land allocated for industrial regeneration and improve access to the port of Heysham; to relieve traffic congestion in and around Lancaster city centre; and to permit the continued development of alternative travel modes, particularly buses and cycles. All in all, it represents a much-needed, value-for-money solution to the traffic problems that have blighted the Lancaster district for many years.

I shall now refer to the report and recommendations of the inspector who chaired the public inquiry into the Lancaster local plan. Following the recommendation of the panel that conducted the public examination of the Lancashire structural plan--that a bypass to the west of Lancaster may not be the best solution and that a northern bypass should be considered--three routes were identified, one to the north and two to the west of Lancaster. After much argument and debate, both Lancashire county council and Lancaster city council chose the western route, initially as the preferred and subsequently as the sole option. An amendment was accordingly written into the local plan. That route was chosen because it was the only one fully to address the area's problems and to meet its needs. The decision was fully supported by myself as Member of Parliament for Morecambe and Lunesdale and by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre.

The local plan inspector produced a report in June this year that recommended that the pre-inquiry change to the local plan, which had confirmed the proposed route, should not be accepted and that the proposal to set aside the land to build the link road be deleted. The inspector had concluded that a northern bypass would provide similar benefits at a lower cost, and declared that the funding for the proposed scheme during the period of the Lancaster district plan--up to 2006--would not be forthcoming.

The inspector reached his conclusion on the basis of a comparison between the identified northern route and the proposed western bypass. At the time of the inquiry, both those roads were envisaged as illuminated dual carriageways and the estimated costs of building them were £65 million for the northern route and £90 million for the western route. Subsequently, however, significant modifications were made to the western scheme and the estimated cost was reduced by £34.4 million. That was achieved through lowering the road specification to a wide single carriageway and avoiding disturbance to a pipeline carrying ethylene gas.

Despite the reduced specification, the revised scheme retains virtually all the economic benefits and road congestion relief capabilities of the originally envisaged dual carriageway and it certainly outperforms the alternative northern route in virtually every aspect. It is

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cheaper and more cost-effective; it provides greater relief from traffic congestion both on approach roads and within the city of Lancaster; and it does not have the adverse environmental impact of the northern route. The environmental factor weighed heavily against the northern route throughout the process.

The reduced specification has other positive benefits because it substantially reduces the impact of the road on wildlife in the Lune estuary and is less likely to induce additional car journeys through spare capacity. Accordingly, the county council and the city council determined not to accept the local plan inspector's recommendations.

The proposed scheme is the only major transport scheme included in the Lancashire county council local transport plan. It has the support of the North-West regional development agency, which believes that it will do much to resolve current problems of congestion, pollution and environmental damage, especially in the centre of Lancaster. It has been included in a draft regional planning guidance as a priority scheme to be completed by 2007. I believe that the foregoing demonstrates that an integrated approach has been adopted at all levels of local and regional government in producing the proposed scheme. Government approval and funding are required for it to become a reality. The Government are due to respond formally by the end of the year. I hope that what I have said today will help clear up any confusion at the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions about possible changes to the scheme resulting from the local plan inspector's report.

Can my hon. Friend point to any areas of Government concern about the scheme? In view of the importance of the link road to my constituents and to the Lancaster district overall, will he undertake to visit the area to discuss any concerns in an appropriate forum before the Government give their formal response to the scheme?

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre) rose--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Nicholas Winterton): Order. The hon. Gentleman rises in his place. If an hon. Member wishes to intervene in an Adjournment debate, it is traditional to get the permission of the initiator of the debate and the Minister, which the hon. Gentleman may have done, and to notify the Chair of his interest in speaking. Does he have the permission of his hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Miss Smith) and the Minister?

Mr. Dawson : I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have the permission of my hon. Friend, but I have not had an opportunity to speak to the Minister.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : I will use my discretion on this occasion and call the hon. Gentleman, not least because his constituency has been mentioned in the debate.

11.45 am

Mr. Dawson : I am extremely grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I apologise for any discourtesy. As you say, the proposal has profound implications for my constituency. Indeed, the majority of the road runs

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through it. I should simply like to reiterate some of the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Miss Smith) made in her superb speech.

The provision of funding for the western bypass of Lancaster in December 2000 would be the single best thing that the Government could do for Lancaster, and this is a Government who have done a great deal for Lancaster in the past few years. The western bypass is a green measure. Not only would it significantly improve the Lancaster's environment, which suffers grievous traffic congestion and terrible levels of pollutants such as benzene and carbon monoxide, it would relieve rural roads. One of the 10 most heavily used rural roads in the country runs between Cockerham and the M6.

This measure would support the development and improvement of an integrated public transport system for Lancaster by removing congestion, removing the weight of motorised traffic from city centre roads, creating another bridge across the Lune and creating opportunities for the development of park and ride and the further development of bus transport and cycling opportunities on roads that would be freed from traffic. As my hon. Friend has ably demonstrated, it would be a tremendous boon to assisting the regeneration of rundown industrial areas that are currently landlocked and badly need this sort of investment and the access that this road would create.

11.48 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill) : I should like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Miss Smith) on securing the debate and setting out so clearly, strongly and in such detail the interests of her constituents and the problems they face. I should also like to congratulate her on the energy, commitment and tenacity that she has shown in pursuing the matter. Indeed, this is the second debate that she has secured on this subject recently.

I am well aware of the problems highlighted by my hon. Friend and of those faced by Lancaster. My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) has shown similar commitment to the interests of his constituents and has spoken with typical brevity and force.

Unfortunately, traffic congestion has an adverse effect on many urban areas. I emphasise that I appreciate the need to improve access to the port of Heysham and Morecambe. That is important if the port and tourism in the area are to prosper. As my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale said, single regeneration budget funding is assisting economic and social regeneration. The area qualifies for European objective 2 funding and assisted area status.

Before I deal with Lancaster and Morecambe, it might help if I describe the progress that we have made with our transport policy to deal with some of the concerns outlined by my hon. Friends. Since coming into government, we have made it clear that transport is one of our top priorities. Tackling congestion is a key element of our integrated transport policy. Good transport is essential to a better quality of life, a strong economy and a better environment. Improving public transport is also vital to reducing the social exclusion of

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people without access to a car. Delivering better transport means tackling problems caused by decades of under-investment and a lack of strategic planning, which have left us with crumbling infrastructure, public transport in decline and increased dependence on the car.

We face major challenges. Economic growth continues to bring rising transport demand. In turn, that leads to congestion, especially on key road links between towns. Public transport in many areas is inadequate. A lack of choice in public transport sends people back to their cars, adding to congestion. Our ability to find a way out of all that is hampered by a lack of integrated strategic planning.

The 10-year plan, published in July, is our response. Our goal is to transform the nation's transport system in the next 10 years. The £180 billion programme of public and private spending is designed to tackle the legacy of under-investment and is based on the public and private sectors working together. Almost 75 per cent.--£132 billion--will come from the public purse. The increased spending starts right away. In the next three years, public spending on transport will rise from £5 billion per year to £9 billion per year. For local transport, the plan provides £50 billion in public spending and £9 billion in private investment, which totals £59 billion over 10 years. It identifies national priorities. It will be the job of key partners in the regions to interpret them according to the needs of their areas.

I have focused on transport issues, but they are part of a much wider picture. Regional transport strategies are part of the regional planning guidance, which considers all aspects of development. North-west regional planning guidance will face an examination in public next February. We are keen to see regions adopt an integrated approach, so that provision of transport infrastructure complements the economic, social and environmental priorities embedded in planning guidance.

Crucial to the delivery of many schemes are the first five-year local transport plans, which were submitted to my Department in July. We have made a lot of progress on assessing the plans, leading up to the announcement of funding decisions in December, as my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale anticipated. I am encouraged by the overall standard and commitment shown by all authorities in completing their plans.

We are committed to improvements in local transport. We have provided for £4.5 billion of investment in the next three years. Last year, £755 million was allocated to LTPs--up 21 per cent. on the previous year. That investment is set to rise to £1.3 billion next year and continue rising to £1.7 billion in 2003-04. Those are large sums, but we are ambitious. We have set demanding but achievable targets to ensure that we can measure improvements in our transport infrastructure and public transport services. For example, by 2010 we want to see congestion reduced below current levels on the inter-urban trunk road network and in large urban areas by promoting integrated transport solutions and investing in public transport and the road network. We also want a 50 per cent. increase in passenger rail use, with improving

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punctuality and reliability, and bus use increased by 10 per cent., also with improving punctuality and reliability; the doubling of rapid transit use--light rail and trams; a one-third increase in the proportion of rural households within about 10 minutes' walk of an hourly bus service or better; and a tripling of the number of cycling trips. We shall monitor our progress in achieving those and other objectives. To provide independent scrutiny, we have asked the Commission for Integrated Transport to report regularly on progress with the plan. It is in everyone's interests that we should succeed. Better public transport and reduced congestion will deliver a better quality of life and contribute to economic prosperity by reducing time lost through congestion and delays.

I now move to the specific issues raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Morecambe and Lunesdale and for Lancaster and Wyre. Although I have not yet had an opportunity to visit the area, my predecessor, the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson), did so when she officially opened the port of Heysham's £2 million linkspan, a road bridge that allows freight to load on and off the ferries. I understand that she saw some of the work already being done to tackle Lancaster's traffic problems, and she discussed with councillors their proposals for improving access to Morecambe and Heysham. Lancashire has also made a good start in tackling transport problems through the provisional local transport plan and the full local transport plan that was submitted to Ministers on 31 July.

The road that we are debating has some history. Following public examination of the Lancashire structure plan, the independent inspector's report recommended that the Lancaster western bypass should be deleted, as the traffic benefits were unlikely to outweigh the combined effects of the visual impact on the landscape and the potential harm to conservation interests on the Lune estuary site of special scientific interest. The structure plan includes the M6 link, but takes no view on which route should be chosen.

In 1998, Lancashire county council consulted the public on three different routes to complete the road link from the M6 to Heysham. I understand that the consultation showed considerable support for completing the link. The three routes considered were the so-called orange route, a northern bypass of Lancaster; the green route, a western bypass of Lancaster and Galgate; and the blue route, a shorter route to the west of Lancaster that involves the construction of new junctions on the M6 south of Lancaster. For various reasons, I understand that the blue route has been ruled out.

At the Lancaster local plan inquiry, the inspector was not prepared to make a reservation of the green route, mainly because its cost, and the problems that it raised, meant that it could not realistically be brought forward within the plan period. He would have made a reservation for the orange route--

Miss Geraldine Smith : Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Hill : If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I must respond to the points raised and I have little time in which to do so.

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The inspector would have made a reservation for the orange route, but the city council would not accept it. That council now proposes to make a reservation for the green route.

The M6-Heysham link scheme also features in the north-west regional planning guidance and regional transport strategy that was submitted to the Secretary of State in the summer. The opening of phase 1 of the Heysham to M6 link in July 1994 removed a significant volume of traffic from the built-up areas of Morecambe and Heysham, including a large number of heavy goods vehicles travelling between the port of Heysham and the M6; completing the link could further improve access and reduce congestion.

Proposals for the road have been submitted as part of Lancashire's local transport plan. It will be carefully considered against our five criteria--economy, safety, environment, accessibility and integration--and against the wider benefits that it might bring to the local transport plan as a whole. Any decision will form part of the local transport plan settlement to be announced in December. My hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale will understand that I cannot comment on the assessment process, on individual plans or on the merits of particular schemes within them at this stage.

Miss Smith : On the point about the planning inspector, does my hon. Friend agree that the circumstances have changed? We are now discussing a single carriageway road and the cost has been substantially reduced. That changes the comparison with the northern route.

Mr. Hill : I am aware that the cost of that scheme has been reduced from £95 million, if my memory serves me correctly, to about £55 million. Clearly, changes have been made. However, I should like to assure my hon. Friend that the issues she has raised will be examined closely and taken into account in consideration of the local transport plan.

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