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16 Jan 2001 : Column "54"WH

Transport (Tiverton and Honiton)

12.59 pm

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): At the conclusion of the Christmas Adjournment debate, I raised matters concerning road and rail transport in my constituency. So important are those matters to my constituents that I felt it appropriate to do so again today so that a Minister could respond to them. Within the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, Lord Whitty takes primary responsibility for the matters concerned, but I am grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill), for being here today. I have given his office notice of the key matters that I shall address.

The first is the A30 road between Honiton and the M5 in my constituency--a design, build, finance and operate scheme which was opened by the Deputy Prime Minister in August 1999. From its inception, I raised with the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and the Highways Agency the concerns of my constituents about the noise that would be created if the top surface of that road were concrete rather than asphalt. I took a delegation from my constituency to see Lord Whitty and passed correspondence that I had received on the matter on to him. I had been assured in writing that the noise level of what was described as whisper concrete--a misnomer if ever there was one--would be virtually no different from that of a tarmacked finish.

Many road schemes are not popular in their locality, but this one was much wanted in my constituency. I have lived adjacent to it for nearly 25 years and I know how dangerous the old road was, and how high its death toll. However, the noise suffered by residents quite some way away, not just those living immediately alongside the road, has become intolerable. A local action group, the RT30 team, has done a lot of work, as has our local daily newspaper the Exeter Express and Echo, in assisting local residents to get to the bottom of why the road is so noisy. Lord Whitty kindly agreed that the Highways Agency could undertake road noise tests, as did the RT30 campaign, assisted by the Express and Echo and Exeter university. It is clear from both sets of tests that the residents are experiencing from between 8 to 13 decibels higher than the permitted level. Many properties adjacent to the road are subject to noise levels that exceed the recommendations of the World Health Organisation or at which planning permission for residential development would not normally be permitted under Government planning policy.

People in the affected areas have invested huge sums in double glazing, but many are still precluded by the noise of the road from enjoying their back gardens in summer and have to keep the windows closed day and night in summer. When the Prime Minister visited Exeter to attend a Labour party conference last July he told us, to our delight, that the Government agreed that the noise levels were too high and that the road would be resurfaced. In addition to their delight, residents wanted to know when we would see some action. I continued to provide Lord Whitty with letters from my constituents and wrote to him myself on 23 August.

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He replied:

I was misled by the Highways Agency and I was misled by Connect, the contractors, which both verbally and in writing assured me that the surface would not cause noise aggravation, which it clearly does. Even worse, at the public inquiry the inspector at the inquiry that preceded these events was misled as to the anticipated decibel level. When the Prime Minister made his promise, we felt that because he was personally involved in such a local matter, we could expect to benefit from his clout. I re-emphasise that this is not just another concrete road. This is a road over which promises have been made and broken.

I have another point to make to the Minister, because it was not appropriate to put it to the deputy Leader of the House at Christmas. Clear written evidence was sent to me, and to the inspector at the public inquiry, that we could have expected a quieter road. Can the Government enforce the contract, into which they must have entered, to ensure that the whisper concrete complies with its terms? The Minister will be under pressure to resurface many of Britain's concrete roads, but I plead that this is a special case because we were misled. Perhaps the department responsible for transport was misled. Perhaps the Highways Agency should look to the contract for this scheme.

Throughout the road's construction, I informed my constituents about it in good faith. We were led to understand that whisper concrete does not cause noise problems; it clearly does. It causes insufferable distress to my constituents, and I have received dozens of complaints from people along the length of the road, many of which I have passed to Lord Whitty, the Under-Secretary. For example, I have received letters from Feniton amenities association, Ottery St. Mary and Clift Honiton, which make it clear that this road has a negative impact on the quality of everyday life. That is why I have placed this urgent matter first on my list; this is not just another road. Given the background and the promises that have been made, I hope that the Minister will understand. We look to the Prime Minister, who has kindly involved himself, to keep his promise and give the scheme priority, so that my constituents can enjoy quiet in their homes.

I shall briefly touch on other roads related matters before I turn to serious rail transport issues. I am delighted that the Government have recently decided to reverse their policy of antipathy towards bypasses. Crediton, a small Devon market town in my constituency, needs a bypass. When I attended the public examination of the Devon county structure plan at county hall in September 1997, the county environmental director stated that he anticipated a scheduled start for the Crediton bypass in 2003-04.

There are two elements to the Crediton bypass: the first concerns Government funding, the second relates to the county council maintaining the pecking order and

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priority lists that they have put forward for bypasses. I regularly correspond with Devon county council and other interested parties about the Crediton bypass. I shall keep up the pressure, so that Crediton does not slip down the list.

Although these are long-term plans, I hope that the Government will give some hope in terms of time scale. I do not expect the Minister to say today that we will have our Crediton bypass next year--I doubt whether the county council would be ready to do that. However, in planning these welcome road schemes, I hope that the Government can provide a time framework. The bottleneck at the Exeter road end of Crediton is causing huge environmental problems. The streets are narrow, and big lorries sit there with their engines labouring. I am concerned about the health of the people who live close to that road.

The good news is the Government's recognition of the need to dual the A30 at the opposite end of the Honiton bypass, which links with the A303 further up the road, and, ultimately, the M3. I welcome that development, for which I have long argued, although it is a difficult step for a constituency Member of Parliament to take. This stretch of road passes through some beautiful countryside, particularly in my patch. However, there has been a public inquiry, which was in fact completed before the general election.

As a peninsula, the south-west depends on the movement of people and goods to access other parts of the country. Of course, there is the important M5-M4 corridor, but it essential that we have a second arterial route, so that people can use the M3 link and travel to Exeter and the far south-west. That is vital not just to my constituents, but to the overall economy of the south-west. The Minister will recognise that it is rather unusual for a constituency MP to want a decision to allow a trunk route through her constituency to be implemented. However, the south-west's larger economy, particularly tourism and the movement of goods, depends on it.

I come to railways. The Minister will understand that we in the south-west feel that the two-way process of good transport access to the rest of the country is vital. However, there are huge problems with bridges on the main line--the line from Paddington to Exeter, Plymouth and Cornwall, which has a spur to Torbay--that connects London with the far south-west. I am sorry to say that those problems seem to affect my constituency. All I need is a proposed prison development and a few other problems and I would have the full set. The bridges are causing great disruption not just to my constituents but to all commuters in the south-west.

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall): I want to emphasise that, in addition to the hon. Lady's concerns, any rail dislocation or road disruption in Devon has an immediate impact on the entire economy of Cornwall.

Mrs. Browning : The hon. Gentleman gave me notice that he wanted to make that point, and he is absolutely right. That shows the importance of this railway line.

There are on-going problems with Stafford bridge, which is a rail bridge over the River Exe at Stoke Canon. There has been considerable investment to try to resolve

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the problem, but when there is heavy rainfall and the river is in full flow or flooding, the bridge's foundations can be undermined. In the past, divers have had to check the foundations, which has resulted in delays. Not for one minute am I suggesting that anyone wants to compromise rail safety, and I recognise there has been investment. However, real problems remain, of which the Stafford bridge is one.

There is a more recent, and perhaps long-term, problem. The Cowley bridge, which is on the edge of my constituency, is a road bridge over the railway line on the approach to Exeter St. David's station. Huge problems have been experienced there. In the two months before Christmas, the main line was out of action for 22 days. That means that passengers wishing to access the main line have to be bussed between Exeter St. Davids and Tiverton Parkway--a huge disruption to what is often a long railway journey.

Railtrack told me that it has taken measures to try to resolve the problem at Cowley bridge. Initially, it thought that it was a once-in-a-lifetime problem that, having been dealt with once, would not have to be revisited. However, within five weeks the problem was as bad as ever, and Railtrack's preliminary investigation showed that the problem will not go away.

Provisions have been made to deal with the immediate problems involving drainage pipes and culverts, but local engineers say that a full feasibility study is required. I emphasise to the Minister that a large engineering project may be necessary, because the problem involves not only the railway line, but a road bridge at a major connection across the railway. I hope that he can use his influence to persuade and to help Railtrack to carry out the feasibility study and to bring in all the attendant agencies and departments that will inevitably be involved in such a big engineering project.

We in the south-west cannot afford to have our main railway line cut off for 22 days out of two months. We all know that there are changes in the weather pattern, for which I do not pretend to understand the full reasons. Local engineers clearly believe that the problem could recur, and we must therefore look to the long term. I urge the Minister to do all that he can to ensure that the overall feasibility study takes place as soon as possible.

1.16 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill ): I congratulate the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) on securing the debate, which gives hon. Members an opportunity to discuss road and rail transport in the Tiverton and Honiton area. I am grateful to her for her courtesy in providing me with advance notice of the matters that she intended to raise. I also recognise the concerns that were expressed by the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed).

Let me turn immediately to the issue of noise on the A30, which I know well from my journeys to the south-west. The feelings of local residents about noise are obvious from the placards which appear along the road. It is a matter for regret that the road--one of the flagship design, build, finance and operate private sector roads initiated by the previous Government--should have proved to be a source of disturbance to local people. It

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was a concrete-built road, designed to minimise maintenance requirements and to keep costs down, while fully complying with the standards for the traffic volumes that were anticipated--and are currently experienced--on the road.

I am assured that no promise was ever given by the Highways Agency--for which I have direct responsibility--regarding the use of so-called whisper concrete in the construction of the road. However, the agency acknowledges that noise levels are higher than was predicted at the public inquiry. That is why the Government have confirmed, more than once, that that stretch of the A30 will be resurfaced with a lower-noise surface.

As the hon. Lady will be aware, no precise date has been given for that resurfacing work. However, contrary to her assertion, no promises have been broken. In the words of the Prime Minister, as quoted in the 3 July 2000 edition of Exeter's excellent Express and Echo:

Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter): Is the Minister saying that nothing misleading was said during the public inquiry to which the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) referred to give people the impression that the road would not break noise levels? The road has broken noise levels. Does he accept that people were misled? Will he address her question about whether he has the power to force the Highways Agency to enforce any contractual agreement that was made at the time about noise?

Mr. Hill : I repeat that the agency acknowledges that the noise levels are higher than those forecast at the public inquiry. As regards the enforcement of the contract, I assure hon. Members that I shall look at that matter personally to see what opportunities exist to enforce the contract. I shall certainly write to the hon. Lady and to other hon. Members with the conclusions of that inquiry.

The date of resurfacing will depend on a number of considerations, not least the conclusions of the present consultation between the Highways Agency and the local authorities, of which Devon is one, on the criteria for prioritising such work. I shall refer to that in a little more detail shortly.

The Government recognise that traffic noise is a major concern for many communities living close to roads, including the A30. Tackling traffic noise is a high priority for the Government and for the Highways Agency and we are taking action on a number of fronts. The Government's 10-year transport plan "Transport 2010", published in July 2000, gave a commitment that

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Mrs. Browning : Following the Prime Minister's verbal promise, Lord Whitty wrote to me on 23 August saying:

Mr. Hill : I do not think that 2011 should necessarily be bandied about, but I recognise the force of the hon. Lady's point that an assurance was given that information would be provided to her in due course about the timing of the resurfacing work. Again, I give hon. Members the undertaking that I will ensure that the promised correspondence is dispatched at the earliest opportunity.

I was explaining the various measures that the Government have taken to expedite the resurfacing work. In March last year, they established a ring-fenced budget of £5 million to provide noise mitigation measures to deal with some of the most serious and pressing cases of traffic noise on existing trunk roads, as promised in "A New Deal for Trunk Roads in England".

We are committed to open government and to improving decision making by ensuring that decisions take account of both the people affected by them and their interests. The Highways Agency has developed criteria to fulfil the Government's commitments in our 10-year plan. It has embarked on a consultation exercise with local authorities on the criteria to be used for prioritisation of resurfacing of concrete roads. The consultation document has also been published on the agency's website to allow other interested parties to comment, and copies can be obtained from the agency.

Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay): I endorse everything that the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) said about rail transport, but although a noisy bypass is a nuisance, no bypass at all is an even greater nuisance. In considering Devon's highway network, will the Minister give some thought to the Kingskerswell bypass and Torbay's link with the country's road traffic network?

Mr. Hill : I am pleased yet again, if I may say so in a public forum, to receive the hon. Gentleman's representations on behalf of his constituency. He has been most assiduous in the margins of the House in pressing that case.

For the interest of hon. Members, let me explain the criteria on which the Highways Agency will develop its programme for resurfacing roads. The first criterion is to deal with the noisiest sites that affect the most people. That means that the agency will endeavour to improve

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the situation for the maximum number of people who are closest to trunk roads in the earlier part of the programme.

Secondly, the programme aims to minimise disruption to general public and users of the network. That means that the agency will try to combine the work with other planned works on the network and use construction, procurement and traffic management methods that speed up the works. Thirdly, the programme aims to minimise whole-life cost. That means providing the right treatment at the right time with minimum disruption to traffic and achieving value for money.

The agency is planning to complete the consultation exercise by the end of April 2001 and publish the criteria in due course. I am sure that hon. Members will appreciate that I cannot anticipate the outcome of the agency's consultation, or the programme that will develop, based on the adopted criteria.

The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton raised many points and I have taken many interventions. Following the priority that she set in her own speech, I now say a word about the Crediton bypass. As hon. Members will be aware, the A377 road is not a trunk road, so Devon County Council, as the local highway authority, is responsible for the road and for any improvements to it.

In its local transport plan for 2001-2006, Devon county council explained that over the plan period it would work with partners to identify the most appropriate sustainable solutions to traffic congestion in and around Crediton. Devon county council accepts that the need for a bypass has yet to be proven. Over the next five years, it will carry out an appraisal of present and future traffic trends in the Crediton area. Any proposal to construct a bypass will have to be tested against a range of options, so that it can be demonstrated to be an appropriate solution to the town's traffic problems. It will, of course, need to demonstrate how it fits with and meets the Government's five overarching objectives for transport--safety, environment, economy, integration and accessibility.

It will be for Devon county council to decide if such a scheme can be included in its local transport plan for 2006-2011 and the priority that it should enjoy in relation to any other schemes that it wishes to seek funding for in that period. The hon. Lady will clearly be making her voice heard by the local authority in establishing priority for that bypass. If the case for a bypass is accepted, the funding will be provided through the local transport plan from the £180 billion that we will deliver in the 10-year transport plan.

The hon. Lady mentioned other road schemes. A number of road schemes along the A30-A303 corridor are being considered under the London to the south-west and south Wales multimodal study. Those include the March Honiton and A35 Honiton eastern bypass. A decision on the scheme will follow the study outcome.

In the meantime, over the past six months, the consultants have been building a comprehensive picture of the problems and issues in the study area. They have done that through workshops, exhibitions, briefing sessions and one-to-one meetings as well as through data collection and other sources. The next step is to

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work towards an emerging preferred strategy, on which there will be formal consultation--probably in May. Following the establishment of a preferred strategy, more detailed solutions to the problems identified will be developed that are consistent with the preferred strategy.

My officials who are managing the study will continue to keep hon. Members in the study area up to date with progress. I understand that very shortly a further letter will be sent to the hon. Lady and to other hon. Members in the study area setting out more details on progress and outlining the remaining study programme to the end of the year.

Exceptionally rapidly, let me turn to at least one other issue raised by the hon. Lady. I am aware that the Tiverton and Honiton constituency has been particularly affected by recent floods that have damaged railway track and bridges in the area, causing widespread disruption. I understand that the Yeovil to Exeter line reopened on 4 January, albeit with a 20 mph speed restriction. I have also been informed that Railtrack is to install additional relief pipes at Cowley bridge, to which the hon. Lady referred, to divert excess water from the River Exe when it floods, so that it does not interfere with the railway. In addition, as the hon. Lady will be aware, Staffords bridge has been subjected to improvements in the past five years to make it more robust. Railtrack is continuing to look at ways of either preventing future flooding or reducing the duration of the impact of the floods and consequent line closures. In more general terms, we are aware that more regular users of the railways--

Mr. Barry Jones (in the Chair) : Order. We must now move on to the next debate.

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