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4 Apr 2001 : Column 464

Hastings Multi-Modal Study

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Kevin Hughes.]

11.36 pm

Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye): I am grateful for the opportunity to address the House on an issue that was central to my election four years ago in 1997. I said at that time, and I have my election address to prove it, that I would work relentlessly until the Government acknowledged the special needs of Hastings, particularly the need for a transport infrastructure to support social and economic regeneration.

For us, joined-up government means that Hastings needs to be joined up physically to the prosperity of the south-east and beyond. I say "us" because I am lifelong resident of Hastings. Indeed, I can claim a really boring statistic in support of that, as I have never left the town for more than two weeks in my whole life. I know that that will not impress most people, although I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning will be impressed by my knowledge of the needs of my constituency.

Everyone has heard of Hastings--1066 and all that. Its historic pedigree is first-class. Indeed, until the 1930s it was a thriving seaside resort, the fourth most popular in Britain. Its underground car parks and covered promenades were state-of-the-art developments. Regular train services brought thousands of holidaymakers to our town and prosperity to our local economy. After the war, all that changed. Years of underinvestment meant that the town was impoverished by the 1960s. The local Tory council's manifesto was:

Neither Labour nor Tory Governments came to our aid. Most people thought that it was a safe parliamentary seat for the Tories, so Tory Governments did not bother because they thought that they could not lose and, sadly, Labour Governments did not bother because they thought that they could not win.

That was the environment in which I grew up, went to work and entered local politics. It is true that, from time to time, Governments suggested improvements to the A21. About 30 years ago, the Tonbridge and Pembury bypasses were built, but south of Tonbridge the A21 became a snail trail. Without a transport infrastructure, even more businesses moved out of Hastings, so our economic future looked increasingly bleak.

To abridge the history lesson, 1997 arrived, and with it new hope and new ambitions. With the return of a Labour Government, a Labour Member of Parliament for the first time and a Labour council for the first time, hopes were high.

The campaign for regeneration, to which John Cosson of the 1066 Enterprise and Christine Goldschmidt of the Hastings Trust were committed, gained pace. Single regeneration budget fund moneys came into the town, and the Labour Government made massive investment in social regeneration through sure start, the education action zone and, more recently, neighbourhood renewal schemes. Last year, the European Commission agreed to objective 2 status. Such aid was needed because the local economy was in tatters, with unemployment rates higher than in the former coalfields of the north, and social deprivation left Hastings 28th in the deprivation index.

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Policies such as the minimum wage and the working families tax credit have brought hope to a town that still has more workers earning less than £250 a week than anywhere else in Britain. The minimum income guarantee, which has helped about 3,000 of our pensioners, and the winter fuel payments have alleviated much pensioner poverty, but although things are better, we remain the 28th most deprived town in Britain. Although the unemployment rate has virtually halved and youth unemployment is down by 85 per cent., we remain the unemployment blackspot of the south-east.

What will bring about the sea change? What will bring jobs and prosperity, and improve our local environment? What will restore our fortunes to pre-war days? To my mind, and in the opinion of 80 per cent. of my constituents, according to a local poll the solution is the creation of integrated transport access to Hastings, which will improve our economic fortunes and relieve our urban environment.

I support the Government's transport policies. It must be right that we should look first to public transport before private. It must be right that we look to rail, rather than road. For that reason, I have supported the Government's initiative in seeking a multi-modal solution from among the options for access to Hastings.

Before the study was commissioned, there were putative plans for improvements to the A21 and for a bypass around Hastings. That was a road-based solution to access, which, alone, would have been a lost opportunity. The multi-modal study therefore has as its objective to improve access to Hastings and find solutions to regeneration and land use planning pressures, and to see whether options other than roads could achieve those objectives.

The A21 improvement is the most important aspect of the road links between the M25 and the industrial estates in Hastings: it is not just business opportunity that is lost by the A21 track that masquerades as a trunk road, but many lives as well. The appalling carnage on the A21 and the resultant financial costs would justify the improvements that we seek.

The environmentally contentious bypass is of equal importance. I wish that it was unnecessary. The question that the study was intended to address was whether a non-road solution would achieve the objective. In my opinion, and in the opinion of the access study that was presented to my right hon. Friend's Department at the end of February, economic regeneration of the town is not possible without building the roads and the bypass.

Public transport elements of the package are of immense importance, as the rail links are as archaic as the roads. The Charing Cross line on which I travel most days takes one hour and 45 minutes to cover the 60 miles from Hastings to London in 40-year-old trains. The link to Europe through Ashford is served by a single track, non-electrified line on which the trains are even older.

The Government were right to commission the multi-modal study, but now that the result is known the time has come for decision. Although parts of the study were somewhat woolly, it made clear recommendations: first, the electrification of the Hastings-Ashford rail line, with new stock providing a direct link to the Euro service and an alternative route to London; secondly, new in-town stations and a Bexhill-Ore metro across the town, using the existing rail structure to provide for greater local

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transport usage; and, thirdly, improvement to the Hastings to London Charing Cross line, including, presumably, new stock.

All that is fine and dandy, and the sooner decisions are made and implemented, the better, but the report makes it clear that public transport improvements alone will not solve the fundamental economic weakness of the area. There must also be, according to the report, improvements to the A21 and the construction of the Hastings bypass. The A21 is perhaps one of the worst roads in Britain. It is said that King Harold was so delayed in coming down the A21 to meet William the Conqueror that William claimed victory when Harold failed to show.

I know that the bypass in particular is environmentally sensitive. I do not rubbish the ideas of the environmental groups that oppose the bypass; I simply think that they are wrong. Their objectives are laudable, but their approach is too narrow. The roads are essential; without them, we cannot secure economic gains or relieve the urban environment.

I shall briefly explain those two objectives. Hastings has little employment land available within the borough. Likewise, housing land, as required by my right hon. Friend's Department in Hastings and Rother, is difficult to identify. However, at Woosnam farm in north Bexhill, which would be opened up only by the building of the bypass, the opportunity exists to create some 3,800 jobs and meet Rother's house building obligation, all within a four or five-mile radius of the unemployed of Hastings.

As far as I am aware, the A259 is the only main trunk road in Britain that transverses the seafront of a major town. It blights the lives of 10,000 of my local constituents and shakes apart some six conservation areas. There is, therefore, a trade off between the rural environment and the urban environment. For my part, I consider both to be equally important. To some extent, I think that the urban environment should have priority when the lives and health of so many of my constituents are so badly blighted by the current pollution and traffic jams that they must endure. In many ways, it should be said that people are more important than plants.

Let me tell the House about the lady whom I met in hospital last Christmas. She was suffering from asthma, and from behind her oxygen mask, she said, "Please, Mr. Foster, get that traffic off the Bexhill road." It was there that she lived. She and many of her neighbours are suffering a higher incidence of asthma that cannot be explained other than by traffic pollution.

Of course, the Government are trying to limit pollution from motor vehicles and are giving incentives. That is to be commended, but in order to make changes of significance here and now, the environmentally conscious Labour council in Hastings needs space to create traffic management measures to reduce traffic flow on the A259. It cannot do so without an alternative route, and no such route exists without the bypass. In Hastings, the bus companies will not even run extra buses on the A259 Bexhill road, because congestion is such that they cannot guarantee a timetable.

I know that the opponents of road building claim that the package will not mean extra jobs, because the new homes that the scheme envisages will create additional demand for jobs. That argument is invalid, because as the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions is requiring additional housing to be built in any

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event, it follows that any additional need for jobs will arise whether or not the bypass is built. Without the bypass, however, there is no opportunity to provide the jobs that would be demanded.

I want to impress on my right hon. Friend the Minister that, although a vocal minority, which comes mostly from outside the area, is opposed to the bypass scheme, this is not another Newbury. It is not a precedent or the start of a south-coast motorway. All that we ask for is a modest single-track relief road around the north of Hastings and Bexhill. In Newbury, the town was divided. In Hastings, it is united. There is all-party support. East Sussex county council and Hastings borough council are 100 per cent. behind the total package. The South East England regional assembly--the very body that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State set up to advise on these matters--voted by 100 votes to eight to recommend that the integrated package be approved. If local democracy means anything, that must be taken into account. In Hastings, regeneration is vital. My constituents do not want handouts for ever more. They want a hand up, which is what the package will provide. It means prioritising rail and public transport, but as my right hon. Friend the Minister has accepted elsewhere, it also means that roads may form part of a solution.

So, what I ask my right hon. Friend tonight is this: first, will either he or one of his ministerial colleagues visit my constituency to see the problem for themselves? I know that such a visit will graphically express the need for a positive decision, more than any oral submission could ever do. I have never understood the logic--or, for that matter, the legal authority--of the advice that Ministers have received to avoid such a visit. It may have been given because a visit would take too long, and I can understand that. I ask, therefore, that he and his colleagues think again.

Secondly, my constituents need an early answer. I acknowledge that my right hon. Friend's ministerial colleagues in the Department have had the report only since the end of February, but it was accompanied by overwhelming advice from SEERA and other authorities, so surely the decision cannot be that difficult. I would welcome an indication from him on when a decision will be made.

Thirdly, if the decision on the bypass is so sensitive that, despite the clear unequivocal advice of all those who have been asked to comment, it is still to be further reviewed, cannot the balance of the package, including the A21 improvements, be approved, as has occurred elsewhere? I understand my right hon. Friend's dilemma, although I do not appreciate it, but I am a pragmatist, so I would welcome an immediate decision on the parts of the package that are not hotly in dispute.

Fourthly, I would welcome assurance from my right hon. Friend that the position remains that which was set out in a letter that I received from Lord Whitty on 28 March. The letter said that the decisions made on that day in respect of other schemes had no impact on the outcome of the Hastings study, as some believed. In particular, I was informed that

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Finally, although an ultimate "yes" to the integrated package is expected, it would be helpful to those who want to invest in our town, but who are awaiting a decision, to know the timetable within which a decision will be made.

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