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11.49 pm

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Mr. Nick Raynsford): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Foster) for raising this extremely important topic and for his lucid, cogent presentation of his case. It was interesting to learn of his lifelong commitment to his town and to hear at first hand the impact that congestion is having on the economic and environmental well-being of Hastings and the surrounding areas. He set out the economic and social case for transport improvements very clearly. He treated us to fascinating speculation about how the course of British history might have been altered if some of the improvements that he seeks had been in place some 935 years ago.

The Government recognise that both quality of life and a prosperous economy depend on transport. Motor vehicles have revolutionised the way we live, bringing greater flexibility and widening horizons, but the way we use our vehicles has a price for the economy, for our health and for the environment. Integrated transport is designed to extend choice and to provide a transport system that is safe, efficient, clean and fair. It will provide more choice, better public transport, less pollution and better protection for the environment.

The environment-transport interface, which is important throughout the country, is especially prominent in the south-east, where population pressure is strong, car ownership and usage levels are high and one third of the land is designated as an area of outstanding natural beauty. Good communications are central to the economy and our quality of life. These are complex issues, and there is no single panacea.

It may be helpful if I first set the multi-modal study in its wider policy context. The Government's 1998 roads review, "A New Deal for Trunk Roads in England", a daughter document to the White Paper, "A New Deal for Transport: Better for Everyone", set out for the first time our view of the role of trunk roads within a fully integrated transport policy. It reviewed the long wish-list of trunk road schemes that the Government inherited against our key criteria for transport: accessibility, safety, economy, environmental impact and integration.

As a result of the review, we introduced a well-focused, targeted programme of improvements, or TPI, to the trunk road and motorway network. The TPI originally included 37 schemes that met the criteria that I have set out, and following further announcements since 1998, it now includes 49 schemes, all of which we are committed to delivering.

However, the roads review also recognised that there were many serious and urgent problems on our trunk road network which were not addressed by that programme of improvements. Many of those problems were particularly complex and could be addressed only by looking across the piece at all transport issues. We therefore commissioned a series of major transport studies to consider those issues in depth.

The programme of studies, finalised in March 1999, included the "Access to Hastings" multi-modal study. We recognised that as one of the most urgent cases and put it

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into our first tranche of studies. The aim of the multi-modal studies is to investigate problems in all transport modes and to seek balanced solutions that contribute to our integrated transport policy by protecting the environment and supporting sustainable economic growth.

The primary aim of the "Access to Hastings" study was to consider how transport could contribute to regenerating the economy of the area in and around Hastings and Bexhill, while minimising the impact on areas of outstanding natural beauty and sites of special scientific interest. In particular, the study was asked to consider the role of four existing trunk road schemes in providing a solution: the A21 Tonbridge-Pembury bypass, the A259 Bexhill-Hastings western bypass, the A259 Hastings eastern bypass and the A259 Pevensey-Bexhill improvement. As my hon. Friend said, the multi-modal study also covered rail links to London, Ashford and the channel tunnel.

The scope and content for the A259 schemes within the study was set out in the Secretary of State's interim decision letter of July 1998. That set out his "minded to" decision to make the orders for the A259 Hastings western bypass, subject to the scheme's regeneration impact, as determined by the "Access to Hastings" multi-modal study.

My hon. Friend has invited me or one of my colleagues to visit Hastings to see at first hand the case for the A259 bypass. I put it to him that that is not possible, because of Ministers' quasi-judicial role in this process. As my hon. Friend expressed some uncertainty, it may be helpful if I put on record the nature of that quasi-judicial role.

Draft statutory orders are published under the Highways Act 1980 and the Acquisition of Land Act 1981. An environmental impact assessment is published alongside the draft orders. When made, those orders give the Secretary of State the statutory authority to carry out a road improvement scheme. If there are any unresolved statutory objectors to the published orders, a local inquiry is held. The inquiry, like the one held into the Hastings schemes, is conducted by an independent inspector.

After considering the inspector's report of the inquiry and his recommendation, the Secretary of State issues his decision on the orders. If the decision is that the scheme should proceed, the orders are made taking into account any modifications recommended by the inspector that the Secretary of State has accepted.

If a proposed modification makes a substantial change to the published orders, the views of interested parties affected by those modifications must be taken into account. Circumstances can arise that require supplementary draft orders to be published which would be subject to the same procedure as the main orders, and an inquiry would be held if necessary.

The Secretary of State acts in a quasi-judicial role in taking decisions on orders authorising trunk road schemes that have been to local inquiry. The guiding principles for taking such statutory decisions are that the Secretary of State must be evenhanded in dealing with all interested parties, must follow the procedure rules scrupulously and must have regard to the rules of fairness and natural justice as developed by the courts.

Mr. Foster: I understand my right hon. Friend's point about the statutory obligations, but do those obligations

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prevent the visit from taking place, provided that the Secretary of State is not subject to canvassing or lobbying by any group? Perhaps he could see both groups at the same time. Is there anything in the provisions that says he cannot attend an area over which he is making a decision?

Mr. Raynsford: It is difficult for the Secretary of State or a Minister to visit an area and see all the factors that may be considered relevant by all the people who may have an objection, and to make himself available to all the parties who have an objection. In such complex matters, there may be modifications that could lead to further objections. It would put the Secretary of State in an almost impossible position to make a visit and to maintain the principle of evenhandedness, which is fundamental to the performance of the quasi-judicial role. That is why the Secretary of State, by custom, does not visit an area that is subject to a major inquiry of this nature.

I speak with some authority on this subject as the Minister responsible for planning procedures with an analogous quasi-judicial role. Planning Ministers must be extremely careful about accepting invitations to visit sites where planning applications may be considered by the Secretary of State in due course. I hope that my hon. Friend understands and accepts that there is not a reluctance to see the circumstances of an area. I visited his area some time ago at his invitation, when I had no involvement in this process.

I reassure my hon. Friend that we recognise the urgent need to encourage a social and economic renaissance in Hastings. As he emphasised, the index of local deprivation recognises Hastings as one of the most deprived areas in the south-east. As such it receives significant regeneration funding: around £35 million is already committed to the area in the period to 2007, mainly under the single regeneration budget, but also from objective 2 funds and through the neighbourhood renewal programme.

We recognise that if we are to maximise the investment, we must get the provision of transport infrastructure and services right. However, the relationship between economic regeneration and transport improvements is extremely complex. The right transport investments can open up areas to new markets, opportunities and investors; but get it wrong, and new transport schemes could drain further an already depressed area. That difficult issue was central to the Hastings study.

As I have said, the issues are complex. It may be helpful if I say a little more about the process involved in the study. A consortium led by Steer Davies Gleave was appointed, following competitive tender, in November 1999. This was the first study to get under way. The Government office of the south-east led and financed it, but we thought it essential to involve all other key interests on an equal basis. Thus, as with all the multi-modal studies, we established a steering group that was responsible for the management and direction of the study. Membership was wide, incorporating all district and county councils directly involved in the study's coverage, as well as the Strategic Rail Authority, the Highways Agency, the regional development agency, and other business and local environmental groups.

The study went through a well-structured process. It analysed in depth the economic transport and planning issues in the study area; the consultants identified a range

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of possible measures to address the problems, and assembled them into a number of strategies. The possible impacts of the packages were then appraised in detail, to obtain a broad picture of the costs and benefits of the different options. The focus of the work concentrated on the economic and environmental impacts. The consultants broke new ground in their analysis of the potential impact of transport measures on a local economy, and provided a comprehensive analysis of the existing economies of Bexhill and Hastings.

Fundamental to the process was a comprehensive consultation exercise. Emphasis was placed on giving people and interested organisations opportunities to participate in problem identification, strategy formulation and the derivation of solutions. It was intended that inviting greater involvement, including newsletters and telephone interviews, would make the solutions more appropriate, and--importantly--more fully understood by a broad spectrum of the community.

The consultants' final report was agreed by all members of the steering group at the end of November 2000. The report provided an analysis of current and future transport problems in the study area, identified solutions based on transport, economic and environmental data and the extensive consultation process, and recommended solutions in the form of a preferred strategy.

The preferred strategy identified by the consultants is in four parts, to which my hon. Friend referred. The first concerns the public transport elements. The consultants recommended the provision of a Bexhill-to-Ore metro service and a new railway station at Glyne Gap, the electrification of and infrastructure improvements to the Ashford-to-Hastings line, an enhanced local rail service between Wadhurst and Tonbridge, strengthened quality bus partnerships, and other supporting measures.

Secondly, the consultants made firm recommendations on highway improvements. They recommended that an online widening of the A21 from Tonbridge to Pembury to "dual two" standard be taken forward to statutory processes; they also recommended that the A259 Pevensey-to-Bexhill dual carriageway improvement should not proceed.

Thirdly, the consultants concluded that more work should be undertaken to investigate opportunities for further improvement in a multi-modal context along the A21 corridor, particularly in the light of sensitivities surrounding the area of outstanding natural beauty through which the route passes.

Fourthly, the consultants considered the case for the A259 Bexhill and Hastings western bypass and A259 eastern bypass schemes. They analysed the potential

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impacts of the bypasses. In terms of regeneration, they concluded that the bypasses could provide between 2,500 and 3,000 additional jobs; however, they also felt that the balance of argument was such that they could not make a recommendation on whether the bypasses should proceed. While they might improve the potential for regeneration, that needed to be balanced against the Government's strong presumption against schemes that would significantly affect environmentally sensitive areas, or important species, habitats or landscapes.

In the case of the Hastings study, the western bypass would need to proceed on a viaduct across the Combe Haven site of special scientific interest; and a modified junction, at the western end of the bypass at the junction with the existing A259, is within the Pevensey levels SSSI, which is also listed as a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar convention on wetlands.

The eastern bypass runs through the sensitive Brede valley area within the High Weald area of outstanding natural beauty. The consultants thus concluded that decision makers should consider the output of the study on the basis of two strategies, one with and one without the proposed bypasses. The consultants estimated that the strategy without the bypasses would cost £90.3 million at 1999 prices, and that, with the bypasses, the cost would be £225.8 million.

The steering group commended the consultants' report to the regional assembly, suggesting consideration in the context of wider regional objectives. A covering letter reflecting the considerations of the steering group accompanied the submission to the regional assembly. The letter reflects the fact that the group reached consensus on many issues and, indeed, many of the recommendations. There was not a consensus view in the steering group, however, with regard to the bypass schemes. A majority considered the case was sufficiently strong to proceed, although the case was not overwhelming.

As my hon. Friend said, the regional assembly considered the final report at its plenary session on 14 February and submitted its recommendations to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions on 21 February. The assembly reported that the transport strategy on the bypasses would, in its view, give the best chance for the effective renaissance and regeneration of the area. It qualified its support by considering that the transport package should be viewed as part of a wider strategy for regeneration.

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Deputy Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at six minutes past Twelve midnight.

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