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8.25 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill): I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes

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(Mr. Steen) on obtaining this debate on European Union policy as regards motorway construction and noise pollution, and on his highly informed--indeed exhaustively researched--speech. The debate gives me the opportunity to set out the United Kingdom's position on this important matter, and to show how the Government are taking forward the transport agenda in this country in a way that respects and protects the environment.

Needless to say, I shall make frequent reference to the application of European legislation, and our British experience may well have valuable lessons for the unfortunate case of Mr. Wood, which the hon. Member for Totnes described so graphically. The hon. Gentleman raised a number of wide-ranging concerns; not least among them were matters relating to the funding of infrastructure projects in the EU. Such matters are complex, and the hon. Gentleman has offered many novel solutions.

Specifically, the hon. Member for Totnes asked me to consider compensation arrangements in the EU in relation to motorway schemes. I undertake to do so, and I shall write to the hon. Gentleman about issues raised in the debate on which it might be appropriate for the Government to take further action in the EU. I also assure the hon. Gentleman that I am convinced that the important constitutional issues to which he has drawn the House's attention will be considered at the highest levels. However, the hon. Gentleman will understand that I cannot comment on the specific case in Portugal that he has set out.

We must not lose sight of the fact that well-developed and modern transport infrastructure is vital to the competitive strength of any economy. The hon. Member for Totnes does not dispute that, in western Europe, politicians have long recognised the need for an effective and efficient trans-European network. The demand for such a network comes from the citizens, as individuals and as economic agents. They wish to live and work in a sustainable economic environment that allows them to trade, communicate and travel throughout the EU, and into its neighbouring countries, as easily, quickly and cheaply as possible.

The importance that the EU attaches to good transport infrastructure is recognised in the very significant sums of money that it makes available to its development, particularly through the structural and cohesion funds. Such funding is a major element in the realisation of the key EU objectives of promoting economic and social progress and of gradually removing differences in living standards between the member states as well as between the regions. I note the progress that Portugal has made in that regard and, like the hon. Gentleman, I rejoice in that country's progress.

The European Union has also recognised growing concern about the adverse effects of new infrastructure. EU directive 85/337 made it a requirement for all member states to make public an assessment of the environmental impacts of major projects and their proposals for reducing the impacts. All EU member states are subject to the provisions of the environmental impact assessment. Annexe I to the directive lists those projects for which an environmental impact assessment is mandatory. Motorway construction is such a project. The 1997

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amendment to EC directive 85/337, among other things required that the determination on whether fully to assess smaller projects should be made public.

Before a decision on consent can be given for a proposed motorway, the developer is required to prepare an environmental statement containing detailed information about the proposal, its likely environmental effects, the proposed mitigation measures to offset any adverse effects and an outline of the main alternatives that have been studied. There must also be a summary of all that information in non-technical language. This is important because the environmental statement is made available not only to environmental and other bodies with an interest, but to the public, who may make representations accordingly.

Consent may not be granted until the environmental statement, and any representations made about it, have been taken into account, although I should make it clear that the environmental information does not itself determine whether the application is accepted or refused. Projects whose environmental effects are likely to be adverse may still be approved if there are other overriding considerations such as improvements to road safety.

I have set out the clear requirements in terms of European Union legislation, which I assume were applied--or ought to have been--in this case. It will be important for the hon. Gentleman to peruse the official record in some detail to advise his constituent, Mr. Wood, as to the possibilities for recourse set against the criteria laid down in European legislation that I described. I shall explain how we are handling these matters in the UK.

Mr. Steen: Before the Minister moves on, is he saying that Mr. Wood might have a stronger case if the Portuguese did not follow the procedures? They cannot do away with the motorway, nor would he suggest that. Is he more likely to be able to make a case for compensation if the procedures were not followed, or is that only a matter for regret?

Mr. Hill: The hon. Gentleman will understand that I am no lawyer. I am certainly no European Union lawyer--a particularly arcane area of study and pursuit. I am suggesting, however, that at least some of the provisions that I outlined would have been in place at the time that the motorway construction was undertaken and, therefore, might apply in this case; and that there were procedures that should certainly have been pursued according to European law. It would be very helpful if the hon. Gentleman and his constituent considered whether those procedures were applied, and then considered further action on the basis of that consideration. I will return to compensation later.

On the transport planning process in the United Kingdom, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, the Government published their White Paper "A New Deal for Transport: Better for Everyone" in July 1998. That document set out the way in which UK transport infrastructure projects were to be short-listed, decided upon and taken forward. The key element of planning transport was to get a regional approach to transport problems and their potential solutions. Regional planning guidance and regional transport strategies would look at

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where the problems were in the region and, after consultation with the relevant authorities and the public, put to the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions their proposals for transport infrastructure projects. If those were agreed by the Secretary of State, they would then come forward for funding either as part of the targeted programme of improvements on the trunk road network, in local transport plans, or as part of the infrastructure programme from Railtrack or the train operating companies. That is part of the way in which we deal with such matters in the UK.

We recognised that that process could take some time and so we put in hand so-called multimodal studies that examine areas where there are transport problems and the various ways in which those might best be solved. They involve wide consultation. We now have the first of those reports and other studies will be reporting in the next few years.

Part of the comparison of the alternative solutions will be made using the "New Approach to Appraisal", which is designed to help to assess the implications of investment proposals against five criteria--safety, economy, environment, accessibility and integration. It enables us to compare different options for solving the same transport problem. In a number of instances, the most effective solution to a transport problem may be new or improved road infrastructure.

What do we do when we are dealing with new road infrastructure? Before those road proposals agreed by the Secretary of State are translated into projects on the ground, they go through processes set down in the Highways Act 1980 and the Acquisition of Land Act 1981, which provide an opportunity for those affected to register objections. If those objections cannot be resolved, a public inquiry may be held. Where road construction necessitates acquisition of land or property, the procedures provide for payment of compensation to owners based on market values. If the value of a property is reduced by the opening of a nearby road scheme, the owner may claim compensation.

Alternatives are investigated and the viable options narrowed down as a basis for public consultation about the proposed route and its environmental effects.

Mr. Steen: The hon. Gentleman says that compensation may be payable. Does that relate to the value of the property before and after building? Is that the compensation value?

Mr. Hill: I can answer that technical question with a little more confidence: I think that the answer is certainly yes.

After all responses to the consultation have been considered, a preferred route is announced and safeguarded from development. For those intending to buy a property in the area, the intention to build a scheme will show up in local authority searches. The hon. Gentleman referred to the fact that there were rumours and whispers about the Algarve scheme--evidently they were not present in any local authority materials that Mr. Wood may or may not have considered.

The preliminary design is then worked up and draft statutory orders are published under the Highways Act 1980 and the Acquisition of Land Act 1981, together with

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an environmental statement, as required by EU directive 85/337/EEC. Anyone directly affected by the proposals, and public bodies with legal responsibilities for protecting various aspects of the environment, have a statutory right of objection. If there are any unresolved statutory objections to the published draft orders, a local public inquiry will be held before an independent inspector. Once all objections, and the inspector's report if an inquiry was held, have been considered by the Secretary of State, a decision on the scheme is taken. The objectors are individually notified of the decision and a press notice is also issued. If the scheme proceeds, the land purchase orders are then made and the way is open for the construction contract to be awarded. That is the way we do it in this country. Clearly, EU directives impinge on our procedures--notably in respect of environmental impact.

I shall deal with noise policy and noise pollution--an issue of considerable concern in the case cited by the hon. Gentleman.

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