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11 Jul 2001 : Column 298WH

Transport (South-West Bedfordshire)

12.58 pm

Mr. Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire): I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss several transport issues that are of huge importance to my constituents.

I begin with the urgent need for a full north-south bypass for Dunstable. The residents of Dunstable have been asking for a bypass since 1936, and this morning I read with some disappointment an Adjournment debate initiated by my distinguished predecessor, Sir David Madel, on 8 November 1972, in which he asked

As one travels up the A5, it seems that every town and village apart from Dunstable has been successful in getting a bypass. Travelling through the village of Markyate this morning, I noticed that the A5 goes around the village, which has reclaimed its high street. The traffic that wants to go to the village flows smoothly and the community is able to enjoy its high street environment. The same thing has happened in Redbourn.

The need for the bypass is overwhelming, and undisputed except by a few per cent. of the people in the town. The overwhelming need is environmental, as the quality of life in the town centre is abysmal for those who have to work and live there. There are 11 schools very close to the route of the A5. On a daily basis, the children in those schools have to endure the fumes produced by almost stationary traffic. As any automotive engineer will confirm, traffic that flows freely produces less pollution than traffic that is nearly at a standstill. The proposed A5 bypass would skirt round the foot of Blows downs—it would not go across them—and, with screening, an environmentally acceptable solution could be found for Blows downs and the Houghton quarry.

There is also an economic need. From an industrial point of view, I have to tell the Minister that Dunstable lost 1,500 jobs in the 12 months up to July this year. I hope that he does not respond by saying that unemployment has fallen in South-West Bedfordshire, so there is no problem. Unemployment has fallen, but where are the jobs? I want local jobs in my constituency. If my constituents must travel out of the area to Stevenage, Luton, Watford, Milton Keynes or London to get jobs, that adds to the severe transport difficulties.

Next to the proposed route of the north-south bypass are 80 acres of brownfield sites that are ripe for regeneration and to which the bypass would give access. They include the old AWD site, the Woodside industrial estate in Houghton Regis and the Renault buildings. From an economic standpoint, the retail centre of the town is in a distressed state. Some 25 per cent. of the shop frontage in Dunstable is vacant because people cannot easily get in and out of the town to do their shopping. Therefore, most people avoid it.

We are told that the north-south bypass is being considered in the multimodal study for the south midlands. I am somewhat cynical about that, and the

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people of Dunstable view it as a stalling mechanism to delay giving them the bypass. How is it that a full western bypass for Bedford, which was also supposed to be considered in the multimodal study, has been granted? A similar process has taken place in Great Barford. Furthermore, I understand that the Government Office for the East of England is pushing for a Luton eastern bypass. If Luton were to get a bypass before Dunstable, there would be an outcry, considering the length of time that we have been pushing for one.

Last year, my hon. Friend, the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) visited my constituency and called for an immediate public inquiry. I hope that, as a minimum, the Minister will announce a public inquiry today to get some progress on the Dunstable bypass. When my distinguished predecessor spoke in another Adjournment debate on this subject last year, he said:

An extension of the Leighton Buzzard southern bypass is also needed from the Thorn turn, where it meets the A5, to the M1. A huge volume of traffic uses that bypass, which has successfully taken much of the through traffic out of Leighton Buzzard to that town's advantage. However, the bypass ends short of the M1. Therefore, when traffic meets the A5, much of it turns right and goes straight through Dunstable, which adds to the 3,000 heavy goods vehicles that go through the town every day. That traffic wants to go through, not to, Dunstable. I hope, therefore, that the extension of the Leighton Buzzard southern bypass to the M1 will be forthcoming. Traffic also passes through other villages, such as Toddington, which are highly unsuitable for HGV traffic en route to the M1. Both bypasses are needed to relieve traffic congestion and to contribute to the urgently required economic regeneration.

There is a feeling that the Government are blackmailing us by holding a gun to our heads. We have been told that we have no prospect of getting a bypass unless we accept the green wave of co-ordinated traffic flows from the A5. However, if that is merely a sop and the Government are saying, "Make do with the green wave because that will alleviate the need for a bypass", that simply will not do.

The Government have also told us that, unless we co-operate with their Translink proposals for a guided busway from Luton to Dunstable, our chances of a bypass will similarly diminish. That is an unacceptable way to treat people in my constituency. I have nothing against guided busways: in many parts of the world they can be advantageous to the people whom they serve, as they greatly ease traffic flows. However, I strongly object to the establishment of a guided busway on the site of the existing railway line from Luton to Dunstable. Anyone who drives on the roads in the south-east of England will know that they are becoming more congested daily. Surely many of the branch lines that Dr. Beeching axed should now be brought back into use.

I hope that the Government will not only open the branch line from Luton to Dunstable, but, in time, will connect that line with Leighton Buzzard, to where it

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used to run. It is true that part of the track that runs from Dunstable to Leighton Buzzard no longer exists, but it would not be difficult to route a track alongside the Leighton Buzzard southern bypass, which could join the main line to London near Cheddington.

If that were done, the possibilities for economic regeneration for the region would be tremendous. Birmingham, Milton Keynes, Leighton Buzzard, Dunstable, Luton and Luton airport could all be linked and that means that the many people who travel to the airport from the midlands could reach it in comfort by rail. At the moment, the Strategic Rail Authority has reserved the line between Luton and Dunstable for rail use. An over-enthusiastic local group wanted to run a railway carriage up and down the track, and some of the sleepers were removed. I understand all that, but I beseech the Minister not to proceed with Translink on the existing route at the expense of restoring rail links to our towns. As I said, I am not against guided busways per se, but I would prefer a rail link.

Leighton Buzzard is a major commuter town to which many people have moved because of its supposedly good rail links to London. It is vital that Silverlink trains retains full access to the fast rail line to London and that neither Virgin nor any other rail company is allowed to elbow Silverlink aside so that it is unable to provide an acceptable commuter or other regular service to London.

In addition, there are no lifts at Leighton Buzzard station. That means that people who are disabled, who are in wheelchairs, who are carrying luggage, or who are mothers with young children have difficulty reaching the platforms. Silverlink was wrong not to have installed a lift in the first place, but it now says that it would not be economic to do so, as the franchise has only two years to run. Given that franchises have only two years to run and that companies do not know whether they will have them renewed, will the Minister consider telling them that if, say, they install a lift, they will receive a credit for it if they do not win their franchise next time? Is there no mechanism for encouraging such important capital improvements that allow access for disabled people and others to our railway network? It is not good enough for the remaining years of the franchise to be years in which capital investment stops altogether. Will the Minister consider whether there is any way in which Silverlink can proceed with lift installations, without it being penalised in the final years of its franchise?

My final point—the debate may be coming to resemble the film "Planes, Trains and Automobiles"—concerns Luton airport. I am delighted that the airport is so close to my constituency. It provides ample and welcome opportunity for my constituents to travel abroad at reasonable prices. It is also a great advantage for any region, both economically and as far as jobs are concerned, to be close to an airport, and I welcome it unreservedly.

That said, however, the airport consultative committees are something of a joke. There is no worthwhile accountability to the people over whose homes the aircraft fly from Luton or from many other airports in the United Kingdom. Time and again, sensible-looking approved routes are shown to members of the consultative committees. Aircraft are not scheduled to fly over people's homes on a regular basis,

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but are subsequently regularly vectored off. They are taken off the approved routes merely to save the passengers a couple of minutes' journey time.

That is wholly unacceptable. As I said in my maiden speech, it would be the equivalent of a bus driving across a village green to save two or three minutes. There would, quite rightly, be outrage if that happened. Why do we allow aircraft to fly wherever they want over people's homes when that could and should be easily avoided? With the increase in flights predicted for Luton airport— possibly 30 million passenger flights a year rather than the 7 million or so at the moment—the issue will become more and more serious and will relate not just to Luton airport, but to airports all over the country. Will the Minister urgently consider giving real teeth to the consultative committees to which the airports are responsible? I am not anti-airport, but we must strike the right balance between the economic advantages and jobs that airports bring, and the environmental impact on people over whose homes aircraft fly.

1.14 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. David Jamieson) : I congratulate the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Mr. Selous) on securing this debate and on the delivery of his well researched speech. I knew his predecessor, Sir David Madel, extremely well; he was an Opposition Whip when I was a Government Whip and we frequently haggled behind the scenes about Bills. Perhaps I will come to know the hon. Gentleman just as well. His predecessor was a courteous, well informed and witty man, who acted as a vigorous advocate for his constituents, particularly on the issue of transport. The hon. Gentleman has shown that he will follow in his predecessor's footsteps in that respect.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned how transport policy affects the quality of life and liveability issues are at the heart of our transport policy. He mentioned the importance of economic regeneration and prosperity in South-West Bedfordshire, and such considerations are in our minds when we formulate policy. We are mindful of the substantial job losses in his constituency. The unemployment rate is still below the national average, although that is no satisfaction to those who have recently lost their jobs. I assure him that every effort will be made on behalf of his constituents, even when the matter extends beyond my remit. I am sure that he will lobby hard to secure greater employment in his area. The current economic climate favours regeneration and the creation of new jobs; we must be pleased about that.

I hope that I have enough time to deal with all the h G's points. Some general comments on policy will show how South-West Bedfordshire fits into a wider framework. Debate on transport in the area is controversial. It has gone on for at least 29 years; the hon. Gentleman's predecessor held an Adjournment debate on the subject in 1972. I expect that other hon. Members can go back still further. The other day, someone told me that it was 60 years since a particular bypass was first considered.

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We have established an integrated transport policy and a 10-year transport plan to provide resources for improvements to our transport system. It is widely acknowledged that we have inherited a legacy of under-investment and it will take years to put that right. For the last two years, we have increased the resources available for all forms of transport and, along with local authorities and transport providers, we have committed ourselves to a major sustained investment programme. We established the Strategic Rail Authority, which has a mission to develop the railways as a positive national asset, rather than as a service run at minimal cost to the Exchequer.

The long-term franchises that the hon. Gentleman mentioned will provide the requisite major investment in rail services. I have taken on board his comments about disabled access at stations and will take that message back to the Department. The Strategic Rail Authority is working on a strategy for the whole network and that is due to be published later this year. I accept that the railways have had major problems, but that will not deflect us from our long-term aims.

The motorway and trunk road networks are important to South-West Bedfordshire, which is at the hub of many major networks. We have established, and are committed to delivering, a targeted programme of about 40 schemes for improvement. Many of those are under construction, but others will start in the next few years. We are a long way from the time when people made wish lists, which often promised very little. We have established a programme of multimodal studies that examine comprehensive proposals for dealing with our transport system's most intractable problems.

We have initiated five-year local transport plans to enable local authorities, such as those in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, and their partners to decide what must be done in their areas and to have the confidence to take their plans forward. The thrust of his argument is that there has not been enough local determination or ability to be able to carry out those plans. The whole transport network plan process is a major step forward and has been widely welcomed.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the integrated transport policy in South-West Bedfordshire, and how solutions are being developed. He described in some detail the need for improvements in safety and in environmental and economic redevelopment. As he described so graphically, congestion is, without doubt, endemic in Dunstable. Diversions from incidents on the M1 can also make that congestion much worse. Bus services cannot run on schedule and timetables have to be adjusted to cope with the regular disruption.

Those problems are not new and we seek to tackle them with the main players in the locality. It is accepted that some of our major projects could take time to be implemented, but the whole approach involves systematic development rather than a series of wish lists.

With regard to the railways, the west coast main line through Leighton Buzzard is being upgraded and new trains are already operating on the midland main line through Luton. The public inquiry for the Thameslink 2000 project is finished and the inspector is working on his report. The Queen opened Luton Airport Parkway station in November 1999. About 30 per cent. of the

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airport's passengers use public transport—a figure up with the best. The hon. Gentleman will agree that that also contributes to reducing congestion on the roads.

The hon. Gentleman raised the possibility that Silverlink services on the west coast main line might suffer as a result of restrictions on the use of fast trains. At the west coast forum on Monday, the consultants issued a report that set out actions to deal with that problem. The Strategic Rail Authority will consider the report and decide what action to take in consultation with other interested parties.

South-West Bedfordshire is covered by two local transport plans. Leighton Buzzard and the more rural areas fall within the Bedfordshire plan. The Dunstable and Houghton Regis area has combined with Luton to produce a single transport plan for the conurbation. We are delighted that the Luton, Bedfordshire and South Bedfordshire councils have come together to work on a comprehensive transport strategy, as that is the best way to deal with the area's substantial problems.

We have already provisionally accepted the joint Bedfordshire-Buckinghamshire A4146 Stoke Hammond and Linslade western bypass major scheme. That will complement the southern bypass by removing further through traffic from the urban area of Leighton Linslade. Bedfordshire council is also developing local programmes for market towns, such as Leighton Buzzard, and the rural areas of the county.

The authorities propose two major schemes in the joint plan. The hon. Gentleman referred to Translink—the guided busway—a major project that links Dunstable and Houghton Regis with Luton and the airport. All the authorities have identified the scheme as being of the highest priority and are now firmly behind the busway project. He described the huge problems of congestion that prevent reliable bus operations. The authorities consider that Translink will create the required sea change in bus operations for that conurbation.

If the hon. Gentleman has any doubts, he should enter into discussions—if he has not done so already—with those local bodies that have shown themselves to be so much in favour of the project. He will understand that we will listen to the local bodies and those responsible for views on local matters. It is not for us to make a decision from Westminster, but to listen to the local decisions and recommendations.

I am aware of the controversy surrounding the scheme and the alternative ideas for the heavy rail use of the old Luton-Dunstable line. However, the local authorities and local partners must decide which scheme to promote. We expect to receive the full appraisal of Translink at the end of July, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that it will receive careful attention.

The east Luton south corridor improvement, between junction 10 of the M1 and the airport, is the second major scheme. We recognise the project's importance in respect of regeneration, and its appraisal is expected soon. My officials have visited both major schemes to ensure that we are fully aware of the details of the projects.

In addition to such major schemes, we have substantially increased funds for maintenance and integrated transport in the Luton, Dunstable and Houghton Regis area. The figure for 1999-2000 was

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£1.544 million, rising to £2.574 million for 2000-01, and to £4.919 million for 2001-02. I therefore hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that the area that he represents has received substantial increases, and we have indicated that similar funding will be made available for subsequent years.

The plan identifies public transport as the highest priority, followed by walking, cycling and freight access. Those priorities are determined locally, and they will form the basis of the implementation programmes that are developed by the authorities. Local authorities, in conjunction with their partners and transport operators, must decide which programmes to pursue, and they are keen to take up the challenges that are offered by the substantial extra resources that we have made available for transport projects in urban and rural areas.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the London to south midlands multimodal study. We are conducting multimodal studies to deal with the most difficult transport problems. The widening of the M1 and the A5 Dunstable bypass has been referred to the London to south midlands study. Work is under way to develop broad strategies for the first round of consultation with the major players and that will take place in the autumn. More detailed consultation on the proposals for the main corridors, such as the M1, the A5 and the west coast and midland main lines, will take place early in summer 2002. Those consultations will allow for full discussion of the strategic options for South-West Bedfordshire, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will want to contribute to them.

I understand that the hon. Gentleman's predecessor contributed to the planning conference on the Dunstable bypass that was held in 1996. There was disappointment that no serious action was taken following that conference. The plans for the A5 bypass propose to construct a major grade separated dual carriageway through the urban area. Such a scheme would have a great impact on the urban area, and surrounding open land and sites of special scientific interest. As the h G will be aware, the project is still very controversial.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire): I am grateful to the newly dapper Minister for allowing me to intervene. Before he reaches his peroration, I want him to explain the thinking behind the Government's decision to detrunk major A roads in Bedfordshire, which means that now the county council, rather than the Government, will foot the bill for maintenance.

Mr. Jamieson : If I address that matter in detail, there will not be enough time to deal with other issues raised in the debate. However, we feel that decisions on the 30 per cent. of the roads that are trunk roads would be better made locally. We have put in place the funding for that and we have transferred it to the local highway authorities to enable them to manage those roads. The major trunk roads will, however, continue to be managed through the Highways Agency.

The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire made several points about Luton airport, and I have some complex arguments that I would like to present to him. However, we might not have sufficient time to discuss them, so I hope that he will find it acceptable if I promise

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to write to him about Luton airport and vectoring off. If he wishes to discuss the matter further, I will be happy to do that.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this subject and for the way that he has conducted the debate. I look forward to debating with him in the future. I also thank him for giving me the opportunity to explain the Government's position on the important matter of transport in South-West Bedfordshire.

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