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A3 (Hindhead)

11 am

Mr. Jeremy Hunt (South-West Surrey) (Con): It has been said that the definition of a politician is someone who says when there is light at the end of the tunnel, "Let's go out and build some more tunnel." On this occasion, I only wish that that were the case, because my constituency desperately needs a tunnel.

The arguments that I will put today have been put many times before, not least by my predecessor as the Member of Parliament for South-West Surrey. As the Minister is new to the Department, I would like to take the liberty of briefly going through the arguments again.

The A3 links London and Portsmouth. Portsmouth is the second biggest passenger port in the country, carrying 800,000 vehicles and 3 million passengers per annum, and is a key gateway to the continent.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry (Portsmouth, North) (Lab): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and allowing me, as the Member for Portsmouth, North, to make a point. On freight, at the moment we are not allowed to increase the container size on our railways, so it is likely that more freight will have to be carried by road. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, if Portsmouth is to continue to develop freight business at the port, a decent road from London down to Portsmouth is even more important?

Mr. Hunt : The hon. Lady makes an important point. Portsmouth carries more than 1 million tonnes of freight per annum and is the fourth largest local economy in the south-east of England. However, of those top four economies, it is the only one without a motorway connection to London and the only one that requires the use of a single carriageway on the main trunk route to London. In fact, Hindhead has the only single carriageway on that network between Portsmouth and Scotland. In addition, Portsmouth is the only one of the four in which the main arterial route to Heathrow and Gatwick is blocked, right in the middle, by traffic lights. The Minister will appreciate the severity of the bottleneck created for my constituents. The queues to get through the traffic lights at Hindhead are utterly horrendous.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry : We are trying to build a venue for conferences in my constituency, but we are being told that conference organisers will not send delegates through that bottleneck, particularly at the peak times, so we are losing out on conference traffic. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is yet another reason to pursue the matter?

Mr. Hunt : The hon. Lady again makes an important point—the implications of not having a tunnel stretch way beyond my constituency. Her city is trying hard to catch up with the affluence that is common to the rest of the south-east, but in which Portsmouth has so far been unable to share. She will know that the city is one of the 50 most deprived areas in the UK; that it ranks just 31st in the south-east in average weekly earnings; and that there are 25,000 people of working age in the city without a job.
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There is not just the economic cost to Portsmouth; there is also a massive environmental cost to the region. The Devil's Punch Bowl at Hindhead is an area of outstanding natural beauty, of national and international importance, and of special landscape value.

Let me tell the Minister some of the benefits of a tunnel, as identified by his own Department. There would be a positive economic cost-benefit ratio of 2.8 through reduced journey times. A tunnel would meet the policy objectives to

and to "conserve and enhance biodiversity", and there would be a substantial reduction in the number of accidents—estimated at 40 fewer a year. One accident nearly every week would be avoided.

A tunnel would have a large beneficial impact on driver stress and would create a reduction in noise levels in Hindhead and the surrounding areas, providing substantial benefits to the historic landscape of Hindhead common and an opportunity for townscape enhancement, including visitor gateways to the common and the Devil's Punch Bowl. Most importantly, more pedestrian and cyclist trips would be encouraged.

The final argument that needs to be addressed is whether the tunnel is of regional or national significance. It apparently fails to meet three of the four criteria necessary to define it as of national significance, but it does so for the chicken-and-egg reason that those criteria cannot be met as long as there is a bottleneck. The volume of traffic flows—fewer than 60,000 vehicles a day—the low proportion of freight traffic and the route's lack of inclusion in the trans-European route network are all due to the bottleneck. If the bottleneck were removed it would become the route of national significance that its function as the connecting road between London and Portsmouth demands.

I conclude by telling the Minister of the terrible price that my constituency pays because it happens to sit right in the middle of that transport disaster zone. The village of Hindhead, home to only 3,000 people, is sheared in half by the A3. If one is on the wrong side, it is quicker to go to nearby Haslemere for one's shopping than to use the local shops. A huge amount of pollution is generated throughout the day by cars idling, slowing down, revving up and starting at the Hindhead lights. Rat-running is destroying the local villages, and there is a huge problem with planning blight. The lights sit on the main road between Haslemere and Farnham. They are two important towns in the area, but connections between them are massively hampered by the difficulties of travel over the junction.

What I have said is fully supported and endorsed by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot). He is not present today, but he speaks with great passion about the issues faced by his constituents, particularly in Grayshott, the town next door.

I hope that I have demonstrated to the Minister the seriousness of the situation. In his reply, will he address some of the concerns throughout the region about the
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procedures used to decide the fate of the tunnel? For example, why has the inspector's report on the public inquiry, which was completed in January, still not been published? Despite my arguments today, why has the scheme been downgraded from supposedly national significance to only regional significance?

Sarah McCarthy-Fry : On the point about national and regional significance, I was reading in the national newspapers this morning about the national Olympics in 2012 and the massive boost to tourism that it will bring. My constituents hope that we will benefit from the huge tourism potential of our naval heritage. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that unless we deal with the bottleneck at Hindhead my area certainly will not reap the benefits of the national Olympics, because people will not want to come through it? I return to the business argument. In the previous Hampshire economic partnership business transport survey, in which 730 businesses took part, 37 per cent. of those that responded made Hindhead their major priority for road investment. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that adds weight to his argument?

Mr. Hunt : I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady. The Olympics is a huge opportunity not just for London but for the whole country, and particularly for areas such as her constituency that need regeneration. We should grasp that opportunity for Portsmouth. We must however recognise the threat in my constituency of the extra traffic created by the Olympics making a bad situation into a traffic nightmare. The forthcoming Olympics is a strong reason why the issue must be progressed and not delayed.

Why, nearly a year after the conclusion of the public inquiry, do local people still know nothing about whether funding will be made available for the project? Given the strength of cross-party support for it, about which the Minister has heard this morning; given the huge damage that delays inflict on the environment, the lives of my constituents and the prospects for Portsmouth's regeneration; and given the opportunity cost to the country's economic infrastructure caused by not proceeding with the project, will the Minister at least agree to facilitate a meeting with the Secretary of State, as requested by the hon. Lady, to resolve this transport crisis with the greatest possible urgency?

11.10 am

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Dr.   Stephen Ladyman) : I am grateful to the hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt) for securing this debate and bringing his concerns to the House.

I think that we can start by accepting that there is some common ground. The stretch of road that we are talking about undoubtedly suffers from bad congestion, journey-time unreliability and a poor accident record, and I guess that we can also accept the social and economic importance of improving it. The points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) on freight, the opportunity cost of not proceeding with conferencing development and the benefits of the Olympics were well made. There is no question but that that stretch of road needs to be upgraded—we accept the fact—and there would be important social and economic benefits in doing so.
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If a cost-effective, affordable and easy-to-provide solution were obvious, and if the environment were not a factor, I have no doubt that the road would be being built as we speak. Indeed, it would probably have been built many years ago. Unfortunately, however, the environment is an important factor and a cheap solution is not available.

The landscape, as both the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend know, is of high quality. It is part of the Surrey Hills area of outstanding natural beauty and owned by the National Trust on behalf of the nation. The Devil's Punch Bowl is a lowland heath site of special scientific interest and is part of the special protection area. It is not just any part of the country that we can drive a dual carriageway through, which is why a tunnel scheme was identified as a potential way to deal with the problem. Unfortunately, however, tunnels are very expensive and we have to take that on board.

Environmental constraints have meant that we have spent 20 years searching for a solution to the problem. The hon. Gentleman was kind enough to offer me a history lesson on the development of the project, but he skipped over the fact that although the tunnel was identified as the correct solution in 1993, the scheme was stopped in 1995 by the Government—his predecessor was a member of that Government—because it was regarded as unaffordable.

Following our review of the trunk road programme in 1998, we considered the feasibility of a toll tunnel to make the scheme affordable, but we decided not to pursue that option because of the likely diversion of traffic on to less suitable routes. So, in March 2001 the current tunnel scheme was put into the targeted programme of improvements as a conventionally funded project.

Draft legal orders and an environmental statement were published in October 2003 and a local public inquiry sat for 29 days between 7 September 2004 and 15    February 2005. Although the hon. Gentleman implied that the public inquiry was finished nearly a year ago, the end of the public sitting is not when such an inquiry finishes. It finishes when the inspector delivers his report, which did not happen until close to the end of August this year. Before a public inquiry statement is put in the public domain, it is normal for the Secretary of State to make his or her views known.

Because this project is of such great importance, there is not just one Secretary of State who has to take a position on the inspector's report, but three: the Secretary of State for Transport, the Deputy Prime Minister—because of his planning duties—and the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. All three Secretaries of State have to take a position before we can proceed further, and they are in the process, with their officials, of working through the inspector's report. Hopefully, they will come to a position as soon as possible and we will put that in the public domain.

Mr. Hunt : Is the Minister able to give me any indication of when he expects the three Secretaries of State to come to their conclusion about the inspector's report? I am grateful to him for mentioning that the
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inspector's report was concluded at the end of August, because I did not know that until today. Does he know what the timetable is likely to be?

Dr. Ladyman : I cannot give the hon. Gentleman precise details, but I can certainly say that we will conclude the examination as expeditiously as possible. That will not be a very long time away, but it certainly will not be a matter of days; it is a complicated process. It involves us not only studying the inspector's report but looking at the scheme itself to make sure that the Highways Agency is content with the scheme, the construction and its methods, the costing and all other such issues. Normally, we would make the announcement on whether the scheme was to go ahead and publish the inspector's report at the same time.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned that the scheme is being treated as a regional scheme. The decision was taken to divide schemes into those of national and regional importance. One reason for that is that we believe in devolution; we believe that it is important that local people should help us to prioritise transport projects. There is a finite amount of money available for transport projects, so we decided that we would ask the regions to help us to identify which were the most important schemes that needed to go ahead.

How were we to do that? Well, initially the regions just gave us a big shopping list of billions of pounds-worth of transport projects, as if we would spend the entire transport budget in one region. That clearly was not going to work, so we decided to give indicative allocations of funding to each region and to encourage them to give us prioritisations, according to that funding envelope, in order to get realistic advice about the way forward.

One or two schemes were separated out as not appropriate for regional prioritisation. The scheme that we are discussing was left with the region so that it could give us regional advice on it. That advice is expected from the region early in January, and then a series of decisions will be made about which schemes we take forward. It is then that I would normally expect the inspector's report to be put in the public domain.

Mr. Hunt : Does the Minister accept that because of the significant costs of the scheme, to which he alluded earlier, there is a real risk that if it is re-designated as a regional rather than a national scheme, it will simply not go ahead? That is because the sums of money involved would eat up the entire budget for regional schemes for about two and a half years. Does he accept the arguments put forward by the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry), and by me that the regeneration of our inner cities and the connection of major cities to the capital using proper trunk road networks is of national significance?

Dr. Ladyman : I certainly accept that we are talking about a large sum of money, and that it would make serious inroads in the regional budget. However, that does not excuse the region from its duty of giving us an indication of what priority it gives the scheme. To be fair to the region, it has initially suggested that it thinks that the scheme has very high priority. However, in making that decision, it seems to be a bit unclear about where the
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money would come from. We are clarifying that with the region and are making sure that it understands how the funding works before it finalises its prioritisation.

Assuming that the scheme remains an important part of the region's priorities, and assuming that we decide—on the basis of the inspector's report and other information—that we want to go ahead with it, it remains in the Highways Agency's targeted programme of improvements as a scheme for construction after 2007–08. However, I repeat the caveat that that is subject to the funding being available, and to the inspector's report not identifying a show-stopper. That may be a disappointing time scale for the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend; I have no doubt that they would rather that the diggers were there as we speak, but unfortunately that is the timetable.

There is probably not a great deal that I can add to the debate. I think that I have dealt with the hon. Gentleman's questions. The simple fact of the matter is that the importance of the scheme is recognised. There is no question about that. I understand why my hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman are pressing so hard to move it forward. I would be doing the same if I were in their position.

Mr. Hunt : I hope that I am not about to ask the Minister something that he was about to come to. The concern that the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North and I have is that, although this Chamber is a good forum in which to raise the issue, we need to go into more detail. Given the importance of the matter to our constituents, we are keen to have a meeting with the Secretary of State to go through the issues. Will the Minister agree to facilitate such a meeting so that we can express in more detail the concerns that we have expressed today?

Dr. Ladyman : I was indeed about to come to that. It is not for me to offer meetings with the Secretary of State and it would not normally be for the Secretary of State to have a meeting on this matter. I am the roads Minister and the advice to the Secretary of State will come through me. I can offer to have a meeting with the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend to discuss the details. However, before deciding on the timing of such a meeting, we need to ensure that we are following appropriate protocol, because I am in the process of reviewing the inspector's report and making decisions on the scheme.

I would not want to do anything that got us into legal conflict, but, in principle, I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend to go through the issues. However, I assure him that the issues are well understood. The project has been hatching for 20 years so I suspect that there is little that he or my hon. Friend can tell the Department about the scheme, its complexities and importance that we have not come across. If it will help them, however, I am happy to have a meeting with them to discuss it.

Mr. Hunt : Does the Minister accept that if he is still considering the result of the independent inquiry, this is
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a particularly good time for him to meet me and the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North so that we can express the concerns of our constituents and he can consider them before making his decision? If we waited until after he had made his decision on the independent inquiry, the meeting would be just a reporting process and we would be unable to make any impact in representing our constituents' views.

Dr. Ladyman : I certainly accept that we should have that meeting before making the decision—there is no question about that. The issue in my mind is whether it would be helpful to have the meeting in advance of receiving the regional priorities. It might be a good idea for the south-east region to confirm its priorities and to have the meeting when we know the lie of the land. I suspect that we would then be in a better position to talk about the practicalities of how the matter moves forward. I suspect that if we have a meeting now, which I am happy to have if the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend want that—I would never deny a meeting to a colleague—I will be told what I already know and what I have been told today: that this is an important scheme to the hon. Gentleman and his constituents. I know that, so would a meeting to tell me that help?

On the other hand, when we have the regional priorities and know the fundamental position—I hope that by then we will also have had confirmation of the final cost of the scheme—we might be better able to have a more useful meeting. However, if the hon. Gentleman wants a meeting in advance of that, I am happy to try to put one in the diary.

I encourage the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend to pick up the pace of their lobbying with the region. The regional prioritisation of the scheme will be key to the speed at which it moves ahead. I encourage the hon. Gentleman to talk to the regional assembly, the regional development agency and so on to stress the importance of the scheme and ensure that it is ranked highly.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry : My hon. Friend mentions the assembly and the South East England Development Agency. Which body makes the decision on the prioritisation: SERA or SEEDA?

Dr. Ladyman : It is SERA that makes the final decision on prioritisation. Indeed, had I not been in this debate today, I would have been addressing its plenary session,    explaining the importance of regional prioritisation and perhaps even the importance of this road. Unfortunately, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck), who was due to attend the debate on my behalf, has slipped a disc and has been immobilised.

It is for the assembly to provide regional advice and it is showing a considerable amount of wisdom in the way that it is carrying out prioritisation—it is showing other regions how to do so. Nevertheless, if the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend were to make their views known to the assembly, that would be very helpful. Perhaps the appropriate time for us to have a meeting is when we have that regional prioritisation.
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I confirm once again that I understand the importance of the scheme. I accept entirely that it will unlock a great many economic benefits for Portsmouth and local citizens, but again I express a note of caution. This is a fabulously important area of environmental concern; we cannot just do anything there, and what we can do is extremely expensive. That will be an issue for us in future, whichever way we cut it. I have heard what the hon. Gentleman said, and I conclude by thanking him again for bringing his concerns to my attention.

11.27 am

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o'clock.

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