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John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Today, more than 200 members of the Public and Commercial Services Union are taking industrial action at the NHS Pensions Agency as a result of the threat to their jobs, to their conditions of work and to the service that they offer posed by the Government policy of privatisation. We expected a Government statementan oral statement, a written statement or a public statement by a Ministeron the action, which is the first in the history of the staff who work at the agency. Has a Minister approached Mr. Speaker to make a statement next week? If not, is it appropriate to suggest to the Government through you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that the issue is important and that a statement should be made?
Mr. Deputy Speaker:
All I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that I am not aware of any such request to make a statement. If such a statement were to be made in the course of next week, it would not be surprising if the request were made at the beginning of the week. Nevertheless, the hon. Gentleman's remarks are on the record and will no doubt serve as a reminder.
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Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): I am delighted to have secured this debate, which I hope will address the concerns of my constituents. The future of the A120 was raised in this House on several occasions by my predecessor, but there is still a pressing need to revisit the subject. Before I set out some of the issues, however, I pay tribute to my constituent, Roger Pulfrey, who chaired the Cressing A120 action group until his untimely death a fortnight ago. I regret that he cannot hear the outcome of this debate and will not witness the resolution of a campaign to which he was so dedicated.
I have been grateful for the willingness of many local groups to make constructive contributions to the proposals affecting local transport, including the Cressing action group, the Blackwater Valley action group, the Hatfield Peverel traffic working party, the Braintree and Witham rail users association and the Kelvedon rail users association. In addition, I have met and spoken to hundreds of residents in Cressing, Tye Green, Coggeshall, Silver End, Kelevedon, Feering and BradwellI thank them all. I hope that by bringing this debate to the House I can introduce some of that constructive spirit and generate a consensus over the future of the project.
The substance of the debate concerns a section of the A120 between Braintree and Marks Tey. In recent years, the A120 has been upgraded, section by section, to bring it up to the standards required of a road that links the M11 with the port of Harwich and forms part of the trans-European road network. Since 2004, the section of the A120 between Stansted and Braintree has been improved beyond recognition, and traffic has been diverted around Braintree on a bypass since 1989. However, problems resume along the section of A120 that runs from the end of the bypass at Braintree to the junction with the A12 at Marks Tey. Congestion and safety issues are associated with a road that is already operating beyond its designated capacity. Few, if any, of my constituents would dispute the need to make significant improvements to the section of the A120 between Braintree and Marks Tey. The current situation causes havoc for motorists in Braintree, and the advantages of the improved sections of the road are lost once they reach that bottleneck.
I believe that only two objectives should be considered when evaluating the road scheme: how best to reduce traffic congestion in the area, and how best to safeguard the environment. That is particularly so in light of the technical appraisal report, which has identified a very low cost variance between any of the options considered so far.
Turning first to traffic, the problems are immediately apparent. Congestion begins at a roundabout that was constructed as part of the Braintree bypass and has since been dubbed "cholesterol corner" because of the subsequent concentration of several fast food outlets there. The irony of that name is not lost on those of us who identify the end of the bypass with the resumption of clogging. In fact, the bypass continues past Galleys corner, but the roundabout is the major sticking point.
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The sheer number of cars using the A120 is only part of the problem. Indeed, the traffic model used to predict road usage is derived from the original Essex county council stage 1 report conducted in 2002 and does not take into account the new Stansted to Braintree section of the A120 opened in 2004. It is of greater concern that traffic coming from the area to the north of Braintree, using the A131, and from the east, using the A120, would have to negotiate three roundabouts in order to access the proposed road at a fourth junction, which is to be constructed on open countryside near Tye Green. That seems to be transferring an existing problem instead of resolving it. It will not allow for a proper separation of local and through traffic, and it will make part of the Braintree bypass redundant.
Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I know how hard he works on behalf of his constituents. Does he share my concern that traffic flows are notoriously difficult to forecast and that nearly every agency involved in those forecasts usually gets them wrong?
Braintree district council's official response to the consultation was emphatic in its opposition to the construction of a new grade-separated junction at Tye Green. I am pleased to note that a letter to residents from the Highways Agency admits that at least proposals for a fully grade-separated junction at Galleys corner are now under consideration. However, other issues affecting traffic flow remain unresolved, particularly the decision not to present the option of an intermediate junction at Coggeshall between Braintree and Marks Tey. That has left many residents believing that the balance of the scheme is tipped in favour of the strategic interests of through traffic over the relief of local traffic congestion.
Residents are equally concerned about the impact of the scheme on the environment. The Highways Agency's proposal requires a land take of approximately 122 hectares, of which 108 hectares are grade 2 agricultural land. That is more than any other scheme under consideration. It will seriously undermine the economic efficiency of the area affected as well as leaving a large section of previously untouched rural land trapped between the old A120 and the new route. Ominously, for those affected, the environmental assessment report states that
The real fear that residents have is that the construction of the road would weaken planning restrictions in the area, resulting in the comprehensive urbanisation of the protected Blackwater valley. Large-scale engineering works will, in all likelihood, impinge on previously untouched areas of the valley. The Blackwater valley action group has rightly said:
It seems clear that the landscape and its wildlife are at risk from this new intrusion. Only recently a survey by the Essex wildlife trust has identified a specific threat to both rare bumblebees and otters, as well as a variety of other endangered bird life along the proposed route. Braintree district council's formal response to the consultation identified several environmental threats posed by the new scheme. Furthermore, the proposed new junction at Tye Green will break up a corridor of land that has been preserved as the boundary that is intended to prevent the merger of the two communities of Braintree and Tye Green.
For those who are not agitated by the impact that the proposal will have on bees and otters, there is another serious threat to contend with, and that is flooding. Villages in the areaespecially Bradwell, where I live, and Coggleshallwere seriously flooded in 2001. The size of bridge spans that are needed to avoid the risk of flooding will increase to monstrous proportions, the true extent of which has not yet been adequately presented to the public or properly investigated. Many of my constituents seek reassurance that the lack of any overriding objections from DEFRA will not mean that the scheme, in whichever form it takes when it escapes from the drawing board, will have carte blanche with regard to the rural environment.
DEFRA's involvement in the process should not be regarded as an all-or-nothing affair, as many local residents believe it to be. I would like to have the Minister's assurance that the strategic interests at play will continue to be balanced with the environmental concerns of other Government agencies.
I turn to matters of consultation and presentation before I conclude. There is undoubtedly a need for this section of the A120 to be improved, and I am prepared to concede that the Highways Agency does not have any nefarious intentions towards my constituents. However, the fact remains that the way that the consultation process was handled in this instance has caused some difficulties which might have been avoidable, and I hope that it will be possible to learn some lessons for the future. Many residents have been under the impression, throughout the period of public consultation, that the agency was putting the cart before the horse and had already decided on a course of action. Better initial presentation might have prevented much of the distress that local people have subsequently experienced.
I recognise that the Highways Agency has tried hard to address the confusion by explaining that the proposed southern route was just thata proposal and nothing more. However, the fine distinction between a proposal by the agency and the Secretary of State's "preferred route announcement" is lost on me as it is on the general public. Queries from residents were answered in correspondence, but only in a piecemeal fashion and after considerable delay in some instances. One resident waited from 9 May to 20 September 2005 to receive an answer to her queries about the consultation process, by which time the deadline had expired. The prevailing perception was that the consultation process was, in the words of one residents' action group,
The perception was encouraged by problems with the consultation leaflet. The map key referred to "The Proposal" and "Options Considered", implying that the leaflet was a report of an investigation that was already done and dusted. The visual aids were no less forthright. As the Minister can see as I hold up the map, a bold black line represented the proposed scheme while the other viable options appeared as merely hazy suggestions. Those brave enough to wade into the 192-page technical appraisal report, let alone the 508-page environmental assessment report, would have found a welcome surprise in the following admission:
"The deciding factor in the choice of junction at the A12 could be the collective views of local people. Furthermore, it is proposed that in the interests of clarity of presentation and to receive objective and focused feedback from local people, a single route should be put forward at Public Consultation".
In other words, it was recognised that the public might decide the outcome and that it would therefore be expedient to lead them in a safe direction in case they should want to make up their own minds. It was not so much a case of, "Follow the yellow brick road" as, "Follow the bold black line." That is a shame because the technical appraisal report acknowledged that no existing proposals should limit the development of new options. However, the one document to which residents had ready accessthe consultation leafletwas not as clear on that point as it might have been.
Even the distribution of the document left much to be desired. Last June, the Cressing action group presented the Highways Agency with the results of a questionnaire, which sought to establish whether residents had been given adequate notice of the consultation process. Eighty-one per cent. of respondents said that they had never received a direct mailing about the consultation from the Highways Agency.
Those perceived shortcomings were compounded by the failure to hold exhibitions in either Cressing or Tye Green, although those communities were most closely affected by the proposed scheme. Those may appear to be small oversights but they have helped to create the impression among local residents that any consideration had already been completed before the consultation had even begun, and that they were not genuinely intended to make a meaningful contribution.
Even when lengthy and well informed submissions were made, such as the one that the Cressing action group producedI have brought it with me and I hope that the Minister will take the time to review it thoroughlytimely responses have not been forthcoming from the Highways Agency.
We still await the formal consultation reports, which are not due to be ready until the summer. In the interim, residents have been left hanging. Will the Minister look into the way in which the consultation was conducted? I am sure that the delay in publishing the consultation outcome is indicative of the Highways Agency's desire to find the best possible solution to the area's transport needs. Attempts have been made to reassure individual residents that the concerns that they expressed in the consultation will be considered and acted upon.
I understand that several new options are under investigation as a result of responses to the consultation. I hope that the debate will provide more widespread comfort and that the Minister will add the weight of his
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reassurances in his reply. The people of Braintree, the county and the region need an improvement to the A120 between Braintree and Marks Tey. However, local people are entitled to be reassured that their views will be taken into account, that due consideration will be given to the environmental impact of all the proposed options and that there will be nothing clandestine about the important decision.
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