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The US Federal Highway Administration paper that I mentioned praised the UK for providing that any new housing construction must take traffic noise into consideration, and must actively plan for it. The paper says that, in the UK:

The Government were planning to build at least 500 new houses a year in west Berkshire but, to our horror, we have discovered that they would prefer the figure to be 810 houses per year. Other hon. Members may face many more than that in their constituencies, but I say that we have had more than our fair share over the past 20 years. From my time as a councillor—too many years ago to remember—I recall planners working to a figure of an average of seven road movements a day per new dwelling. If the building of 810 new houses goes ahead, it will mean 5,880 more road movements per day, simply as a result of west Berkshire’s new housing. Noise pollution, therefore, is set only to increase.

In a letter to me on the proposed new developments, the Minister of State, Department for Transport, said that the South East England regional assembly is undertaking an assessment to

To put it mildly, that statement does not fill my constituents with confidence.

In July 2003, the Department for Transport published its key long-term strategy document for the UK road network. It pledged to tackle the problem of noise on roads

I think that we would all agree with that. Its resurfacing budget for an initial four-year programme was set at £77 million. Not only has that not been spent, but the programme itself, I have been informed, appears to have been quietly withdrawn. By setting that target, Ministers demonstrated their awareness of the importance of the issue and of the distress caused to those who live close to motorways.

I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Transport to her new job; I am sure that she brings a freshness to the Department and a drive to her new role. I hope that she has listened to the genuine concerns of my constituents and many others. They, and I, wait with interest to hear whether she and the Government are prepared to give the commitment that they so desperately need to protect them from the noise pollution that so blights their lives.

Mr. David Marshall (in the Chair): Mr. Wills, you have the permission of the mover of the debate and of the Minister to make a small contribution.

Mr. Wills: Thank you, Mr. Marshall, but I have already made my points in the rather lengthy intervention that you so generously allowed.

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4.59 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Gillian Merron): First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) on securing the debate, so that we can consider the subject of motorway noise, which is important not only to his constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills), but many others across the country. Nuisance from traffic noise is an issue that the Government have recognised, and still do. Action is being taken to reduce the problem and real progress is being made, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon said.

The hon. Member for Newbury raised a number of concerns that his constituents have identified at sites along the M4 between junctions 12 and 14. They reasonably want to understand what can be done to reduce noise from the motorway, and the basis on which decisions are made to provide mitigation when something needs to be done on their section of the motorway. I sympathise with his constituents’ concerns about the traffic noise problems that they experience as a result of the growth in traffic on the M4. In response to the hon. Gentleman, I should like to explain how we have built up our policy on dealing with noise from roads, and the steps that the Highways Agency has taken to deal with the problem that he has so clearly identified.

Prior to 1998, the assessment of noise impact was carried out only for new roads. Where noise levels have been predicted to be high as a result of the construction of a new or improved road, measures such as noise barriers or earth embankments are normally included in the design of a road as a means of reducing noise to more acceptable levels. Where such measures cannot be provided, because of high cost or for practical reasons, there are provisions in the Land Compensation Act 1973 and the various noise insulation regulations for noise insulation in residential properties. Those measures have for many years provided protection against increased road noise for those who are affected by new roads.

However, it is worth saying that in 1998, this Government recognised that those measures ignored the plight of many people who live near existing roads. It has been a problem on the strategic road network, including on motorways where traffic growth has been greatest. A number of policies have been put in place to deal with those real concerns, and it will probably be helpful if I remind hon. Members of the considerable focus that we have put on improving the noise environment for those living close to high-speed roads.

First, in the White Paper, “A New Deal for Trunk Roads in England: Understanding the New Approach”, published in 1998, we gave a commitment to use quieter surfacing materials on new roads and existing roads that required resurfacing. That commitment was strengthened in “Transport 2010: The Ten Year Plan”, when we committed to resurface with such materials 60 per cent. of the existing trunk road network, including all concrete sections, by March 2011.

Mr. Benyon: On the figure of 60 per cent. over 10 years, 6 per cent. of roads throughout the country will be resurfaced anyway, because of deteriorating road surfaces. If one multiplies that by 10, one gets
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60 per cent., so is that a new announcement or just the status quo being prolonged? I know that we are six years into the 10-year plan, but was that a commitment over and above what is happening already?

Gillian Merron: The announcement also recognised value for money and the return that we can obtain. In response to the hon. Gentleman, I shall come on to that feature, because it has not yet entered the debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon made a point about concrete roads such as the A419. I am glad to hear that some improvements have been made and welcomed. Concrete roads raise particular concerns, as they generate higher levels of tyre noise than more traditional roads. However, it is now considered that providing quieter surfaces on concrete roads ahead of their maintenance need will not provide long-term value for the taxpayer, so those roads will be resurfaced in accordance with their maintenance need.

The UK used quieter surfaces as early as the 1970s, developing the use of porous asphalt, which was known to reduce tyre noise as well as spray in wet conditions. That material has been successfully used for a number of years on the A34 Newbury bypass, but it is a more costly solution than recently developed materials.

Mr. Wills: I accept my hon. Friend’s point about value for money, and I am sure that the hon. Member for Newbury also realises the need for taxpayers to get effective value for money. However, what is almost as important to people as immediate relief is the certainty that there will be relief. That is what is not absolutely clear, so will the Minister expand on a timetable for the works that are available? It is something that I am sure my constituents and those of the hon. Gentleman would value.

Gillian Merron: That is a fair question. I understand the point about certainty, but I am not able to provide my hon. Friend with a direct answer. I shall gladly raise those concerns with my hon. Friend the Minister of State, as he will be considering that area. I hope that the hon. Members who are present understand that I am not equipped to answer that question. I should not wish to mislead them, their constituents or the House.

We have recognised that there remain concerns at locations where there was no early prospect of the road being resurfaced with noise reduction materials. As a result—the hon. Member for Newbury referred to this point—we announced on 22 March 1999 a ring-fenced budget of £5 million a year to deal with the most serious and pressing cases. Three criteria based on noise levels and road-opening dates were used to determine the cases.

In November 1999, the Highways Agency identified 79 sites that had met the criteria. They were the subject of individual studies to determine the most practical and cost-effective solutions. To date, 60 of those sites have been addressed. However, no sites were identified on the A34 or M4 within the Newbury constituency. I appreciate that that will be disappointing news to the hon. Member for Newbury.

Since the list’s announcement, the agency has identified a number of further sites with serious noise problems, based on the original criteria. The agency has used a new noise severity index to rank the severity of noise
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problems identified since the announcement of the 1999 list. The index is used to identify locations where a significant number of people experience high noise levels. The locations would be considered severe enough to warrant the installation of noise mitigation. One site that has been assessed lies within the Newbury constituency at Oare. A detailed study identified that when road maintenance is undertaken, the most cost-effective means of mitigation would be to use quieter surfacing. The alternative means of noise reduction would be noise barriers. However, they could not be justified because of their limited effect on reducing noise levels for the residents at that location. Noise barriers are normally effective only for properties located up to 150 m off the roadside, and the properties under discussion are located 250 m from the M4 motorway.

The Highways Agency has also considered a number of other sections of the road network in Newbury to see whether those locations would qualify under the criteria. They included sites between junctions 12 and 14 of the M4 motorway, and the A34 at East llsley. Some of the sites met the criteria, but the small number of houses present could not justify the early installation of barriers from the annual £5 million ring-fenced budget. A further noise study under that policy is taking place at Yattendon, and I shall ensure that the Highways Agency keeps the hon. Gentleman informed about the outcome of the study.

In summary, the locations studied within the hon. Gentleman’s constituency show noise severity indices that are not as severe as other locations alongside the strategic road network. Within the current arrangement, it means that no works can be undertaken in the short term. I realise that that will disappoint him.

The Highways Agency will identify the timing of resurfacing on the M4. The prioritisation of resurfacing on the trunk roads is related to the condition of the surface. The aim, of course, is to maintain the strategic road network in such a way as to minimise whole-life costs while taking into account disruption to the road user and the need to keep the road in a safe and serviceable condition. The Highways Agency’s resurfacing programme matches the prioritised schemes against the funds available. Over the past five years, road maintenance per network mile has increased from £120,000 in 2000-01 to £159,000 in 2004-05, an increase of nearly one third. The programme is kept under review as priorities might change depending on the deterioration of a stretch of road.

In his letter to the hon. Member for Newbury of 17 February this year, the chief executive of the Highways Agency explained that the M4 is still very much in a serviceable condition. Further correspondence with the Minister of State on 28 April confirmed that position.

Mr. Benyon: Of course I understand the caveats that the Minister has to give on these matters, but will she give a commitment that if the road surface deteriorates to the point where it needs replacing, an improved quiet road surface will be applied?

Gillian Merron: I can gladly give the hon. Gentleman the commitment that the deterioration of the road surface of the M4, as with any other, will be treated in
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the correct way. Of course, our ambition is to reduce motorway noise but I cannot predict—I know that the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting this—the rate of deterioration and the view that the Highways Agency will take on that. Of course, this debate will be drawn to the attention of the Highways Agency as well as that of the Minister of State, who is responsible for working with it.

Mr. Wills: It would be a shame if the debate were to conclude without my paying tribute to the work of the Highways Agency. Throughout my hon. Friend’s speech she has made continual reference to the way in which the Highways Agency has engaged with the process. In my experience in my constituency, officials from the Highways Agency have shown themselves consistently, over many years, to be highly sensitive to the real distress caused to my constituents and highly imaginative and constructive in trying to find solutions, and although such solutions have not yet all been found, they are constantly engaged. It is only proper that I should pay tribute to all those officials, who work so hard.

Gillian Merron: I am sure that that contribution is welcome, and that it will be appreciated by the Highways Agency. It is not often that colleagues in the agency are picked out in such a way and I thank my hon. Friend for
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doing so. I hope that that will be a reassurance to the hon. Member for Newbury, who represents his constituents well on the issue of motorway noise.

Maintenance of the section of the M4 that we are discussing is not required for the foreseeable future and has not been included in the current four-year programme of maintenance work. I readily acknowledge that that is disappointing for the hon. Gentleman, but I hope that he will understand that we are ensuring that a fair system is in place that will benefit the greatest number of people while giving the best value for money.

The Highways Agency is committed to completing mitigation schemes at all the sites on the original November 1999 list by March 2011. The policies that have been in place since 1998 have led to significant improvements for many residents living close to the strategic road network. Real differences have been made and we will continue to help those who are the most affected by road noise while ensuring best value for money. Although I realise that I have not been able to provide the direct response that I know the hon. Gentleman would have liked, I hope that he, his constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon will appreciate the work that is going on and the commitment to work as readily as we can to mitigate the effects of motorway noise.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes past Five o’clock.

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