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16 Oct 2007 : Column 201WH—continued

The changes have been brought about by consumer demand, clearly, but also by Government action. So what about the points that have been made—what does
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organic farming deliver in the Government’s view? There is evidence that organic production is beneficial, on the whole, to biodiversity. The mixed farming practised under organic systems also contributes to the quality of the landscape and the beauty of rural areas.

The more general environmental picture, for example on the production of greenhouses gases, is less clear-cut, with claims and counter-claims. However, there is evidence that organic farming systems generally incur less energy use than conventional systems. I shall explain that point. As has been said, it is important to consider the production of fertilisers when calculating carbon footprints. One has to consider lifestyle. The question that has to be asked—the debate has brought it up—is: what is the balance between the environmental benefits of producing organic food and the benefit of the farming methods used, many of which could also be used in conventional, inorganic farming? That relates to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East’s central point.

Organic farming has its proponents, of whom the Government are one because of the environmental benefits that we see from the evidence that is produced. I refer to the scientific studies that have been carried out, on which our policy is partly based: the DEFRA-commissioned study by Shepherd and others in 2002 and the English Nature-Royal Society for the Protection of Birds study of 2003 by Hole and others.

Organic farming contributes to the economic sustainability of rural areas. Research shows that organic farmers are open to developing new enterprises and marketing initiatives. Again, whether that is because of market conditions and the balances of consumer demand, rather than simply because they undertake organic production, depends on the farm and farmer involved. Generally, organic farms are better connected with those whom they supply and therefore with local consumers, food processors and wholesalers. So in rural economies, organic production generally provides more employment opportunities.

Graham Stringer: I referred earlier to the Boarded Barns farm study, which compared organic farming with integrated farm management and conventional farming. Is that part of the information base that my hon. Friend the Minister’s Department uses when it advises him on the conclusions that he is talking about? If not, will he examine the study?

Mr. Woolas: I am told that it is, but the general point that I wish to make is that the matter is linked to the debate about life cycles and their carbon footprints. All judgments on organic produce must consider the alternatives as well as the amount of carbon produced in a life cycle. The debates on rainforests and fuel production and on food and fuel are a matter of balance. Transparency, information and scientific evidence are therefore increasingly important, which I know my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East, will welcome—as I said, he is a scientist. The answer to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley, is that, yes, that study is part of the information base.

I was making the point that, in general, organic farming production in this country tends to employ more people than conventional farming because of the methods used. That is not to say that that is inherent in
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organic farming or that the methods that produce that greater employability cannot be applied to conventional farming methods. That backs up the important point that my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East, made.

Why do consumers want to buy organic food? I shall not be drawn into that debate, other than to say that there are a variety of reasons. Some buy it because of environmental and social concerns, some because they think it is better for them and some because they say it tastes better. Our policy is to respect the right of consumers to reach their own conclusions, but as yet there is no conclusive evidence that organic farming produces greater health and nutritional benefits. I repeat the point that my noble Friend Lord Rooker made in the other place, which has been referred to today: that if food were unsafe, we would not allow it to be sold, whether it was overseas organic food, domestic inorganic food or whatever its source was.

Mr. Roger Williams: The Minister is right about food safety but, when the claim is made that food from a third-world country or a country outside the European Union is organic, or produced under organic conditions, surely we owe it to our consumers to be able to guarantee that it meets the minimum standards that would be expected in the EU.

Mr. Woolas: Yes, we do, and our regime has been referred to. I am told that there are in fact nine licensing bodies. Of course, it is the job of the port authorities to do what they can. Such problems exist in relation to a wide range of products; I refer the hon. Gentleman to illegal logging and timber produce. There are many other products in relation to which one is at some disadvantage if one is not responsible for
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their production. Our methods and processes are based on European Union law, and such matters were one reason for the widening of the European Union.

There is little time to answer all the points that have been made. I apologise for that, but I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East, was seeking to air his views and make his arguments rather than listen to a statement of Government policy. He knows fine well what Government policy is. It is based on the principles of balance, consumers’ right to choose, transparency and the integrity of the products available to the consumer. Increasingly, conventional farmers tend to deride the organic farming sector less, and the organic farming sector tends to deride the inorganic sector less. We believe that the policy is a success story for the United Kingdom.

Organic production has made tremendous strides in the past decade in consumer recognition and the volume of production, although I do not dismiss the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire’s point that consumers need simplicity as well as transparency. The organic sector has become an established feature of the agricultural and food industries. More and more, consumers want to know that their food has been produced safely and in a way that treats farm animals consistent with good welfare. That is not to say that organic systems are the only farming methods that meet those aspirations, but they do tick the right boxes in the minds of consumers.

Progress in the next decade might not be as rapid as in the one just past, and a period of consolidation is likely. However, we can safely say that organic production has established a secure position for itself and that it will continue to progress. The lessons learned by each sector from the other are significant. I thank and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East, for raising the issue.

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11 am

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs. Humble. This is the first time that I have spoken with you in the Chair. Little did I think, when we first sat together as colleagues on the Select Committee on Work and Pensions after I was first elected in 2001, that we would be here today. I know that if I move out of order on any point, you will swoop ruthlessly upon me, as you did in those early days of my parliamentary experience.

I welcome the Minister, who is moving to his place. As recently as July and August, I received letters on this matter from his ministerial colleague, the hon. Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), who appears to have been dealing with the matter to date. I am sure that the Minister will explain why it is he who is dealing with it today.

I am delighted to have secured the debate, which gives those Members whose constituencies the M40 passes through the chance to speak about it and any concerns arising from it. Not surprisingly, I intend to speak largely about a stretch of the M40 in Buckinghamshire that runs approximately from junction 3 in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), who is here, up through junction 4 in my constituency to junction 5 in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), who is also here, and then yonder into the deep beyond.

As I told the Department for Transport last week, the main issues that I want to raise today are noise and safety. I shall ask a few questions about the development at Stokenchurch, but will leave that issue largely to my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury, and I shall also ask a few questions about the development at Handy Cross roundabout. In order to explore all those matters, I have to delve into a little history, but the Minister, hon. Members and you, Mrs. Humble, will be relieved to hear that I do not intend to go too far back into mediaeval times, when the road to Oxford wandered, as it still does today, in a sense, from London to Oxford and back again through Wycombe.

I shall start in the 1960s, because what is now the M40 in the area that I am discussing was originally a bypass. As was the fashion of the time, the bypass was designed to pass very close to the villages that it was relieving, including not only High Wycombe in my constituency, but the villages of Bolter End, Wheeler End and Lane End. The first section was constructed in the late 1960s, in the days of the Wilson Government, as a dual-lane road from Handy Cross at junction 4 to Stokenchurch. That road was later designated the M40.

By the early 1980s—we move on from the Wilson period to the early Thatcher period—it was clear that the national motorway network required the extension of the M40 to Birmingham. By that time, environmental awareness was greater than it had been in the 1960s, so the extension from junction 5 to Birmingham was routed away from villages. The feeling in my constituency, certainly, and I think in those of my hon. Friends, is that because the section of the M40 that passes through our constituencies was built earlier, our villages are closer to the noise and disturbance than those near to the sections that were constructed later.

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By the late 1980s, moving into the late Thatcher period, it was evident that the dual-lane section of the M40 would not do any more and that it needed to be widened to take the extra traffic. As the work was within existing highway limits, there was no public inquiry and no environmental treatment of the area other than tree planting at the roadsides. It has long been a local grouse in our area that that lack of environmental treatment contrasts with the landscaping and noise protection barriers that were erected between junctions 1A and 3 in the mid-1990s. That section is further down the M40, closer to London, and runs through the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson), who is here.

The widening was unsurprisingly followed by an increase in noise. At first, it was assumed locally that that was simply because of the increased volume of traffic, but it soon became evident that there was an additional factor. The old motorway was surfaced with “quiet” stone mastic asphalt, whereas the new, widened, areas were surfaced with so-called normal asphalt. Some compensation payments were made; indeed, I still get a steady trickle of letters about compensation payments.

Since that period in the late 1980s, traffic has increased further, causing yet more noise. I shall give some figures: 20 years ago, approximately 2,500 heavy goods vehicles a day travelled through that section of the M40; now, almost 3,000 pass through it each night—one every 12 seconds, I am told—which is a 24-hour total of up to 14,000. I pause to consider the number of people who are affected by the problem. I have already named the villages of Lane End, Bolter End and Wheeler End in my constituency, but I also want to mention and honour the work of the M40 Chilterns environmental group, a group of constituents from the section running from the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield all the way up through the Wycombe and Aylesbury constituencies into that of my hon. Friend the Member for Henley. The group has been lobbying Ministers, the Highways Agency, which it has met, and local MPs for at least three years. I shall come back to some of the group’s particular questions about noise.

According to a group publication, “Making the M40 a better motorway through the Chilterns”, by Nigel King, which I have here and which I perused closely before the debate to refresh my memory, 10,000 residents are affected by noise in the section between junctions 3 and 4, near Loudwater and Flackwell Heath in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield, and near Daws Hill in mine, and another 10,000 are affected between junctions 4 and 5 in the places that I have mentioned. My recollection of the distribution of those numbers is that there is a particularly large cluster of residents at Stokenchurch, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury, who will doubtless speak about that later.

Obviously, I cannot relate from first hand the constituency experiences of my colleagues, but I am frequently told by my constituents in Lane End that when the wind is blowing roughly westwards, pretty much the whole village is affected. Right at the top of my pile of papers I have only the latest correspondence from constituents who have quite rightly made their views known to me, as they have to the Department.

Mr. King calculates that the overall noise and visual pollution affects at least 25,000 residents in the whole area, and that people who live within 150 m of the
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motorway suffer very serious noise and pollution, which also affects—I say this almost as a footnote, but it is important—the walkers and riders who enjoy time out in the Chilterns, which is an area of outstanding natural beauty. He says that the noise can be heard more than 2 miles away. I should add that both Buckinghamshire county council and Wycombe district council in my constituency are sympathetic to the group’s aims.

According to Mr. King, SMA or quiet asphalt has been applied between sections 3 and 4, but that leaves 10,000 people affected by the noise between junctions 4 and 5. He says that SMA has been applied to 15 per cent. of the surface, and the Minister may be able to update that figure. I understand that SMA is usually applied in the left-hand lane where heavy goods vehicles tend to travel, but Mr. King makes the point that much of the noise is generated not only by lorries but by cars passing in the other two lanes that have not yet been treated between junctions 4 and 5.

In 2005, the Department published its M40/A40 route management strategy, which stated that the Department’s aim is

and that it wants

The Minister knows that the Highways Agency has identified fewer than 13 noise hot spots between junctions 3 and 8, and he also knows that the long and short of the matter is that the Department’s view is that they are not noisy enough to have priority treatment or to be treated before 2011.

I have some questions for the Minister to tease out the Department’s thinking. They have been put to me by the M40 group, and if he cannot answer them all today, I would be happy, as I am sure would my hon. Friends, if he would write to me. First, what noise measurements have been made recently in the affected areas, or is the Department simply relying on estimates? My hon. Friends can confirm that the M40 Chilterns environmental group has measured noise on the motorway, so it would be interesting to know whether the Department has regularly done the same.

Secondly, the group claims that the noise severity index on which treatment is measured is biased against rural and semi-rural communities, and argues that people who are as badly affected as people in non-rural areas do not receive the same treatment because they are present in less concentrated numbers. I am not in a position to take a view on that, but will the Minister say to what degree his Department has looked at the way in which similar indices are run in similar European countries to see whether they are roughly parallel, whether any lessons can be learned from the way in which that is done, and whether his Department is studying that?

Thirdly, the group claims that there is an anomaly in treatment. It says that noise levels on the M50 at Bromsberrow Heath are lower than on the M40 in the vicinity of Stokenchurch, but that Stokenchurch has not been treated and Bromsberrow Heath is in the process of being treated. If I send the Minister the group’s calculation, which is detailed, will he return it to me with his comments? The group is claiming that there is a question of equity.

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Fourthly, the Highways Agency wrote to me in 2004 saying:

If the Minister does not have time to deal with that today, will he write to me explaining the basis on which his Department is reducing, and plans further to reduce, light pollution from motorways, which is also a problem in the affected areas that I am describing?

Fifthly, and last in this section, what guidance has the Department recently published on the environmental noise directive, which the group has claimed for a while could affect noise treatment?

I shall turn from noise to safety. There has recently been a bad run of accidents on the M40 in the general vicinity of junction 3. The Sunday before last, a man was unfortunately killed in a four-car pile-up. The Minister may know that in July and August I wrote to his colleague, the hon. Member for Glasgow, South, about a previous accident and concrete barriers, to which I shall turn in a moment. I have looked at the accident figures, and Buckinghamshire county council notes that in the past three years there have been 78 casualties in Buckinghamshire and that 17 were between junctions 3 and 4. The Minister will know that the Highways Agency’s view seems to be that the M40 is not as dangerous on the whole as, for example, the M1. The council notes that no immediate road safety solutions have been identified for the M40, and that progress is slow. According to my local paper, the Bucks Free Press,, whose site I was trawling this morning to ensure that it still exists, conducted a survey that found that that stretch was the third worst in the south-east. I realise that the Highways Agency continually examines accident data to try to identify problem hot spots, but has it contacted about that claim, and what analysis has it made of the site’s figures?

One recent accident in the general vicinity of junction 3—not the one on the Sunday before last—involved crossover, which is largely what my correspondence with the hon. Member for Glasgow, South, was about. The Minister knows that the Department's view is that

He said in a letter to me on 14 August that the Department's research programme for this year

When is that review due to report?

I shall turn to two final issues. First, there is a proposal to close the M40 overbridge at junction 5 at Stokenchurch for up to nine months—my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury will talk about that in more detail—and that closure will be complete. It will not be the closure of just one lane, allowing traffic to pass from north to south. That is likely to send some traffic trundling on the highly unsuitable rural roads through Fingest, Frieth, Skirmett, Hambleden and other small villages in my constituency. My hon. Friend wants to know whether both lanes must be closed, because that will cause considerable disruption.

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