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Finally, the Minister knows that Handy Cross at junction 4 is a large crossing point. It has been under a continual process of improvement work almost since I was elected in 2001. It is now crossed by even more lanes than before to ease the passage of traffic. What study has the Department made of the extent to which the changes are delivering the improvements that they were meant to deliver? What effect have the changes had, if any, on local traffic moving through A and B roads? With that, I shall take my seat. I look forward to the Ministers reply.
Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): Like my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman), I welcome you to the Chair, Mrs. Humble. I congratulate him on securing this debate. I shall not repeat at length everything that he said. Instead, I shall focus on several issues, particularly those that affect my constituents in Stokenchurch and, to an extent, in the village of Ibstone, which is south of the motorway.
Let me come straight away to noise. Noise nuisance from the M40 has been raised with me every year that I have been in this place. Stokenchurch is worst affected, more than any other village or hamlet along that stretch of the M40 in Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire. For years, the people of Stokenchurch have, in effect, sacrificed much of their quality of life in favour of allowing the national interest to prevail in the form of the M40 motorway, which is important to individual drivers and, obviously, to commercial hauliers. It is not unreasonable for people in Stokenchurch to say that it is about time they had a bit of consideration, given the disruption and nuisance in their lives as a consequence of what they acknowledge is something that is in the overall national interest.
It is not just me saying that Stokenchurch is worst affected. The Highways Agency commissioned an assessment of noise hot spots alongside the M40. The report was drawn up by Transport Research Laboratory Ltd in association with Halcrow and was presented to the agency in 2006. It clearly identifies Stokenchurch as the worst affected of several settlements along the south-eastern stretch of the M40.
The report gives Stokenchurch a noise severity index rating of 10.2, which is significantly higher than that accorded to any other settlement in the vicinity. The problem for my constituents is the way in which the NSI is calculated. The calculation gives considerable weighting to the size of the settlement affected, with a measurement of the number of people who are directly affected built in to it, so year after year my constituents are told, in effect, that they simply have to bite their tongues and put up with the nuisance.
The nuisance is not getting any better. As we all know, the flow of vehicles continues to increase: it now averages more than 90,000 a day. Some efforts have been made to reduce noise by installing noise suppressant road surfaces, but I understand that that has not been done across all the carriageways, even in the Stokenchurch section of the motorway, but only on those parts of the carriageway that have become worn. The attitude that the Highways Agency takes at present is simply to say
to my constituents, Sorry, it is tough, but you are too small to count for much. All we can do is wait until your stretch of motorway wears out. Perhaps we will put in a noise suppressant surface when we have to resurface for maintenance reasons.
Such treatment of rural settlements contrasts with all the Governments fine words about looking after the countryside as well as the town. This morning, I wanted to check that my memory of Government policy had not faded. I looked at what the website for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs says about rural proofing. It states:
Rural proofing is a commitment by the Government to ensure that all
its domestic policies take account of rural circumstances and needs...It is a mandatory part of the policy making process...Rural proofing applies to all policies, programmes and initiatives and it applies to both the design and delivery stages.
Not only are my constituents failing to see the Department for Transport and the Highways Agency take such an attitude, but salt was rubbed into the wound when I received a written answer from the Ministers predecessor, the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman), stating:
No action has been taken on rural proofing the policy on reducing noise problems from the strategic road network.[Official Report, 16 October 2006; Vol. 450, c. 925W.]
There is a stark, blatant contrast between what the Government say on the DEFRA website about their commitment to rural proofing across the board, and what Ministers are actually telling me and what the Highways Agency is telling my constituents in Stokenchurch and Ibstone about the practical, day-to-day conduct of policy in so far as it affects them.
I would ask the Minister to review his policy on action against motorway noise, to deliver what the Government have repeatedly promised in respect of rural proofing and equity between urban and rural areas, and, as a priority, to ensure that decent noise-reducing resurfacing work is done on the sections of the M40 in Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire that have yet to benefit from that change. I would also ask him to take action to introduce further noise suppressant measures, whether bunts or fences.
At the root of the problem faced by my constituents and those of my hon. Friends is the fact that they are living alongside a motorway that was built many years ago to standards of design and environmental protection that nowadays would be regarded as utterly inadequate. If we were to build a new motorway today, we would introduce as a matter of course much more effective noise-reducing measures than were ever introduced on the M40, either when the first stretch was built or when the extension to Birmingham was built. It is time that the Government considered that legacy and took action on it.
Let me deal briefly with pollution. The area of the M40 around Stokenchurch is one of a small number of air quality management zones in Buckinghamshire. Pollution comes primarily from the motorway, so I was somewhat surprised when I saw an e-mail from the Highways Agency to the M40 Chilterns environmental group stating that the agency did not have any responsibility for contributing to an air quality management strategy
once the zone had been identified. There seems to be a genuine problem with joining up different arms of national and local government so that collectively we can find a solution. Again, the problem is unlikely to get better. Traffic forecasts are not predicting a reduction in the number of vehicles using that stretch of the M40.
Finally, let me deal with the bridge at Stokenchurch. It is not an exaggeration to say that the announcement by the Highways Agency that it proposed to close the bridge entirely for between seven and nine months was met with horror in Stokenchurch and in the nearby village of Ibstone. I do not know whether the Minister has ever turned off the motorway at that junction, but part of the village of Stokenchurch actually lies to the south of the motorway, and if local residents want to access the centre of their own village, they must cross that motorway bridge. They have now been told that they will be able to walk or cycle over the bridge, which is not much good if one is in ones 80s, and that if they want to go to their local shops, or visit their friends, church or the local school, they will have to undertake a long diversion either by going down the slip road and up the motorway to the nearest junction and turning round, or by going along narrow, winding country lanes of the sort that my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe discussed.
There is an issue about the proposals environmental impact. The Chilterns Conservation Board contacted me, and it is very worried that country lanes running through the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty will be harmed by the impact of diverted heavy vehicles. The agencys proposal for the bridges complete closure has been met with strong opposition from the parish councils of Stokenchurch and Ibstone, as well as from numerous individual constituents. Stokenchurch parish council hopes to arrange a public meeting in the near future, and officials from the Ministers Department and from the Highways Agency will be invited to attend.
What will happen about access by the emergency services to the southern part of Stokenchurch and to Ibstone? Has it been thought through? What will the impact be on school bus services, with, for example, children who are taken by bus from Ibstone to schools in High Wycombe? What about scheduled bus services? What about refuse collection? The decision has been sprung on local residents, and it amounts to enormous disruption to their everyday lives for a long period. From the point of view of the Highways Agency, I understand that to close the whole bridge for seven to nine months means that the work is likely to take less time and to be cheaper than if the agency carried it out while keeping at least one traffic-controlled lane open to all vehicles. However, the initial proposal simply gets the balance wrong. The agency has put its understandable interests ahead of the enormous disruption that will be caused to local people, and I ask the Minister to reconsider the plan and come back with a proposal that secures a better balance between the agencys interests and those of my constituents.
Noise, safety and pollution will get worse not better if they are not addressed immediately. There are not only regular forecasts of year-on-year increases in traffic flow, but Government proposals for extensive residential development in Aylesbury and Milton Keynes, which mean that local authorities are starting to think in the medium to long-term about the need for a new trunk or
major road from Milton Keynes and the Aylesbury area to the Thames valley. If that goes ahead, it will almost inevitably mean even more traffic flowing on to the M40 from those new developments. If we are to find a solution, that consideration must be built into the Governments plans. It is in the interests not only of the residents, but of the country.
Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in the debate, and particularly grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) for having secured it. The title of the debate allows us to range fairly widely on the subject of the M40, although I shall confine myself principally to what I consider to be the three major issues: road safety, traffic noise and pollution.
The situation in my constituency is slightly different. The M40 starts in my constituency at the Denham viaduct, running through the constituency to junction 3 and then up to Handy Cross. The first section from Denham to the Loudwater viaduct was substantially improved when work on it finished about eight years ago.
I shall start on a complimentary note, because a great deal of investment was put into noise reduction during the motorways widening to four lanes along that stretch, and I receive very few complaints about traffic noise. However, I have some regrets. For example, I regret that when it was turned into a four-lane motorway, it was thought necessary, as a matter of obligatory safety, to put in road lighting. Visually, it has intruded on an area of sensitive landscaping, and I repeat to the Government what has become a bee in my bonnet: I simply do not accept the necessity of lighting four-lane motorways as a matter of immediate practice. It is rather extraordinary that we continue to do so when the signal that is sent out about energy wastage by the continuing willingness to put in lamp standards almost everywhere is utterly regrettable. I hope that the Minister will take that point on board.
From evidence that I have seen with my own eyes, I have absolutely no doubt that as a direct result of lighting motorways at night, the overall speed of vehicles rises by about 10 mph. That may be significant when we consider road safety. It is my general observation from driving along motorways throughout the country.
My other point about that stretch of motorway is that I regret the decision to build a motorway service area at the Beaconsfield roundabout, a development that will start very soon. It fills me with foreboding, because I simply do not think that the traffic congestion consequences have ever been fully taken into account. It will be an off-road motorway service area to the south of the junction on an extremely busy road, the A355 running down to Slough. In view of the existing congestion, the service area will prove to have been a serious planning error, coupled with the fact that the local police continue to tell me that they do not have enough resources to police the inevitable rise in crime that they foresee from its location. I flag those points up to the Minister; they have been a refrain of mine for a considerable period. Having said that, however, I return to my first point that the noise reduction measures along that stretch of the motorway have been very effective.
I contrast that fact with what happens the moment one reaches the Loudwater viaduct. The stretch from there to Handy Cross is also in my constituency, although as one goes up the hill to Handy Cross, the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe comes up on the southern flank. There is absolutely no doubt that that unimproved stretch of motorway, which is in the same condition as it was when the High Wycombe bypass was built many years ago, generates high noise levels. The matter is added to and complicatedthis is not the Governments fault, but we have to live with itby the fact that the Loudwater viaduct, by its very nature, takes traffic over a valley at a high level. As a consequence, the motorway noise affects not only the houses that are adjacent to the motorway, but, I suspect far more, the property that is a considerable distance away. Indeed, I suspect that the houses further awaythose on the flank of the hillside leading away from the viaductsuffer far more from the noise than those underneath.
Let me just give the Minister a flavour of what I am talking about by picking a couple of quotes from my voluminous correspondence on the issue. First, I have a letter from a lady living in Taymar close in Loudwater, which I would not describe as immediately adjacent to the motorway. She says:
The house is situated on a hill which must be at roughly the same height as the motorway. In the winter when there are no leaves on the trees the motorway is visible.
The noise is there all day and evening and can be heard behind double glazing. It must be unbearable for the people in the village who are situated closer to the road.
The sound mostly reverberates from the Loudwater viaduct, along the valley, rebounding from the hills so that often the noise appears to come from all directions at once! It is no longer pleasant to sit out in the garden in the summer months and the unrelenting noise, particularly on Friday and Sunday night, makes it almost impossible to sleep.
I am not one given to complaining, but feel the situation is now so bad that if something cannot be done, my husband and I may be forced to move away from this lovely little community.
I could quote many other letters in the same vein and I do not think that these people are exaggerating. The configuration of the road along this unimproved stretch is a serious issue for local residents, and although other issues further along also need addressing, the issue that I have highlighted is very marked.
Residents in Flackwell Heath, further up towards Handy Cross, are also affected by the motorway noise. There, the noise is a bit more classic in the sense that it just spills out over the motorway, depending on the direction of the wind. Again, the motorway surface is made from an old-fashioned material, and we have absolutely no noise-reduction protections along the edge of the motorway. As my hon. Friends have rightly said, the traffic volumes on the motorway have increased exponentially over the past 10 years, particularly following
the completion of the Birmingham route, and what was previously a bypass is now one of the countrys major trunk roads.
I very much hope that something can be done quickly about this issue. In dealing with it, the problem has always been that the Highways Agency has responded by saying that something will be done some time in the programme, but that nobody is quite sure when. Action should be a higher priority, because the sheer number of people being adversely affected by noise nuisance not only immediately adjacent to the motorway, which is perhaps inevitable, but very widely around the Loudwater viaduct justifies it.
I want now to say something about Handy Cross. I would be pleased to see any statistical information that the Minister can provide about how the new improvements are working there, because that would be useful. I often go up the A404 to Handy Cross, and my impression is that the road junction works have brought about a marked improvement. There seem to be fewer traffic queues, and the environmental considerations that were properly taken into account have had a pleasant impact; indeed, the scheme has been well landscaped and is a credit to those who carried it out. Again, therefore, I am happy to say some warm words about what has been done.
Let me turn, however, to the issue of road safety in the area. As the Minister will have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe, there was a fatal accident the Sunday before last on the stretch of the M40 that runs down from Handy Cross to the Loudwater viaduct. That followed a pattern of such accidents17 was, I think, the figure quoted for the relevant periodwhich suggests that that stretch of motorway is particularly dangerous, although the Government may persuade me otherwise. Frankly, it is not difficult to see what the problem is. If one approaches the Loudwater viaduct from Handy Cross, one is on a sustained downward slope. As a result, anybody driving at 70one must face the fact that people often drive through Handy Cross at 75 or 80 mphwill, without putting their foot further down on the accelerator, and unless they decide to slow up, be doing 90, 95 or 100 mph by the time they reach the viaduct at the bottom. This is also an area where it is easy to decide to overtake heavy goods vehicles.
On top of that, the road, which was designed as a bypass, has in it a bend that is probably somewhat sharper than anything that motorway engineers would construct nowadays. I am not saying that it is in some way impassable, but it does have a slight race course feel about it. I must say that that is in contrast to the descent to the Loudwater viaduct from the Beaconsfield end, which is largely straight and which, on top of that, was subject to major improvements when it was widened to four lanes. I am not surprised, therefore, to learn of the frequency of the accidents on this stretch; indeed, some months before the fatality that I mentioned, there was a serious accident, in which a vehicle was left hanging over the edge of the viaduct and over the warehouses and employment centres immediately underneath.
Something can and must be done to improve safety on this stretch. I am not an expert in these things, but I simply want to suggest a few ideas to the Minister. First, a concrete barrier down the centre of the road would undoubtedly reduce the risk of motor vehicles crossing the carriageway and going through the central
reservation, because there are places where high-speed accidents and multiple pile-ups can take place. Secondly, consideration could certainly be given to the appropriate speed at which vehicles should come down the hill, to see whether something cannot be done to deter drivers from going so fast, which classically results in their vehicle running away with them as they come down the hill. That could involve speed cameras, average speed cameras and evenI would not necessarily be against thisreducing the speed on this stretch of the motorway to 50 or 60 mph under certain circumstances. I do not know what the solution is, but I am convinced that there is one and that it could contribute to reducing the risk that this stretch of the motorway poses. I suspect that such works would be independent of the noise-reduction improvements that I might also wish to see at the site.
I might add that I am no great fan of speed cameras, having had my 28 years of driving without being detected ended by a speed camera in my constituency a couple of years after I was elected. However, they have their uses, and on such a stretch, where there is a real safety issue, I would not be at all averse to introducing, above all, an average speed camera to keep drivers down to the appropriate speed limit for this stretch of road.
I am conscious that others wish to participate. I am grateful to the Minister for listening and I look forward to his response. I am sure that something can be done to improve safety. I am also sure that, generally, my constituents in Loudwater, Flackwell Heath, Wooburn Green and Wooburn Moor are entitled to have the Government come along and put in place a noise-reduction package for them.
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