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16 Oct 2007 : Column 215WH—continued

11.48 am

Mr. Boris Johnson (Henley) (Con): First, of course, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) on securing the debate, and I support everything that he said. I also support virtually everything that my hon. Friends the Members for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) said, with the possible exception of the suggestion by my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield that we should have more speed cameras on the motorway—I think that I would need more argument on that before supporting it, although I do not necessarily rule it out.

I want briefly to make almost exactly the same point as my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury about a bridge. Before I do, however, I want to support the general point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe, which is that the motorway was never built to cope with quite as much traffic. If the Minister would like a graphic representation of that, he need only stand at the foot of the great Chiltern cutting, where my constituency begins. On any weekday evening, he can look up and see so much traffic struggling to get through that Khyber pass that the winking tail lights will resemble a flow of molten lava. That was never a sight that one could see 20 years ago or even, I think, 10 years ago. That is as graphic an expression as I can provide of the increase in the weight of traffic being experienced by people in villages along that stretch; they never expected it. I do not think that the engineers who designed the M40 ever conceived when they built it quite so close to those villages that that number of cars would be passing along it.

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A further problem, of course, with the relevant stretch is, I am given to understand from excellent work done by the M40 Chilterns environmental group, that the spoil from the cutting was used to create a gigantic rampart through into Oxfordshire and the beginnings of my constituency, so that the noise could be more effectively dispersed throughout the villages. I cannot believe that it would now be possible—I imagine that it would be far too expensive—to turn that dyke into a trough, which is what it should have been, but I think that the villagers deserve some noise abatement. I am thinking in particular of Lewknor and Postcombe, and, above all, Milton Common, which is very close to the motorway.

I want to elaborate on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury about what can be done in the interval provided by the repair of the bridges. We have a bridge at junction 7, which, as I am sure the Minister knows, will be repaired over nine months next year. As the Highways Agency acknowledges, that provides a golden opportunity to do something about noise along the relevant stretch. There will be traffic calming measures and bollards and a great deal of disruption. It seems to me that it would be sensible to consider that time for the erection of greater and more protective barriers to the sound pollution that is so greatly diminishing the quality of life of people in the villages. I hope that if the Minister cannot today come up with a precise answer about what he might consider doing in the nine-month interval next year, he may agree to meet me and representatives of the M40 Chilterns environmental group, to discuss a way forward and how we could use the opportunity next year to sort out the problem.

11.52 am

Mr. John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): It is a pleasure to be here under your chairmanship this morning, Mrs. Humble.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) on securing what has been a very interesting debate on the M40. When I first read the title I was not 100 per cent. sure what issues would be raised. I imagined that the debate would be to do with the condition of the road surface; certainly, on occasion, when I must travel to London by road, I use the M40, and I am fully aware that the oldest sections of the road are in a particularly poor condition. However, when I read the debate pack prepared for us by the Library it became clear that many other issues might be raised, which, as a Member for a north-west constituency, I was not particularly aware of.

Suggested issues for discussion were concerns about the potential improvements around the Handy Cross area; the lack of service stations along the M40—although some of its service stations are considerably better than some on other motorways; and the potential impact on the road of developments around the Bicester area. However, I also thought that road safety issues were almost certain to arise in connection with the M40. Certainly, reading the website gave me an insight into concerns about safety on the M40. It advocates further use of speed cameras on motorways. I understand that there were 26 accidents on the relevant stretch of the M40 in the first six months of 2007. There are also more than 200 motorway accidents a year
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involving vehicles crossing from one side to the other, and the difference in the safety of metal or concrete barriers is clearly a matter for concern.

The hon. Member for Wycombe began with a brief history of the M40 and the evolution of the road from its original form into the connecting motorway to the midlands. He concentrated on the issue of noise, and its impact on villages nearest to the original stretches of the M40 before the motorway was expanded. He also talked about the widening of the motorway causing additional noise. I have had experience of that as a Manchester MP. When the M60 was widened it was necessary to cut down all the trees that were there to protect residents from the noise to make way for the extra motorway lanes. So I sympathise about problems connected with the widening. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned that the number of heavy goods vehicles had increased from about 2,500 a day to about 14,000 a day. Clearly, that has a significant impact on noise. He talked particularly about noise hot spots, but with some frustration that they were perhaps not noisy enough to be considered a priority for work on the road surface.

The hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members touched on the issue of light pollution. I was not sure whether he was suggesting that we should be better off without street lighting on motorways; I shall say more about that. Finally, he raised the issue of safety, which is of course paramount. I hope that the Minister intends to say something about the accident spots that several hon. Members have mentioned.

The hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) also raised the matter of noise. I understand his obvious frustration that the M40 is not considered a priority. He made an impassioned plea for the necessary resources to upgrade the road surface to deal with noise. He also went on to discuss in some detail the proposed closure of the bridge at Stokenchurch. That is another issue on which I can sympathise with hon. Members, because where work was necessary in my constituency, there was a debate about whether it was more sensible to close a bridge entirely for a short time, or to keep it open in one direction, which meant that the repair work would go on for longer. I shall be interested to hear from the Minister whether consideration has been given to the possibility of keeping half the bridge open, to ensure that it can be used throughout the repair period, and whether financial considerations were among the reasons for what has been decided so far. I see the Minister shaking his head, and I am sure that he will clarify the matter when he responds to the debate.

The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), with his usual eloquence, gave us a helpful lesson in geography as regards the beginning of the motorway. I must confess that I was unaware that the beginning of the M40 was in his constituency. He also discussed the issue of noise. However, I should like to take up his point on street lighting. I disagree with him about the lighting of motorways. I believe, and I wonder whether the Minister will say something to clarify the issue, that street lighting on motorways has resulted in better accident statistics. I accept that the waste of energy is an issue, but we could look at the use of solar power for street lighting on both local roads and motorways—it is used in my constituency. The first solar lighting in a park in the whole country is in my constituency.

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Mr. Grieve: I accept that there is statistical evidence that if a road is lit, the level of accidents is reduced. However, we must balance that against the enormous adverse environmental impact of street lighting, particularly in rural areas. Street lighting creates light pollution and an inability to see the night sky, and it sends an extremely negative message to the public about the availability of lighting in the overall context of energy use. For that reason, I should like to see a substantial reduction in street lighting. Interestingly, that is happening under financial constraints in my constituency, and I welcome it. Lights that have been in place on A roads for 30 or 40 years are being switched off, and the world does not seem to be coming to an end as a result.

Mr. Leech: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention and I accept that we need to strike a balance but, from my personal driving experience, I believe that motorways with street lights are far safer than unlit motorways.

The hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) reiterated a number of the points made by his colleagues on the Conservative Benches, but I was disappointed that he came out against the idea of speed cameras along the section of the M40 to which he referred; I felt that the hon. Member for Beaconsfield made a good case for the installation of an average speed camera on that section of the M40. From my own experience, I can say that it is an area in which it is easy for motorists, unintentionally, to increase their speed. Average speed cameras would have a significant impact in ensuring that people stick to the speed limit.

My final point relates to the fact that all who have spoken mentioned the problems of noise and safety, but no one suggested a solution that involved the reduction of traffic. Surely we ought to offer solutions that would reduce traffic on our motorways, such as better investment in rail services or a lorry charging scheme to reduce the amount of road freight. Clearly, traffic on our motorways will not be reduced unless we invest significantly more money in public transport and discourage lorries from using motorways. Lorries cause a significant amount of the noise about which hon. Members complained, so it is disappointing that none of them offered a solution to the problems that involved reducing the traffic on our roads.

12.4 pm

Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Wilshire. I am disappointed that Mrs. Humble has left, as I intended to tell her about the excellent hospitality that we received recently in Blackpool at the Woodleigh hotel in Yates street, which almost rivalled the hospitality in Scarborough. However, having served with you on the Transport Committee, Mr. Wilshire, I look forward to serving under your chairmanship.

Having listened to the debate, I believe that I am fortunate, because I have not often experienced the 87 miles of the M40 between Uxbridge and junction 15 near Warwick. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) on securing the debate and on attracting such a distinguished array of Conservative Front Bench talent: I feel some trepidation on my
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Westminster Hall debut. As my hon. Friend said, one problem on the M40 is that, unlike motorways that were built from scratch, it is an upgrade of existing roads and bypasses, which means that it is in close proximity to many people and villages. As traffic has increased in recent years, the problems have worsened, so I hope that the Minister will address some of my hon. Friend’s questions.

The village of Stokenchurch is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington). I am sure that the Minister has perused the Transport Research Laboratory report entitled, “An Assessment of Noise Hotspots Alongside the M40” and noted that it identifies Stokenchurch as the most noise-sensitive location on the motorway. My hon. Friend mentioned the noise severity index of 10.2 in Stokenchurch, which has a 2 km frontage on to the motorway. The next village to feature in the report is Lane End. It has a noise severity index of 3.1, which demonstrates the size of the problem in Stokenchurch. I hope that the Minister will at least tell us when the Stokenchurch section of the motorway is due for refurbishment or replacement, and whether that work can be fast-tracked and done slightly earlier.

My hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) spoke about the intrusive nature of lighting on the motorways and the implications for their carbon footprint. In my experience, although one can travel slightly more easily on lit sections of motorway, there is a moment, when the lighting ends and one’s eyes have not adjusted to the change, when it is difficult to see the way and to make progress. He also mentioned the issue of the motorway services that are due to open and some of the problems relating to them. I note that prior to the opening of new services, that section of motorway is, at 71 miles, the longest in the UK between services.

I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson), who has offered his apologies for leaving, was able to attend the debate and that his bicycle was not stolen again. He spoke about the high levels of traffic on the motorway looking at times like a molten lava flow. My research indicates that 90,000 vehicles a day use the M40. Motorways are the safest routes in the country and travelling on them is the safest way to travel, but the M40 between the Loudwater viaduct and Handy Cross in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield, is the sixth most lethal stretch in the UK. Two multiple pile-ups claimed the lives of four people last June and July, and the Thames valley safer roads partnership has begun a review to consider what measures can be taken to address that tragic problem. The cause of many accidents can be addressed by looking at ways of reducing congestion and we heard that a fourth lane has been put in place on a section of the M40.

I was perturbed on Monday to read that the Government might be cooling on road user charging, which could address some of the problems. If the project is to be aborted, will the Minister explain how the money used to employ 22 staff and engage 24 consultants on full or part-time work at the Department for Transport to look at road charging could be better spent? It would have been better to spend it improving the M40 than pay consultants and staff in the Department.

We heard about the fatal accident the Sunday before last, and in May three people were killed in an horrific seven-vehicle smash at Loudwater when a lorry careered
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through the central reservation into oncoming traffic. The hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) said that there were 200 such accidents, but I saw a figure on the internet—it may not be true—of 432 crossover accidents a year, 70 per cent. of which involve cars. One way of addressing the problem is to introduce concrete step safety barriers instead of the standard steel barriers, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe said.

Steel barriers have many drawbacks, not least their resistance to impact. When they are damaged, they must be repaired, which entails risks that often result in injury or even loss of life for the crews employed to repair them. They are breached much more often than concrete barriers. The Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that there has been no case so far of a vehicle breaching a concrete central barrier. The majority of carriageways in the UK are fitted with steel barriers that meet the N2 containment specification, which is for a 1.5 tonne vehicle hitting the barrier at the standard speed and angle. An H2 barrier—a specification that concrete central reservation barriers would meet—would control the impact of a 13-tonne vehicle. Given that there are 44-tonne vehicles on our roads and that there have not been any breaches, in practice even larger vehicles may well be contained on the carriageway. In fact, I saw a report about a driver of a very large vehicle on the M25 who owed his life to the concrete barrier.

Concrete barriers have other benefits. In particular, glare is reduced from vehicles travelling in the other direction. If motorcyclists hit steel barriers they are often seriously injured, not by the steel safety rails, but by the posts that hold them up. Concrete barriers, which are solid, would reduce accidents on the opposite carriageway caused by people in vehicles passing the scene of an accident trying to see what is happening—the practice known as rubber-necking.

Although new motorways are fitted with concrete safety barriers and all the research indicates that such barriers are the answer to the problem, why is it that since 2005, less than 100 km of existing barriers on a total 3,240 km of motorway have been replaced with concrete barriers? The M40, particularly the stretches to which my hon. Friends have referred, would be a good place to trial the barriers to determine their impact on accidents. In addition, concrete barriers are maintenance-free. Even when an accident occurs, there is no need to turn out a team to close lanes and put in contraflows or whatever is needed to carry out the repairs.

In some cases, because one concrete barrier replaces two steel barriers, it may be possible to narrow the central reservation to allow more space for additional lanes or, if the hard shoulder system is operating, to provide more space for emergency vehicles. The issue of noise was raised. When the M40 was constructed, it was a concrete road, fitted with random grooves. It has been upgraded to a hot rolled asphalt surface, but that is not good enough to deal with the problem of noise near villages. Five places in particular were identified: Lane End, Bolter End, Cadmore End, Ibstone and Stokenchurch. Although the report identified the carriageways in their vicinity as requiring resurfacing, it concluded that could be done only when maintenance was scheduled and the road was due to be repaired.

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Will the Minister tell us when the carriageways are likely to be scheduled for repair and whether, if that is an awfully long way off, he can, through his good offices, queue-jump a little bit, given the problems? I again congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe on managing to identify, through this debate, some of these very serious issues, to which I hope the Minister will respond positively.

12.14 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Jim Fitzpatrick): It is a pleasure to see you presiding over our proceedings now, Mr. Wilshire, having taken over from Mrs. Humble, although obviously I agree with the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) about the hospitality of Blackpool.

May I say immediately to the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman), whom I congratulate on securing this important debate, that I should have offered apologies before the debate began on behalf of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, who is unavoidably unable to be here to respond to the debate? As Minister responsible for highways, he will be fully briefed on today’s debate. I assure hon. Members that, should I not fully respond to the matters raised or questions asked, correspondence will follow to address the relevant points. However, I shall start with comments on noise, safety and the bridge works mentioned, before dealing with specific questions and points raised in the debate. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby on his debut as a Front Bencher in Westminster Hall today.

The M40 motorway between junctions 1 and 15 is part of the Government’s private finance initiative. It is managed by UK Highways M40 Ltd as part of a 30-year contract that commenced in 1997 and will end in 2027. The general strategy for maintaining the road is to replace the road surface layer as and when it comes to the end of its life, which is identified from regular pavement condition surveys. Overall, the condition of the surface is good.

I recognise the concerns of the M40 Chilterns environmental group—to which the hon. Member for Wycombe and others referred and which he actively supports—in relation to traffic noise from the M40. The Highways Agency installed noise mitigation barriers on sections of the M40 when it was widened between junctions 4 and 5 in 1991 and between the M25 and junction 3 in 1999. Since 2004, the agency has had a number of meetings and ongoing contact with the CEG regarding its noise concerns to clarify the agency’s position on noise.

In July 2006, the Highways Agency published a report entitled “An Assessment of Noise Hotspots Alongside the M40”, which concluded that all sites that were identified did not meet the national Hansard criteria for noise mitigation measures—noise fencing. There is a budget of £5 million a year, which enables the highest priority sites across England to receive noise mitigation works. The report recommended that a low noise surfacing material be used whenever maintenance is carried out.

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