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Following detailed scrutiny of the Department for Transport’s and the Highways Agency’s budgets, Ministers agreed that the resurfacing of roads ahead of a maintenance need, for noise alleviation reasons, would not be allocated funding. The agency spends some £200 million each year on resurfacing work across the entire motorway and trunk road network in England. Although that is sufficient to maintain the network in a safe and serviceable condition, there is little scope for elective tasks.

Accident data for the M40, junctions 1A to 11, for the period 2004 to 2006 inclusive record an average of 234 personal injury accidents a year. That number of accidents equates to an average accident rate of 7.8 per 100 million vehicle kilometres, which is similar to the average accident rate of 8 per 100 million vehicle kilometres for motorways nationally.

The M40 has recently been the site of a number of incidents resulting in tragic loss of life. I recognise that any accident is highly regrettable, whether it involves serious personal injury or death. As a result, the Highways Agency implemented the traffic officer service on the M40 in early 2006 to manage incidents, reduce the delay to motorists and work in conjunction with the police to try to bring a speedy end to an incident and lessen the impact on the public.

The Highways Agency continues to analyse accidents on the M40 to see what measures can be implemented to improve road safety. The agency monitors the M40 motorway to identify accident cluster sites and, following identification of a number of potential cluster sites, it has undertaken in-depth analysis of those sites to develop measures to reduce the number of accidents at those locations. At junction 6, road markings were improved in December 2006, which will bring safety benefits. To anticipate a question from the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) about his speeding downward slide to the viaduct, I will check whether that area is among the clusters and write to him.

Following one incident, queries have been raised about installing concrete barriers on the Loudwater viaduct at junction 3. The Highways Agency introduced as policy the installation of concrete barriers in motorways’ central reserves in January 2005, after research by the Transport Research Laboratory found, as hon. Members have mentioned, that concrete barriers in the central reserve improve safety by reducing significantly the likelihood of crossover incidents as well as being essentially maintenance-free and unlikely to require repairs after a vehicle impact. The installation of concrete barriers is being phased in. They are specified for new road schemes, for road improvement schemes such as road widening and during major maintenance.

Various other improvement schemes have been completed or are being carried out this financial year. The most significant has been the recent installation of variable message signs between junctions 9 and 11. The signs meet the criteria for the provision of message signs and the automated motorway incident detection accident system, or Midas. The message signs at junctions 9 to 11 are now operational, and the Midas signs between junctions 10 and 11 will come online this month. The signs allow the national traffic control centre and the regional control centre to enable tactical and strategic diversions as well as warnings of inter-junction problems. The Government have also installed two message signs on each of the A34 northbound approaches to the M40
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at junction 9 and the southbound approaches at junction 10. The signs warn of problems on the M40 and allow alternative routes to be taken.

Emergency central reserve crossing points have been installed at four locations between junctions 6 and 13 in Oxfordshire and Warwickshire to assist in releasing trapped traffic following incidents, and a study is being undertaken to identify additional sites. Additional crossing points will be installed as funding becomes available.

The M40-A404 junction at Handy Cross has suffered historically from high congestion and long queues, particularly during peak travel times. The Highways Agency carried out a £16 million improvement scheme that opened to traffic earlier this year, as has been mentioned. The scheme is essentially complete. Final adjustments to the traffic signals are required to link them to a control room so that they can be remotely monitored and the timings changed to suit traffic conditions. The agency expects the work to be installed and validated by the end of October.

Major roadworks are planned to the bridge over the motorway at junction 5, Stokenchurch, in late 2008 and 2009. Some of the bridge’s concrete is suffering from high chloride levels, causing the reinforcement to corrode from many years’ exposure to road salts. The affected concrete must be removed and replaced. During that time, the deck will be temporarily supported from beneath and will not be able to carry vehicular traffic. Pedestrian access will be maintained across the bridge. On the M40 beneath the bridge, three narrow lanes in each direction will be kept open during peak times.

Following a presentation to Stokenchurch parish council and comments from the local public, the proposed diversion routes during the bridge works have been reviewed. Changes are being discussed with the local highways authority and, if agreed, will be published shortly. Similar work to the bridge at junction 7 will need to be completed before work can start at junction 5. Work is programmed to commence at junction 7 in early 2008 and will continue for nine months. The bridge will have to be closed to traffic for six months.

I am advised that work done to date shows that a bridge closure is necessary. Part of the work will apparently involve demolishing the central pier and full-depth sections of the bridge deck. The deck will be temporarily supported for up to six months, which means that it is an engineering problem and not, as the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) asked, a question of finances. I shall return to the points made about Stokenchurch in a moment.

The hon. Member for Wycombe asked five questions about noise. They concerned noise measurement, the question of bias against rural communities and EU comparisons, anomalies in different measurements, light pollution and environmental threats. On noise measurement, he is correct that measurements have not been taken. The report used modelling to assess noise, and Highways Agency policy used the noise severity index to prioritise sites in England. As he and others have said, that maximises funding to treat high-population areas. In other words, areas where many people are affected are obviously given priority.

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I will have to write to the hon. Gentleman on his third and fourth questions. On his fifth, the Highways Agency is working with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. That work on the environmental threats is in draft. It is incomplete at the moment, but it will be published in due course. He also asked three other questions: whether the Government were in contact with Keepmoving, whether we could accelerate the concrete barrier programme and about the Handy Cross improvements. I shall write to him on the second and third questions. As for contact with Keepmoving, we have visited the website, but there is no official contact, as it is an unofficial website of the group.

Mr. Goodman: Perhaps the Minister could write to me further to clarify whether the Department accept Keepmoving’s estimate that the area that we have been discussing—I think that it is junction 3—is one of the worst in the south-east.

Jim Fitzpatrick: I shall certainly be happy to write to the hon. Gentleman in due course.

The hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) asked about joined-upness and the six months’ closure. He asked whether the Stokenchurch decision had been sprung and whether the matter of emergency and other services, such as education, has been addressed. I have explained that engineering difficulties make keeping the bridge open impossible. The Highways Agency has tried to work with local people. I mentioned discussions with the local authority, which are still taking place, and the attempt to help reduce the impact on air quality. We will follow up with more information on that aspect in our written response.

The emergency services have been consulted and their comments taken on board to ensure the best possible response in the event that they are called on to assist residents in the neighbourhood. Alternative diversion routes are under review to minimise the impact, mentioned by Opposition Members, of the knock-on effects of the closure. The information will be published shortly.

I appreciate the generous comments made by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield on those responsible for the improvements that he praised, and I note his suggestions about road safety speed. As road safety Minister, I agree with him and not his hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson). Perhaps that does not surprise him. I note his comments on motorway lighting. Clearly, it is a dividing line between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats and a matter that comes up from time to time. I shall write to him with information and the statistics on Handy Cross that he asked for.

This has been a well-informed debate. A number of important issues have been raised concerning hon. Members’ constituents. I apologise if I have not been able to answer their various questions as fully as they had hoped, but I assure them that we will write to them so that they have the fullest and best possible answers that we can give. I am sure that they will continue to press the Department for Transport. We shall continue to listen, and hopefully we shall make progress on a number of fronts.

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12.29 pm

Mr. David Wilshire (in the Chair): I am trying to work out whether “Minister for Europe” includes Sudan; obviously it does. Perhaps a geography lesson or a new atlas would help me a great deal. If hon. Members are content to start, I call Mr. Drew.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Thank you, Mr. Wilshire. I am sure that by the end of the debate, the Minister for Europe will undertake as part of his responsibilities a visit to Sudan, which I am sure will want in due course to join the EU. I am delighted to have this opportunity to talk about our visit, and to see the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer). She was part of the triumvirate of MPs who visited Sudan during the recess with our friend in that respect, the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster).

We were accompanied by Michael O’Neill, the new special representative to Sudan—we were grateful that he could come along—as well as Chris Milner, the co-ordinator, and Peter Tesch, who for the purposes of the visit was historian, although he is many things besides. During our time in Sudan, we were accompanied by our ambassador Rosalind Marsden, whom I had met previously in Kabul. It was an important visit, and it came at an important juncture. We were warned that we went at our own risk, and just before leaving we were kindly informed that an al-Qaeda cell was looking to blow up an embassy in Khartoum. We therefore did not take up the invitation to stay at the British embassy. Nevertheless, we carried on. I have to say that security was impressive; never before have I enjoyed so much security, but I shall say no more about it.

I thank our supporting organisations—Christian Aid, CARE, Tearfund, Oxfam, World Vision UK and the Inter-Parliamentary Union. I thank particularly Jessica Irvine of the Sudan unit, who briefed us before we left and gave us some good sensible information about what we should be doing.

The purpose of the visit was to check on progress on the comprehensive peace agreement, but we could not go to Sudan without revisiting Darfur. It was my second visit to Darfur and my third to Sudan; I shall say more about it later.

The CPA is an important document. It brought to an end 20 years-plus of conflict, which had taken 2 million lives. Anyone or anything that imperilled the CPA would not be taken lightly by the all-party group on Sudan, which I chair. The document is also the model for what one hopes is future peace in Darfur—and, indeed, in the east. I shall say more later about the east; we did not have time during our week’s visit to go to there, and I hope that we can remedy that omission.

The CPA lays down clearly the progress that needs to be made. It covers the census and the elections—and eventually the referendum, which will decide whether the south stays part of a united Sudan or goes its own way. The programme has to be met by 2011. That is important in the context of Africa, but it is important also in the context of the wider world, such is Sudan’s position. I pay due credit to the Government for making it absolutely clear that they are in it for the long run, as
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there is no quick fix and no easy solution. If there were, we would have sorted out the problem many years ago. My determination, with others, is to keep going. If we can sort out the problems of Sudan, the rest of the world will follow in due course, such is its importance.

Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I congratulate him on securing this debate, and on leading an incredibly important delegation. He may remember that when in Sudan we met some of my constituents and that their father, Mr. Mubarak El-Mahdi, had been arrested with 13 others for being engaged in a coup—supposedly, one assumes, because there were no public charges. That was cited by the Sudan Liberation Army as a reason for walking out of the national unity Government, as it demonstrated a lack of commitment to the constitution of Sudan. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that case needs the attention of the Government at the highest level?

Mr. Drew: Yes, it does. The Minister will have heard that comment, and I know that the hon. Lady is making representations. Indeed, she had the opportunity to make direct representations while we were in Khartoum. I know that the Government will continue to listen to those representations and, I hope, will act upon them.

Since our visit, the CPA has come under even more pressure. Sadly, details reached us last week of the fact that the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement has withdrawn from the Government of national unity. At the very least, that is putting the CPA under a great deal of strain. It would be good to get the Minister’s view, on behalf of the Government, on how to get the SPLM back into the Government, even though we all know that that entity is sometimes more an institution of names than one with real power and authority. However, we have to stay with the CPA, because there is no plan B.

The United Kingdom has a long history of involvement in Sudan. That is why we have an obligation to stay with it. We are currently involved with some of the work of the Assessment and Evaluation Commission, playing a part with Kenya and Ethiopia. Again, I pay credit to the Government for the way in which they are trying to overcome the present impasse.

I offer five clear challenges. They are challenges not only for the Government, however, as they require the wider international community to play a part. Three of those challenges are crucial to progress with the CPA—and, in due course, to Darfur—and they need to be listened to and acted upon.

I start with Abyei, a part of Sudan where there is a great deal of tension. The Abyei boundary commission has made recommendations on how to demarcate the north and south, but the region is a key part of the country. The National Congress party believes that the commission overstepped the mark in giving its ruling. As well as the national conflict, a number of local conflicts between the Ngok Dinka and Misseriya, are adding to the problems in that part of the world. The danger is that it could be a touchstone for revisiting the conflict. Even if it stays local, it will be necessary to deal with it. Because the subject came up time after time, the delegation felt it important to report the situation in Abyei and to explain the need for mediation and eventually compromise.

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The second key point is wealth sharing. The main problem is a lack of transparency on oil revenues. The Government of southern Sudan allege, quite openly and with a degree of forthrightness, that they do not know how much oil is coming out of the ground. It is therefore difficult to know how much 50 per cent. of that wealth would be. That needs to be sorted out. Even the special representative from the National Congress party in the north said when we met—he was very frank—that being able to have confidence in the National Petroleum Commission knowing the figures for oil production was still some way off. Of course, it has an international context because the Chinese may not be that keen to know exactly how much oil is being produced and where the revenue is going. That situation needs to be clarified; again, it is a crucial point of tension within the comprehensive peace agreement.

Thirdly, there is the question of security. The forces of north Sudan have yet to withdraw from the south. We heard a lot about the fact that the deadline of 9 July was not met. That was another source of tension. The Government of the south, through the SPLA, failed to meet its obligation to withdraw from Kasala in time. For those warring factions that fail to keep to their side of the agreement, history repeats itself. On the plus side, however, we saw some evidence of integration between the two armies to form a united army of Sudan.

To put all that in context, the key thing is how to get to elections next year in the absence of agreement on security by the Government in the north—whether the Government of national unity or indeed the National Congress party, which is the dominant northern party and the dominant party in the Government of national unity—let alone agreement by the Government of southern Sudan. Without such agreement there can be no elections, so clarity is vital.

There are two other points in my list of five, which relate purely to the south, although there is of course a wider context. First, we were disappointed to see how little development there was in the south. That was despite the efforts and investment in Juba, so it was worrying. We heard that 60 per cent. of SPLM revenue is being spent on military expenditure, and the SPLM was almost bragging about it. That shows the extent to which other elements of expenditure are being squeezed out, so we need to get investment into education, health, and water and sanitation, and away from excessive military expenditure. That comes back to the security situation.

The last point is that of tension within the south itself, and the need for a south-south dialogue. During our visit, I really came to understand for the first time that there are four different groups of people living in the south. There are those who live largely under the occupation of the Government from the north, and those who live under the SPLA and SPLN. However, there are also, of course, initially displaced peoples, many of whom have fled to the north of the country and now wish to come back from Khartoum and Omdurman. In addition, there are the refugees who left the country and are now trying to return. Each of those groups feels that it is the most vulnerable, most maltreated, and most denied of its rights. When all four groups feel disadvantaged, there is scope for, dare I say it, an explosive mixture.

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