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I would like to concentrate on why I am against the closure of the Southend driving test centre, and my primary reason is population. I ask the Minister to address those concerns, which I have not seen addressed in depth in other debates. I will also mention issues associated with time, finance and the environmental impact of the proposed move. The Driving Standards Agency’s code of practice states that in towns where the population density is greater than 1,250 people per sq km, learner drivers should have to travel no further
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than seven miles to a test centre. My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West solicited that information in a detailed answer to a parliamentary question of Thursday 22 May. Southend is the largest town in Essex. According to the Office for National Statistics’ 2006 mid-year population estimate, its population was recorded as 3,829 people per sq km, and the Minister, from previous discussions in previous roles, will know that my hon. Friends and I regard that as a major underestimate.

That population is already more than three times the recommended level discovered by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West in the answer to his parliamentary question. The Driving Standards Agency would be breaking its code of practice by having a test centre serve a population density three times higher than the recommended level and at double the recommended distance that learners should travel. It is a totally unsatisfactory situation. What is the point of having such guidelines if someone in the Department—I am unsure whom—is going to overrule them flagrantly?

The current test centre is ideally located in Southend. The moderately sized road that the centre is on has five secondary schools, four of which have sixth forms, meaning that up to 1,000 students in any one year may want to take their test there. The proposed move will be a major inconvenience for them. The university of Essex is developing its new campus in Southend, so another 9,000—maybe more—people of typical learner driver age will be based just around the corner.

Population density is my key objection to the proposal, but I am also concerned about the distance to the new test centre and the time it will take drivers to get there. They will be travelling not only for their test but, on other occasions, to acquaint themselves with the test centre area. If they do not do that, I suggest to the Minister that they will be at a fundamental disadvantage. I was in that position as a 17-year-old, having to travel between 45 minutes and an hour, and I had to make that journey four or five times to acquaint myself with the test area. That certainly did put me at a disadvantage and I am concerned that young students taking their test in Southend will be at a disadvantage because they do not know the roads and the area around the test centre in Basildon. Indeed, there is no reason why they should be familiar with that area.

The two roads connecting Basildon to Southend are the A127 and A13, which are normally heavily congested. The journey could take up to an hour, and in summer it can be an awful lot worse. There are many tourist facilities in Southend; many people go there for a day trip and the roads become heavily congested. I am particularly concerned for constituents from the Shoeburyness area or, just outside the boundaries of Southend, those in the Rochford district, who already have to travel a number of miles to get to the current test centre. The journey will be even further than 14 miles for them.

The extra distance will come at a price. People offering driving tests and practice in the new test centre area will not do so for free. It will take extra time to get there. Costs are already very high for aspirant learner drivers and rising fuel prices and fuel tax are making a
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significant financial impact. The proposed closure is a further blow to young people who want to be socially mobile, and who want to get to employment and education opportunities. The whole process will be more and more expensive. One company that I have spoken to has already had to increase its rate for a two-hour lesson from £38 to £45, and I am sure that the cost will increase further. Equally, a number of people from Southend will decide that they want to receive all their instruction in Basildon. I can see sensible reasons for doing that, but I am concerned about the loss of employment for driving instructors in the Southend area or the costs of having to relocate nearer to the driving test centre.

Let me deal with a separate issue, which has been touched on in other debates, but which I should like to expand on in more detail: protecting the environment and our carbon footprint. It is important—the Government recognise this—to decrease vehicle emissions, yet the proposal will put cars on the road for longer, polluting further the Southend-to-Basildon area, which is already subject to considerable pollution along the main roads. At a time when the Government are trying to demonstrate their green credentials and sound like they are doing lots, the proposal seems to go in the opposite direction.

Will the Minister say whether an environmental impact assessment of the change has been conducted that considered more than the additional mileage? In terms of both the environment and time spent travelling, 14 miles is not a long way, but if a driver spends most of the way sitting in a traffic jam, pumping out more fumes, there is a much greater impact. I have seen no evidence that the issue has been considered to date, so I would be reassured if the Minister provided that information.

The proposals have met strong objection from local instructors and residents. As someone who does not solicit a large number of petitions, I can confirm that it is quite rare to receive a petition from constituents with more than 3,000 names. That shows quite strong opposition from local residents. I was first alerted to the issue last November and have since met a number of driving instructors, including the very good John Ashton, who represents the Southend and District Driving Instructors Association. John spoke to me not as an individual, but as a representative of the entire association—some driving instructors did not want to be named and were concerned not to be disadvantaged by the test centre management by coming out against the proposal. John emphasised that he was speaking on behalf of all the driving instructors in the association—I believe that means all the driving instructors—and nobody supported the Government’s proposal.

In the very full parliamentary answer that my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West received, the Minister noted that he had received 317 letters of objection. I found that difficult to comprehend, when compared with the petition of 3,000 people that was presented to me for onward presentation to the House. An awful lot of my constituents—and, I suspect, those of other hon. Members—have written directly to the Driving Standards Agency, not to the Minister. I wish that they had bombarded the Minister with letters early on. I know that that would have meant extra work for
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the Minister and his private office, but they would perhaps have been alerted to the severity of the issue and the strength of public feeling, because I suspect that 317 letters to a Minister’s private office is not an enormous number. If the Minister could indicate how much correspondence the Driving Standards Agency has received and what the overall level of objection to the proposals has been, that might put this debate in its proper context.

Let me turn to a potential resolution. I do not want to tell the Minister, “Leave it as is—we don’t want to do anything; I don’t want any change.” Rightly or wrongly, there is EU legislation and we have to comply with it. I was disappointed that the Driving Standards Agency had not consulted Southend borough council. I have spoken to the chief executive, Rob Tinlin, who was keen to engage with the Driving Standards Agency and use alternatives—either a multi-purpose test centre in Southend or, given the advantages of the existing site for cars, separating the two centres. One does not go to a test centre and say, “Can I take my car and motorcycle test at the same time?” Although they are both modes of transport, the tests do not necessarily have to be located in the same place.

The chief executive is willing to consider a number of sites. On my way in, I was explaining the issue to the Doorkeeper, who suggested Southend pier, which is the longest pier in the world at 1.33 miles. It has seen motorcycle activity in the past, with the wheel of death, but I do not think that it is a particularly good option. However, there are several options in the Southend area, and the local council is happy to sit down with the Minister, his Department and the DSA—whoever it takes—to find a more equitable solution that will work for local people and the Department.

I should like the Minister to respond to the points raised in the debate and, ultimately, for us all to sit down with the DSA to establish what can be done for the benefit of the people of Rayleigh, Rochford and Southend to keep a decent driving test centre in the area that can be reached easily by our constituents and future constituents who, quite rightly, want to pass their driving test in their own area.

9.50 pm

Mr. David Amess (Southend, West) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge) on securing this Adjournment debate. All that needs to be said has been said, but in spite of that, I want the Minister to hear directly from me—another voice. In speaking, I join my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois), and it also good to see my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) here.

The Minister and I are united in our support of West Ham. On that basis alone, I ask him to tear up the brief given to him by his hard-working officials, which will tell him, “No, Minister; no, Minister; no Minister!” I want this Minister to say yes. He has been very courteous in responding to the points that I raised in April, when he gave me a full answer, but the proposal is totally unsatisfactory. As someone who has been privileged to represent the real Basildon constituency for 14 years, and now Southend, West, I am in a prime position to share with the Minister the ramifications of
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this proposal. I ask him to stand up not only for Britain, but for Southend, regarding this European Union directive. I have never heard of anything so crazy. Because of motorcycles, all our motorists are going to suffer.

Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): In Scarborough, motorists can still take their tests there, but motorcyclists will have to travel 40 miles to Hull or Darlington rather than take their tests in Scarborough. So, there is every reason why motor testing should be in a separate place to motorcycle testing.

Mr. Amess: My hon. Friend has got to the heart of the matter, which saves me from enlarging on that point, and I hope that the Minister will respond to it.

We should stand up to this ridiculous directive. I have nothing against motorcyclists, but why should motorists in Southend suffer as a result of the directive?

So far, four of my five children have passed their driving tests, and their father has, for better or worse, been involved in assisting them with their driving. Because I know Basildon so well, I have driven there with them. Given that we lived in the town for so long, we know the roads there extremely well, and I tell the Minister that there is no comparison between road conditions in Basildon and those in Southend. Basildon, which was the first and biggest new town in the country, was not built in the expectation that people would have the number of motor cars that they now have—often up to three. The roads are very narrow and conditions there are entirely different.

It is wrong that the young people in the area that my hon. Friends and I represent, who will be learning to drive in Southend and primarily on those local roads, given that driving lessons are so expensive now, will then have to take their tests in Basildon. The Minister will probably think that that is a silly argument, and that people should surely be capable of driving anywhere, but the people from Basildon taking their test there will be very familiar with the local driving conditions, while the young people from Southend will not. Those young people will undoubtedly be placed at a huge disadvantage. Through driving with my children, I have experienced the practical side of these matters at first hand.

In his courteous letter to me, the Minister drew my attention to the guidelines, but I want to hear how he could possibly justify this decision. The DSA is clearly in violation of the code of practice on written consultations, which states:

Under the proposals, they would have to travel double that distance: 14 miles. That is simply unacceptable. I get fed up with these consultation processes. We have had a consultation, and no one agreed with the proposals, yet they were ignored. That is not democracy; it is simply a diktat. We should not insult the general public by saying that we are holding a consultation, if we are simply going to listen to what they say and then completely ignore them.

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The criteria that I have just mentioned were set out in the Minister’s response to my question of 22 May. Southend’s population density easily exceeds the criteria: we have 3,829 people per sq km. In a letter from the Minister, he says that the proposed Basildon site

I dispute that; I say that it is 14 miles away. In any case, the Minister admits that the seven-mile limit has been exceeded. The DSA now wishes to violate its own guidelines and relocate to this multi-centre, which is totally unacceptable. This disaster for the residents of our constituencies is being brought about simply to comply with the directive, and it is totally wrong that the motorists are being placed in an inferior position to the motorcyclists because of that.

The Minister and I love history. The driving test centre in Southend has been there for 60 years. It is not a fly-by-night set-up; all the infrastructure is in place. We have several long-established driving schools there, and they are all used to the test centre and greatly appreciate the facility being there. The opening of the Southend campus of the university of Essex will attract numerous extra students who want to learn to drive. It is not always the case that, as soon as someone is of age, they get a provisional licence and start driving, but the Minister should bear in mind that we are going for a huge expansion of higher education in Southend, and that that will bring in even more business.

The move to Basildon will mean added costs, and emissions will increase. There will be additional wear and tear on the instructors’ tuition vehicles. It will also place a burden on a route that already suffers from congestion. My hon. Friends have already mentioned the extra traffic that would have to travel along the A127, which is clearly finding it difficult to cope at the moment. The stand taken by all interested groups could not have been clearer.

Southend and District Driving Instructors Association has been resolutely opposed to the plan from the beginning. It has held rallies and written letters of objection. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East said, its petition attracted more than 3,000 signatures. Those signatures are not from Disraeli—

It being Ten o’clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Ms Diana R. Johnson.]

Mr. Amess: As my hon. Friend said, the 3,000 signatures are not from Disraeli or Queen Victoria; they are the genuine signatures of people who will be badly affected by this proposal.

The position of the local community has been clear throughout the 12 weeks of the consultation process and it is no exaggeration to say that the DSA has been bombarded with objections. It refused requests from the association even to extend the consultation period. In this time of climate change and concerns surrounding energy consumption, the extra journeys
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and the carbon output are in complete contrast with the Government’s sustainability agenda, which my hon. Friends and I support.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East has already mentioned the important issue of road safety and it is unfair on the residents of Southend suddenly to introduce them to new conditions with which they are unfamiliar. Southend council has done an excellent job in flagging up the concerns of local residents, although I regret to say that the feedback received during the consultation period was perhaps not as robust as might have been hoped. There has been some collation of figures and a submission has been made to the Minister to consider the approval of the agency proposal, taking into account the views expressed, but I must ask again, what has been the point of going out to consultation?

I end with these thoughts for the Minister. The Southend centre is an excellent resource for local people and its closure would genuinely cause severe difficulty for all our constituents. Given that the driving test is not all that easy to pass in any case, this proposal puts a further hurdle in front of them. The move to keep the driving test centre in Southend is supported by the Conservatives, the Labour party, the Liberals and the independents.

I hope that the Minister will ignore his brief and give me and my hon. Friends hope this evening that, given what my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby said, he will carefully consider what has happened in other areas: the motorcyclists have been given an opportunity to do their bit, as has been suggested, but the motorists remain at the existing centre.

I say finally to the Minister that this is not a speech against Basildon. When I was the Member of Parliament for that area, I saved the accident and emergency unit, stopped the relocation of maternity services, stopped school closures and intervened over the railway line and services there, so I would be the last person to turn this into a Basildon versus Southend issue. It is not that at all. I want the best for Basildon, but above all I want the very best for motorists in Southend, which means keeping the test centre where it is.

10.4 pm

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge) on securing this important Adjournment debate and, if I may say so, on introducing it so ably. I also congratulate him on presenting a petition bearing the signatures of 3,000 people protesting very clearly against what the Government propose. I have been in the House for longer than my hon. Friend, but I believe that the largest number of names on any petition that I have ever presented was about 1,300. I imagine that 3,000 is a considerable number. I hope the Minister will take account of the strength of local feeling, which I shall now attempt to echo on behalf of my constituents.

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