HC Deb 18 February 1993 vol 219 cc575-82

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Wood.]

10.45 pm
Mr. Peter Ainsworth (Surrey, East)

I wish to raise a matter that is of considerable and growing concern not only to my constituents in Surrey, East but to people throughout Surrey and the whole of the south-eastern region whose homes, towns, villages, fields and woodlands are close to the M25.

Although it is in Surrey that the Department of Transport's proposals are at present most keenly felt, since it is in Surrey that the link roads proposal has its being and in Surrey that the fourth lane proposals are at their most advanced, this subject clearly raises issues that have implications reaching far beyond the confines of a single county and touch on matters of national, and even international, interest.

I know that the Minister will believe me when I say that I am not anti-cars or anti-roads and road building. It would be the height of folly simply to ignore the central role that roads presently play in the economic and social life of the country. We depend upon an efficient, fast and smooth-flowing transport infrastructure for the goods and services that we have come to expect, at the prices that we demand. The M25, which represents some 6 per cent. of the national and motorway network but which carries some 15 per cent. of the total motorway volume, has a key role to play.

It is undeniable, too, that there have been considerable benefits from the development of motorways in the past to towns and villages whose high streets were previously choked with traffic. I am well aware, for example, that the opening of the M25 in the area covered by my constituency led to falls of up to 75 per cent. in traffic volumes on the A25 which passes through a number of villages nearby. I am also well aware that the M25 is a heavily congested road—the most heavily congested road in the country—and that, with demand for private car use expected to continue to rise, it is likely to become more congested. In these circumstances, to take no action at all is simply not an option.

The chief issue that I wish to raise is whether the action proposed by the Department of Transport—in brief, to widen the M25 by a further six lanes by way of link roads between junctions 12 and 15, and to increase capacity on 80 per cent. of the remaining motorway by the addition of a fourth lane—represents the right action. In order to achieve the right answer, it is crucial that we ask the right questons. It must be open to doubt whether, in fact, for many years the Department of Transport has been doing that.

If the question is simply how do we ease traffic congestion on the M25, it prompts the equally simple answer: we widen it. But even within its own very limited ambit, is that answer really satisfactory? We all know what happens when an existing road is widened or a relief road is built. All too often, that road simply fills up. A few years later—I was going to say "down the road"—the problem has not been solved. It has simply been enlarged.

I submit to the Minister that the key question he faces and, indeed, we all face, is how to reconcile the apparently ever-rising demand for private car use with the damage that cars are known to do to the environment and are believed to do to health. Until that question is resolved, important aspects of transport, environment and health policy will remain which cannot be reconciled.

I will not pretend that this is not a hugely complex problem for the Minister. My chief criticism of the solution currently proposed by the Department of Transport is that it is too simple. It is also out of date. I do not wish to imply any criticism of my hon. Friend. Successive Governments have followed a demand-led transport investment policy since the end of world war 1, when the Ministry of Roads was originally established. It is at least arguable that that policy no longer represents, if it ever did, an adequate response to a problem the aspects of which have multiplied over the years.

A demand-led approach begins by building a six-lane motorway, in a few years moves to an eight-lane motorway, and not long afterwards recommends, as is now the case with junctions 12 to 15 of the M25, a 14-lane motorway.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham)

Does my hon. Friend agree that, when the number of motorway lanes is increased to perhaps four, six or 10, the enhanced reputation of the road and increased circulation thereof leads to greater usage? So by increasing the number of lanes, we may face the problem of increased usage of the motorway, which could enhance the problem.

Mr. Ainsworth

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. We certainly need to consider carefully the issue of created traffic, which is the problem to which she refers.

What happens when the capacity envisaged under the proposals for junctions 12 to 15 of the M25 fills up? Do we enlarge again and again? We are talking about a road on green belt land. My hon. Friend will undoubtedly share my view that no Government in our history have done more to protect and enhance the environment and to encourage sustainable economic development and the protection of our natural heritage. For example, the size of the green belt has doubled in recent years.

However, I hope that the Minister will understand me when I say that there is at least something perverse about a system which can make it extraordinarily difficult to build a modest home extension yet enable the construction of a 14-lane highway in the next-door field, albeit following an environmental assessment.

The Surrey Wildlife Trust has estimated that the addition of link roads between junctions 12 and 15 of the M25 would destroy 23 designated sites of special scientific interest. In my constituency, where I am assured that link roads are not presently under active consideration, the same body has identified no fewer than 10 designated areas of outstanding natural beauty and two sites of special scientific interest which it says would be adversely affected by the development of the M25.

The Minister may be aware that the Prince of Wales, as patron of the Royal Society for Nature Conservation, last summer urged people to challenge new road schemes—not to mention so-called improvements—that fail to take account of long-term considerations. It is hard to think of any consideration which is more long-term than the preservation of the natural environment which our generation will hand down to its children.

Nor is the impact of road building visual alone. The internal combustion engine is responsible for 30 per cent. of all the energy we consume in the United Kingdom. Road traffic produces 85 per cent. of the United Kingdom's carbon monoxide emissions, 48 per cent. of nitrogen oxide emissions and some 19 per cent.—over 100,000,000 tonnes a year—of the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide.

My hon. Friend will be aware of the concern increasingly being expressed about the effects that vehicle exhaust pollutants are having on human health. The matter was first taken up with Ministers in connection with my constituency by my predecessor, Lord Howe.

A survey recently conducted by a school in Bletchingley found that 40 of the 161 children whose families responded —about 25 per cent.—were suffering from some form of respiratory disorder. Thirty-six were regular users of inhalers. Inevitably, because Bletchingley is close to the M25, and also near the M23, the finger of blame has been levelled at motorway pollution.

The local health authority has been persuaded to take the matter up, and once we have scientifically established the facts, we can hope to begin to examine the causes of the problem. It is true that no absolute causal link has yet been formally accepted between vehicle exhaust and ill health. It would be inappropriate to leap to premature conclusions, as some have done—I am afraid that it is open season for scaremongering—but it does not take a PhD in chemistry to work out that what comes out of the back end of a car is bad for people.

I hope that my hon. Friend will understand that, against the background that I have described, it is not unnatural for people whose homes are around the M25 to express anxiety at his proposals to increase the capacity of the road.

A further aspect of concern has been considered by several hon. Members whose constituencies are affected, and also by local authorities. The view has been eloquently expressed by the district council, Surrey county council, the South-East Regional Planning Committee and others that the plans for link roads conflict with the overall regional strategy which they have been at pains to develop under the aegis of the Department of the Environment.

It seems reasonable to ask whether proposals substantially to increase the capacity of the motorway, which have undeniably important implications for regional strategy, should be developed in apparent isolation. One of the chief criticisms advanced is that the current proposals are being introduced on a piecemeal basis. My hon. Friend will be familiar with that argument. That may be the easiest method for the Department of Transport, but is it really the right method?

Is it not true that, especially as it is an orbital road, decisions taken regarding any one stretch of the motorway have repercussions on other stretches? Is there not a compelling case for the Department to introduce its proposals for the motorway as a whole? Inevitably, decisions are being taken on various parts of the road, and, as that happens, the options for the remaining parts of the road are closing down.

I hope that I have been able to convey to my hon. Friend some idea of how keenly my constituents feel the problem, and of the multi-faceted complexity of the problem that we all face. It would be surprising indeed if such a set of problems gave rise to a simple solution; the plain fact is that they do not. It is certainly not a solution simply to stop building and widening roads such as the M25 altogether, as some have suggested, but nor should the addition of a fourth lane be seen as a solution in its own right.

Incidentally, that prospect needs to be carefully examined from a safety point of view, and I should welcome any reassurance that my hon. Friend can give me about it. The link roads seem to me so excessive that they do not constitute a contribution to the search for a solution at all.

Just as we face a combination of problems, so we need a combination of responses. First, we need to be reassured that enough is being done to manage the traffic on the motorway and maximise the road's efficiency and existing capacity. That means much greater use of high-technology traffic management systems in order further to reduce the risk of accidents, which, together with road works, are a primary cause of congestion. The Department has recognised the importance of devices such as automatic incident detection monitors, and I hope that we shall see many more of those.

Variable speed limits and variable message signs are also welcome, although they are rather scarce at present. I hope that it will be possible to do much more to control future levels of demand. I welcome the research that my hon. Friend is now undertaking into that.

There is, of course, a need for caution. If road pricing were applied crudely to the motorway, it could simply drive traffic back on to the surrounding roads. A flexible system of road pricing—related, for example, to the time of journeys and distance travelled—could usefully spread the flow of traffic. It could reduce congestion at the busiest times and encourage local drivers, on local journeys, to use local roads rather than to junction-hop as they do now.

Greater co-ordination is required between the Department of Transport and regional and local planners. They have, after all, a common aim in maintaining and improving the quality of life.

Public transport options need to be carefully considered and further upgraded as part of an overall package aimed at maintaining necessary mobility while cutting down on unnecessary journeys. Investment in public transport alone cannot constitute an answer to the problem, as some maintain. In addition, we need to harness scientific development as a vital ally. In that regard, there is considerable scope for optimism. Cars are becoming cleaner and quieter, and road surfaces are also improving. I know that my hon. Friend takes a keen interest in the extension of quieter, porous surfaces.

We have a duty to ensure that enough encouragement is given to motor manufacturers to speed up the introduction of a more friendly product, whether it is developed from internal combustion or from some other form of energy source.

None of the ideas, individually, represents a solution. A combination of them may well add up to the solution we are seeking. I know that my hon. Friend has some very much in mind. The trouble is that, as the link road concept shows all too plainly, I fear, those ideas are not being given sufficient priority when we get to policy implementation.

By focusing too narrowly on the problem of traffic congestion, the Department of Transport is in the process of delivering what I fear will be a doomed solution, for which future generations are unlikely to thank us.

11.1 pm

The Minister for Roads and Traffic (Mr. Kenneth Carlisle)

I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Ainsworth) secured this debate. I have been very impressed by the way in which my hon. Friend, in his short time in the House, has brought his concern about his constituency and its road problems to me, and the fervour with which he has protected his constituents' interests. I was greatly impressed by the scope of his speech tonight, which shows the depth of thought that he has given to the problem. I am also glad to see here my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan), whose constituency is also next to the M25.

My hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, East raised many aspects of road policy and sketched on a broad canvas. I should very much like to have the time to go into all the philosophical and practical points that he raised, but I believe that it would be more helpful if I stuck to the M25. I hope that my hon. Friend will understand.

The facts are clear. The M25, which is a very important road, has become our most heavily used road since its construction in 1986. It is carrying far more traffic than was forecast when it was planned and, as we know, suffers particularly from serious congestion at peak times. Nevertheless, as my hon. Friend said, that road has brought significant relief to nearby towns and villages, and it has succeeded in its objective of taking through traffic out of London. The motorway has already been subject to some improvements to widen it to tackle some of the worst congestion, but, of course, more needs to be done.

I should emphasise that a good M25, free from congestion, is important not only to London traffic, but to the whole country. I receive representations from the midlands, the north and even Scotland from people who wish to export their goods. They are suffering because of congestion on the M25, so we have a duty to see that traffic flows well around it, for the benefit not only of London, but of the country.

There has been a great deal of consultation about, and study of, the M25 corridor. In 1988, consultants were commissioned to look at the options for the future of the M25. In July 1989, they reported, and rightly said that many sections of the motorway were already congested at peak times—as we already knew, from the "Today" programme and other sources, including from my own experience—and they estimated that traffic would grow substantially, and would nearly double, by 2007. They said that we would have to do something to relieve congestion in the future.

In December 1990, we published our M25 action plan, and the present proposals stem from that plan and our conclusions on it. We announced in September 1991 our measures for widening to dual four lanes within the existing boundaries, together with improving capacity by various traffic management measures on various sections of the M25.

Plans for widening to dual four-lane carriageways within the highway boundary do not affect the sections between junctions 11 and 15, which are already dual four-lane, or the sections south of junction 28 to junction 5, which have improved following the opening of the bridge over the Thames at Dartford.

We were satisfied then, as we are now, that the work of widening to four lanes is urgently needed to relieve congestion on the motorway, and our aim is to ensure that 80 per cent. of the M25 is dual four lanes within about six years. We can do that without taking more land. While doing it, we can take measures to mitigate the effects of the widened motorway, and in some cases we can make improvements by using new techniques.

Mrs. Gillan


Mr. Carlisle

I will not give way. I wish to answer my hon. Friend's points, and little time remains.

The first scheme between junctions 15 and 16 started in January and, as with all improvements, an environmental statement concerning the scheme was published in 1991. Our decision to proceed with the widening was taken in March last year, after considering the comments and submissions that had been put forward. The work between junctions 15 and 16 to improve to four lanes will now take less than four years.

The Secretary of State announced to the House on 4 February that he was authorising the start of construction in the coming financial year of 41 new road schemes. Those included two schemes on the M25 to add a fourth lane along about eight miles between junctions 7 and 8, bordering my hon. Friend's constituency, and between junctions 10 and 11. We expect to publish the environmental statement for the section bordering his constituency within the next month.

As widening work within the highway continues, time will be allowed between the contracts to prevent a build-up of roadworks and to prevent congestion. We shall manage those works carefully—this is important for my hon. Friend's constituents and those who use the road—to minimise delays.

As well as widening work, we aim, as my hon. Friend desires, to get maximum capacity out of the space that is available. Such measures include improving traffic flow on and off the motorway at junctions by traffic signals, by upgrading lighting and by better signs and signals. Variable message signs, which have an important role to play in the future, have already been installed between junctions 10 and 12, and others will follow elsewhere. By that means, information is given about hazards such as fog and incidents that cause queuing and jams.

Those improvements, together with the widening work, will significantly improve conditions for drivers on the M25 and communities near the motorway, including communities in my hon. Friend's constituency. It is worth emphasising that it is hugely important for those communities beside the road that we have a congestion-free M25. If it becomes congested, traffic will flow from it, through the towns and villages of my hon. Friend's constituency, as it will have to do. Also, as he says, some of his communities have relief of three quarters of their traffic because of the existence of the M25.

We are hoping to improve the M25 along its length within existing boundaries. My hon. Friend mentioned the link roads. We are proposing them between junctions 12 and 15, on the most congested part of the road, which carries about 200,000 vehicles a day. The link roads are truly needed if we are to cope with that traffic. One advantage of them is that they are on the existing route. We are not building a new route out into open green countryside, but are using an existing traffic route. That is very important. Those roads will cope with local traffic. Two thirds of the traffic which goes down that section is local. Two thirds comes on at the M3 and goes off at or before the M4. The centre of the road will carry the through traffic, and this increased capacity will relieve local communities.

It is important, in the short time available, that I talk about the environment. It is important that these roads fit in with the environment, and one way in which we seek to do that is first to consult very carefully. One purpose of consultation is to get the views of local people, and wider views about the road. On the link road, we have gone out to consultation and put forward the various proposals and we listen carefully.

It is when we come to the order publication stage that we provide much fuller detail, because it is at that stage that we have to go before a public inquiry and an independent inspector. All views are welcome, and we listen carefully to those views. The inspector listens carefully. He does not always agree with the Department: he sometimes turns us down. That is a good thing. He is an independent inspector, and will at all times listen to the views of my hon. Friend's constituents and to those of my hon. Friend.

Apart from the link roads, we have no commitment to provide further capacity beyond widening to dual four-lane on other sections of the M25. We would not do so unless we could find acceptable ways of doing it.

The M25 is not just a single route. The length between the M3 and the M43 is very much a local road. One has to look at each section separately. There may be a different solution for each section. We have to look at the needs of each section; we have to consult and to provide thorough environmental statements. We take great care to avoid sites of special scientific interest wherever we can. They are a major constraint. If we have to touch an SSSI, we try to provide some other benefit elsewhere.

We listen to all representations very carefully; take into account all new methods of managing traffic, as my hon. Friend wanted; and look at ways of mitigating the problems caused by the road. There is great scope for reducing the noise the road causes. A wider road, by theuse of porous asphalt, can become quieter. There is much better landscaping of these roads now, and we provide new environmental barriers. With new techniques, we can hope to improve the condition of roads substantially.

We have to accept that we cannot just accept continuing growth in traffic. In the M25, we have a major economic route for the country. It is crucial for prosperity and for jobs that traffic flows freely down this route. Wherever possible, we improve existing routes. When we widen roads, we shall take every care sensitively to look after the environment. We shall not proceed without listening to my hon. Friend's constituents, and we shall do everything possible to mitigate the adverse affects.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising such an important subject, and I know that we shall return to it and to him. I hope that we can work together to ensure that an important economic route serves the country generally, and my hon. Friend's constituents.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fifteen minutes past Eleven o'clock.