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M20 (Widening)

Volume 181: debated on Friday 23 November 1990

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

2.31 pm

I am delighted that we have left until last the major issue of the week—the widening of the M20 between junctions 3 and 5. I am also delighted to see that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment is to reply to the debate.

I understand the need for the widening scheme, as do the majority of my constituents. This section of the M20 is the point at which all the traffic from the M25 north and south going both to and from the Channel tunnel will be funnelled. Therefore, it is no surprise that the Department of Transport feels that it is necessary to widen the motorway from three to four lanes.

I have four specific aspects of the scheme to raise. The first is what appears to be an inordinate delay by the Department of Transport in publishing its proposals. I find it hard to understand why it has taken so long. This is not a new motorway. It is a matter simply of constructing an additional carriageway to the motorway. The press notice issued by the Department on 25 August 1989 assured us:
"The improvements will be contained within the existing highway boundary wherever possible."
Therefore, no material additional land should be required, and one would have thought that the detailed line of the scheme could be published quickly.

The consultant engineers acting for the Department—Gifford Graham and Partners—were appointed last August. The latest information that I have from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport is:
"We hope"—
not we will—
"to announce detailed proposals next year."
I do not understand why it is taking two years or possibly longer for the Department to publish its proposals as to where the extra lane will be fitted into the motorway. I should be grateful if my hon. Friend could tell us what the timing will be for the publication of those proposals. I hope that he will do all that he can to accelerate their publication.

I have a letter from Mr. A. D. Springett of the Department, dated 31 May 1989, in which he says:
"The Department hopes that the widening will be completed in time for the opening of the Channel Tunnel in 1993."
If that is the position, I think that my hon. Friend will recognise that the Department must get its skates on, especially if it is not intending to publish the line until some time next year.

Secondly, I consider that there is a glaring inadequacy in the 67 m distance within which, and only within which, it is possible to serve blight notices on the Department of Transport by home owners whose properties have effectively been rendered unsaleable by the scheme. Blight notices are, of course, an important protection for individual home owners whose properties are effectively rendered unsaleable by a firm highway proposal. As I understand it, a person whose property is rendered effectively unsaleable by a firm highway proposal has a legal entitlement to serve a blight notice on the highway authority, secure the full unblighted value of his property and be enabled to move. That is entirely right, but I must tell my hon. Friend that the theory is not working out properly in practice in this circumstance.

Very many of my constituents whose homes are beyond the 67 m blight line have found that their properties have been rendered unsaleable by the publication of the Department's proposals. They have been rendered unsaleable by the publication of the intention to embark on the scheme, but they are doubly unsaleable because of the step that the Department has entirely properly and correctly taken, which is to instruct the local planning authority, Tonbridge and Mailing borough council, that when prospective purchasers try to buy a property that is up to 200 m from the motorway, it is to reveal in its response to purchasers' solicitors' searches that a motorway widening scheme is envisaged. That makes it virtually impossible for anyone living between 67 and 200 m to sell his property.

There has been created what amounts to an invisible Berlin wall on both sides of the relevant section of motorway in my constituency. Those who live 67 m from the motorway have the freedom to move. They are paid the full value of their house and they can bank their cheque and go and buy elsewhere. On the other side of the invisible wall, just beyond the 67 m line, people are unable to sell their major asset. They are unable to realise the cash value of their homes. They are effectively imprisoned or trapped within their homes while the uncertainty continues.

The Department interprets the 67 m limit with extreme and total strictness. I know of instances where there is a semi-detached property and the Department of Transport has bought out one half of it under the blight notice procedure but refuses to buy out the other half because it is a fractional distance beyond the 67 m line. I should be grateful to my hon. Friend if he would examine the fairness of the 67 m line.

I have carried out some research with the great aid of the Library. The origins of the 67 m line are interesting. Apparently they go back to a limit of 220 ft—my hon. Friend will say immediately that 220 ft is the equivalent of 67 m—which is the limit that is provided in section 2 of the Restriction of Ribbon Development Act 1935. The Second Reading of that measure was moved by Mr. Hore-Belisha of pedestrian crossing fame. That is the origin of the 67 m line. My hon. Friend will be the first to appreciate that in 1935 we were barely into building dual-carriageways. Motorways had not even been thought of—they were some 20 years away—let alone four-lane motorways in each direction, as is proposed for my area.

The 67 m line is an anachronism. It is unfair for another reason—it is measured not from the edge of the motorway—which it should be so that the width of the motorway is taken into account—but from the centre line, so that the wider the road, the more traffic on the road, and the greater the noise and disturbance, the smaller is the land area within which people can serve blight notices. My hon. Friend and our right hon. Friend should urgently consider the sense of the 67 m blight line for such major road schemes. I am happy to tell my hon. Friend that it will require only a minor decision by his Department to change the blight line for this or, indeed, other schemes. Happily our right hon. Friend has powers under paragraph 15(1)(b) of the Town and Country Planning General Development Order 1988 to vary the 67 m distance. I urge my right hon. Friend to do that rapidly for this and for comparable schemes.

Can my hon. Friend tell me whether there is possible help on the way for my constituents, who are effectively unable to sell their houses and move beyond the blight line, in the Planning and Compensation Bill that has just been introduced in another place? In particular, is my understanding of clause 51 correct, that is, that it will extend the discretionary powers of the Department to buy properties by voluntary agreement if they would be seriously affected by new roadworks? If that is so, it could be of some help.

Can my hon. Friend confirm whether what our right hon. Friend said in a letter to me on 29 March about the timing of the operation of those enlarged discretionary powers still holds good? He said:
"It was intended that these powers would be available once the line of the road had been announced: in the context of this section of the M20 this means when we publicise our decisions on how the widening is intended to be carried out."
If that undertaking holds good, I hope that my hon. Friend can confirm that when the detailed scheme is publicised next year, it will be possible to operate clause 51 of the Planning and Compensation Bill and give those who are seriously affected by the scheme, but beyond the 67 m blight line, the opportunity to have their houses purchased by the Department.

I want to raise the issue of the management of the considerable number of houses within the 67 m blight line that have now been acquired by the Department. They number about 250, and more may come into the Department's ownership. I understand that the houses will be managed by the North British Housing Association. I have nothing against that association; indeed, I remember that when I was Minister for Housing it was a good association and I visited a number of its schemes in different parts of the country. The local view, and it is my initial view, is that the role of that association in managing the properties is both unnecessary and probably undesirable. It is unnecessary because a better alternative is available to the Department of Transport, and it is undesirable because the association will not, I believe, give the same local priority in allocating the properties for short-term renting as would the arrangements that I shall outline.

Tonbridge and Mailing borough council is interested in managing about one quarter of the properties for its own social housing needs. The remaining three quarters would be better managed on commercial terms by local estate agents. I believe that approaches have been made to national estate agents, but in his latest letter to me, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State says that no approaches have been made locally. In anticipation of this debate, Tonbridge and Malling borough council this week approached the area's eight largest estate agents. I shall give my hon. Friend the details after the debate, but seven of those estate agents said that they would be very interested in managing the properties on behalf of the Department of Transport.

Whether the properties are ultimately managed by estate agents or the North British Housing Association, I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will give a clear assurance that the terms under which the properties are managed will not result in a statutory rehousing obligation falling on Tonbridge and Mailing borough council when the properties are eventually vacated and sold by the Department, when the widening scheme is completed. I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that it would be grossly unfair to local inhabitants who may have spent a considerable number of years on the local housing authority's waiting list to be displaced by a large number of people who want to occupy on a short-term basis the properties acquired by the Department.

2.46 pm

My right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley) has used the opportunity provided by his Adjournment debate to raise matters of importance to those of his constituents affected by the Department of Transport's plans to widen the M20 between junctions 3 and 5. As he acknowledges, with the advent of the Channel tunnel and of the single European market, the M20 will become a motorway of international significance. It is therefore imperative that early action is taken to upgrade and widen the section in question from the existing dual three lanes to dual four lanes, to meet forecast demand well into the next century.

I will bring the House up to date with other major improvements to the M20/A20 route. Construction of the "missing link" between Maidstone and Ashford is already well under way and is due for completion next year. The decision to proceed with the widening of the M20 between junctions 5 and 8 following a public inquiry was announced earlier this week. Work is due to start next summer for completion in mid-1993, in time for the opening of the Channel tunnel.

The proposed new A20 route between Folkestone and Dover is also due for completion by the time that the tunnel is opened. Together with the proposed widening of the M20 between junctions 3 and 5, those improvements will provide the main high-quality road artery that will link Dover, Folkestone and the tunnel with the M25–M26, London, and the rest of the United Kingdom network.

My right hon. Friend asked about the time taken to announce the proposed form of the widening between junctions 3 and 5. The addition of that scheme to the roads programme was announced in the May 1989 White Paper, "Roads for Prosperity." As my right hon. Friend said, consulting engineers were appointed in October 1989 to identify options for achieving widening. They are now studying the matter in detail, and are making what I would describe as good progress. However, it is fair to say that the scheme is a lot more complicated than originally expected. Notwithstanding that, I hope that it will be possible to make an announcement about it by next spring. I know that my right hon. Friend will not be satisfied with the vagueness of that commitment, but I assure him that I will do all in my power to monitor the situation, and I will bring him up to date on the rate of progress as soon as possible.

I recognise the concern felt by many of my right hon. Friend's constituents about several aspects of the Department's acquisition policy for properties situated alongside the existing road and the arrangements for its subsequent management. I should like to explain the rationale behind the rules governing planning blight acquisitions. However one frames the rules, there will be cases that fall just outside them. Under the current powers and policies, before the Department can acquire, a genuine possibility must exist that the property will be required for the roadworks at some stage. If a totally unrestricted acquisition policy were to operate, distress and hardship would be spread over an unacceptably wide area. It would mean acquiring property which there was no prospect of our needing for roadworks. The Department could not justify the use of scarce public funds for that purpose.

My right hon. Friend rightly drew attention to the draft legislation in the Planning and Compensation Bill. If enacted, it would confer a discretionary power of acquisition which, prima facie, would not specify any distance limit. No criteria have been established to define how that discretion would be exercised. Much will depend on the degree to which we are successful in curtailing the adverse effects of the M20 in its widened form in my right hon. Friend's constituency.

I note the point that my right hon. Friend made about the power of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to vary the existing order and his point about origins, to which the House listened with interest. In about 1935, the first purpose-built bypass—the Winchester bypass—was constructed. When one considers the point that my right hon. Friend made, one realises that since then times have changed significantly.

I appreciate and share my right hon. Friend's concern about the length of time for which some houses under blight remain empty. Unnecessarily vacant properties cannot and should not be tolerated. My right hon. Friend's distinguished record when he was Minister for Housing made a substantial impact on that problem, particularly in the local authority sector. Much has since been done to reduce the number of empty Government-owned properties. I assure my right hon. Friend that I am not complacent about this. Indeed, one of my first actions on becoming Minister for Roads and Traffic was to give extra priority within the Department for making the best use of its properties. I shall have my right hon. Friend's points considered with a view to making further procedural changes.

My right hon. Friend is a little concerned about the role of the North British Housing Association in property management. I hope that I can assure him that local housing authorities were carefully considered when the Department decided on its contracting-out arrangements. It was decided that it would not be appropriate to use local authorities and the possible use of private firms of estate agents was our first line of inquiry. Local branches were not approached directly, but their interest was assessed through their offices at national level. On that basis, none could offer the type of agency that we required.

It seems that my right hon. Friend is saying that that was a mistake by the Department and that it should have contacted local offices. Given what he said about local interest, I look forward to receiving the details that he mentioned.

Housing associations were invited to tender their services against a form of contract. In the event, the NBHA was the only housing association to tender. On the section of the M20 between junctions 3 and 5, we have, to date, acquired 92 properties under the blight provisions, and a further 136 are in the process of acquisition.

I confirm our intention that those properties will be made available to people living in mid or west Kent. I do not expect the NBHA to operate a priority scheme, but local people should have the advantage of being on the spot and of being able to keep in close contact with the NBHA about availability. As all its tenants to date are nominees of Tonbridge and Mailing borough council, there does not appear to be a problem. I understand that a batch of properties available at higher market rents has been advertised in this week's Kent Messenger. I hope that that will ensure that some of them are occupied soon. I assure my right hon. Friend that I shall take a personal interest in ensuring that the properties are brought back into use as quickly as possible. From my correspondence, I am well aware of the anxiety caused to people living in properties next door to houses which become empty and in some circumstances squatted or vandalised.

I assure my right hon. Friend that our tenancy agreements do not place a statutory rehousing obligation on the local authority when the Department's properties are required back for sale or demolition. That should be welcome news in the light of what he said.

I accept that there have been teething troubles with the NBHA, partly due to the way in which it interpreted the managing agreement as permitting it to limit its choice of tenants to those in housing need and to let the properties at rents well below an economic market level. The number of properties which have been acquired was much higher than originally envisaged. We are reviewing the position with the NBHA and during the review the letting of properties was suspended. We are going ahead with advertising and I hope that the properties will soon be occupied.

I hope that I have dealt with many of my right hon. Friend's points.

Before my hon. Friend sits down, will he return to my point about the 67m line? I hope that he agrees that what I said bears further consideration. I hoped that he would assure me that he and the Secretary of State would consider carefully what I said about the possible use of the powers that are available to him under the general development order. Will he consider whether it would be appropriate to change the 67m distance in the context of the four-lane motorway scheme? I do not expect him to make a commitment from the Dispatch Box on that issue, but I hope that he will agree to consider it and discuss it with my right hon. Friend.

I shall certainly do so. I am sorry if I did not make that clear in my initial response.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes to Three o'clock.