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Volume 205: debated on Monday 9 March 1992

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Roads, Wiltshire


To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what is his current estimate of capital expenditure on roads in Wiltshire in the next three years.

Capital expenditure on trunk road schemes in Wiltshire in the next three years will be approximately £50 million.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that most helpful and encouraging answer. Can he do anything to speed up the rate at which the link between the M4 at Swindon and the M5 at Gloucester is increased to dual carriageway status throughout its length? Will my hon. Friend also consider the roads to the south of Swindon through Marlborough and Devizes to Salisbury? If he saw those for himself, I am sure that he would agree that they are of low quality, given the volume of traffic using them every day.

The roads to the south of Swindon are the responsibility of the local authority—Wiltshire county council. The roads between Swindon and Gloucester, however, are the responsibility of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State.

I am pleased to say that work on the Latton bypass is due to start next year, at a cost of about £17 million, and there are five other schemes on that road, at a total cost of £100 million. My hon. Friend's constituents will recognise that it is vital for the future prosperity of Swindon that those schemes be implemented as quickly as possible. They would be delayed, if not cancelled, were the Labour party to take control.



To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he has any plans to accelerate the proposed work on the A 13 between the M25 and outer London.

My right hon. and learned Friend has today announced his intention that a major advanced works contract on the A13 Wennington to Mar Dyke scheme should be started in the coming financial year, subject to satisfactory completion of remaining procedures.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Will he take my word for it that my constituents are horrified by Labour party proposals to review the trunk road programme? That would be devastating to my part of the country—

Does my hon. Friend agree that in the meantime we could so something to improve the A13, because it carries major freight from Ford at Dagenham, from Tilbury docks and from Shell Haven, all of which involve developing industries in my part of the country?

I agree that the A 13 is of fundamental importance for the prosperity of my hon. Friend's constituents and of many others in the east Thames corridor. Apart from the Wennington to Mar Dyke scheme, I am pleased to say that about £455 million worth of improvements—dualling, flyovers and junction improvements—are planned for that section of the A13.

On major road improvements on trunk roads and motorways, what progress is my hon. Friend making in achieving lower noise levels through better surfacing? What consideration is being given to noise barriers of various kinds?

There are a number of experiments at the moment to improve the noise environment on our motorways and they include the most modern technology for noise barriers. We also have studies under way to determine whether it is possible to use a porous asphalt surface on some roads, as that would reduce noise for people living near those roads. We certainly take into account the effects on local residents of noise from roads and we are doing our best to minimise them.

Road Casualties


To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what asssessment he has made of the contribution the road-building programme can make to reducing road casualties.

It is currently estimated that, for every £100 million invested in trunk road improvements, about 100 road deaths and 4,500 casualties are saved over a 30-year period. The House will be pleased to know that in 1991 there appear to have been lower fatalities on our roads than in any year since the 1940s, despite a ninefold increase in the amount of traffic.

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for that reply which shows that the programme for road improvements not only increases traffic flows and reduces congestion but makes a direct and positive contribution to the reduction of road casualties. I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend will know that in areas such as mine, which has the A5 running through it, the improvements have been greatly appreciated. My Conservative county council strongly supports the Government target of reducing accidents by one third by the year 2000. Has my right hon. and learned Friend any thoughts on the implications of delaying or abandoning the substantial road programme that he has proposed, such as is advocated by the Opposition?

That would indeed have a serious effect. For example, this morning we announced the spending of £760 million on road improvement projects in the forthcoming financial year. That is likely to save 700 lives and more than 30,000 casualties over the next 30 years. It is important for the Opposition to bear it in mind that their opposition to the roads programme is a recipe not only for increased congestion but for increased fatalities and casualties on our roads.

About 12 months ago, I asked the Secretary of State a question about the safety of the lighting on the M6. It appears that the lighting has not been improved and that there are black holes all the way along the M6. Two particular spots with many accidents have been highlighted lately. Has the right hon. and learned Gentleman any proposal to improve the lighting on the M6 where black holes exist?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have major proposals to widen the M6 and obviously the lighting on part of that road will be improved when the proposals are implemented. We give serious consideration to safety recommendations and, where lighting would make an important contribution to reducing casualties, it is an important factor.

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the Winchester bypass is one of the most dangerous pieces of road in the country? The latest figures show that the death and serious injury rate on that road is five times the national motorway average. There is widespread support for completing that road at the earliest opportunity. The proposition that it passes through one of the most beautiful parts of England is total nonsense, because it passes through what is virtually surburban Southampton. Opposition comes mainly from a handful of self-interested people and some foreign thugs. Will my right hon. and learned Friend do everything that he can to complete that road as soon as possible?

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the serious congestion in the Winchester area. We attach importance to environmental considerations and the House will be aware that there have already been, I think, four public inquiries into the project over 20 years. It is crucial to make progress in completing the Winchester bypass as soon as possible. We are taking account of environmental considerations. There are substantial environmental benefits to be had from the proposed project because of the ability to reunite St. Catherine's hill with the town of Winchester. At the moment the two areas are divorced by a road that will revert to green fields when the project is complete.

The Secretary of State's new £750 million road electoral bribe is something old, something borrowed and something blue. The programme contains a promise to improve the M25 between junctions 15 and 16. However, Tory party central office says that the M25 will be widened to four lanes at a cost of £4 billion. Who are we to believe—the Secretary of State for Transport or Tory party central office in a different statement which was issued this afternoon?

I am glad to see that the hon. Gentleman is holding a copy of our document headed "Labour's Threat to Road Projects". I trust that he will not only read it but absorb its implications. If he does, he will recognise the serious warning by the Federation of Civil Engineering Contractors that if a Labour Government imposed a freeze on the roads programme, up to 20,000 jobs could be lost in the construction industry. I trust that he will take account of the road safety dangers that are inherent in his policy. Finally, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will remind his colleagues in the shadow Cabinet, including the shadow Chancellor, that they should not advocate major road projects in their constituencies at the same time as the Labour party seeks to impede progress elsewhere in the country.

Channel Tunnel


To ask the Secretary of State for Transport when he next plans to meet the chairman of British Rail to discuss improving the rail links between the channel tunnel and north-west England.

British Rail plans to run channel tunnel freight services from terminals at Trafford Park, Manchester and Seaforth, Merseyside. British Rail has ordered channel tunnel day-and-night trains which will run on the west coast main line.

Is the Minsiter aware that most people in north-west England, including the Railway Industry Association, believe that it is economic madness to open the channel tunnel without first providing a proper linkage between the north-west and the channel tunnel? What response does the Minister have to the association's recent criticism that neither the Government nor British Rail has a strategy against which manufacturing industry can plan its future?

As regards long-term plans by British Rail for expanding services and re-equipping certain lines, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that Sir Bob Reid, the chairman, published a document in the middle of last year which looked forward 10 years to railway investment. That level of investment, currently running at £1 billion a year, will be sustained by the Government over the public expenditure planning period which runs for the next three years and, I am quite confident, will run over the next 10 years.

Is my hon. Friend aware that people up in the north-west welcome the prospect of the channel tunnel being opened? Will he ensure that sufficient facilities are made available north of Manchester and Liverpool to allow people and freight to be carried on the trains? Does he agree that it ill behoves the Labour party to comment on that because Labour was against the channel tunnel at its inception?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Freight services will run through the channel tunnel from its opening. The locomotives and wagons are ordered. As for passenger services, the new Waterloo terminal is substantially complete. It will be open by summer next year. Passengers on trains running from the north-west into Euston will be able to cross London and catch a train at Waterloo and, in addition, some of the trains will run directly to Waterloo.

Does the Minister support British Rail's policy of siting freight depots only where it can find developers to put money into facilities around the depot? Does he think that that is the way that one should plan the freight movement from the north-west through the channel tunnel?

The hon. Lady is misinformed. Of the nine terminals that will be opened by the summer of next year, the majority are already owned by British Rail and will be developed for channel tunnel freight services. Some of them will be developed further with the use of private sector capital—particularly Port Wakefield if, as a result of the public inquiry to be held this month, a decision to go ahead is given. The majority of the terminals are British Rail terminals.

Given that 46 per cent. of British Rail's freight business originates in the north-west, is not it strange that British Rail has not talked to the majority of its users already about times and tariffs for the channel tunnel?

I am certain that British Rail will shortly publish its scheduled freight services from the nine terminals. It has already published a preliminary timetable and, as I understand it, preliminary tariffs. My hon. Friend will know that the Government have proposed a major new initiative in rail freight by encouraging the private sector to run additional services on British Rail track.

Will the Minister confirm that the Government were heavily involved in negotiations with British Rail to produce the passengers charter, which was condemned universally last week? During the negotiations, was the Minister a party to setting the target of acceptability for the west coast main line at 90 per cent? He will know that only 85 per cent. has been achieved and that the 15 per cent. shortfall is due to track failure and old rolling stock. Would it be better to confirm the order for the west coast main line instead of negotiating a bonus for the chairman that is worth £53,000?

I would advise the hon. Gentleman not to believe what he reads in the newspapers about the bonus for British Rail's chairman. There is no truth in those articles.

British Rail has not yet put an investment proposition to the Department for the west coast main line. It will be for expenditure in the mid-1990s. It is an extremely important investment project.

The passengers charter has been warmly welcomed by many of my Back-Bench colleagues—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]—many of whom are sitting behind me. The Government had the initiative to work with British Rail to introduce it. The hon. Gentleman has no proposals whatsoever.

During the discussions that will range from the channel tunnel to the north-west of England, will my hon. Friend remember that he will have to cross north-west Kent? Will he take note of the campaign to sink the link, as the channel tunnel rail link passes Gravesend and Northfleet? We do not see why we should pay the environmental price for manifest improvements for the people of north-west England.

My hon. Friend refers to the proposals for a new high-speed rail link from Folkestone to King's Cross. I can give him the assurance that both he and the local authority in his constituency will have ample opportunity to express their views on how best to design the line to reduce the environmental impact.



To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will review the regulations covering safety and roadworthiness of buses.

Regulations covering the safety and roadworthiness of buses are kept under continuous review. However, buses are the safest form of road transport in this country and the Government strongly support the growth of bus services, especially in urban areas.

Is the Minister aware that in my constituency people refer to buses these days, following deregulation, as bananas because they tend to arrive in bunches? [Laughter.] One Conservative Member has a sense of humour. Is the Minister further aware that there has been an enormous erosion of confidence in the reliability and roadworthiness of buses since deregulation, especially in south Wales during a period in which monopolies have been created as stronger firms capture weaker ones and cowboy fleets undercut the operations of firms that are much more conscientious and safety conscious?

The bunching of buses occurs largely because of congestion in urban areas. The hon. Gentleman will know that we have recently announced a £10 million programme to provide grants to local authorities to enable them to give priority to buses through the construction of bus lanes and by giving priority to buses at traffic lights. That initiative has been widely welcomed.

There is no statistical evidence to support the contention that deregulation has led to a decline in the quality and roadworthiness of buses. Passenger casualty rates have fallen by 30 per cent. in the past five years. There has been a fall in the proportion of buses that have been taken off the roads because of serious defects found during the vehicle inspectorate's examination.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that safety regulations for buses remain the same whether the services are deregulated or regulated? Will he confirm also that the regulations are entirely independent of the industry?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He has reminded me of what I should have said in my supplementary answer to the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells). My hon. Friend is absolutely right; there is no difference in the standards applied to the initial test or spot checks on the roadside, whether the buses are in a regulated or deregulated environment.

Is the Minister aware that one third of the country's bus fleet is now more than 12 years old, which is double the proportion before deregulation? Does he realise that, given the present replacement rate, the average bus will be on the road for 30 years? Surely that can only mean the collapse of the bus industry, less safe services and less access for people with disabilities. Why does not the hon. Gentleman admit that bus deregulation has been a disaster? Why does not he direct more of his roads bribes money towards the provision of better buses?

As it so happens, on Thursday I had the opportunity to visit Derby, together with the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. McLoughlin), whose constituency is there. I met the management of Trent Buses, which operates in a very competitive, deregulated environment, and I am glad to say that its investment programme over the past five years has been impressive.

M25 Traffic Flow


To ask the Secretary of State for Transport whether the proposed improvements to traffic flows on the M25 in Surrey will take account of environmental considerations.

All motorway and major trunk road schemes are subject to rigorous environmental assessment.

Although I accept the necessity to improve traffic flows and safety on the M25, may I ask my hon. Friend to take into account environmental considerations such as the need to keep noise down to a minimum? In particular, will he ensure that any widening is within the existing boundaries of the M25 and that the lighting, which is there to help motorists, does not infringe on the villages and the countryside of Surrey?

I understand my hon. Friend's concern. The M25 is being lit in an attempt to reduce the number of accidents, to enhance driver comfort and to increase the security of motorists whose vehicles have broken down. I assure my hon. Friend that lighting schemes will be designed to minimise visual intrusion into neighbouring property. Much use will be made of the full-cut-off lanterns, which reduce the minimum spill of light outside the highway boundaries. I confirm that it is not our intention to widen the M25 outside its present curtilage.

Motorway Service Areas


To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what response he has received from organisations concerned with the countryside about his ideas for extra motorway service areas.

We issued a consultation document on the provision of motorway services on 10 February. Copies were sent to a number of organisations with countryside interests. The Association for the Protection of Rural Scotland has responded. It was concerned that proposed new arrangements should not lead to undue development in sensitive areas and it favoured a degree of continuing Government control over minimum standards at motorway service areas.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that there is still time for various groups, whether environmental or road safety, to respond to the Government's proposals? Does he understand that planning permission was initially gained, with difficulty, for the building of motorways through areas of outstanding natural beauty and great environmental sensitivity, so many people would not be keen to see developers spending hundreds of thousands —if not millions—of pounds fighting in a long succession of inquiries so that they can build not just motorway service areas—possibly excluding the disabled and lorries —but hotels and other facilities that would never have received permission when the original planning consent was granted?

I confirm that there is still time for organisations to respond to our proposals and we expect more representations during the consultation period. My hon. Friend raised matters that we will want to consider carefully. However, most people would welcome a greater availability of motorway service stations. A number of people have expressed their concern that there are almost 200 miles of motorway without one. The proposals in the consultation document will go a long way towards improving the facilities and the standards that drivers expect from motorway service areas.

When the Minister consults the countryside organisations about motorway service stations, will he also discuss the wider environmental implications of the Government's transport policy? Has he seen the report published today by the Council for the Protection of Rural England? If, over the next decade, there is to be a 50 per cent. rise in traffic demand, is not it about time that his Department stopped being a Department only for roads and instead sought to introduce a proper, integrated transport system that takes real account of environmental considerations?

Well, there we have it. That sums up the Labour party's attitude, which is against a roads policy. The Opposition should go to a number of towns where bypasses have been built, which have been warmly welcomed. I assure my hon. Friends that we will continue to provide those bypasses where schemes are put forward. They are environmentally friendly and they lead to less congestion. That helps the environment; it does not damage it.

Will my hon. Friend take into account motorway service areas of the kind found in France—which do not have restaurants, hotels or facilities of that kind, but offer lavatories, running water and parking places, so that the motorist can stretch his legs and rest before continuing his journey? Such stopping places are cheap and good, and we need them in this country.

I hope that the consultation document will prompt a number of proposals of the kind that my hon. Friend makes, and we will certainly consider them.

Second Severn Crossing


To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will visit the site of the second Severn crossing at Caldicot, Gwent.

If the Secretary of State were to visit Caldicot, the people there would quickly remind him that Wales is in a state of deep repression—I mean, depression. They see no sense in imposing tolls on the existing bridge of £2·80 for a motor car, £5·60 for a minibus, and £8·40 for a lorry. Have not the Government given the French-backed consortium a licence to print money?

I am disappointed at the hon. Gentleman's negative attitude to a £300 million-plus investment in a second crossing of the Severn, which will improve enormously communications for the people of Wales. There is considerable confusion among Labour Members over whether their party supports continued tolling. We heard only last week from Labour's deputy leader that his party would abandon tolling in Scotland. If that policy were applied throughout Britain, as was also said by the right hon. Gentleman, it would cost £1·2 billion—an additional cost to the taxpayer which could only mean less investment in roads. The Opposition's policy is confused—and I do not agree that the people of Wales are repressed.

Is it not clear that the substantial staged increases in respect of the existing bridge are being imposed simply to provide money for the second, privatised bridge? Did the Welsh Office, because of the enormous blows to the location policy in Wales, bother to make representations against them?

The Government are united in their commitment to improving road communications in Wales. Labour was the first party to introduce the idea of a Severn crossing—and of a tolled crossing, at that. Labour does not have a clear policy on whether it believes in a second and tolled crossing, or wants just one very congested bridge—which would be very bad news for Wales.

A12 Chelmsford Bypass


To ask the Secretary of State for Transport when he expects work to commence on upgrading the A12 Chelmsford bypass from a two-lane to a three-lane road.

Consultants are working on possible route options, and we plan to publish them in the summer of next year.

Is my hon. Friend aware that prior to the opening of the A12 Chelmsford bypass in 1986, the Army and Navy roundabout in Chelmsford was the most heavily congested traffic blackspot in the country? After that bypass opened, congestion was greatly reduced—but it is beginning to increase again because of the greater use of the A12 as a route into the hinterland of East Anglia, to the ports of Ipswich, Harwich and Felixstowe. Will my hon. Friend bear it in mind that the sooner a third lane is constructed to alleviate Chelmsford traffic, the happier will be my constituents?

My hon. Friend gives a timely reminder of the benefits of investment in our roads infrastructure. I am grateful for his congratulations to the Government on the completion of the Chelmsford bypass. We are committed to improving it further as a result of increased traffic, which is largely a consequence of the success of the east coast ports.

As this might be my last opportunity to draw the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister to the topic of the proposed M12 between Chelmsford and the M25, I seek his assurance that when he receives alternative proposals for that motorway's line of route, he will take into account that such a motorway may not be required. That is the overwhelming response that I have received, and I suspect that the same is true of my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns). Rather than presume that a motorway is required, will my hon. Friend the Minister acknowledge that there is at least one other option—to leave things as they are?

Certainly the Government will take into account all the views expressed during the consultation period.

My hon. Friend's successor will have a hard act to follow: the diligence and commitment that my hon. Friend has given to his constituents have been exemplary.

Roads, West Midlands


To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on the programme of road building in the west midlands.

We are pressing ahead with the Birmingham northern relief road and western orbital route. The A5-A49 Telford-Shrewsbury improvements and two other bypasses are opening this year, and we are also supporting a £446 million local roads programme.

My right hon. and learned Friend will understand that the west midlands conurbation, lying as it does in a landlocked area, is responsible for the bulk of the country's manufacturing industry, and that it depends on adequate and improving road conditions. Does he accept that there is widespread support from industry and the community generally for the Government's roads programme? Without it, the whole area would be economically strangulated; but that is not the view of the Opposition, whose transport spokesman—the organ grinder—has now left the Chamber, but who would condemn every aspect of our road building programme.

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the vital contribution that our roads programme will make to the west midlands economy, and to contrast that with the appalling implications of Labour's proposals. I note that, in addition to the party's moratorium on the roads programme, the shadow Secretary of State for Transport has imposed a moratorium on his own presence in the Chamber.

This electioneering is an expensive business, Mr. Speaker.

Will the Secretary of State tell the House what proportion of his Department's projected minimum increase of 80 per cent. in road traffic will be absorbed by this latest pre-election bribe? Will he also tell us why he has refused to adopt the alternative package approach, involving a mixture of public transport and road schemes, that has been advocated by local authorities in the west midlands? Finally, does the Secretary of State accept that, no matter how much money he tries to throw around now, he will not save his hon. Friends' necks?

We are delighted to hear from the shadow to the shadow Secretary of State. He must appreciate that we do have a mixed public-transport and roads programme. In the autumn statement, we announced major increases in rail expenditure in particular. Labour's proposed attempt to finance improvements in our rail expenditure, at the expense of our roads programme, would result in massive unemployment in the construction industry, along with an increase in the number of casualties on our roads. It would also bring deep depression to many members of communities who are looking forward to the bypasses that the present Government have promised. That promise would not be implemented if the Opposition ever came to power.

Motorway Repairs


To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what recent representations he has received about the speed with which motorway repairs are undertaken.

The most recent representation has concerned the removal of the Ingst bridge on the M4.

Does my hon. Friend believe that the public are satisfied that motorway repairs are being undertaken in the shortest possible time? There has been some improvement in recent years, but are not further measures needed to speed up the process?

It is because of the concern expressed by my hon. Friend and others that the Government are committed to a further increase in the use of the "lane rental" method of procurement of motorway repairs. I am pleased to be able to tell my hon. Friend that, in a recent study on maintenance techniques across the world, the World bank has confirmed that the United Kingdom carries out such work faster than any other country.

I shall wait to see what happens about the speed of motorway repairs. While the Secretary of State is looking at that, however, will he also take a look at the idiots who race through these roadworks? They have flipping telephones as well. It is time that the Secretary of State did something about that.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman does not speed through road works, and I hope that he will set a good example, which others will follow.

Fenchurch Street Line


To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what recent representations he has received on the Fenchurch Street line.

I have received a number of representations recently about the Fenchurch Street line. The Government appreciate that that line does not provide the quality of service which passengers can reasonably expect. British Rail will, however, shortly be letting a contract to renew the signalling at a total cost of £50 million. That should help to improve services.

Will my hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to Mr. Martyn Rands, chairman of Basildon commuters' club—and to his hard-working committee—who met my hon. Friend this morning and presented him with a petition, signed by 5,000 people in my constituency, complaining about the disgraceful service that they receive on the Fenchurch Street line? Will my hon. Friend agree to tell the chairman of British Rail that he must do everything that he possibly can to improve the standard of service on that line for my constituents before 1995?

I certainly shall, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his assiduous representations on behalf of his constituents. Largely because of his representations, it was a pleasure to announce the resignalling of that line recently.