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M1 (Widening)

Volume 229: debated on Tuesday 27 July 1993

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2 pm

I am extremely grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for allowing me a few minutes of the House's time on this extremely important subject—probably the most important subject that my constituents will have to tackle over the next few years as the widening of the motorway proceeds.

Let me say at the start how grateful I am to my hon. Friend the Minister, in a relatively new post, for replying to the debate, and indeed to his predecessors, my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Mr. Carlisle) who is fortunate enough to carry the same surname as myself, hence our close co-operation, and before him Mr. Christopher Chope, whom my hon. Friend and I remember with much affection, and who laid the ground work for the widening of this important road.

The M1 is at the spine of England. It was built in 1959 and now carries about 140,000 vehicles per day through my constituency. I fully support the proposed widening of the road as I believe do the majority of right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House, many of whom, enjoying the pleasure of my constituency but cursing the amount of traffic, realise that the road needs widening and some improvement has to be made to one of Britain's major highways.

Coming into the debate this afternoon, some of my colleagues were wondering why we were proposing to widen the road only from three lanes to four. Given the current debate on the M25, which could be as many as seven lanes either side, perhaps we should build more lanes now to ensure that the M1 remains the spine of England.

Some 25 per cent. of the traffic that passes through my constituency between junctions 10 and 13 is heavy lorries. I am grateful to the British Road Federation, which has provided me with statistics and expressed anxiety that the improvements are completed as quickly as possible. There has been a considerable increase in traffic, and the motorway is important to the industry and to the economic well-being not only of ray constituency but of the entire country. For that reason, we certainly welcome the proposed improvements.

There is some concern, voiced mainly by Bedfordshire county council and those who live near the motorway, about whether this will be the end of the roadworks. Perhaps my hon. Friend will confirm that the new four-lane motorway will take traffic until the year 2006, when we may have to consider a further increase in size. Whether my hon. Friend and I are still here is another matter, although I am sure that you will be, Madam Deputy Speaker.

However, one has to ask whether, after going through the hassle of the next two or three years—we appreciate that it will be a difficult time—future generations may curse us for putting in only four lanes. Perhaps we should have made it even bigger, but that is another subject on which I shall not detain the House.

I shall concentrate my remarks on the stretch of motorway between junctions 10 and 11, which goes through a heavily populated area and affects many houses. According to the Department's figures, some 1,600 houses and households could be affected by the widening of the motorway—those in the immediate vicinity by the loss of their homes and by blight on their homes, and those further away by increased noise and nuisance. My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Mr. Bright) has also been involved in the deliberations, and we are anxious to represent the best interests of our constituents during the next few years, which we both know will be a difficult time.

Three factors bother my constituents—noise, nuisance and the pollution caused by the increased traffic. This magnificent new motorway, the first of its kind in Britain, was built in 1959, and some of the early pictures of it show the occasional lorry on the horizon. Those who live near the motorway have been described locally as the forgotten people because at that time, although those who lost homes were compensated, it was never envisaged that it would carry the amount of traffic that it does today.

My constituents have been extremely tolerant of the noise and nuisance that they have had to suffer. Some of them have their back gardens, nay their bedroom windows, close to the road, and the traffic it carries has increased dramatically during the past few years. Noise levels, about which my hon. Friend may know more than I do, have at times risen above the recommended level of 70 decibels. The great fear is that, despite the Government's admirable efforts to reduce noise and pollution, traffic increases will lead to increased noise levels.

We shall soon be facing not only the long-term nuisance of the traffic but the short-term nuisance of contractors' vehicles and machinery. My constituents are concerned that their sleep may be shattered by the noise that goes on. They share my anxiety that the work should be undertkaen as quickly as possible, but many of them, some of them night shift workers in local factories, are worried that they may find it difficult to sleep during the contracting work.

For that reason, I make no apology for emphasising that we are particularly concerned about the noise level. The noise barriers that will be erected must be the most up to date, a subject on which much research has been undertaken. If nothing else comes out of the debate, those barriers, and other noise relieving measures, must be in place before the contracting work begins. Residents will suffer from contractors' noise and the inevitable hammering and excessive noise which, at a conservative estimate, will continue for between 18 months and two years.

The Department of Transport has hinted that it may be possible for noise barriers to be erected before the contractors' work takes place, particularly in residential areas, and if that is done, my constituents will be grateful. They view with some horror the prospect of vehicles in and around the area and the noise and nuisance that they will create. If barriers could be installed at the start of the work, it will be of enormous benefit to my constituents, and will, I hope, bring them some peace and quiet.

I hope that the final decision about the barriers is made as late as possible. I hope also that the barriers will be the most up to date and aesthetically acceptable. Most people have been impressed by the barriers that have been proposed so far and the layout that the Department has put before the public. Having said that, we are anxious to ensure that the barriers are the most modern and sound absorbent available.

The road surface is very important when considering noise. My hon. Friend will know that, with 140,000 vehicles—who knows what the figure will be when there are four lanes—going by people's houses every day, the noise level is considerable. I am pleased to see my hon. Friend the Minister nodding in agreement. I hope that he will have some comfort for my constituents.

I know that compensation is not strictly within my hon. Friend's responsibility, but I know that he cares about it. The district valuer has already made decisions about the value of properties under the Land Compensation Acts of 1961 and 1973. I appreciate that it would not be fitting for my hon. Friend or myself to become too involved in individual cases. Obviously, we hope that the district valuer will be fair—I am sure that he will be—in compensating my constituents. It is a strange enigma that we are still looking at values on the basis of a market that has fallen considerably.

It is difficult to explain to constituents whose homes were worth a considerable sum some time ago that not only has the value of their home fallen out of bed—to use the popular phrase—but that they will not receive the compensation that they expected to receive when the rumours were going around two years ago about the widening of the road. A public relations exercise must take place.

The Department at Coventry has been extremely helpful and sympathetic. It has tried, where possible, to ensure that those who have to be compensated are compensated fairly. My hon. Friend will know that those most affected are the 16 or so who will have to lose their homes. In fact, the number may have increased since my hon. Friend and I corresponded about a certain cul de sac.

As my hon. Friend knows, the compensation for those who lose their homes is the current value of the property plus 10 per cent. In France, 40 per cent. is given in compensation rather than 10 per cent. My hon. Friend knows of my strong and tough line on public expenditure, but, if the road is to be delayed because people are not offered adequate compensation, some additional help might have to be considered, although probably not as much as the French propose. I would hate to see the road delayed because of a penny-pinching exercise by the Department, through the district valuer, in not giving people the compensation they need to find alternative homes.

It does not happen to many of us, and let us hope that not too many people are involved in this, but the heartache of having to lose one's home, particularly for the older generation, is considerable. Some people who have come to me have lived in that area for some time, and suddenly find that their homes are to be bulldozed away. They are the most distressed, and we must look after them.

To lighten the load on my hon. Friend, I can tell him the story of an older lady who came to me during the inquiry on the proposals at Dunstable. She remonstrated with me about the proposal, which meant that her house would have to be knocked down. I assured her that we would do everything possible to compensate her. She was not satisfied with that and kept remonstrating with me and with officials from the Department.

I eventually persuaded her to look around the exhibition and then come back and have another chat with me. She was still very upset about losing her home, but her rather elderly husband came to me quietly and said, "Mr. Carlisle, I shouldn't take too much notice of what my old lady was saying to you; we've been trying to sell this house for 30 years, so we're actually delighted to get out of it." So there is another side, and there may be those—although they are very few—who will not be sorry to leave the area.

Blight, which is the second aspect of the basis for compensation, is one of the most difficult factors to evaluate and compensate for. My hon. Friend the Minister knows that there will be many blighted properties in the area, not only because of the noise but because of the future value of the properties after the road has been extended. Compensation will be given for loss of gardens and for the fact that the road is closer to homes, but, as my hon. Friend will realise, property values are bound to drop, yet there seems no mechanism by which compensation can be given for that.

People whose homes are relatively distant and who will be affected mainly by noise will be able to get compensation only when the road has been built and noise levels have been assessed. Then help may be given towards double glazing or some other form of sound insulation. I must tell my hon. Friend that that is a difficult story to sell to constituents who know that, assuming that the public inquiry goes through fairly swiftly—I urge my hon. Friend to ensure that it does—the road is scheduled for 1995, or whenever my hon. Friend has in mind, so they will have to wait until that time for compensation for any increase in noise. That seems a long time to wait.

In the few moments left to me, I shall touch briefly on how the rural area in my constituency between junctions 11 and 13 will be affected. We are worried about my hon. Friend's hints that the Thame-Stevenage bypass—an important road—will be delayed for some time. My villagers in Toddington and Chalton are somewhat disappointed by hints from the Department that that road is still some way off. However, it has been scheduled, and public consultation is taking place, so I hope that on that basis my hon. Friend will consider planning some form of junction, albeit south of junction. 12.

It would seem prudent for the Department to consider at this stage where a junction, either on to the motorway or over it, might be sited. The Thame-Stevenage bypass is badly needed by my constituents, especially those who live in the north of the town and in some of the surrounding villages, and I urge my hon. Friend to ensure that provision is made for bridges, and that we know as soon as possible where they will be.

Apparently junction 12 will be enormous—I hope that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, will forgive me for going into so much technical detail, but I know that my hon. Friend will understand what I mean. The junction could be of advantage to some of my constituents in business terms, but there is much local opposition to its size. Hints have been dropped that it could be made a little smaller, and my hon. Friend should consider that idea sympathetically.

The villagers of Toddington and Chalton are anxious not to be too greatly affected by the works. They hope that the problem of traffic passing through will be alleviated as much as possible, and that consideration will be given to a Toddington bypass—my hon. Friend will already have taken that idea on board. The people of Flitwick and Westoning, too, see the development as an opportunity to obtain a bypass in their area. Those attendant matters are most important to my constituents, but I do not wish to enlarge on them at this stage.

The noise, the compensation and the basis for it, and the blight on the landscape, are the main concerns. I fully support the road, in the interests of the national economy, as do most responsible citizens in my constituency, but if my hon. Friend can find a way of alleviating the problems that I have outlined, it would be of enormous benefit to my constituents and to people in the surrounding area.

2.19 pm

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Carlisle) on gaining this important debate. It is important for his constituents and it gives me the opportunity to lay out some of the thinking in the Department of Transport about the sensitive issues which can impinge on the lives of many of our constituents for many years. I am delighted at my hon. Friend's enlightened attitude in accepting that doing nothing is not an option in the circumstances. I am grateful to him for welcoming the road improvements.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, Bedfordshire county council has an interest in this. Indeed, I have discussed the matter with my hon. Friends the Members for Luton, South (Mr. Bright) and for Bedfordshire, South-West (Mr. Madel). My hon. Friend the Member for Bedfordshire, South-West brought a delegation to see me about other matters in his constituency. Inevitably, we cannot ignore the knock-on effect of such schemes on traffic and communities. Incidentally, Madam Deputy Speaker, I am sure that you will be here in the year 2006, as will my hon. Friend. I fully intend to be here then. Whether I shall still be talking about the M1 through Luton is entirely open to speculation.

I accept that, between junctions 10 and 11, we have a heavily populated area and that many households will be affected. I shall come to noise in a moment. First, I should like to reassure my hon. Friend that one of the most important roles of the Department of Transport is to communicate with those who may be affected to make sure that they know what we are seeking to achieve and how we plan to achieve it. We shall pay great attention to communications and public relations during this programme.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the compliment he paid to my officials in Coventry. He gives me the opportunity to echo it. All Department of Transport staff, whether in Marsham street or in our regional offices, do their level best to ensure that the schemes that we put in place are not only acceptable, but beneficial. After all, each one of them is on the end of some other road building programme or has transport needs of its own.

My hon. Friend is right that a large number of houses will be affected by noise. However, we have estimated that more than 800 properties in my hon. Friend's constituency can expect to experience a reduction in noise levels after the opening of the widened M1 because we are using the most modern techniques in noise abatement. That, too, must be borne in mind. That estimation includes road surface as well as engine noise. I have given careful consideration to that. There is also the question of noise barriers and earth mounds through Luton. There will be some seven miles of them on the M1. We cannot always put them up in advance, but we shall endeavour to do so wherever we can.

Double glazing for protection against traffic and construction noise is available in accordance with our standard rules on where it is required. It can be installed in advance, which may be of some comfort to my hon. Friend's constituents.

I know that my hon. Friend is rushed but may I urge him seriously to consider installing double glazing in advance? It would be of enormous benefit and comfort to my constituents.

It certainly can take place; I am grateful to my hon. Friend for intervening. Clearly, it is a matter of great importance. If he will give me time to look into that, I shall see what further I can do to communicate with those who may be affected the method by which they can apply for that help. I know that some people find that a problem.

Under the proposals that we published last autumn, some 65 properties could lose at least some land. The owners were contacted individually and an experienced official was available at the exhibition in Luton to advise people on their rights to compensation. Many local residents expressed the wish to move in advance of the works, and are being assisted by the Department where our criteria are met.

Some 70 applications for the purchase of properties between junctions 10 and 15 have been received, and 38 have been approved. Incidentally, three quarters of the applications were from the Luton area.

My hon. Friend mentioned the area's long-term needs. Dual four-lane standards may not be able to cope with continuing traffic growth in the long term, so we are considering further studies to identify long-term needs and how they can be met. My Department is often accused of short-termism. That is most unfair, because we spend an enormous amount of time, make great efforts and apply professional skill to trying to think, as far as we reasonably and legitimately can, into the future.

The 1989 White Paper, "Roads for Prosperity", announced our expanded road programmes, the main element of which was the widening of some 600 miles of motorway and improving more than a third of the motorway network. The widening of the Ml, with 10 proposed schemes over 145 miles between the M25 and Sheffield, is a significant part of the total.

The objectives of the national roads programme are to assist economic growth, improve the environment, enhance road safety and obtain maximum value from the existing network. Motorway widening is intended to help meet all those objectives. It emphasises the existing capacity needs of routes and tries to minimise the impact on the environment. Wherever practicable, we seek to improve the conditions of those who live near existing motorways.

For example, the Department of Transport is the biggest planter of trees in this country. We plant some 500,000 trees and shrubs a year, which is more than the Forestry Commission plants. All our new schemes will bring substantial economic, safety and environmental benefits to road users.

Much of the M1 was opened to traffic in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It is now heavily congested, and carries as many as 150,000 vehicles per day in places. Up to a quarter of this traffic is heavy goods vehicles—a higher proportion than the national average. At peak times, extensive queues develop in the Luton area, particularly on uphill sections and at junctions. Congestion regularly occurs.

As my hon. Friend acknowledges, we need to widen the Ml.

I did not mention the basis of the public inquiry. I know that my hon. Friend will be subjected to a public inquiry. Will he ensure that it is carried out as speedily as possible, because those of my constituents who are waiting to see what compensation will be available and what the future will hold will be held back if the inquiry is unnecessarily delayed?

Yes, I can give that assurance. Furthermore, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are seeking to speed up the delivery of such schemes without infringing on people's democratic rights to put their case and make objections. We recognise the need to speed up the process because the average time to build or improve a road is far too long.

Coincidentally, I am today announcing the publication of volume 11 of the design manual for roads and bridges on environmental assessment. Environmental considerations must play a full part in the design of new roads. We are committed to ensuring that environmental impact is given full weight alongside other costs and benefits of road schemes.

That updated version of the manual sets out the general principles that should guide environmental assessement and will mean formal assessment requirements at key stages in the development of trunk road schemes—before programme entry, at public consultation and at the point of publication of the environment statement. It applies to all future studies and all schemes that subsequently enter the roads programme. For schemes currently being prepared, the revised guidance will be prepared on a scheme by scheme basis.

My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that part III of the manual, which deals with disruption due to construction, covers many of the points that he has raised. The effects on people and the natural environment that can occur between the start of pre-construction work and the end of a contract maintenance period, for example. are covered. That section of the manual describes the appropriate level of assessment at key stages that covered, for example, the localised increase in noise, vibration, dust and dirt and the loss of amenity due to the presence of construction traffic.

My hon. Friend has made representations before about roads in the area. He visited my predecessor only in May of this year. I know that the concerns of the residents of Toddington and Chalton, for example, have been listened to with great care by my Department, but we must progress in that partnership, as a partnership it is, if we are to improve our roads, the quality of life and the prosperity of the country. We must proceed with care but some determination, and a great sense of realism about the needs. As I said earlier, doing nothing is not an option.