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Ramsgate Harbour Access Road

Volume 264: debated on Wednesday 18 October 1995

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1 pm

I am grateful to have been given the opportunity to initiate this Adjournment debate on a subject which is of enormous importance to my constituents, the economy of east Kent, and the transport system of Britain and Europe—the Ramsgate harbour access road. Ramsgate has an agreeable historical reputation of being a cheerful, regency seaside town whose picturesque royal harbour has long been a focal point for mariners, yachtsmen, holidaymakers, fishermen, artists, hoteliers and seaside landladies.

Those benign images are still valid to some extent, but over the past 15 years, the outer harbour of Ramsgate has been transformed by the creation of a major shipping port. Today, port Ramsgate is the third busiest port in Britain after Dover and London and the nation's second largest sea gateway to Europe. Some 6,500 ship and jetfoil berthings take place in Ramsgate annually. Over the past decade, the number of passengers using port Ramsgate each year has increased by almost 200 per cent. to 3.5 million. The number of cars has increased by more than 250 per cent. to 473,000. The number of freight lorries has increased by nearly 240 per cent. to 261,000. The number of coaches has increased by nearly 100 per cent. to 21,000.

To put it more simply, on average over 9,000 passengers and more than 2,000 vehicles, of which over 700 are heavy goods vehicles, pass on average through port Ramsgate every day. In the peak month of August, passenger numbers reached 15,000 per day while motor vehicles averaged 3,200 per day.

This spectacular growth in traffic, which has not been seriously dented by competition from the channel tunnel, is a success story of great magnitude for the port, but it has created a nightmare of great magnitude for the road users and residents of our town. The environmental pressures have become horrendous in terms of noise, congestion and exhaust fumes. I will return later in my speech to the arguments in favour of an access road based on the need to give large numbers of Ramsgate residents a safer and better quality of life, but first I would like to say something about the transportation needs of the port users themselves.

A great seaport such as Ramsgate must give its customers—the exporters, the importers and the travellers who are its economic lifeblood—swift and speedy access to Britain's motorway network. I am pleased, in this context, to pay a genuine tribute to the Department of Transport for having recognised the strategic and economic importance of port Ramsgate and for providing finance for Kent county council to build new roads to accommodate the huge increases in traffic that I have described.

Ten years ago, when the port was just beginning its great surge of growth, the approach roads to Ramsgate from the end of the M2 motorway onwards were so woefully inadequate that my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale), who is going to contribute to this debate, and I regularly used adjectives in the House such as "disgraceful " and "appalling" to describe them.

As a result of such representations from the Members of Parliament for Thanet, the Department of Transport supported a proposal from Kent county council for a road building programme to connect port Ramsgate to the M2 and that programme has been steadily implemented. The Department of Transport has also agreed the designation of this route as part of the trans-European road network.

The first part of the programme was the dualling of the A299 Thanet way from the end of the M2 to Monkton roundabout. This £140 million project has had several of its sections satisfactorily completed and the road is now fast and safe for 10.5 of its 18 miles and the remainder is currently being built.

The second part of the programme is the 4.5 mile stretch of the A253 from Monkton roundabout to the Lord of the Manor roundabout on the outskirts of Ramsgate. This £18 million dualling project is now under construction and will be opened next year. So it can be said that two parts of the three-part programme for proper access roads to port Ramsgate are well under way, mostly either built or under construction and with funding support from the Department of Transport.

However, just as it would make no sense to build a tripod with only two legs, so it would be absurd to build only two of the three vital road links necessary to provide safe and swift access to the port. That is why I am concentrating in this debate on the missing link, the 1.5 mile final stretch of road from the Lord of the Manor roundabout down to the port itself. That is what is known as the Ramsgate harbour access road.

The Ramsgate harbour access road is now at a crucial stage of its progress. Unlike many road building projects, it enjoys a remarkable degree of support from the overwhelming majority of the people of Ramsgate. It is strongly supported by all political parties on Thanet district council. All the leading environmental lobbies accept that it is necessary. After long consultations and much popular pressure led by an energetic organisation known as the Ramsgate action road committee, chaired with great vigour by Mr. Peter Landi, over 3,300 local people wrote in support of the planning application and, earlier, over 12,000 people had signed a petition in favour of the project. Against that background of unusually strong populist and environmentalist backing, all the planning permissions for the road have now been obtained.

The Ramsgate harbour access road has reached a crucial stage. The county council now needs to secure finance for the road and has submitted its transport policy and programme, or TPP, bid to the Department of Transport with the Ramsgate harbour access road as its No. 1 priority for new funding starting in 1996–97.

There is one final administrative hurdle to be cleared which is that there is likely to be a short public inquiry, not into the planning matters—which have been resolved—but into the compulsory purchase orders for the scheme in January. This inquiry is to be held under the auspices of the Department of Transport and I would be grateful for my hon. Friend the Minister's confirmation of the likely date and the anticipated length of the inquiry. I should also be grateful for his help in making sure that the inspector's recommendations, whatever they may be, are delivered as soon as possible.

I especially wish to say how profoundly I sympathise with the residents of 10 homes in Pegwell village, on the outskirts of Ramsgate, whose houses are likely to be the subject of compulsory purchase orders and to express the hope that they will be fairly treated and receive generous compensation.

However, assuming that the public inquiry results in decisions that allow the access road to go ahead, the vital question will then be one of funding. No one knows better than a former Chief Secretary to the Treasury that the pressures on all departmental budgets at this stage of the public spending round are intense, particularly so in what in the PES jargon is known as year 1 of the survey cycle, that is to say 1996–97. However, there are three compelling reasons why my hon. Friend's Department should find space in its annual budget of some £3 billion for the Ramsgate harbour access road, which has an estimated total cost of about £23 million spread over three years.

The first reason is that the European Union has confirmed that money will be available for the road from its European regional development fund under the objective 2 programme. This funding, which is expected to be some £3 million, is in recognition of port Ramsgate's importance as part of the trans-European network and the need to sustain and increase employment in the Thanet area. For the road to receive that money, construction must start before the end of 1996 so that it meets the timescale of the current objective 2 programme. Not to accept the offer would be the financial equivalent of looking a gift horse in the mouth and saying no.

Secondly, for those who operate in the arcane world of profiling departmental annual budgets, I should point out that the year 1 cost to the Department of Transport's budget would be small. All that is needed is to make a symbolic start on the road in 1996 to qualify for the EU funding that I have just mentioned.

Thirdly, I reiterate the point about the financial absurdity of creating a tripartite road scheme and then not building the third and last leg. It makes no sense to have spent the best part of £160 million on the A299 and the A253 to provide better access roads to port Ramsgate, and then to leave the final stretch of the most vital access road of all unbuilt. "Spoiling the ship for a ha'penny worth of tar" is almost the right metaphor here, although I concede that there is a gap between the notional ha'penny and the actual £23 million.

I have concentrated on the issues of transportation and funding because those are national matters that deserve the urgent attention of Ministers and this House. Nevertheless, I conclude with a few words about the local environmental and economic issues because they are of such pivotal importance to my constituents.

Environmentally speaking, the residents who live on or near the juggernaut route to Ramsgate have, in recent years, been dwelling in a veritable Dante's inferno of noise, pollution, disruption and danger. I feel particularly for those who live in the 250 homes along the route, 107 of which are listed buildings. I also feel concern for the pupils in the two schools on the route. They and many others are crying out for the relief which they deserve and which they will get if the Ramsgate harbour access road gets the go-ahead.

I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Minister will reply to this debate because he was, with his characteristic courtesy and energy, good enough to come down to Ramsgate in August and to see for himself the problems and potential of the present situation. My hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North and I were immensely grateful to him for taking so much trouble on his ministerial visit. With his expertise, and by being such a good listener, he could see only too clearly that the present road to the port has been virtually unchanged for half a century, dating back to the time when cars were few, juggernauts were unknown and the big ship seaport was non-existent.

My hon. Friend the Minister was also well briefed on the economic difficulties of the Thanet area, where unemployment clings stubbornly at around 14 per cent.—the highest in south-east England and the third highest in England and Wales. The port, which already creates 300 direct jobs and probably at least four times that figure in indirect jobs among port-linked enterprises such as hotels, transport companies and exporting or importing businesses, desperately needs the boost that the access road will provide. One influential organisation that recognises those economic imperatives is the East Kent Initiative, which has made the Ramsgate harbour access road its first priority on the grounds of the economic regeneration benefits that it will bring both to Thanet and east Kent as a whole.

For all those reasons, the harbour access road is the most important and positively beneficial project for Ramsgate's future that our town has seen for many years. An early decision to give the green light to a Ramsgate harbour access road for the 21st century will strengthen the port's economic success, increase employment, inspire confidence and alleviate the physical and human problems that so adversely affect the lives of many Ramsgate residents today. I therefore hope that my honourable Friend the Minister and his Secretary of State will do their utmost to give the Ramsgate harbour access road the go-ahead and the funding to go with it as soon as possible. This is a road project which the Government should want to back and should back, because it assists employment, strengthens a major communications link with Europe, takes exemplary care to protect the environment along its route, and has remarkably strong popular support among the people of Ramsgate. I commend it to the Government and to the House.

1.13 pm

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken) on securing a debate on a subject of such vital local importance. I thank him and the Minister for allowing me briefly to participate.

The Ramsgate harbour approach road is central to the development of the economy of Thanet and will have a direct effect on the standard and quality of life, not only of my right hon. Friend's constituents but of my constituents in North Thanet. I share entirely my right hon. Friend's view of the awfulness of the present road to the highly successful and developing port of Ramsgate and its marinas. Anyone who has witnessed the battle of titans, as juggernaut lorries compete for the right of way on the hairpin bend, can only marvel that traffic is able to reach or leave the harbour at all. The environmental cost in damage to fine old buildings is, as my right hon. Friend said, horrific.

It may not be fashionable or politically correct to support new roads at present, but this is one scheme that will make a significant contribution to improving the environment. It has the support of all parties on the local authority and the county council, and of both Members of Parliament who represent the area. I endorse wholeheartedly the case that my right hon. Friend has so ably made.

On 17 December 1986, my hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, North-West (Sir D. Mitchell), then Minister for Public Transport, following a visit to Thanet, wrote to say that in response to our representations, the Thanet way—the main arterial road to the area—was to be dualled. Shortly afterwards, Christopher Chope, who then had ministerial responsibility, also visited Thanet and announced that the next section of the road—from the A299 to the Lord of the Manor—would be included in the dualling programme. My hon. Friend the Minister, who kindly visited Thanet in the summer, now has an opportunity to add what my right hon. Friend so graphically described as the "third leg of the tripod" and to complete that task.

In recognition of our need to be able to compete with our continental neighbours on equal terms, we have won for Thanet development status and European objective 2 status. The new Ramsgate harbour approach road is one of the keys that will help us to realise the advantages that those sources of European and Government support can bring. It will send a clear and unequivocal message to potential investors that we have faith in our development plans for the area.

So I, too, urge my hon. Friend the Minister and his Secretary of State to do their utmost to give the Ramsgate harbour approach road the go-ahead and the funding to go with it in the immediate future.

1.16 pm

I warmly congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken) on securing this debate on a subject to which he attaches considerable importance. With his usual assiduity, he has badgered me and my predecessors often and long on the issue of the Ramsgate harbour access road, as has his parliamentary neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale), who was kind enough to join me on part of my visit to Thanet in August. It was an enjoyable day and I am grateful to them both for making me feel so welcome. It was extremely useful to me because, while we hear a lot about the economic difficulties of that area, it is also important not to lose sight of its potential. On that hot and sunny August day the Ramsgate seafront was extremely attractive. I was left with the strong impression that, if the regeneration initiatives being pursued in Thanet can take root, Ramsgate's future can be bright. I want to assist in that as far as possible.

I said in August what I have to say now. Both my hon. Friends are experienced parliamentarians and will appreciate that I cannot now answer the burning question of whether the Department will accept a scheme for funding in this year's local transport settlement. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State expects to announce details of that settlement in the usual way in December this year. My right hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South admitted that he had been Chief Secretary to the Treasury. While one might claim a reputation in other great offices of state before any Minister, especially one in a spending Department, it is appropriate to admit that one has been Chief Secretary to the Treasury—in the case of my right hon. Friend, an extraordinarily distinguished one. At this stage I cannot answer my hon. Friends' questions directly.

I stress that I have listened with interest to what they have said today and, on that basis, I fully understand why there has been strong local support for the new access road. As my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North said, Thanet plays an important role in the economy of north-east Kent. I am advised that it is responsible for 4.5 per cent. of local employment and it generates £15 million a year for the local economy. The difficulties of access are obvious. They pose problems for the future of the port's business because the current access arrangements are restrictive. Unless we find a way to improve access problems will also be caused for the local environment.

Before I talk in detail about the new approach road I should mention the action that we are already taking to help the local partnerships to regenerate the Thanet economy.

My right hon. Friend was right to point out that Thanet suffers from the highest unemployment rate—14 per cent.—of any travel-to-work area in the south-east. Sadly, my right hon. Friend knows better than I that that has remained the case for a number of years. The way to tackle that unemployment rate is to create more jobs in the area. We are continuing to work with the district and county councils, Kent training and enterprise council, the East Kent Initiative and other local partners to achieve that.

In July 1993, the Government approved development area status for Thanet. That means that grants are available to companies that initiate projects to create or safeguard jobs. In December 1994 agreement was reached with the European Commission on the objective 2 programme for use of European structural funds in Thanet. That agreement is part of a comprehensive programme that aims to develop the area as a prosperous part of the United Kingdom and Europe with a diverse economic base that provides access to employment for all sections of the community.

That programme's priorities are, first, to support industry, encourage inward investment, help local companies to expand, provide suitable sites, support small businesses with advice and training, and encourage the transfer of new technology to Thanet companies. Secondly, the programme is designed to strengthen the international links between Thanet and the rest of Europe, and develop the local tourist industry. Thirdly, it aims to ensure that the right training and guidance is available to provide skilled staff to meet employer needs.

The programme is being administered through a monitoring committee of local partners led by the Government office for the south-east. The committee has already approved grants under the programme totalling £1.5 million. The projects being supported include ones devoted to training, improving tourist attractions and supporting small start-up businesses. I understand that the monitoring committee will meet again next week to review progress over the first year of the programme and the priorities for next year.

To help meet the programme's objective of ensuring suitable sites for business development we have already accepted, as my right hon. and hon. Friend have pointed out, improved dual carriageway access to the Kent international business park. We have accepted that project as being eligible for grant under section 13 of the Industrial Development Act 1982. That grant will complement the proposed investment by the private sector and European funding.

The reasons why areas under-perform economically are complex. In the case of Thanet, however, there is little doubt that a significant factor is poor transport links, which have been a deterrent to investment over the years. We are now working hard to put an end to what has been, in practice, the relative isolation of Thanet in the recent past. As my right hon. Friend has said, we have therefore been the paymasters for Kent's programme of major investment on improvements to the Thanet way between the end of the M2 and the Ramsgate urban area.

The old A299 was a three-lane highway dating from the 1930s and clearly not suitable for modern levels of traffic. We have so far paid £100 million in transport supplementary grant and credit approvals towards the dualling programme. When it is complete Thanet will at last have a high quality connection to the motorway network. It is a necessarily expensive project as my right hon. and hon. Friend have suggested—the total cost is around £130 million. That makes Thanet way one of the biggest local authority road projects that we have supported in the past 10 years—a considerable demonstration of our commitment to Thanet.

As my right hon. Friend said, were the harbour approach road built it would provide a new route for vehicles travelling to port Ramsgate through the Ramsgate urban area. In that way it will provide the eastern section of a strategic route, which stretches from the M2 at Brenley corner to Ramsgate harbour. I recognise that the provision of a new access road to port Ramsgate is an important part of the objective 2 programme. A new road would enable the port to continue to grow and would underpin local economic development. It would also be vital to the improvement of the area.

I understand that the local partners will be discussing a formal application for funding from the European regional development fund under the objective 2 programme when the monitoring committee meets next week.

There is certainly a strong case in transport terms for a new road. Traffic flows to the port have increased significantly since 1983, when the port was expanded and the western ferry terminal became operational. Actual growth rates have outstripped our national road traffic forecast high growth projections over the past 10 years, and have increased the pressure on the existing road network.

The present route into the port is about 3.8 km long and, to say the least, is of varying standard. It has some tortuous sections that my right hon. Friend showed me and some significant gradients that have to be negotiated. I was driven along that road by my right hon. Friend and I must say that the final bend into the docks is particularly difficult. I am not surprised to learn that heavy vehicles in particular are constantly getting into trouble on that bend and disrupting traffic hugely and disproportionately. It was perfectly obvious to me that that would happen, and is probably happening as we speak.

I also know that the route goes through the town's conservation area and runs adjacent to a large number of listed buildings and structures that are of genuine historic importance. Many people suffer from the pollution effects of traffic, in terms of noise and emissions. Sadly, that problem is exacerbated by the fact that the traffic includes an unusually high proportion of heavy goods vehicles, as much as 20 per cent. of the daily flow, which is well above the average that one would normally expect on a major road.

In recent years minor improvements have been carried out on the route to try to improve road maintenance conditions. Pedestrian facilities and turning facilities for local road users have also been improved. While those have been successful in reducing some of the hazards, the basic conflict caused by substantial numbers of HGVs passing through residential areas still remains.

I know that a lot of thought has been given to the design of the new road. Planning permission for an earlier version was turned down because of the unacceptable impact on sensitive environmental sites on the foreshore at Ramsgate. The new scheme has sought to circumvent those difficulties by tunnelling under the Pegwell village conservation area to avoid encroachment on a Ramsar site and site of special scientific interest.

In the coming months the Department of Transport will be involved in the scheme in two ways. First, as my right hon. Friend said, a public inquiry will be held into the statutory orders that are necessary for construction to take place. My right hon. Friend said that that inquiry is planned to start in January, but my current information is that it will begin in February. Given the date that my right hon. Friend suggested, we are certainly on the right course. The Secretary of State will obviously await the report of the inspector and I do not need to remind my right hon. and hon. Friend that the inspector must take his own time. Within the Department we will certainly endeavour not to delay in terms of the decision reached by the Secretary of State about whether to confirm those draft orders.

There will be a bid for financial support. The road would be built by Kent and would require TSG support from the Department. It is the first priority in Kent's submission for new starts in 1996–97 and a bid for funding for the scheme has been included in this year's transport policies programme. Kent is hoping to secure the necessary statutory approvals in time for construction work to start in 1996–97.

The Department has been asked to provide £21.3 million in grant and credit approvals over three years. To put that sum in context, the scheme is more expensive than any of the new schemes that we supported for the first time in last year's settlement. One cannot deny that it is a large scheme. Those costs are to a large extent the result of the environmental constraints which have made tunnelling a necessary part of the project.

I return to where I began. My right hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South and my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North will understand that I cannot say now whether funds will be allocated for the scheme in 1996–97. My right hon. Friend will understand that there are always insufficient funds to support the many worthwhile schemes that are proposed, so it will not be easy for us to find resources for the approach road this year.

However, I hope that my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend are at least satisfied that we shall certainly take into account the relevant considerations that they have placed before the House today when we make decisions about this year's local transport settlement.

I noted my right hon. Friend's comment that the cost in the first year would be remarkably little. It strikes me, causing me some amusement, that that is precisely the argument that I frequently adduced in arguments with his former Department—and, I may say, on those occasions when he was a Minister there, to no avail. However, he can have confidence that I am an infinitely more sympathetic Minister in those matters than perhaps he was obliged to be in his former role.