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Poole Harbour (Bridge)

Volume 300: debated on Wednesday 12 November 1997

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

10.15 pm

It is a great pleasure for me to have my first Adjournment debate on Poole harbour bridge. The subject will not excite the same passion as the Amsterdam treaty, except of course in Poole and Dorset, where the bridge is an important issue and there is great strength of feeling about the project, which forms part of the national roads programme.

It is very important that we get this bridge across Holes bay. The future development of Poole is strongly linked to the project. At the end of the term of office of the previous Government, a competition was held for the design of the bridge, and a design was picked in January. Opinions and morale soared with the prospect that the bridge would be built, but there is now concern about what the future and the national roads review may bring; so today I am presenting the case for the bridge to the Minister. I hope that she will listen to what I have to say, and take a full part in the discussions within the Department to make the case for this important bridge.

Poole is a vibrant town. In 1998, it will celebrate the 750th anniversary of the granting of its first charter to allow it to be independent and trade profitably. It is a successful town built around its natural harbour, which is the largest in Europe. It is strategically located on the south coast. It provides freight and passenger services to France, Spain and the channel islands.

Poole is home to many world-class companies. More than 1 million people visit the borough each year to enjoy the water-based leisure and sports facilities. It has a great deal to offer, but one of its main problems is infrastructure. It has grown tremendously in the past 25 years, and the strains are beginning to show.

There are eight main arguments for the bridge. The first is that the port is a major gateway to Europe. "What role for trunk roads in England Volume 2" acknowledges that the principal purpose of Poole harbour crossing and the A31 Poole link road is to link the port of Poole with the national trunk road network. The purpose of the harbour crossing is to relieve congestion on the approach roads to the port and congestion within the port caused by the frequent opening of the Poole lifting bridge.

Poole harbour commissioners, who run the port, have a turnover of more than £12 million a year. They employ 223 people. If one includes sub-contractors and others, about 500 people make their livelihood from the port. If one takes into account the multiplier effect, the port generates revenue for the town of about £50 million a year. The port is among the 15 busiest in the nation. In the south-west, it is second to Bristol, but it has great potential for improving its trade with Europe.

The port is a significant generator of traffic, with 180,000 heavy goods vehicle movements per annum, and 400,000 car movements. As the port has roll on/roll off ferries, the traffic tends to feed into the road system in short, sharp bursts. One of the most important things for people who arrive at a ferry destination is the ability to get out of the port rapidly. Unfortunately, in Poole that does not always happen. United Kingdom policy is to have our ports open and competitive. The shipping industry is notoriously price-sensitive, and the continued prosperity of the port depends on its being able to offer a competitive service in terms of quality and price. Poole enjoys many advantages, but it needs the bridge.

Secondly, we need integrated transport and effective links to the ferry port. Public policy is moving towards the concept of integrated transport, and to achieve that it is essential that there is transfer between different forms of transport. The port is rail-connected, and the harbour commissioners would like to increase rail traffic, but we also need good road communications for the port to develop. It is essential that we get improved connections via the bridge across Holes bay, so that traffic can move speedily out and into the port.

Thirdly, a successful port is an environmentally friendly Poole harbour. Poole harbour commissioners run conservation policies to keep the harbour a delightful place that are financed via surplus income generated by the port, and the harbour area has many sites of special scientific interest. The benefits in terms of tourism are great, because the port authorities take good care of the harbour.

The fourth reason is sustainable economic development—that is, development on brown-field and not green-field sites. The previous Government did much towards sustainable development, and I understand that the current Government are continuing that commitment to get more housing and industry built on existing or former sites.

Our ability to continue to build on green fields is diminishing and, where possible, we should regenerate urban areas where there is surplus land. Sustainable development strategy involves balancing the need for development with environmental constraints on the use of land, which means encouraging regeneration of urban land and buildings. Such an approach is reflected in the housing Green Paper, "Where shall we live?", which suggests that up to 60 per cent. of the required dwellings might be sited on brown-field sites.

The fifth reason is the regeneration of Lower Hamworthy, which is the dock area of Poole. Over the years, many of the larger companies that surrounded the port have closed, and there are potentially 50 acres that could be developed in and around the port, but development would require people being able to get in and out relatively rapidly. We are therefore talking not only about a bridge, but about the possibility of a regeneration project involving Lower Hamworthy that could reflect on the entire borough of Poole.

Most regeneration schemes, especially those in docklands or Cardiff docks, involve water—people want to live next to water, and even where water is not present, developers put it in. Poole has a most beautiful environment and a vast amount of water and, if we could get the infrastructure right, the land would be of great value. A new bridge might encourage investment in a range of areas, including housing, leisure and port expansion.

The officers of Poole borough council have put considerable work into determining whether development could be undertaken in Lower Hamworthy. They have already spoken to many landowners, and there might be the prospect—I would not state it more strongly than that—that one could get some private sector contributions from the landowners towards the cost of a bridge. Bridges are expensive items, and I do not suppose that such contributions would constitute a large proportion of the cost, but I am sure that, if we got close to having a bridge and had the certainty of investment in Lower Hamworthy, contributions would come in.

The sixth reason is an enhanced role for the town centre. Currently, all the traffic coming from the port goes through the town centre, and that causes jams and reduces the quality of life there. If the traffic were to go straight over Holes bay towards the A350, policies for the town centre could be more sensitively implemented—we could do more for cyclists and pedestrians, for example. In addition, there would be some potential for development in the town centre, the quay and Poole old town. The key point is that building the bridge would have knock-on effects in Lower Hamworthy, the quay and the centre of Poole.

Seventhly, the bridge presents a solution to the traffic problems caused by the existing lifting bridge. The bridge dates back to 1927, and, like any mechanical bridge, it needs more maintenance as time goes on: hence it has to be closed more and more frequently.

The A350 primary route to the port of Poole crosses the Poole lifting bridge. It carries more than 18,000 vehicles a day, including 2,000 goods vehicles. There are seven scheduled lifts and, typically, 10 unscheduled lifts a day to allow maritime traffic to pass, largely from Cobbs quay. That causes chaotic conditions on the surrounding road network. Traffic queues in the town centre cascade back, all the roads become jammed up, and people cannot go about their ordinary business. It even affects public transport. Twenty buses an hour go over the bridge, and if it is closed, public transport and the buses are knocked for six.

In the port, traffic may be trapped for half an hour or longer if a bridge lift coincides with a ferry arrival. Delays to port traffic can be even more extreme.

I very much support what my hon. Friend says, on two counts. First, I represent the borough of Bournemouth, and the economies and prosperity of Bournemouth and Poole are intimately related, so the project would greatly benefit the borough of Bournemouth, which thoroughly supports what my hon. Friend says. Secondly, I declare an interest, as I live on the quay at Poole and can confirm what my hon. Friend says about the congestion and the damage that the lifting bridge does to the environment of those who live there.

I thank my hon. Friend for those comments. I note that my hon. Friends with Dorset constituencies are sitting all around me. South-east Dorset as an economic unit needs decent infrastructure, and my hon. Friends' support today is much appreciated. I note that I also have the support of one or two hon. Friends who do not come from Dorset, but the New Forest is not terribly far away.

The public and traffic can be held up for hours. Recently, the bridge was closed for three days for essential maintenance. One lady wrote agonisingly to the local newspaper saying that it had taken her an hour and three quarters to go three quarters of a mile. That cannot continue. A Poole harbour crossing would provide a direct, uninterrupted link between the port and the A350 dual carriageway, and would therefore resolve the specific problems that I have highlighted.

If my hon. Friend will allow me, I wish to speak specifically about the A350, which, when it leaves Poole and heads north, linking up with Bristol, the midlands and south Wales, becomes no more than a country lane. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is essential that the A350 and the improvement schemes for bypasses are in the Dorset county structure plan as soon as possible?

I agree with my hon. Friend. The problem with Dorset is where to start improving the infrastructure. I am starting at Poole bridge because it is of most concern to my constituents. All my hon. Friends will have issues that they need to raise. East Dorset district council contacted my hon. Friend today on that issue, because it has great concerns about the A350.

My eighth point concerns the unique role of Poole harbour and regional trunk road priorities. The key point about the bridge is that it would not only accommodate more traffic but would facilitate urban redevelopment in the Hamworthy island. It would allow the port to expand, yet it would improve the quality of life for people who live in the centre of Poole. It therefore meets the criteria for sustainable development.

It would lead Poole to develop in a much better and more strategic way, hitting two objectives. First, it would allow the port to expand, and would allow the sensible development of mixed use, as well as greater jobs and prosperity. Secondly, it would allow people within the town to have a better quality of life by reducing traffic. In terms of pollution and the volume of traffic that people must put up with, we could facilitate that balancing act, which it is always difficult to achieve with a major scheme.

The bridge is not only a priority but a vision for the people of Poole. If, after the review, they can have a guarantee of when it will be built—even if it is a little way off—they can strategically plan. Poole borough council, the harbour authorities and all the local authorities can sit down and have a thorough look at Hamworthy, the quay and the old town area to see how they can improve and strategically plan the borough. That would be far better than the alternative. If the bridge is not built, there will be gridlock, and people will be opposed to development. We will set residents against those who want to prosper in our port.

I am particularly pleased that the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions is replying to the debate, because not long ago she was down at the headquarters of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. People there were pleased that, in spite of the change of responsibilities from Opposition spokesman to Government, you still insisted on going ahead with your visit. I feel confident that they mentioned the bridge and traffic in Poole.

When one of the Doorkeepers heard that I had the debate, he said, "I think Glenda is going for the Steve Norris trophy for replying to the most debates." I am not sure whether you have the trophy already, but you are notching up a fair old total. I look forward to your reply, as the matter is of great concern to the people of my constituency.

Order. The hon. Member must remember that he is addressing the Chair.

10.30 pm

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) and to the Minister for allowing me to make a short contribution to the debate.

I endorse my hon. Friend's comments in support of the proposed Poole harbour bridge. My constituency in North Poole offers visitors access to Poole harbour. We would undoubtedly benefit from the improved quality of life in the town if the bridge were built. The proposed replacement crossing would directly relieve the traffic flow, both private and commercial, through the south-western corner of my constituency to the port and the ferries.

I am concerned that, unless road links are developed in conjunction with the crossing, it could well become a bridge to nowhere. In Mid-Dorset we already suffer terrible traffic jams on the roads to the town of Poole. If Poole continues to prosper and grow as a result of the improved access that the new bridge would provide, we could end up with gridlock, as my hon. Friend has already pointed out.

Poole is a major gateway between the continent and the north and west of England, Wales and Ireland. The current port facilities could handle twice the present trade. However, to cope with existing traffic and realise the full potential of the port, existing road links must be dramatically improved. That means that not only the earliest provision of the harbour crossing, but the extension of the A31 link and the upgrading of the A350 north, are essential.

The initial scheme for Poole harbour included the extension of the A31—the existing Dorset way, as it is known—across open country at Canford heath to Wimborne bypass. It would effectively become the Poole bridge link. The scheme must not proceed without it.

Providing Dorset with an enhanced roads network is vital to the economic future of Poole and Dorset. It is also crucial to a better quality of life for my constituents and those who live around the Poole area. It is essential that the Government give the matter sympathetic consideration.

10.32 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions
(Ms Glenda Jackson)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) on obtaining the Adjournment debate, and commend him for his generosity in permitting interventions from the hon. Members for Bournemouth, West (Mr. Butterfill), for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) and for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mr. Fraser). As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, he has the support of other hon. Members from his region, although they have maintained sedentary positions throughout.

I well remember my visit to the constituency of the hon. Member for Poole. It was a great pleasure for me. The site of the proposed bridge was pointed out to me, and many of the difficulties that he described in the House this evening were raised with me on that day.

I appreciate that the matter is particularly important, not only for the hon. Gentleman's local community and constituents, but for all the hon. Members who have spoken tonight, and for those who have not but who are sitting on the Opposition Benches. I well understand their desire for an early decision about the scheme.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government have embarked not only on a roads review, but on a fundamental review of transport policy. The Government's main objectives are a strong economy, a sustainable environment and an inclusive society. In his own way, the hon. Gentleman highlighted those issues in his own constituency. He made some telling points about the importance of transport in achieving the Government's aims and the desires of people in his part of the world.

However, the backdrop to our review is a candid recognition that we must have a shift in direction. Revised national road traffic forecasts published last month show that traffic will increase by nearly 40 per cent. over the next 20 years. If current policies are not adjusted, congestion will worsen, the impact on the environment will be more severe, and those who do not have access to private transport will find it even more difficult to get around.

We must develop an integrated transport system that makes the best use of the contribution that each mode can make; which ensures that all options are considered on a basis that is fair, and is seen to be fair; and takes into account from the outset considerations of accessibility, integration, safety, the environment and the economy. Above all, an integrated transport system must be sustainable. One encouraging aspect of what is undoubtedly an ambitious task is the degree of consensus about the need for change.

We cannot achieve that change in isolation. It is a feature of the policy development work that is now under way that we are involving a wide range of external advice and expertise, including local authorities, businesses, transport professionals and users, and trade unions. That is the context for the roads review: examining the role that trunk roads should play in an integrated and sustainable transport policy. Against the background of increased congestion, we have three broad options for roads: first, to make better use of existing infrastructure; secondly, to manage demand; and, thirdly, to provide new infrastructure.

Making best use of existing infrastructure is the obvious first choice. It has been provided at substantial cost, in both financial and environmental terms, and we must make the best use of that investment. Technologies old and new can help us to make better use of our roads network. Several measures can also bring safety benefits, and we will need to ensure that they are given proper priority. However, we must be realistic about the various options that we can deliver.

At a local level, many authorities are seeking to combine those measures by means of transport packages, so that mobility is maintained but any damaging consequences of such mobility are reduced. The Highways Agency's programme of small safety schemes is continuing, but major new construction is under review. Providing new infrastructure is a very difficult option, financially and in terms of the impact that it may have on the environment. Our starting point is that we shall not proceed with major new trunk road construction unless we are satisfied that there is no better alternative. Even then, there will be difficult choices to be made within the limited resources available.

There is no substitute for rigorous case-by-case examination of the options. Volume two of our consultation document, "What role for Trunk Roads?"—to which the hon. Member for Poole referred—sets out, region by region, the perceived traffic problems and details of the roads programme that we inherited from our predecessors.

The existence of a scheme in the inherited programme is seen as prima facie evidence that there is a transport problem. We are seeking from our regional consultations a view on whether these are the most important problems or whether others deserve greater priority. We envisage two outputs from that part of the review: first, a firm, short-term investment programme; and, secondly, a programme of studies to consider the remaining problems from which the medium and long-term investment programme will emerge.

It may help to look at how the consultations have been taken forward in the region in which the Poole harbour crossing scheme is located. The Government office for the south-west held two day-long seminars over the autumn under the umbrella of the integrated transport consultations.

The first, in Bristol on 16 September, addressed the main themes in the consultative document, "Developing an Integrated Transport Policy". The second seminar, in Taunton on 30 October, concentrated on the roads review and sought to establish the views of those in the south west about investment priorities. The views expressed at the seminars will be taken into account, together with the written and other representations that we have received—including those from the hon. Gentleman and the very strong local support for the Poole harbour crossing scheme.

I recognise the importance of the proposed new Poole harbour crossing at Holes bay in terms of the relief that it would provide for the problems associated with the existing lifting bridge. However, we cannot allow a decision on the scheme to be determined by that factor alone. I note that the hon. Gentleman considers that there is a more pressing case for the second harbour crossing ahead of the associated proposal to connect Poole harbour with the existing A31 trunk road via a new trunk road link. Both the new bridge and the link to the A31 must be judged on their relative merits, and in the context of the roads review. Should the new crossing not go ahead, we would need to consider alternatives with the Highways Agency and local authorities. Developing a forward-looking integrated transport policy that supports a strong economy, contributes to a sustainable environment and helps to create a just and inclusive society is an enormous challenge. Through the work now under way on trunk roads, we wish to achieve a robust short-term programme and a system for planning future investment in the road network—whether measures to make better use of the existing network, means of control, or to provide new infrastructure—which is fair and is seen to be fair; which allows a proper opportunity for all concerned to make their contribution; and which looks at transport problems squarely in the context of an integrated strategy.

The hon. Gentleman has made a very telling contribution tonight. I can assure him that the proposals that he presented and the concerns that he highlighted will be examined very closely by the Government.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes to Eleven o'clock.