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Hatfield Peverel To Witham (Link Road)

Volume 300: debated on Wednesday 12 November 1997

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12.46 pm

I am grateful for the opportunity to address the House on this proposed road. Before I proceed, I should like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on her appointment. I say that not out of sycophancy but because she was good enough to visit my constituency before 1 May and before it obtained most-favoured status.

I imagine that most hon. Members are familiar with the Al2. It is the trunk road that runs from the Southend arterial Al27 in south Essex north-east through Essex and thence to East Anglia. It is a major carrier of vehicles and has traditionally so been. It has obviously changed over the years. Elderly folk in my constituency are proud to show me photographs showing their grandparents playing in the street that was then the Al2. If anyone did that now, they would not last more than 15 seconds.

The original Al2 meandered through the towns and villages of Essex, in particular Hatfield Peverel, Witham and Kelvedon, which are on the section with which I am concerned. That was the position until the early 1960s, when improvements began to be made. Even at that time, the road was heavily congested. One can remember as a child being taken for outings to the east coast and being stuck in Hatfield Peverel, Witham or Kelvedon or one or another of the villages along the road.

From the 1960s onwards, dual carriageways were constructed. The section to which I have referred was affected by two bypasses in 1965. When the Hatfield Peverel and Witham dual carriageway bypasses were constructed, the volume of traffic per day was some 21,000 vehicles. The comparative figure for 1996 is 75,000 vehicles per day on that section—three and a half times greater than the volume of traffic for which the road was constructed some 30 years ago.

The problem is not merely one of volume. The approach to Hatfield Peverel on the Al2 is singularly hazardous. Some time after 1965, the Chelmsford section running north-east towards Hatfield Peverel was constructed in three lanes, but the three-lane section ends just short of Hatfield Peverel and thereafter the road goes back to two lanes by way of a defile through the village and out the other side. All of us are aware of the hazards of a road changing from three lanes to two: vehicles bunch together and there is often high-speed and erratic crossing of lanes, and this certainly occurs on the Al2 at that point. Indeed, the problem is aggravated by the fact that the vehicles accelerate: the approach to the two-lane section is downhill, thus increasing the speed of vehicles approaching Hatfield Peverel.

Once through Hatfield Peverel, the Al2 is joined by a slip road out of the village itself. That slip road serves not only village residents, but those coming from Maldon and the Dengie peninsula to the east in order either to join the Al2 or to pass on to Witham and Braintree. As the A 12 approaches that slip road, it is coming up a hill and around a bend and the visibility of the entrance to the slip road is extremely obscured for vehicles travelling on the major trunk road, the Al2.

Those brave enough to enter the Al2 from the Hatfield Peverel slip road running north-east face a downhill short section with a low level of visibility to traffic coming from behind. Indeed, for the nervous or inexperienced motorist, it is a junction to be avoided. At busy times of day, it is almost impossible to enter the Al2 from the Hatfield Peverel slip road because of the speed of traffic and the lack of visibility of oncoming vehicles.

I strongly endorse what the hon. Gentleman says. He is right to say that many of my Maldon constituents use the road to Hatfield Peverel to reach the Al2, but is he aware that Maldon continues to grow, and that congestion at Danbury is forcing more people to reach the Al2 via Hatfield Peverel? The problem which he describes is therefore likely to increase in coming years.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. The population of the old Maldon division, which was formerly part of my constituency, has increased considerably over the past 30 years, and there are proposals that that growth should continue.

Over the past three years, there have been 50 personal injury accidents on the 2 km section of dual carriageway. That number includes five fatalities: it is a tragic coincidence that, today, an inquest is being held in the county town of Chelmsford into the most recent fatality, which occurred earlier this year. The statistic for the accident rate is 0.4 personal injury accidents per million vehicle kilometres; I am advised that that is 50 per cent. higher than the national A road rate, and more than three times the national rate for dual carriageways.

Essex county council, of which I am honoured to remain a member for a few months, has been concerned at the dangers presented by the Al2 Hatfield Peverel to Witham section and has put at the top of its priority list the link road proposal to which I shall come shortly. I attended a meeting of the highways committee held earlier in the month, at which the proposal was placed in the priority category, above improvements to the Mil in west Essex.

I now turn to the point made by the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) about population growth. In the 1960s, Witham was designated to receive industrial development linked with population growth, predominantly from east London. Over 20 years, until the 1980s, its population increased greatly, and the growth continues to the present day, especially on the south side of the town. An additional development is planned for the south side: known as the Maltings Lane development, it will add a further 800 dwellings.

It is significant that a debate earlier this morning dealt with housing allocation, because the Essex structure plan would site a further 4,000 dwellings, over and above those already allocated, near the Witham-Hatfield Peverel-Kelvedon section of the Al2. As the hon. Gentleman said, there is substantial growth in the Maldon area and in parts of Danbury and Chelmsford, which will lead to increased use of the intersections on to the A12.

Turning to local people's response, a consultation exercise was carried out by Essex county council on options and proposals for improvement by way of a link road. The exercise took a fairly wide form—in particular, an exhibition at Hatfield Peverel village hall in summer 1996 ran for some time and attracted many visitors who gave their preferences. The current favoured scheme is for a road to run parallel on the north-east side of Hatfield Peverel to link up with the intersection at Witham. It will have limited or no environmental disadvantages and will ensure that all local traffic—not only from Hatfield Peverel, but from the Maldon, Dengie and Chelmsford areas—can be routed without entering the Al2 at all. If local traffic is removed from the Al2, that has obvious advantages, not only for local residents, but for those travelling on the Al2 who are at risk from those seeking access to the A12 dual carriageway, whether carefully or otherwise.

The proposal is supported by the county council and by Hatfield Peverel parish council, Witham town council and Braintree district council. I should not be surprised to find that it is supported by district councils and parish councils in the constituency represented by the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford. I understand that the current anticipated cost of the limited scheme now favoured by the county council is between £2.2 million and £2.4 million. A cost-benefit analysis shows that 88 per cent. of the scheme benefits would accrue to the trunk road. I claim no great expertise in such calculations, but those who advise me say that that is a high rating.

In comparison with other road improvement schemes, the cost of the link is comparatively modest. I should be pleased if the Minister would give favourable consideration to the link being given high priority as a reasonable scheme. I am sure that that would give great benefit to residents of Hatfield Peverel, Witham and beyond.

12.58 pm

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) on securing this debate and thank him for his generosity in affording the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) an intervention. Clearly, there is cross-party unity on many of the issues on which my hon. Friend touched. I also thank my hon. Friend for welcoming me to the Government Front Bench. I assure him that compliments in this place are so rare that there is never a danger of anyone being accused of sycophancy.

My hon. Friend has devoted a good deal of effort and time to drawing the attention of my noble Friend the Minister for Roads to the problems on the A12 and the spate of recent mortalities. I feel sure that the whole House offers its sympathy to my hon. Friend and its condolences to his constituents. My noble Friend was particularly saddened to read a letter from Nancy Mesher, one of my hon. Friend's constituents, who suffered the tragic loss of her mother and young brother in a road accident. In her letter, Nancy gave details of the terrible tragedy that robbed her of her mother and brother, and was particularly concerned about what seemed to her to be a lack of adequate signing which occasioned her personal tragedy.

My noble Friend was particularly moved by the fact that Nancy had put aside her personal tragedy and written to my noble Friend putting forward ideas which she hoped would ensure that no other family would have to go through the grievous experience that she had lived through. My noble Friend wrote to Nancy and was able to tell her that Essex county council had now completed improvements to the signing and road markings, which change the priority at the Duke of Wellington junction opposite the bridge over the Al2 so that north bound drivers are guided more clearly to the through route. Other improvements have been made, such as a waiting restriction and cross-hatching on the County road, beyond the end of the slip road, to prevent vehicles from parking on the road and obscuring the signs that have also now been installed.

My noble Friend the Minister for Roads was so moved by the thought of Nancy writing to try to improve road safety when she must be still grieving for her own terrible loss that she immediately agreed to meet my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree and a deputation of Essex county councillors to discuss the safety issues relating to that road. I believe that the meeting is to take place very soon.

I understand my hon. Friend's desire for an early decision on the scheme, but it may help the House if I put it into the context of the roads review and how that review fits into the overall thrust of the Government's transport policies. Our work to develop an integrated transport policy provides the immediate context for the roads review. The backdrop to that fundamental review is a candid recognition that we cannot carry on as at present. The predicted growth of traffic and the consequent congestion are unsustainable; the environmental, economic and social implications are simply unacceptable. The appropriate response, however, cannot be simply to hack away once again at the roads programme without taking any other action.

We need to take a much broader view, looking at all modes, using broadly based criteria to assess schemes. One of the encouraging aspects of that hugely ambitious task is the degree to which there is agreement that we need to change. We need to look at the role of the motor vehicle in providing mobility in a more integrated transport system, which makes the best use of the contribution that each mode can make, ensures that all options are considered on a basis that is fair and is seen to be fair, takes safety, environmental, economic, accessibility and integration considerations into account from the outset—and does so in a way in which we can all have confidence and which, above all, is sustainable.

That is the context for our roads review. It is an integral part of our integrated transport policy work. It is about the role that trunk roads should play alongside other modes in an integrated and sustainable transport policy.

An issue that looms largest in the roads review is congestion. On current predictions, if we do nothing, in 20 years' time there will be roughly half as much traffic again on our roads. We could allow increasing congestion to ration road space, but the costs to industry, the environment and society more generally would be unacceptable. That leaves us with three broad options: to make better use of the existing infrastructure; to manage demand; or to provide new infrastructure.

Making best use of the 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. Much work is going on, looking at old and new technologies, on local roads and on the motorway and trunk road network, to make better use of the network. A number of measures can also bring safety benefits, and we shall need to ensure that those are given proper priority, but we need to be realistic about what the various options for making better use of the network can truly deliver. We must also look seriously at other harder options: managing demand and providing new infrastructure.

Managing demand is a vast topic which cuts across all modes. It encompasses reducing the need to travel through land use planning and by changing how we live, work and enjoy our leisure time. It must include an assessment of the extent to which a shift to other modes can be encouraged. Inevitably, it includes controlling demand by pricing or rationing mechanisms—unpopular though they may be.

It includes both carrots and sticks. It provides carrots in terms of providing attractive public transport alternatives; safe and unpolluted routes for walking and cycling; easy access to public transport and good interchanges between different public transport services. It provides sticks in terms of measures, such as parking restraints, that make car use less attractive. Many local authorities are seeking, through integrated transport packages, to combine measures in that way so that mobility is maintained but the adverse consequence of that mobility is reduced.

The Highways Agency's programme of small safety schemes is continuing and is not being put on hold pending the outcome of the roads review, but other new major construction is under review. Providing new infrastructure is a difficult option, both financially and in terms of its possible impact on the environment. In some cases, a new or widened road may turn out to be the only option, but our starting point is that we shall not proceed with major new trunk road infrastructure unless we are satisfied that there is no better alternative. Even then, difficult choices will have to be made within the limited resources available.

There is no substitute for rigorous case-by-case examination of the options. That is what we have set about in our consultation exercise. In addition, my noble Friend the Minister for Roads recently wrote to all Members of Parliament inviting them to meetings on a regional basis. Hon. Members will have an opportunity to comment on schemes and help Ministers assess the outcome of the consultation before we take any decisions.

I shall now deal with the specifics of my hon. Friend's case for a link road between Hatfield Peverel and Witham. The Al2 trunk road links east London with Chelmsford, Colchester, Ipswich and the east coast ports of Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth. Traffic is very heavy towards London, with the section between Hatfield Peverel and Witham carrying more than 80,000 vehicles a day.

Although the Al2 is dual carriageway between the M25 and Ipswich, the standard varies between dual two and dual three lanes. In 1990, there were nine schemes for bypasses or widening of the A12 in the national programme, one of which—Gorleston relief road—was constructed in 1993. The list included the Al2 between Hatfield Peverel and Marks Tey. In the 1994 review, one scheme—Saxmundham bypass dualling—was withdrawn and others rationalised. In that review, all the schemes between the M25 and Ipswich were given priority two status, which means that they remained in the programme but priority one schemes had first call on available funds.

In November 1995, three schemes—a Blythburgh bypass, a Kessingland to Pleasurewood road and widening of the Chelmsford bypass—were withdrawn from the programme. The remaining six schemes were put into the longer-term programme, as they were judged to have lower national priority. Preparation work was suspended, to be resumed when the programme rolled forward. In November 1996, however, all the remaining schemes for improvement of the A12 were withdrawn.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing the Essex transport issues to the attention of the House. I am sure that he will appreciate that, until the roads review has been completed, I cannot tell him what priority the scheme that he advocates can expect to be given in a world of developing policy and increasingly heavy demands on the public purse, but I can guarantee close scrutiny.