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A63 (Melton Junction)

Volume 331: debated on Wednesday 12 May 1999

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12.30 pm

Before I begin what I promise the Minister will be a very brief speech on this matter, I should like to put on record, and communicate through him, my gratitude to the Deputy Prime Minister, who, despite the pressure on his time, has afforded me a meeting and paid a great deal of attention to this essentially local issue. I hope that the Minister will pass on that compliment.

I shall first describe the nature and location of the road and the junction. The House will know that the ports of Liverpool and Hull are joined by the M62—part of the great motorway network covering the country. The last 25 miles, or thereabouts, of the road into Hull is not motorway but dual carriageway—the A63, which, apart from some long, sweeping curves, is a very fast road in every respect.

At the Melton junction on this fast road, there is a set of traffic lights which, due to the road's sweeping curves, are virtually invisible to on-coming traffic until a few hundred metres away. They are the only lights between Liverpool and Hull. Indeed, in terms of the motorway network, they are the only lights between London and Hull, Bristol and Hull or Birmingham and Hull, for that matter. Because the lights are almost invisible until traffic is nearly upon them, reacting to them is very difficult, particularly if, for any reason, there is a tailback.

Psychologically, the road is a motorway, but physically it is virtually a country road, with crossings, very complex five-phase traffic lights and, just a little further along from the junction, a right turning into a village road. That is not at all what one would expect of a road on which traffic travels at such speed.

As a result, there have been many accidents over the past five years. There were fatal vehicle accidents in 1994 and 1996, and a double fatality in March this year. A pedestrian was killed near the lights, and a further double fatality occurred at the Colby Park crossing, just a short distance from the junction. It is only by the grace of God that there was not yet another fatality when a small girl on a bicycle was narrowly missed by three cars and hit by a fourth. She was badly hurt, but, thank God, survived. In the past decade, there have been 40 accidents involving injury, in which almost 60 people have been hurt. Of course, many other accidents have not been reported because they involve only damage, not injury.

This is the worst traffic blackspot in the Humberside police area. Indeed, it is the worst within a 50-mile radius of the Deputy Prime Minister's constituency and, of course, mine, as we are near neighbours. Why?

Police statistics tell us a great deal. The problem is not weather-driven: 90 per cent. of accidents have occurred when there has been perfectly good visibility. Nor, despite what I said earlier, is the problem due to people not knowing the road. Some 70 per cent. of accidents occur on the westbound carriageway that leaves Hull. Almost by definition, therefore, drivers are local or have been through the junction before. In addition, in the majority of accidents where there has been some identifiable driver error—a blameworthy component, as it were—the blameworthy driver is local. It is therefore not just a case of people being surprised by road conditions.

The problem is the design of Melton junction and the associated Colby Park crossing further up the road. The crossing is appropriate to an earlier era. It is appropriate to a low-speed, low-intensity road, not—psychologically—a motorway that carries 40,000 vehicles a day. I shall be blunt: I do not think that my constituents should face the fatal consequences of 1950s road design as we enter a new century. Nor do my constituents think they should.

The matter is one of enormous local concern. A large campaign to solve the problem has attracted the support of many local individuals and businesses, all local parish councils, the local authority, the local police force and our much-respected local newspaper the Hull Daily Mail.

What can we do? Clearly, a new road junction is needed. We need a junction that is capable of dealing with traffic growth of at least 4 per cent. per annum, as well as with increases as a result of local development. I shall return to that. Meanwhile, it is immediately necessary somehow to tackle the cause of the accidents: the speed of the traffic going through the junction. Until we have a new junction, I want the speed limit on a one-mile stretch either side of the Melton junction to be cut to 50 mph. To enforce that, I want traffic cameras and active policing, and I want to ensure that everybody understands that exceeding the speed limit will lead to certain conviction. I want the Minister to tell me today that the Government intend to issue orders to achieve that end, and that they will ensure that resources are available.

Given the sort of problems thrown up by traffic cameras, a solution is not as simple as it looks. I shall listen with interest to the Minister's response. I stress that it is important that such action is taken virtually immediately.

More important in the longer term, there must be a new junction. There is a grade-separated junction in the road expenditure plans of the Department and the Highways Agency, which is rather inaccurately described as a private finance initiative project—the Minister may want to tell us about that—but the projections for it seem to assume, as do Highways Agency responses to local developers and the council, a completion date of 2006. In other words, the junction will be completed in seven years' time. How many lives that will cost I do not know. I know that it will be too many. One death is too many; if we do not act, there will be more.

The Minister knows that I have been a member of the Cabinet and have served in Departments. I do not therefore subscribe to the Whitehall economics of death, if I may put it quite so starkly—the idea that one can value loss of life in economic terms. Every death is a tragedy and a mortal loss to the wives, husbands, children, mothers, fathers and loved ones of those who die. I do not want there to be one more death on the road. I want the new junction to be built as soon as is physically possible.

East Riding of Yorkshire unitary council and the local developer involved believe that, with reasonable good fortune, the project could be completed by 2002 or 2003 and that, even if there were a public inquiry, it should be achievable before 2004. Indeed, so confident is the council of that timetable that one of its officers told me that it is willing to act as the agency for completing the project. In order to achieve it, the necessary funding must be available, obviously. In addition, however, there must be the political will to give the project its proper priority and, if I may be blunt, the Highways Agency must get its finger out and get on with it.

I am not interested in scoring political points. I know that the Deputy Prime Minister drives through the junction regularly, and he has made it clear to me that he understands the problem only too well and wants it to be solved—for which, as I have said, I am grateful. So this is not a political battle. If anything, it is a battle with bureaucracy.

We all know the problem: capable and well-meaning civil servants and Government agencies face competing demands from all over the country for money, time and scarce resources. The understandable human response is to deal with such demands in turn, carefully and at a steady pace. I am afraid that Whitehall has a tendency to gold-plate and to be over-cautious in its approach. That, in turn, slows things down even more. Such an approach is no doubt entirely rational, but, in the meantime, this stretch of road is killing people. It is doing so with inexorable regularity and, as traffic flows inevitably increase, the problem will inevitably get worse. The project therefore needs to be given high priority and needs to be approached with a sense of urgency and a determination to complete by 2002–03, not 2006. I ask the Minister to ensure that his colleagues devote every effort to achieving that target.

I shall conclude my speech so that the Minister may have his say and respond positively. In summary, in the immediate term, I want a new 50 mph speed limit. I want it to be strictly policed, with speed cameras and full enforcement. I want a new junction, to be as fast as possible within the law. That is what I ask of the Government, and that is what I ask the Minister to comment on today.

I know that that involves numerous agencies, national and local, government and quasi-independent, public and private; and I know from ministerial experience that that often involves knocking heads together to get people to agree. If it would advance my constituents' cause, I should be happy to convene a meeting of all the relevant parties to hammer out a solution to the problem once and for all, and I should be delighted to invite the Deputy Prime Minister to chair it. I can think of no one better on the Labour Benches to knock heads together—he has a reputation for it. Whatever it takes, I will support.

In the first years of the new millennium, the people of Yorkshire deserve better than a dangerous 1950s road on a major route. I hope and trust that the Government will do all in their power to help me get them a better road and a safer future.

12.41 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions
(Mr. Nick Raynsford)

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis) on securing the debate. I well understand his arguments and the strength of feeling in the locality about the junction. Although I am not familiar with the junction, I do, as the right hon. Gentleman well knows, work very closely with a colleague who is extremely familiar with it.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned his meeting with my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister and Lord Whitty, the Minister for Roads and Road Safety, yesterday evening to discuss the issue. I thank him on their behalf for the very constructive approach that he took in the meeting and the important and significant suggestions that he made, some of which he has mentioned today. I shall pass on his kind comments of appreciation for the interest that the Deputy Prime Minister has taken in the subject.

I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that we take road safety issues very seriously indeed. That concern is not an add-on to our transport policy but an integral part of everything that we do.

It may be appropriate to put the matter into the national context before I discuss the specific subject to which the right hon. Gentleman has drawn my attention.

We are fortunate in having one of the best all-round road safety records in the world. Much of that is due to the high standard of road engineering and to significant advances in vehicle design and standards. Although major road improvement schemes contribute to our safety record, our attention to detail also contributes to it. Some of the most cost-effective measures for reducing casualties are fairly modest road improvements.

In the past two years alone, more than £100 million has been allocated—as part of the annual, long-term local capital expenditure round—to small-scale engineering measures specifically designed to reduce accidents and casualties. But however good our roads are, and however safe our vehicles, we must recognise that human error is one of the major contributory factors. In fact, it is a key factor in about 95 per cent. of road accidents. This is at least as much a question of attitude as of lack of driving skill.

The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions is working on a long-term road safety strategy, with targets for reducing casualties by 2010. It is taking a little longer than we had expected because we are also carrying out the speed policy review promised in last year's White Paper "A New Deal for Transport: Better for Everyone".

It will obviously be sensible to synchronise the new road safety strategy and the speed review. The right hon. Gentleman's comments about the junction amply show the relevance of linking the two issues. Excessive or inappropriate speed is a factor in a third of road casualties, and persuading drivers to keep to a safe speed is likely to be our biggest challenge in the next decade.

Our current aim is to publish the strategy in the autumn. It will cover a range of road safety issues, including driver training; child safety; pedestrians and cyclists; impairment through drink, drugs or fatigue; vehicle standards; enforcement of penalties; and, of course, speed.

The strategy will set a target for reducing the number of people killed or seriously injured. As previously announced, the target will be no less demanding than the 1987 target of a one-third reduction in all casualties by 2000. We are also considering a target to prevent any increase in casualties, including relatively minor injuries.

We also recognise the need to ensure that safety is at the heart of our developing integrated transport policy. We have agreed exactly that approach with the Highways Agency, which looks after the motorways and trunk roads for which Ministers are directly responsible. The agency's business plan for 1999–2000 contains proposals to invest £78 million in improving road safety on the trunk road network.

The guidance that we have issued to local authorities for putting together their local transport plans says that we expect them to consider road safety issues in all relevant policies, including social policies and measures to encourage walking and cycling. We shall be looking to local authorities to establish a strategic approach to their road safety problems, and to work in partnership with others to develop local solutions to local problems.

For example, it can take many years to deliver expensive engineering work. In the meantime, there is scope for local authorities, the Highways Agency and other partners—such as the police—to introduce short-term measures to minimise accidents until the long-term answer can be delivered. These new arrangements for local transport plans offer the flexibility to tackle problems with imagination and to develop alternative solutions.

We run highly successful advertising campaigns and road safety initiatives such as the drink drive campaign, the campaign to persuade everyone to wear seat belts in the back of the car as well as in the front, and the campaign to rehabilitate drink drivers and to get reoffending rates down. All those national initiatives will help road safety generally, not excluding on the A63 at Melton, but I recognise that the accident record there is a cause for special concern, as the right hon. Gentleman highlighted in his speech.

For the three years prior to 1997, the accident record near the traffic-signal-controlled junction at Melton increased from nine personal injury accidents in 1994 to 15 in 1996. There was an encouraging drop in accidents in 1997, after some low-cost improvements had been undertaken—mainly to the road surface—but that trend was reversed in 1998.

Although we do not have full details of the accident record in 1999 to date, I am fully aware of the fatal accident in March that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, and I know about the two damage-only accidents in the area on 30 April, which would not feature in the statistics usually kept by the Department.

The need for a significant improvement at Melton has long been recognised. A scheme for a two-level junction was introduced into the roads programme in 1987. That scheme has had a chequered history, with significant local debate about its layout and its impact in the intervening period. A preferred route was announced as long ago as September 1991. Progress was then stalled as a result of decisions in 1994 to seek a lower-cost solution. Alternatives at that stage again attracted local opposition. Those were overcome by 1995, and a different preferred solution was published. Further progress was suspended on that scheme following the review of the roads programme in 1995.

On coming to office, the Labour Government had to undertake a full and comprehensive review of the roads programme that we inherited, to assess its affordability and its contribution to the integrated transport policies that we intend to develop. That detailed and comprehensive assessment was undertaken during 1997 and the early part of 1998. The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that the integrated transport White Paper, "A New Deal for Transport: Better for Everyone", was published in July 1998 and was immediately followed by our report on our review of the roads programme, "A New Deal for Trunk Roads in England".

I am very pleased that, in that reassessment, we were able to recognise the importance of the scheme at Melton. However, because of the lack of progress with the scheme prior to 1997, it was not sufficiently developed to be available to be included in our targeted programme of improvements for schemes for which we had secured funding. However, recognising its importance, we included it in a very restricted list of only seven exceptionally important schemes in the whole of England. All those schemes must have road-based solutions, and we intend to make progress with them as swiftly as possible. I shall return to timing issues in a moment. Schemes will be progressed through their preparatory stages so that if, after full appraisal and statutory procedure, they are endorsed, they can be taken forward without delay.

On 10 December last year, Lord Whitty announced the timing of the schemes included in our programme. It was announced that the next step for the Melton interchange is the publication of draft orders in 2000-01. Those orders will cover matters such as the positions of slip roads, alterations to side roads and, possibly, the compulsory acquisition of land. People will have the right to comment or object, and, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, a public inquiry may be necessary.

I have already said that we will take the scheme forward as quickly as possible, subject to the views of the regional planning conference at the appropriate time. I hope that it will be possible to complete the project, assuming that it receives the necessary approvals, well before the 2006 date mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman. Were a public inquiry to be necessary following public objections, that would impact on the time scale, so he will understand why I cannot give a more precise indication. However, I can assure him that we intend to proceed urgently with the project, even though we cannot deliver it immediately, for the reasons that I have outlined.

In the meantime, we shall not ignore the serious problems at the site. The Highways Agency and the police will continue to work to identify small-scale measures that can be introduced quickly to improve safety at the junction. I have already mentioned that work undertaken in 1997 had an immediate effect on the safety record, albeit only for a short time. That work improved the skid resistance of the approaches to the junction, and other measures were introduced to raise driver awareness. It is extremely disappointing that the effectiveness of those measures seems to have been so short-lived.

The Highways Agency has taken immediate steps to address the deterioration since then and the consequences of the recent fatal accident in March, which highlighted the continuing problem. The agency has increased the length of time at which all signals at the junction show a red light, giving more time for traffic to clear the junction before other streams of traffic receive a green light. This measure could increase the length of queues at the junction, but, in similar situations elsewhere, it has improved safety and reduced the type of accidents that occur at Melton.

The right hon. Gentleman commented that traffic accidents were not related to climatic conditions. That is also my understanding, which is why the wider measures are necessary. He highlighted the problem of speed. I am pleased to confirm that we agree with him that a 50 mph speed limit would improve the situation on the main road approaches to the junction. The Highways Agency will take the necessary steps to introduce this measure. The local police have already undertaken to enforce the limit through the use of speed cameras. I hope the right hon. Gentleman agrees that that could make a significant difference in the short term, although it is accepted that a longer-term solution is necessary.

I take the opportunity to thank the Minister for those two announcements. I know that, for reasons that he touched on, he cannot be as explicit as I would like on the timetable for the longer-term measures. However, his announcements today may well save my constituents' lives, and for that I express my gratitude to him and his Department.

I am extremely grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's comments. We are all deeply concerned about the situation at the junction. The Deputy Prime Minister made his concerns known yesterday evening, and we are determined to do all that we can in the short term. The measure that we propose could make a real difference.

Moreover, some small extensions of the right-turning lanes in the central reserve will be provided to give additional room for waiting traffic, as problems can be caused if traffic backs up while waiting to turn right off the main road. Further signing measures will be introduced to emphasise the presence of the signal-controlled junction and the likelihood of stationary traffic, to give advance warning to approaching vehicles.

The Highways Agency will continue to review the traffic conditions at the junction with the police and the local authority, and will introduce further measures if those will be of benefit in the period pending the provision of the grade-separated junction.

The right hon. Gentleman spoke about the importance of cutting through red tape and knocking heads together. He paid a great tribute to the Deputy Prime Minister, saying that he could not think of anyone in Government more capable of doing that. I am happy to confirm that my right hon. Friend proposes to meet the right hon. Gentleman and other interested parties to consider the various issues on site at Melton as soon as that can be arranged.

In summary, we acknowledge the safety concerns there and recognise the importance of taking forward a scheme to provide the long-term solution as swiftly as possible. In the meantime, we will do all that we can to improve the safety record at the site and to prevent a repetition of the tragic accidents that have occurred in recent years, which occasioned the right hon. Gentleman's speech and this debate.