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Motorway Noise

Volume 448: debated on Wednesday 5 July 2006

It is a pleasure to be under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr. Marshall.

I start by declaring an interest: in the right climatic conditions, the motorway can be heard from my home. I secured the debate to draw attention to the increasingly desperate pleas of communities in my constituency that are close to the M4, where traffic noise has been steadily increasing. The issue is being closely followed by communities such as East Ilsley, Compton and Enborne along the A34. The junction of the M4 and A34 is the crossroads of the south of England and the growing number of vehicles that use these routes are having a major impact on the lives of local people.

Traffic levels in the United Kingdom overall have been on the increase since the M4 opened in 1972. Nationwide, road traffic rose 142 per cent. between 1970 and 2002 according to Transport Department figures. The figures also show that in 1999, 70,177 cars a day on average used the stretch of the M4 between junctions 13 and 14. By 2004, that number had risen 26 per cent. to 88,443 vehicles in any one 24-hour period.

The problem will only get worse. As the previous Secretary of State for Transport admitted earlier this year, the population will grow by 10 per cent. and

“the number of households is also set to double in the next thirty years…the number of two-car households will increase—and this means that the number of car journeys could go up”,

but he said that simply building more and more roads was not the answer. Whichever way we look at it, traffic volumes on roads such as the M4 will go up.

Although it is generally understood that those villages that are close to the motorway will inevitably be subject to high levels of noise, others further afield are also suffering. The rolling nature of the Berkshire downs effectively acts as a conduit, funnelling traffic noise from the M4 and A34 to communities in that special part of the North Wessex downs area of outstanding natural beauty.

The impact on people's lives has been significant. David Smith of Upper Basildon moved house 10 years ago to be far enough away from the motorway not to hear the noise. Where he lived previously was a mile away from the motorway and the noise was so loud that it kept him awake at night. Where he lives now is 2.5 miles away from the motorway and he notices the same level of noise and the same effect as he did in his previous home.

Motorway noise has worsened so badly for Michael Taylor, a parish councillor who has lived in the village of Oare since 1966, that he tested the levels with a decibel meter. As a comparison, Mr. Taylor held the meter in a room with the vacuum cleaner on, which produced a similar reading to the level of motorway noise coming through his window. That gives some idea of what he hears every day.

In the village of Wickham, some families live in houses only 80 yd from the M4. The section of motorway near the village is on an overpass, which increases noise levels considerably. David Hunt, chairman of Welford parish council, has been campaigning to have that stretch of the M4 resurfaced with “quiet” tarmac but he has been told by the Highways Agency that it could be many years before the M4 is eligible to be resurfaced. Those are three examples of a deluge of e-mails and letters that I have received, especially since I was told that this debate would take place.

Mr. Hunt, the chairman of the parish council, was right to identify quiet tarmac as the solution. I do not want to waste precious time considering other noise abatement measures such as acoustic walling or tree planting, which make a minimal amount of difference. I shall focus on the key measure that really achieves noise reduction: the replacement of the traditionally used hot-rolled asphalt with a quieter road surface.

One of the proven alternatives, which has been laid on a number of stretches of road, is porous asphalt; it is very effective for a number of reasons. The small grain size creates an even surface that reduces the rolling noise of vehicles. It also absorbs some of the noise emitted by vehicles. Much more importantly, there are safety reasons for laying porous asphalt: it allows rainwater to drain away much more quickly, and that makes it much less likely that vehicles will aquaplane when there is heavy rain. Good drainage increases safety, as it reduces spray and reflections in wet conditions.

Travellers on the infamous Newbury bypass know exactly when they are going from hot-rolled asphalt to porous asphalt. As soon as they hit the new bypass, it is quieter in the car and consequently, of course, quieter for people living nearby. However, the industry is increasingly using thin-layered surfaces. Used widely across the continent, even in concrete-loving Germany, it is now the surface of choice, rather than porous asphalt, because it offers better noise reduction, a better quality of ride and more skid resistance; it is also much better for maintenance. Interestingly, it costs about the same as porous asphalt. Applications of thin surfacing in the UK, for example on the M876 near Stirling, have proved very successful.

An April 2005 paper by the US Federal Highway Administration in Focus praised the UK’s wide use of quiet surfaces, and particularly of thin-layered, textured asphalt mixes. It praised many aspects of recent UK Government transport policy. Today, I particularly want to hear from the Minister on following through on those policies. The paper said:

“In 2000, a 10-year plan for transport was adopted that set a target for advancing noise reduction policies on major roads. The overall goal is to resurface 60 percent of major roads with quieter materials over the 10-year period.”

That does not appear to be happening. At a meeting with the Highways Agency on 25 January this year, Boxford parish council members were told that current funding levels and the criteria set nationally meant that no measures could be taken to reduce road noise on their stretch of the M4 in the foreseeable future. That was despite the conclusion of a noise consultant for Mott MacDonald, who advised that noise levels along the M4 were broadly in excess of acceptable levels.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) on securing this debate. Every Member of this House knows just how important the issue of motorway noise is to our constituents; it causes them great distress. In passing, I must say how grateful many of my constituents are to the Government for all the funding that they are giving the Highways Agency to provide noise barriers along the A419, a trunk road along the wards of Covingham and Stratton St. Margaret in my constituency.

The hon. Gentleman rightly drew attention to the importance of road surfacing in providing relief. My experience of the A419 very much bears out his experiences, and I am grateful to him for raising the subject. The Government agreed to resurface the A419 near the village of Latton, which suffered a great deal from the noise of that road. There is some uncertainty about when that resurfacing will occur. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, even if everyone accepts that there are inevitably resource constraints, and that money cannot always be found immediately—

I am just coming to the point; thank you, Mr. Marshall.

Does the hon. Member for Newbury agree that even if the money cannot be found immediately, certainty about when resurfacing will take place is important, because it provides relief to those suffering from that distress?

That is precisely what I hope to achieve by this debate. I entirely agree with the hon. Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills) on that point. Many of the surfaces of the M4, both in the hon. Gentleman’s area and mine, have not been resurfaced since they were first laid in 1972. We seek an assurance from the Minister that a programme in which local people can feel confident will be rolled out, that new quieter road surfaces will be laid and that people can have clarity about when that will take place.

At the Highways Agency’s meetings with the parish councils, a figure was put about of £5 million nationwide for noise reduction measures similar to those described by the hon. Gentleman. That is obviously an inadequate sum for a nationwide road network, but we ask that the sum be used on the mitigating measures that I am about to put forward.

To pre-empt what the Minister may say about noise mitigation, compensation for noise pollution is available, potentially, only for buildings within 300 m of the motorway. However, many of my constituents and those of the hon. Gentleman live a greater distance from the motorway, yet suffer untenable levels of noise because of such factors as open ground, lack of trees, the motorway being part of an elevated section, and prevailing winds. That uniform band of 300 m seems daft, given that local topography, trees and foliage could mean that a property only 200 m from the motorway could suffer less noise pollution than one almost 1000 m away.

The US Federal Highway Administration paper that I mentioned praised the UK for providing that any new housing construction must take traffic noise into consideration, and must actively plan for it. The paper says that, in the UK:

“Any planned development that approaches the noise thresholds must include noise reduction strategies in the design.”

The Government were planning to build at least 500 new houses a year in west Berkshire but, to our horror, we have discovered that they would prefer the figure to be 810 houses per year. Other hon. Members may face many more than that in their constituencies, but I say that we have had more than our fair share over the past 20 years. From my time as a councillor—too many years ago to remember—I recall planners working to a figure of an average of seven road movements a day per new dwelling. If the building of 810 new houses goes ahead, it will mean 5,880 more road movements per day, simply as a result of west Berkshire’s new housing. Noise pollution, therefore, is set only to increase.

In a letter to me on the proposed new developments, the Minister of State, Department for Transport, said that the South East England regional assembly is undertaking an assessment to

“highlight the potential impact and identify areas of concern”.

To put it mildly, that statement does not fill my constituents with confidence.

In July 2003, the Department for Transport published its key long-term strategy document for the UK road network. It pledged to tackle the problem of noise on roads

“by specifying low noise surfaces as the norm for all trunk roads”.

I think that we would all agree with that. Its resurfacing budget for an initial four-year programme was set at £77 million. Not only has that not been spent, but the programme itself, I have been informed, appears to have been quietly withdrawn. By setting that target, Ministers demonstrated their awareness of the importance of the issue and of the distress caused to those who live close to motorways.

I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Transport to her new job; I am sure that she brings a freshness to the Department and a drive to her new role. I hope that she has listened to the genuine concerns of my constituents and many others. They, and I, wait with interest to hear whether she and the Government are prepared to give the commitment that they so desperately need to protect them from the noise pollution that so blights their lives.

Mr. Wills, you have the permission of the mover of the debate and of the Minister to make a small contribution.

Thank you, Mr. Marshall, but I have already made my points in the rather lengthy intervention that you so generously allowed.

First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) on securing the debate, so that we can consider the subject of motorway noise, which is important not only to his constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills), but many others across the country. Nuisance from traffic noise is an issue that the Government have recognised, and still do. Action is being taken to reduce the problem and real progress is being made, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon said.

The hon. Member for Newbury raised a number of concerns that his constituents have identified at sites along the M4 between junctions 12 and 14. They reasonably want to understand what can be done to reduce noise from the motorway, and the basis on which decisions are made to provide mitigation when something needs to be done on their section of the motorway. I sympathise with his constituents’ concerns about the traffic noise problems that they experience as a result of the growth in traffic on the M4. In response to the hon. Gentleman, I should like to explain how we have built up our policy on dealing with noise from roads, and the steps that the Highways Agency has taken to deal with the problem that he has so clearly identified.

Prior to 1998, the assessment of noise impact was carried out only for new roads. Where noise levels have been predicted to be high as a result of the construction of a new or improved road, measures such as noise barriers or earth embankments are normally included in the design of a road as a means of reducing noise to more acceptable levels. Where such measures cannot be provided, because of high cost or for practical reasons, there are provisions in the Land Compensation Act 1973 and the various noise insulation regulations for noise insulation in residential properties. Those measures have for many years provided protection against increased road noise for those who are affected by new roads.

However, it is worth saying that in 1998, this Government recognised that those measures ignored the plight of many people who live near existing roads. It has been a problem on the strategic road network, including on motorways where traffic growth has been greatest. A number of policies have been put in place to deal with those real concerns, and it will probably be helpful if I remind hon. Members of the considerable focus that we have put on improving the noise environment for those living close to high-speed roads.

First, in the White Paper, “A New Deal for Trunk Roads in England: Understanding the New Approach”, published in 1998, we gave a commitment to use quieter surfacing materials on new roads and existing roads that required resurfacing. That commitment was strengthened in “Transport 2010: The Ten Year Plan”, when we committed to resurface with such materials 60 per cent. of the existing trunk road network, including all concrete sections, by March 2011.

On the figure of 60 per cent. over 10 years, 6 per cent. of roads throughout the country will be resurfaced anyway, because of deteriorating road surfaces. If one multiplies that by 10, one gets 60 per cent., so is that a new announcement or just the status quo being prolonged? I know that we are six years into the 10-year plan, but was that a commitment over and above what is happening already?

The announcement also recognised value for money and the return that we can obtain. In response to the hon. Gentleman, I shall come on to that feature, because it has not yet entered the debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon made a point about concrete roads such as the A419. I am glad to hear that some improvements have been made and welcomed. Concrete roads raise particular concerns, as they generate higher levels of tyre noise than more traditional roads. However, it is now considered that providing quieter surfaces on concrete roads ahead of their maintenance need will not provide long-term value for the taxpayer, so those roads will be resurfaced in accordance with their maintenance need.

The UK used quieter surfaces as early as the 1970s, developing the use of porous asphalt, which was known to reduce tyre noise as well as spray in wet conditions. That material has been successfully used for a number of years on the A34 Newbury bypass, but it is a more costly solution than recently developed materials.

I accept my hon. Friend’s point about value for money, and I am sure that the hon. Member for Newbury also realises the need for taxpayers to get effective value for money. However, what is almost as important to people as immediate relief is the certainty that there will be relief. That is what is not absolutely clear, so will the Minister expand on a timetable for the works that are available? It is something that I am sure my constituents and those of the hon. Gentleman would value.

That is a fair question. I understand the point about certainty, but I am not able to provide my hon. Friend with a direct answer. I shall gladly raise those concerns with my hon. Friend the Minister of State, as he will be considering that area. I hope that the hon. Members who are present understand that I am not equipped to answer that question. I should not wish to mislead them, their constituents or the House.

We have recognised that there remain concerns at locations where there was no early prospect of the road being resurfaced with noise reduction materials. As a result—the hon. Member for Newbury referred to this point—we announced on 22 March 1999 a ring-fenced budget of £5 million a year to deal with the most serious and pressing cases. Three criteria based on noise levels and road-opening dates were used to determine the cases.

In November 1999, the Highways Agency identified 79 sites that had met the criteria. They were the subject of individual studies to determine the most practical and cost-effective solutions. To date, 60 of those sites have been addressed. However, no sites were identified on the A34 or M4 within the Newbury constituency. I appreciate that that will be disappointing news to the hon. Member for Newbury.

Since the list’s announcement, the agency has identified a number of further sites with serious noise problems, based on the original criteria. The agency has used a new noise severity index to rank the severity of noise problems identified since the announcement of the 1999 list. The index is used to identify locations where a significant number of people experience high noise levels. The locations would be considered severe enough to warrant the installation of noise mitigation. One site that has been assessed lies within the Newbury constituency at Oare. A detailed study identified that when road maintenance is undertaken, the most cost-effective means of mitigation would be to use quieter surfacing. The alternative means of noise reduction would be noise barriers. However, they could not be justified because of their limited effect on reducing noise levels for the residents at that location. Noise barriers are normally effective only for properties located up to 150 m off the roadside, and the properties under discussion are located 250 m from the M4 motorway.

The Highways Agency has also considered a number of other sections of the road network in Newbury to see whether those locations would qualify under the criteria. They included sites between junctions 12 and 14 of the M4 motorway, and the A34 at East llsley. Some of the sites met the criteria, but the small number of houses present could not justify the early installation of barriers from the annual £5 million ring-fenced budget. A further noise study under that policy is taking place at Yattendon, and I shall ensure that the Highways Agency keeps the hon. Gentleman informed about the outcome of the study.

In summary, the locations studied within the hon. Gentleman’s constituency show noise severity indices that are not as severe as other locations alongside the strategic road network. Within the current arrangement, it means that no works can be undertaken in the short term. I realise that that will disappoint him.

The Highways Agency will identify the timing of resurfacing on the M4. The prioritisation of resurfacing on the trunk roads is related to the condition of the surface. The aim, of course, is to maintain the strategic road network in such a way as to minimise whole-life costs while taking into account disruption to the road user and the need to keep the road in a safe and serviceable condition. The Highways Agency’s resurfacing programme matches the prioritised schemes against the funds available. Over the past five years, road maintenance per network mile has increased from £120,000 in 2000-01 to £159,000 in 2004-05, an increase of nearly one third. The programme is kept under review as priorities might change depending on the deterioration of a stretch of road.

In his letter to the hon. Member for Newbury of 17 February this year, the chief executive of the Highways Agency explained that the M4 is still very much in a serviceable condition. Further correspondence with the Minister of State on 28 April confirmed that position.

Of course I understand the caveats that the Minister has to give on these matters, but will she give a commitment that if the road surface deteriorates to the point where it needs replacing, an improved quiet road surface will be applied?

I can gladly give the hon. Gentleman the commitment that the deterioration of the road surface of the M4, as with any other, will be treated in the correct way. Of course, our ambition is to reduce motorway noise but I cannot predict—I know that the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting this—the rate of deterioration and the view that the Highways Agency will take on that. Of course, this debate will be drawn to the attention of the Highways Agency as well as that of the Minister of State, who is responsible for working with it.

It would be a shame if the debate were to conclude without my paying tribute to the work of the Highways Agency. Throughout my hon. Friend’s speech she has made continual reference to the way in which the Highways Agency has engaged with the process. In my experience in my constituency, officials from the Highways Agency have shown themselves consistently, over many years, to be highly sensitive to the real distress caused to my constituents and highly imaginative and constructive in trying to find solutions, and although such solutions have not yet all been found, they are constantly engaged. It is only proper that I should pay tribute to all those officials, who work so hard.

I am sure that that contribution is welcome, and that it will be appreciated by the Highways Agency. It is not often that colleagues in the agency are picked out in such a way and I thank my hon. Friend for doing so. I hope that that will be a reassurance to the hon. Member for Newbury, who represents his constituents well on the issue of motorway noise.

Maintenance of the section of the M4 that we are discussing is not required for the foreseeable future and has not been included in the current four-year programme of maintenance work. I readily acknowledge that that is disappointing for the hon. Gentleman, but I hope that he will understand that we are ensuring that a fair system is in place that will benefit the greatest number of people while giving the best value for money.

The Highways Agency is committed to completing mitigation schemes at all the sites on the original November 1999 list by March 2011. The policies that have been in place since 1998 have led to significant improvements for many residents living close to the strategic road network. Real differences have been made and we will continue to help those who are the most affected by road noise while ensuring best value for money. Although I realise that I have not been able to provide the direct response that I know the hon. Gentleman would have liked, I hope that he, his constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon will appreciate the work that is going on and the commitment to work as readily as we can to mitigate the effects of motorway noise.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes past Five o’clock.