It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs. Humble. This is the first time that I have spoken with you in the Chair. Little did I think, when we first sat together as colleagues on the Select Committee on Work and Pensions after I was first elected in 2001, that we would be here today. I know that if I move out of order on any point, you will swoop ruthlessly upon me, as you did in those early days of my parliamentary experience.
I welcome the Minister, who is moving to his place. As recently as July and August, I received letters on this matter from his ministerial colleague, the hon. Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), who appears to have been dealing with the matter to date. I am sure that the Minister will explain why it is he who is dealing with it today.
I am delighted to have secured the debate, which gives those Members whose constituencies the M40 passes through the chance to speak about it and any concerns arising from it. Not surprisingly, I intend to speak largely about a stretch of the M40 in Buckinghamshire that runs approximately from junction 3 in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), who is here, up through junction 4 in my constituency to junction 5 in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), who is also here, and then yonder into the deep beyond.
As I told the Department for Transport last week, the main issues that I want to raise today are noise and safety. I shall ask a few questions about the development at Stokenchurch, but will leave that issue largely to my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury, and I shall also ask a few questions about the development at Handy Cross roundabout. In order to explore all those matters, I have to delve into a little history, but the Minister, hon. Members and you, Mrs. Humble, will be relieved to hear that I do not intend to go too far back into mediaeval times, when the road to Oxford wandered, as it still does today, in a sense, from London to Oxford and back again through Wycombe.
I shall start in the 1960s, because what is now the M40 in the area that I am discussing was originally a bypass. As was the fashion of the time, the bypass was designed to pass very close to the villages that it was relieving, including not only High Wycombe in my constituency, but the villages of Bolter End, Wheeler End and Lane End. The first section was constructed in the late 1960s, in the days of the Wilson Government, as a dual-lane road from Handy Cross at junction 4 to Stokenchurch. That road was later designated the M40.
By the early 1980s—we move on from the Wilson period to the early Thatcher period—it was clear that the national motorway network required the extension of the M40 to Birmingham. By that time, environmental awareness was greater than it had been in the 1960s, so the extension from junction 5 to Birmingham was routed away from villages. The feeling in my constituency, certainly, and I think in those of my hon. Friends, is that because the section of the M40 that passes through our constituencies was built earlier, our villages are closer to the noise and disturbance than those near to the sections that were constructed later.
By the late 1980s, moving into the late Thatcher period, it was evident that the dual-lane section of the M40 would not do any more and that it needed to be widened to take the extra traffic. As the work was within existing highway limits, there was no public inquiry and no environmental treatment of the area other than tree planting at the roadsides. It has long been a local grouse in our area that that lack of environmental treatment contrasts with the landscaping and noise protection barriers that were erected between junctions 1A and 3 in the mid-1990s. That section is further down the M40, closer to London, and runs through the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson), who is here.
The widening was unsurprisingly followed by an increase in noise. At first, it was assumed locally that that was simply because of the increased volume of traffic, but it soon became evident that there was an additional factor. The old motorway was surfaced with “quiet” stone mastic asphalt, whereas the new, widened, areas were surfaced with so-called normal asphalt. Some compensation payments were made; indeed, I still get a steady trickle of letters about compensation payments.
Since that period in the late 1980s, traffic has increased further, causing yet more noise. I shall give some figures: 20 years ago, approximately 2,500 heavy goods vehicles a day travelled through that section of the M40; now, almost 3,000 pass through it each night—one every 12 seconds, I am told—which is a 24-hour total of up to 14,000. I pause to consider the number of people who are affected by the problem. I have already named the villages of Lane End, Bolter End and Wheeler End in my constituency, but I also want to mention and honour the work of the M40 Chilterns environmental group, a group of constituents from the section running from the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield all the way up through the Wycombe and Aylesbury constituencies into that of my hon. Friend the Member for Henley. The group has been lobbying Ministers, the Highways Agency, which it has met, and local MPs for at least three years. I shall come back to some of the group’s particular questions about noise.
According to a group publication, “Making the M40 a better motorway through the Chilterns”, by Nigel King, which I have here and which I perused closely before the debate to refresh my memory, 10,000 residents are affected by noise in the section between junctions 3 and 4, near Loudwater and Flackwell Heath in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield, and near Daws Hill in mine, and another 10,000 are affected between junctions 4 and 5 in the places that I have mentioned. My recollection of the distribution of those numbers is that there is a particularly large cluster of residents at Stokenchurch, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury, who will doubtless speak about that later.
Obviously, I cannot relate from first hand the constituency experiences of my colleagues, but I am frequently told by my constituents in Lane End that when the wind is blowing roughly westwards, pretty much the whole village is affected. Right at the top of my pile of papers I have only the latest correspondence from constituents who have quite rightly made their views known to me, as they have to the Department.
Mr. King calculates that the overall noise and visual pollution affects at least 25,000 residents in the whole area, and that people who live within 150 m of the motorway suffer very serious noise and pollution, which also affects—I say this almost as a footnote, but it is important—the walkers and riders who enjoy time out in the Chilterns, which is an area of outstanding natural beauty. He says that the noise can be heard more than 2 miles away. I should add that both Buckinghamshire county council and Wycombe district council in my constituency are sympathetic to the group’s aims.
According to Mr. King, SMA or quiet asphalt has been applied between sections 3 and 4, but that leaves 10,000 people affected by the noise between junctions 4 and 5. He says that SMA has been applied to 15 per cent. of the surface, and the Minister may be able to update that figure. I understand that SMA is usually applied in the left-hand lane where heavy goods vehicles tend to travel, but Mr. King makes the point that much of the noise is generated not only by lorries but by cars passing in the other two lanes that have not yet been treated between junctions 4 and 5.
In 2005, the Department published its M40/A40 route management strategy, which stated that the Department’s aim is
“to minimise the effects of the M40 on both the natural and built environment”
and that it wants
“to take practical steps to minimise noise and disturbance. This includes providing appropriate highway designs and making more use of noise reduction technologies.”
The Minister knows that the Highways Agency has identified fewer than 13 noise hot spots between junctions 3 and 8, and he also knows that the long and short of the matter is that the Department’s view is that they are not noisy enough to have priority treatment or to be treated before 2011.
I have some questions for the Minister to tease out the Department’s thinking. They have been put to me by the M40 group, and if he cannot answer them all today, I would be happy, as I am sure would my hon. Friends, if he would write to me. First, what noise measurements have been made recently in the affected areas, or is the Department simply relying on estimates? My hon. Friends can confirm that the M40 Chilterns environmental group has measured noise on the motorway, so it would be interesting to know whether the Department has regularly done the same.
Secondly, the group claims that the noise severity index on which treatment is measured is biased against rural and semi-rural communities, and argues that people who are as badly affected as people in non-rural areas do not receive the same treatment because they are present in less concentrated numbers. I am not in a position to take a view on that, but will the Minister say to what degree his Department has looked at the way in which similar indices are run in similar European countries to see whether they are roughly parallel, whether any lessons can be learned from the way in which that is done, and whether his Department is studying that?
Thirdly, the group claims that there is an anomaly in treatment. It says that noise levels on the M50 at Bromsberrow Heath are lower than on the M40 in the vicinity of Stokenchurch, but that Stokenchurch has not been treated and Bromsberrow Heath is in the process of being treated. If I send the Minister the group’s calculation, which is detailed, will he return it to me with his comments? The group is claiming that there is a question of equity.
Fourthly, the Highways Agency wrote to me in 2004 saying:
“Developments in lighting technology now make it possible to significantly reduce the amount of light that spills over from the motorway to the surrounding area.”
If the Minister does not have time to deal with that today, will he write to me explaining the basis on which his Department is reducing, and plans further to reduce, light pollution from motorways, which is also a problem in the affected areas that I am describing?
Fifthly, and last in this section, what guidance has the Department recently published on the environmental noise directive, which the group has claimed for a while could affect noise treatment?
I shall turn from noise to safety. There has recently been a bad run of accidents on the M40 in the general vicinity of junction 3. The Sunday before last, a man was unfortunately killed in a four-car pile-up. The Minister may know that in July and August I wrote to his colleague, the hon. Member for Glasgow, South, about a previous accident and concrete barriers, to which I shall turn in a moment. I have looked at the accident figures, and Buckinghamshire county council notes that in the past three years there have been 78 casualties in Buckinghamshire and that 17 were between junctions 3 and 4. The Minister will know that the Highways Agency’s view seems to be that the M40 is not as dangerous on the whole as, for example, the M1. The council notes that no immediate road safety solutions have been identified for the M40, and that progress is slow. According to my local paper, the Bucks Free Press, keepmoving.co.uk, whose site I was trawling this morning to ensure that it still exists, conducted a survey that found that that stretch was the third worst in the south-east. I realise that the Highways Agency continually examines accident data to try to identify problem hot spots, but has it contacted keepmoving.co.uk about that claim, and what analysis has it made of the site’s figures?
One recent accident in the general vicinity of junction 3—not the one on the Sunday before last—involved crossover, which is largely what my correspondence with the hon. Member for Glasgow, South, was about. The Minister knows that the Department's view is that
“the overall risk to both road users and road workers will be reduced by the use of the rigid concrete barriers on the central reserve of heavily trafficked motorways.”
He said in a letter to me on 14 August that the Department's research programme for this year
“includes a review that could justify an acceleration of the concrete barrier programme.”
When is that review due to report?
I shall turn to two final issues. First, there is a proposal to close the M40 overbridge at junction 5 at Stokenchurch for up to nine months—my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury will talk about that in more detail—and that closure will be complete. It will not be the closure of just one lane, allowing traffic to pass from north to south. That is likely to send some traffic trundling on the highly unsuitable rural roads through Fingest, Frieth, Skirmett, Hambleden and other small villages in my constituency. My hon. Friend wants to know whether both lanes must be closed, because that will cause considerable disruption.
Finally, the Minister knows that Handy Cross at junction 4 is a large crossing point. It has been under a continual process of improvement work almost since I was elected in 2001. It is now crossed by even more lanes than before to ease the passage of traffic. What study has the Department made of the extent to which the changes are delivering the improvements that they were meant to deliver? What effect have the changes had, if any, on local traffic moving through A and B roads? With that, I shall take my seat. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman), I welcome you to the Chair, Mrs. Humble. I congratulate him on securing this debate. I shall not repeat at length everything that he said. Instead, I shall focus on several issues, particularly those that affect my constituents in Stokenchurch and, to an extent, in the village of Ibstone, which is south of the motorway.
Let me come straight away to noise. Noise nuisance from the M40 has been raised with me every year that I have been in this place. Stokenchurch is worst affected, more than any other village or hamlet along that stretch of the M40 in Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire. For years, the people of Stokenchurch have, in effect, sacrificed much of their quality of life in favour of allowing the national interest to prevail in the form of the M40 motorway, which is important to individual drivers and, obviously, to commercial hauliers. It is not unreasonable for people in Stokenchurch to say that it is about time they had a bit of consideration, given the disruption and nuisance in their lives as a consequence of what they acknowledge is something that is in the overall national interest.
It is not just me saying that Stokenchurch is worst affected. The Highways Agency commissioned an assessment of noise hot spots alongside the M40. The report was drawn up by Transport Research Laboratory Ltd in association with Halcrow and was presented to the agency in 2006. It clearly identifies Stokenchurch as the worst affected of several settlements along the south-eastern stretch of the M40.
The report gives Stokenchurch a noise severity index rating of 10.2, which is significantly higher than that accorded to any other settlement in the vicinity. The problem for my constituents is the way in which the NSI is calculated. The calculation gives considerable weighting to the size of the settlement affected, with a measurement of the number of people who are directly affected built in to it, so year after year my constituents are told, in effect, that they simply have to bite their tongues and put up with the nuisance.
The nuisance is not getting any better. As we all know, the flow of vehicles continues to increase: it now averages more than 90,000 a day. Some efforts have been made to reduce noise by installing noise suppressant road surfaces, but I understand that that has not been done across all the carriageways, even in the Stokenchurch section of the motorway, but only on those parts of the carriageway that have become worn. The attitude that the Highways Agency takes at present is simply to say to my constituents, “Sorry, it is tough, but you are too small to count for much. All we can do is wait until your stretch of motorway wears out. Perhaps we will put in a noise suppressant surface when we have to resurface for maintenance reasons.”
Such treatment of rural settlements contrasts with all the Government’s fine words about looking after the countryside as well as the town. This morning, I wanted to check that my memory of Government policy had not faded. I looked at what the website for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs says about rural proofing. It states:
“Rural proofing is a commitment by the Government to ensure that all”—
“its domestic policies take account of rural circumstances and needs…It is a mandatory part of the policy making process…Rural proofing applies to all policies, programmes and initiatives and it applies to both the design and delivery stages.”
Not only are my constituents failing to see the Department for Transport and the Highways Agency take such an attitude, but salt was rubbed into the wound when I received a written answer from the Minister’s predecessor, the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman), stating:
“No action has been taken on ‘rural proofing’ the policy on reducing noise problems from the strategic road network.”—[Official Report, 16 October 2006; Vol. 450, c. 925W.]
There is a stark, blatant contrast between what the Government say on the DEFRA website about their commitment to rural proofing across the board, and what Ministers are actually telling me and what the Highways Agency is telling my constituents in Stokenchurch and Ibstone about the practical, day-to-day conduct of policy in so far as it affects them.
I would ask the Minister to review his policy on action against motorway noise, to deliver what the Government have repeatedly promised in respect of rural proofing and equity between urban and rural areas, and, as a priority, to ensure that decent noise-reducing resurfacing work is done on the sections of the M40 in Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire that have yet to benefit from that change. I would also ask him to take action to introduce further noise suppressant measures, whether bunts or fences.
At the root of the problem faced by my constituents and those of my hon. Friends is the fact that they are living alongside a motorway that was built many years ago to standards of design and environmental protection that nowadays would be regarded as utterly inadequate. If we were to build a new motorway today, we would introduce as a matter of course much more effective noise-reducing measures than were ever introduced on the M40, either when the first stretch was built or when the extension to Birmingham was built. It is time that the Government considered that legacy and took action on it.
Let me deal briefly with pollution. The area of the M40 around Stokenchurch is one of a small number of air quality management zones in Buckinghamshire. Pollution comes primarily from the motorway, so I was somewhat surprised when I saw an e-mail from the Highways Agency to the M40 Chilterns environmental group stating that the agency did not have any responsibility for contributing to an air quality management strategy once the zone had been identified. There seems to be a genuine problem with joining up different arms of national and local government so that collectively we can find a solution. Again, the problem is unlikely to get better. Traffic forecasts are not predicting a reduction in the number of vehicles using that stretch of the M40.
Finally, let me deal with the bridge at Stokenchurch. It is not an exaggeration to say that the announcement by the Highways Agency that it proposed to close the bridge entirely for between seven and nine months was met with horror in Stokenchurch and in the nearby village of Ibstone. I do not know whether the Minister has ever turned off the motorway at that junction, but part of the village of Stokenchurch actually lies to the south of the motorway, and if local residents want to access the centre of their own village, they must cross that motorway bridge. They have now been told that they will be able to walk or cycle over the bridge, which is not much good if one is in one’s 80s, and that if they want to go to their local shops, or visit their friends, church or the local school, they will have to undertake a long diversion either by going down the slip road and up the motorway to the nearest junction and turning round, or by going along narrow, winding country lanes of the sort that my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe discussed.
There is an issue about the proposal’s environmental impact. The Chilterns Conservation Board contacted me, and it is very worried that country lanes running through the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty will be harmed by the impact of diverted heavy vehicles. The agency’s proposal for the bridge’s complete closure has been met with strong opposition from the parish councils of Stokenchurch and Ibstone, as well as from numerous individual constituents. Stokenchurch parish council hopes to arrange a public meeting in the near future, and officials from the Minister’s Department and from the Highways Agency will be invited to attend.
What will happen about access by the emergency services to the southern part of Stokenchurch and to Ibstone? Has it been thought through? What will the impact be on school bus services, with, for example, children who are taken by bus from Ibstone to schools in High Wycombe? What about scheduled bus services? What about refuse collection? The decision has been sprung on local residents, and it amounts to enormous disruption to their everyday lives for a long period. From the point of view of the Highways Agency, I understand that to close the whole bridge for seven to nine months means that the work is likely to take less time and to be cheaper than if the agency carried it out while keeping at least one traffic-controlled lane open to all vehicles. However, the initial proposal simply gets the balance wrong. The agency has put its understandable interests ahead of the enormous disruption that will be caused to local people, and I ask the Minister to reconsider the plan and come back with a proposal that secures a better balance between the agency’s interests and those of my constituents.
Noise, safety and pollution will get worse not better if they are not addressed immediately. There are not only regular forecasts of year-on-year increases in traffic flow, but Government proposals for extensive residential development in Aylesbury and Milton Keynes, which mean that local authorities are starting to think in the medium to long-term about the need for a new trunk or major road from Milton Keynes and the Aylesbury area to the Thames valley. If that goes ahead, it will almost inevitably mean even more traffic flowing on to the M40 from those new developments. If we are to find a solution, that consideration must be built into the Government’s plans. It is in the interests not only of the residents, but of the country.
I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in the debate, and particularly grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) for having secured it. The title of the debate allows us to range fairly widely on the subject of the M40, although I shall confine myself principally to what I consider to be the three major issues: road safety, traffic noise and pollution.
The situation in my constituency is slightly different. The M40 starts in my constituency at the Denham viaduct, running through the constituency to junction 3 and then up to Handy Cross. The first section from Denham to the Loudwater viaduct was substantially improved when work on it finished about eight years ago.
I shall start on a complimentary note, because a great deal of investment was put into noise reduction during the motorway’s widening to four lanes along that stretch, and I receive very few complaints about traffic noise. However, I have some regrets. For example, I regret that when it was turned into a four-lane motorway, it was thought necessary, as a matter of obligatory safety, to put in road lighting. Visually, it has intruded on an area of sensitive landscaping, and I repeat to the Government what has become a bee in my bonnet: I simply do not accept the necessity of lighting four-lane motorways as a matter of immediate practice. It is rather extraordinary that we continue to do so when the signal that is sent out about energy wastage by the continuing willingness to put in lamp standards almost everywhere is utterly regrettable. I hope that the Minister will take that point on board.
From evidence that I have seen with my own eyes, I have absolutely no doubt that as a direct result of lighting motorways at night, the overall speed of vehicles rises by about 10 mph. That may be significant when we consider road safety. It is my general observation from driving along motorways throughout the country.
My other point about that stretch of motorway is that I regret the decision to build a motorway service area at the Beaconsfield roundabout, a development that will start very soon. It fills me with foreboding, because I simply do not think that the traffic congestion consequences have ever been fully taken into account. It will be an off-road motorway service area to the south of the junction on an extremely busy road, the A355 running down to Slough. In view of the existing congestion, the service area will prove to have been a serious planning error, coupled with the fact that the local police continue to tell me that they do not have enough resources to police the inevitable rise in crime that they foresee from its location. I flag those points up to the Minister; they have been a refrain of mine for a considerable period. Having said that, however, I return to my first point that the noise reduction measures along that stretch of the motorway have been very effective.
I contrast that fact with what happens the moment one reaches the Loudwater viaduct. The stretch from there to Handy Cross is also in my constituency, although as one goes up the hill to Handy Cross, the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe comes up on the southern flank. There is absolutely no doubt that that unimproved stretch of motorway, which is in the same condition as it was when the High Wycombe bypass was built many years ago, generates high noise levels. The matter is added to and complicated—this is not the Government’s fault, but we have to live with it—by the fact that the Loudwater viaduct, by its very nature, takes traffic over a valley at a high level. As a consequence, the motorway noise affects not only the houses that are adjacent to the motorway, but, I suspect far more, the property that is a considerable distance away. Indeed, I suspect that the houses further away—those on the flank of the hillside leading away from the viaduct—suffer far more from the noise than those underneath.
Let me just give the Minister a flavour of what I am talking about by picking a couple of quotes from my voluminous correspondence on the issue. First, I have a letter from a lady living in Taymar close in Loudwater, which I would not describe as immediately adjacent to the motorway. She says:
“The house is situated on a hill which must be at roughly the same height as the motorway. In the winter when there are no leaves on the trees the motorway is visible.
The noise is there all day and evening and can be heard behind double glazing. It must be unbearable for the people in the village who are situated closer to the road.”
In fact, she might be mistaken, because the noise near her property is probably greater, despite the extra distance.
Another lady who wrote to me is a nurse living at Clapton approach in Wooburn Green. She writes:
“The sound mostly reverberates from the Loudwater viaduct, along the valley, rebounding from the hills so that often the noise appears to come from all directions at once! It is no longer pleasant to sit out in the garden in the summer months and the unrelenting noise, particularly on Friday and Sunday night, makes it almost impossible to sleep.
I am not one given to complaining, but feel the situation is now so bad that if something cannot be done, my husband and I may be forced to move away from this lovely little community”.
I could quote many other letters in the same vein and I do not think that these people are exaggerating. The configuration of the road along this unimproved stretch is a serious issue for local residents, and although other issues further along also need addressing, the issue that I have highlighted is very marked.
Residents in Flackwell Heath, further up towards Handy Cross, are also affected by the motorway noise. There, the noise is a bit more classic in the sense that it just spills out over the motorway, depending on the direction of the wind. Again, the motorway surface is made from an old-fashioned material, and we have absolutely no noise-reduction protections along the edge of the motorway. As my hon. Friends have rightly said, the traffic volumes on the motorway have increased exponentially over the past 10 years, particularly following the completion of the Birmingham route, and what was previously a bypass is now one of the country’s major trunk roads.
I very much hope that something can be done quickly about this issue. In dealing with it, the problem has always been that the Highways Agency has responded by saying that something will be done some time in the programme, but that nobody is quite sure when. Action should be a higher priority, because the sheer number of people being adversely affected by noise nuisance not only immediately adjacent to the motorway, which is perhaps inevitable, but very widely around the Loudwater viaduct justifies it.
I want now to say something about Handy Cross. I would be pleased to see any statistical information that the Minister can provide about how the new improvements are working there, because that would be useful. I often go up the A404 to Handy Cross, and my impression is that the road junction works have brought about a marked improvement. There seem to be fewer traffic queues, and the environmental considerations that were properly taken into account have had a pleasant impact; indeed, the scheme has been well landscaped and is a credit to those who carried it out. Again, therefore, I am happy to say some warm words about what has been done.
Let me turn, however, to the issue of road safety in the area. As the Minister will have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe, there was a fatal accident the Sunday before last on the stretch of the M40 that runs down from Handy Cross to the Loudwater viaduct. That followed a pattern of such accidents—17 was, I think, the figure quoted for the relevant period—which suggests that that stretch of motorway is particularly dangerous, although the Government may persuade me otherwise. Frankly, it is not difficult to see what the problem is. If one approaches the Loudwater viaduct from Handy Cross, one is on a sustained downward slope. As a result, anybody driving at 70—one must face the fact that people often drive through Handy Cross at 75 or 80 mph—will, without putting their foot further down on the accelerator, and unless they decide to slow up, be doing 90, 95 or 100 mph by the time they reach the viaduct at the bottom. This is also an area where it is easy to decide to overtake heavy goods vehicles.
On top of that, the road, which was designed as a bypass, has in it a bend that is probably somewhat sharper than anything that motorway engineers would construct nowadays. I am not saying that it is in some way impassable, but it does have a slight race course feel about it. I must say that that is in contrast to the descent to the Loudwater viaduct from the Beaconsfield end, which is largely straight and which, on top of that, was subject to major improvements when it was widened to four lanes. I am not surprised, therefore, to learn of the frequency of the accidents on this stretch; indeed, some months before the fatality that I mentioned, there was a serious accident, in which a vehicle was left hanging over the edge of the viaduct and over the warehouses and employment centres immediately underneath.
Something can and must be done to improve safety on this stretch. I am not an expert in these things, but I simply want to suggest a few ideas to the Minister. First, a concrete barrier down the centre of the road would undoubtedly reduce the risk of motor vehicles crossing the carriageway and going through the central reservation, because there are places where high-speed accidents and multiple pile-ups can take place. Secondly, consideration could certainly be given to the appropriate speed at which vehicles should come down the hill, to see whether something cannot be done to deter drivers from going so fast, which classically results in their vehicle running away with them as they come down the hill. That could involve speed cameras, average speed cameras and even—I would not necessarily be against this—reducing the speed on this stretch of the motorway to 50 or 60 mph under certain circumstances. I do not know what the solution is, but I am convinced that there is one and that it could contribute to reducing the risk that this stretch of the motorway poses. I suspect that such works would be independent of the noise-reduction improvements that I might also wish to see at the site.
I might add that I am no great fan of speed cameras, having had my 28 years of driving without being detected ended by a speed camera in my constituency a couple of years after I was elected. However, they have their uses, and on such a stretch, where there is a real safety issue, I would not be at all averse to introducing, above all, an average speed camera to keep drivers down to the appropriate speed limit for this stretch of road.
I am conscious that others wish to participate. I am grateful to the Minister for listening and I look forward to his response. I am sure that something can be done to improve safety. I am also sure that, generally, my constituents in Loudwater, Flackwell Heath, Wooburn Green and Wooburn Moor are entitled to have the Government come along and put in place a noise-reduction package for them.
First, of course, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) on securing the debate, and I support everything that he said. I also support virtually everything that my hon. Friends the Members for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) said, with the possible exception of the suggestion by my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield that we should have more speed cameras on the motorway—I think that I would need more argument on that before supporting it, although I do not necessarily rule it out.
I want briefly to make almost exactly the same point as my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury about a bridge. Before I do, however, I want to support the general point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe, which is that the motorway was never built to cope with quite as much traffic. If the Minister would like a graphic representation of that, he need only stand at the foot of the great Chiltern cutting, where my constituency begins. On any weekday evening, he can look up and see so much traffic struggling to get through that Khyber pass that the winking tail lights will resemble a flow of molten lava. That was never a sight that one could see 20 years ago or even, I think, 10 years ago. That is as graphic an expression as I can provide of the increase in the weight of traffic being experienced by people in villages along that stretch; they never expected it. I do not think that the engineers who designed the M40 ever conceived when they built it quite so close to those villages that that number of cars would be passing along it.
A further problem, of course, with the relevant stretch is, I am given to understand from excellent work done by the M40 Chilterns environmental group, that the spoil from the cutting was used to create a gigantic rampart through into Oxfordshire and the beginnings of my constituency, so that the noise could be more effectively dispersed throughout the villages. I cannot believe that it would now be possible—I imagine that it would be far too expensive—to turn that dyke into a trough, which is what it should have been, but I think that the villagers deserve some noise abatement. I am thinking in particular of Lewknor and Postcombe, and, above all, Milton Common, which is very close to the motorway.
I want to elaborate on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury about what can be done in the interval provided by the repair of the bridges. We have a bridge at junction 7, which, as I am sure the Minister knows, will be repaired over nine months next year. As the Highways Agency acknowledges, that provides a golden opportunity to do something about noise along the relevant stretch. There will be traffic calming measures and bollards and a great deal of disruption. It seems to me that it would be sensible to consider that time for the erection of greater and more protective barriers to the sound pollution that is so greatly diminishing the quality of life of people in the villages. I hope that if the Minister cannot today come up with a precise answer about what he might consider doing in the nine-month interval next year, he may agree to meet me and representatives of the M40 Chilterns environmental group, to discuss a way forward and how we could use the opportunity next year to sort out the problem.
It is a pleasure to be here under your chairmanship this morning, Mrs. Humble.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) on securing what has been a very interesting debate on the M40. When I first read the title I was not 100 per cent. sure what issues would be raised. I imagined that the debate would be to do with the condition of the road surface; certainly, on occasion, when I must travel to London by road, I use the M40, and I am fully aware that the oldest sections of the road are in a particularly poor condition. However, when I read the debate pack prepared for us by the Library it became clear that many other issues might be raised, which, as a Member for a north-west constituency, I was not particularly aware of.
Suggested issues for discussion were concerns about the potential improvements around the Handy Cross area; the lack of service stations along the M40—although some of its service stations are considerably better than some on other motorways; and the potential impact on the road of developments around the Bicester area. However, I also thought that road safety issues were almost certain to arise in connection with the M40. Certainly, reading the keepmoving.co.uk website gave me an insight into concerns about safety on the M40. It advocates further use of speed cameras on motorways. I understand that there were 26 accidents on the relevant stretch of the M40 in the first six months of 2007. There are also more than 200 motorway accidents a year involving vehicles crossing from one side to the other, and the difference in the safety of metal or concrete barriers is clearly a matter for concern.
The hon. Member for Wycombe began with a brief history of the M40 and the evolution of the road from its original form into the connecting motorway to the midlands. He concentrated on the issue of noise, and its impact on villages nearest to the original stretches of the M40 before the motorway was expanded. He also talked about the widening of the motorway causing additional noise. I have had experience of that as a Manchester MP. When the M60 was widened it was necessary to cut down all the trees that were there to protect residents from the noise to make way for the extra motorway lanes. So I sympathise about problems connected with the widening. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned that the number of heavy goods vehicles had increased from about 2,500 a day to about 14,000 a day. Clearly, that has a significant impact on noise. He talked particularly about noise hot spots, but with some frustration that they were perhaps not noisy enough to be considered a priority for work on the road surface.
The hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members touched on the issue of light pollution. I was not sure whether he was suggesting that we should be better off without street lighting on motorways; I shall say more about that. Finally, he raised the issue of safety, which is of course paramount. I hope that the Minister intends to say something about the accident spots that several hon. Members have mentioned.
The hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) also raised the matter of noise. I understand his obvious frustration that the M40 is not considered a priority. He made an impassioned plea for the necessary resources to upgrade the road surface to deal with noise. He also went on to discuss in some detail the proposed closure of the bridge at Stokenchurch. That is another issue on which I can sympathise with hon. Members, because where work was necessary in my constituency, there was a debate about whether it was more sensible to close a bridge entirely for a short time, or to keep it open in one direction, which meant that the repair work would go on for longer. I shall be interested to hear from the Minister whether consideration has been given to the possibility of keeping half the bridge open, to ensure that it can be used throughout the repair period, and whether financial considerations were among the reasons for what has been decided so far. I see the Minister shaking his head, and I am sure that he will clarify the matter when he responds to the debate.
The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), with his usual eloquence, gave us a helpful lesson in geography as regards the beginning of the motorway. I must confess that I was unaware that the beginning of the M40 was in his constituency. He also discussed the issue of noise. However, I should like to take up his point on street lighting. I disagree with him about the lighting of motorways. I believe, and I wonder whether the Minister will say something to clarify the issue, that street lighting on motorways has resulted in better accident statistics. I accept that the waste of energy is an issue, but we could look at the use of solar power for street lighting on both local roads and motorways—it is used in my constituency. The first solar lighting in a park in the whole country is in my constituency.
I accept that there is statistical evidence that if a road is lit, the level of accidents is reduced. However, we must balance that against the enormous adverse environmental impact of street lighting, particularly in rural areas. Street lighting creates light pollution and an inability to see the night sky, and it sends an extremely negative message to the public about the availability of lighting in the overall context of energy use. For that reason, I should like to see a substantial reduction in street lighting. Interestingly, that is happening under financial constraints in my constituency, and I welcome it. Lights that have been in place on A roads for 30 or 40 years are being switched off, and the world does not seem to be coming to an end as a result.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention and I accept that we need to strike a balance but, from my personal driving experience, I believe that motorways with street lights are far safer than unlit motorways.
The hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) reiterated a number of the points made by his colleagues on the Conservative Benches, but I was disappointed that he came out against the idea of speed cameras along the section of the M40 to which he referred; I felt that the hon. Member for Beaconsfield made a good case for the installation of an average speed camera on that section of the M40. From my own experience, I can say that it is an area in which it is easy for motorists, unintentionally, to increase their speed. Average speed cameras would have a significant impact in ensuring that people stick to the speed limit.
My final point relates to the fact that all who have spoken mentioned the problems of noise and safety, but no one suggested a solution that involved the reduction of traffic. Surely we ought to offer solutions that would reduce traffic on our motorways, such as better investment in rail services or a lorry charging scheme to reduce the amount of road freight. Clearly, traffic on our motorways will not be reduced unless we invest significantly more money in public transport and discourage lorries from using motorways. Lorries cause a significant amount of the noise about which hon. Members complained, so it is disappointing that none of them offered a solution to the problems that involved reducing the traffic on our roads.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Wilshire. I am disappointed that Mrs. Humble has left, as I intended to tell her about the excellent hospitality that we received recently in Blackpool at the Woodleigh hotel in Yates street, which almost rivalled the hospitality in Scarborough. However, having served with you on the Transport Committee, Mr. Wilshire, I look forward to serving under your chairmanship.
Having listened to the debate, I believe that I am fortunate, because I have not often experienced the 87 miles of the M40 between Uxbridge and junction 15 near Warwick. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) on securing the debate and on attracting such a distinguished array of Conservative Front Bench talent: I feel some trepidation on my Westminster Hall debut. As my hon. Friend said, one problem on the M40 is that, unlike motorways that were built from scratch, it is an upgrade of existing roads and bypasses, which means that it is in close proximity to many people and villages. As traffic has increased in recent years, the problems have worsened, so I hope that the Minister will address some of my hon. Friend’s questions.
The village of Stokenchurch is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington). I am sure that the Minister has perused the Transport Research Laboratory report entitled, “An Assessment of Noise Hotspots Alongside the M40” and noted that it identifies Stokenchurch as the most noise-sensitive location on the motorway. My hon. Friend mentioned the noise severity index of 10.2 in Stokenchurch, which has a 2 km frontage on to the motorway. The next village to feature in the report is Lane End. It has a noise severity index of 3.1, which demonstrates the size of the problem in Stokenchurch. I hope that the Minister will at least tell us when the Stokenchurch section of the motorway is due for refurbishment or replacement, and whether that work can be fast-tracked and done slightly earlier.
My hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) spoke about the intrusive nature of lighting on the motorways and the implications for their carbon footprint. In my experience, although one can travel slightly more easily on lit sections of motorway, there is a moment, when the lighting ends and one’s eyes have not adjusted to the change, when it is difficult to see the way and to make progress. He also mentioned the issue of the motorway services that are due to open and some of the problems relating to them. I note that prior to the opening of new services, that section of motorway is, at 71 miles, the longest in the UK between services.
I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson), who has offered his apologies for leaving, was able to attend the debate and that his bicycle was not stolen again. He spoke about the high levels of traffic on the motorway looking at times like a molten lava flow. My research indicates that 90,000 vehicles a day use the M40. Motorways are the safest routes in the country and travelling on them is the safest way to travel, but the M40 between the Loudwater viaduct and Handy Cross in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield, is the sixth most lethal stretch in the UK. Two multiple pile-ups claimed the lives of four people last June and July, and the Thames valley safer roads partnership has begun a review to consider what measures can be taken to address that tragic problem. The cause of many accidents can be addressed by looking at ways of reducing congestion and we heard that a fourth lane has been put in place on a section of the M40.
I was perturbed on Monday to read that the Government might be cooling on road user charging, which could address some of the problems. If the project is to be aborted, will the Minister explain how the money used to employ 22 staff and engage 24 consultants on full or part-time work at the Department for Transport to look at road charging could be better spent? It would have been better to spend it improving the M40 than pay consultants and staff in the Department.
We heard about the fatal accident the Sunday before last, and in May three people were killed in an horrific seven-vehicle smash at Loudwater when a lorry careered through the central reservation into oncoming traffic. The hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) said that there were 200 such accidents, but I saw a figure on the internet—it may not be true—of 432 crossover accidents a year, 70 per cent. of which involve cars. One way of addressing the problem is to introduce concrete step safety barriers instead of the standard steel barriers, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe said.
Steel barriers have many drawbacks, not least their resistance to impact. When they are damaged, they must be repaired, which entails risks that often result in injury or even loss of life for the crews employed to repair them. They are breached much more often than concrete barriers. The Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that there has been no case so far of a vehicle breaching a concrete central barrier. The majority of carriageways in the UK are fitted with steel barriers that meet the N2 containment specification, which is for a 1.5 tonne vehicle hitting the barrier at the standard speed and angle. An H2 barrier—a specification that concrete central reservation barriers would meet—would control the impact of a 13-tonne vehicle. Given that there are 44-tonne vehicles on our roads and that there have not been any breaches, in practice even larger vehicles may well be contained on the carriageway. In fact, I saw a report about a driver of a very large vehicle on the M25 who owed his life to the concrete barrier.
Concrete barriers have other benefits. In particular, glare is reduced from vehicles travelling in the other direction. If motorcyclists hit steel barriers they are often seriously injured, not by the steel safety rails, but by the posts that hold them up. Concrete barriers, which are solid, would reduce accidents on the opposite carriageway caused by people in vehicles passing the scene of an accident trying to see what is happening—the practice known as rubber-necking.
Although new motorways are fitted with concrete safety barriers and all the research indicates that such barriers are the answer to the problem, why is it that since 2005, less than 100 km of existing barriers on a total 3,240 km of motorway have been replaced with concrete barriers? The M40, particularly the stretches to which my hon. Friends have referred, would be a good place to trial the barriers to determine their impact on accidents. In addition, concrete barriers are maintenance-free. Even when an accident occurs, there is no need to turn out a team to close lanes and put in contraflows or whatever is needed to carry out the repairs.
In some cases, because one concrete barrier replaces two steel barriers, it may be possible to narrow the central reservation to allow more space for additional lanes or, if the hard shoulder system is operating, to provide more space for emergency vehicles. The issue of noise was raised. When the M40 was constructed, it was a concrete road, fitted with random grooves. It has been upgraded to a hot rolled asphalt surface, but that is not good enough to deal with the problem of noise near villages. Five places in particular were identified: Lane End, Bolter End, Cadmore End, Ibstone and Stokenchurch. Although the report identified the carriageways in their vicinity as requiring resurfacing, it concluded that could be done only when maintenance was scheduled and the road was due to be repaired.
Will the Minister tell us when the carriageways are likely to be scheduled for repair and whether, if that is an awfully long way off, he can, through his good offices, queue-jump a little bit, given the problems? I again congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe on managing to identify, through this debate, some of these very serious issues, to which I hope the Minister will respond positively.
It is a pleasure to see you presiding over our proceedings now, Mr. Wilshire, having taken over from Mrs. Humble, although obviously I agree with the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) about the hospitality of Blackpool.
May I say immediately to the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman), whom I congratulate on securing this important debate, that I should have offered apologies before the debate began on behalf of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, who is unavoidably unable to be here to respond to the debate? As Minister responsible for highways, he will be fully briefed on today’s debate. I assure hon. Members that, should I not fully respond to the matters raised or questions asked, correspondence will follow to address the relevant points. However, I shall start with comments on noise, safety and the bridge works mentioned, before dealing with specific questions and points raised in the debate. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby on his debut as a Front Bencher in Westminster Hall today.
The M40 motorway between junctions 1 and 15 is part of the Government’s private finance initiative. It is managed by UK Highways M40 Ltd as part of a 30-year contract that commenced in 1997 and will end in 2027. The general strategy for maintaining the road is to replace the road surface layer as and when it comes to the end of its life, which is identified from regular pavement condition surveys. Overall, the condition of the surface is good.
I recognise the concerns of the M40 Chilterns environmental group—to which the hon. Member for Wycombe and others referred and which he actively supports—in relation to traffic noise from the M40. The Highways Agency installed noise mitigation barriers on sections of the M40 when it was widened between junctions 4 and 5 in 1991 and between the M25 and junction 3 in 1999. Since 2004, the agency has had a number of meetings and ongoing contact with the CEG regarding its noise concerns to clarify the agency’s position on noise.
In July 2006, the Highways Agency published a report entitled “An Assessment of Noise Hotspots Alongside the M40”, which concluded that all sites that were identified did not meet the national Hansard criteria for noise mitigation measures—noise fencing. There is a budget of £5 million a year, which enables the highest priority sites across England to receive noise mitigation works. The report recommended that a low noise surfacing material be used whenever maintenance is carried out.
Following detailed scrutiny of the Department for Transport’s and the Highways Agency’s budgets, Ministers agreed that the resurfacing of roads ahead of a maintenance need, for noise alleviation reasons, would not be allocated funding. The agency spends some £200 million each year on resurfacing work across the entire motorway and trunk road network in England. Although that is sufficient to maintain the network in a safe and serviceable condition, there is little scope for elective tasks.
Accident data for the M40, junctions 1A to 11, for the period 2004 to 2006 inclusive record an average of 234 personal injury accidents a year. That number of accidents equates to an average accident rate of 7.8 per 100 million vehicle kilometres, which is similar to the average accident rate of 8 per 100 million vehicle kilometres for motorways nationally.
The M40 has recently been the site of a number of incidents resulting in tragic loss of life. I recognise that any accident is highly regrettable, whether it involves serious personal injury or death. As a result, the Highways Agency implemented the traffic officer service on the M40 in early 2006 to manage incidents, reduce the delay to motorists and work in conjunction with the police to try to bring a speedy end to an incident and lessen the impact on the public.
The Highways Agency continues to analyse accidents on the M40 to see what measures can be implemented to improve road safety. The agency monitors the M40 motorway to identify accident cluster sites and, following identification of a number of potential cluster sites, it has undertaken in-depth analysis of those sites to develop measures to reduce the number of accidents at those locations. At junction 6, road markings were improved in December 2006, which will bring safety benefits. To anticipate a question from the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) about his speeding downward slide to the viaduct, I will check whether that area is among the clusters and write to him.
Following one incident, queries have been raised about installing concrete barriers on the Loudwater viaduct at junction 3. The Highways Agency introduced as policy the installation of concrete barriers in motorways’ central reserves in January 2005, after research by the Transport Research Laboratory found, as hon. Members have mentioned, that concrete barriers in the central reserve improve safety by reducing significantly the likelihood of crossover incidents as well as being essentially maintenance-free and unlikely to require repairs after a vehicle impact. The installation of concrete barriers is being phased in. They are specified for new road schemes, for road improvement schemes such as road widening and during major maintenance.
Various other improvement schemes have been completed or are being carried out this financial year. The most significant has been the recent installation of variable message signs between junctions 9 and 11. The signs meet the criteria for the provision of message signs and the automated motorway incident detection accident system, or Midas. The message signs at junctions 9 to 11 are now operational, and the Midas signs between junctions 10 and 11 will come online this month. The signs allow the national traffic control centre and the regional control centre to enable tactical and strategic diversions as well as warnings of inter-junction problems. The Government have also installed two message signs on each of the A34 northbound approaches to the M40 at junction 9 and the southbound approaches at junction 10. The signs warn of problems on the M40 and allow alternative routes to be taken.
Emergency central reserve crossing points have been installed at four locations between junctions 6 and 13 in Oxfordshire and Warwickshire to assist in releasing trapped traffic following incidents, and a study is being undertaken to identify additional sites. Additional crossing points will be installed as funding becomes available.
The M40-A404 junction at Handy Cross has suffered historically from high congestion and long queues, particularly during peak travel times. The Highways Agency carried out a £16 million improvement scheme that opened to traffic earlier this year, as has been mentioned. The scheme is essentially complete. Final adjustments to the traffic signals are required to link them to a control room so that they can be remotely monitored and the timings changed to suit traffic conditions. The agency expects the work to be installed and validated by the end of October.
Major roadworks are planned to the bridge over the motorway at junction 5, Stokenchurch, in late 2008 and 2009. Some of the bridge’s concrete is suffering from high chloride levels, causing the reinforcement to corrode from many years’ exposure to road salts. The affected concrete must be removed and replaced. During that time, the deck will be temporarily supported from beneath and will not be able to carry vehicular traffic. Pedestrian access will be maintained across the bridge. On the M40 beneath the bridge, three narrow lanes in each direction will be kept open during peak times.
Following a presentation to Stokenchurch parish council and comments from the local public, the proposed diversion routes during the bridge works have been reviewed. Changes are being discussed with the local highways authority and, if agreed, will be published shortly. Similar work to the bridge at junction 7 will need to be completed before work can start at junction 5. Work is programmed to commence at junction 7 in early 2008 and will continue for nine months. The bridge will have to be closed to traffic for six months.
I am advised that work done to date shows that a bridge closure is necessary. Part of the work will apparently involve demolishing the central pier and full-depth sections of the bridge deck. The deck will be temporarily supported for up to six months, which means that it is an engineering problem and not, as the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) asked, a question of finances. I shall return to the points made about Stokenchurch in a moment.
The hon. Member for Wycombe asked five questions about noise. They concerned noise measurement, the question of bias against rural communities and EU comparisons, anomalies in different measurements, light pollution and environmental threats. On noise measurement, he is correct that measurements have not been taken. The report used modelling to assess noise, and Highways Agency policy used the noise severity index to prioritise sites in England. As he and others have said, that maximises funding to treat high-population areas. In other words, areas where many people are affected are obviously given priority.
I will have to write to the hon. Gentleman on his third and fourth questions. On his fifth, the Highways Agency is working with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. That work on the environmental threats is in draft. It is incomplete at the moment, but it will be published in due course. He also asked three other questions: whether the Government were in contact with Keepmoving, whether we could accelerate the concrete barrier programme and about the Handy Cross improvements. I shall write to him on the second and third questions. As for contact with Keepmoving, we have visited the website, but there is no official contact, as it is an unofficial website of the group.
I shall certainly be happy to write to the hon. Gentleman in due course.
The hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) asked about joined-upness and the six months’ closure. He asked whether the Stokenchurch decision had been sprung and whether the matter of emergency and other services, such as education, has been addressed. I have explained that engineering difficulties make keeping the bridge open impossible. The Highways Agency has tried to work with local people. I mentioned discussions with the local authority, which are still taking place, and the attempt to help reduce the impact on air quality. We will follow up with more information on that aspect in our written response.
The emergency services have been consulted and their comments taken on board to ensure the best possible response in the event that they are called on to assist residents in the neighbourhood. Alternative diversion routes are under review to minimise the impact, mentioned by Opposition Members, of the knock-on effects of the closure. The information will be published shortly.
I appreciate the generous comments made by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield on those responsible for the improvements that he praised, and I note his suggestions about road safety speed. As road safety Minister, I agree with him and not his hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson). Perhaps that does not surprise him. I note his comments on motorway lighting. Clearly, it is a dividing line between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats and a matter that comes up from time to time. I shall write to him with information and the statistics on Handy Cross that he asked for.
This has been a well-informed debate. A number of important issues have been raised concerning hon. Members’ constituents. I apologise if I have not been able to answer their various questions as fully as they had hoped, but I assure them that we will write to them so that they have the fullest and best possible answers that we can give. I am sure that they will continue to press the Department for Transport. We shall continue to listen, and hopefully we shall make progress on a number of fronts.