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Motorway Congestion

Volume 494: debated on Thursday 25 June 2009

6. What recent discussions the Secretary of State has had with police forces on levels of motorway congestion following traffic accidents. (282103)

May I inform the right hon. Gentleman that the Secretary of State has had no recent discussions with police forces specifically on motorway congestion? The Highways Agency takes managing the motorway network seriously. In the event of a serious accident, the police are supported by traffic officers to ensure that delays are minimised and motorways are reopened promptly.

The Minister mentions serious accidents, but is he aware that after quite minor accidents, the police are inclined to regard the accident as a scene of crime and to cordon off long sections of motorway, causing immense tailbacks, frustration, economic loss, and motorists trying to find alternatives through small towns and along small roads? Will he have a word with the Highways Agency and the police? It is a particular problem at the Bristol end of the M5 during a busy holiday period, when the motorway is already congested. There must be a better way of dealing with those accidents, such as photographing them, getting the vehicles off the scene and getting the traffic moving.

The right hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear that I spoke to the chief executive of the Highways Agency about the matter yesterday. He informed me that a joint strategic agreement on traffic incident management has been in existence since 2006, and that one of its aims is to improve clear-up times. The police must take as long as it takes to deal with what may be a crime scene, but the Highways Agency has helped them with technology that can rapidly determine and record evidence such as the position of vehicles. As I said earlier, following the completion of police work, traffic officers take over to ensure that the motorway is open as soon as possible.

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Speaker, and hope that I shall catch your eye on many future occasions.

I am sure my hon. Friend is aware that one of the most congested parts of the motorway network is the M1 south of Sheffield, where a large number of accidents occur. Steps are being taken to widen the M1 between junctions 25 and 28, and consideration is being given to either widening it or introducing hard-shoulder running up to junction 34. Will my hon. Friend assure me that whatever scheme is adopted, variable speed limits will be introduced on that section of the motorway so that we can reduce congestion, ensure smoother running at peak periods and, in particular, lower the high levels of pollution around Tinsley, in my constituency?

As my hon. Friend says, the combination of hard-shoulder running and the application of active traffic management is an important tool, enabling us to squeeze every drop of capacity out of our existing road infrastructure.

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Speaker.

With the advent of new technology, more use is being made of electronic signs on motorways, especially mobile electronic signs. Why are they not deployed at motorway access points? Is the Minister aware that most of the congestion that follows an accident is caused by new traffic entering a motorway that drivers do not know is shut?

The hon. Gentleman has put his finger on the button. Technology of that kind is used increasingly throughout the motorway network to enable us to manage vehicles as effectively as possible, especially when incidents arise.

I congratulate you, Mr. Speaker, and the new ministerial team.

What is the Minister’s estimate of the cost to the United Kingdom economy of an hour’s closure of a stretch of a key motorway such as the M25 or the M62?

We know that closure imposes costs. That is why we want to respond to incidents as effectively as we can. I have already set out the approach taken by the Highways Agency, in conjunction with the police, to ensure that roads are opened as quickly as possible.

The Government have no comprehension of the huge cost impact of these closures. They have broken their promises on congestion again and again. In their entire term of office they have built less than 20 miles of new motorway, and they have a road maintenance backlog of 13 years. Have they not manifestly failed motorists in this country?

That was a somewhat surprising response from Her Majesty’s official Opposition, who once told us to vote blue and go green. It is clear that that is no longer their commitment if they talk of a massive investment in motorway building and give no indication of how they would resource it. We are investing in the nation’s infrastructure, and they clearly would not do so.

Should the police clear congestion using British-assembled vehicles? Can my hon. Friend confirm or deny the rumour that there is currently a British-assembled Mini awaiting allocation in the ministerial car pool? Will he show leadership and volunteer to use it, and will he cut through the petty bureaucracy that allows—

It is clearly for the Highways Agency and/or the police to ensure that they obtain best value for the taxpayer when purchasing vehicles. However, if my hon. Friend has any new information that he wishes to share with me, I shall be happy to meet him to discuss it.