It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. I am grateful to have the chance to raise this issue, which is of great importance to many communities throughout my constituency.
It would help to start by putting the issue in context, in case the Minister is not fully familiar with the stretch of road. The A38 is a dual carriageway, providing a convenient link from the M1 to Derby and on to Birmingham. Despite the efforts of some signposting on the M1, it is an attractive commuter route to Birmingham, especially when faced with the risk of delays on the M1 and M42, the generally suggested route.
Since the road was constructed about 30 or 40 years ago, the level of traffic, especially heavy lorries, using it has grown consistently, exacerbating the noise. There is real concern that the level of traffic will only continue to increase. There are some proposed developments, including one in my constituency that would add a new junction to the road and a new business park. As a result, we would all expect to see an increase, certainly in heavy goods traffic.
Employment and jobs are attracted into my constituency by the great transport links provided by the road, especially to the various industrial parks nearby. That is not something any of us wants to stop. I suspect the strategy for increasing the number of jobs is to build on the attractiveness of the road. However, that leaves us with the problem that a number of people up and down the road are suffering significantly from the level of noise.
It is useful to paint a picture of the geography of Amber Valley. The clue is in the name of the constituency. It is made up of lots of hills and valleys, through which the A38 sweeps. In places the road is higher than the neighbouring houses, and in others the houses look down on the road. Those two situations suffer some of the most significant noise problems.
Various communities up and down that nine-mile stretch of the road are in my constituency. We can start in the south in the small village of Coxbench, working northwards to Rawson Green and various bits of the town of Ripley that are quite close to the road. Moving further north, we come to Swanwick; that, too, abuts the road. The place that perhaps suffers the most significant problem, given the volume of houses, is the town of Alfreton. I have not listed every place that suffers an impact from the road, because my constituency contains so many separate communities.
It will be useful to explain the history of the road. Some places that are affected were there before the road was built. Sadly, when the road was constructed, the present rules and regulations on how close to houses new roads can be built, or on what noise abatement measures should be put in place, were not in force. We ended up with some slightly strange situations where houses are incredibly close to the road.
In various places, the road almost goes over houses, and some unfortunate people in Alfreton live in houses that are almost sandwiched between the A38 and the slip road that joins it at that point. One can only imagine the level of noise suffered by those who live there. I have visited one of those houses, and even with double glazing and with all the doors and windows closed there is a constant burr of noise when the road is busy; when the windows or the back door are open in the summer, the noise is unbelievable. It is not something that any of us would choose. The noise obviously has a major impact on quality of life.
I have tried to stress how significant a problem it is, although I do not doubt that it is a problem for all who live near trunk roads. The problem was recognised by the previous Government, because noise action plans for major roads were signed off by the then Secretary of State almost a year ago, on 15 March 2010. They set out action plans for tackling the problem.
A study has come up with some scary statistics. For instance, 9.7 million people in the country have to live with noise of more than 55 dB from major roads. That figure falls as the level of noise increases; about 74,000 people have to live with noise of more than 75 dB. Having experienced what I suspect was noise of more than 75 dB, I can tell the House that urgent action is needed. The study says that dealing with those locations is the first priority. The details provided by the Highways Agency show that four patches in my constituency fall within those first priority locations—Coxbench, Rawson Green and two stretches in Alfreton.
I have some concerns about exactly how that study was done. I was told that it was a desktop study that mainly considered distances between houses and the road. I do not know whether it took account of the fact that the road towers over houses or that other houses are somewhat higher than the road, but the nature of valleys can cause the noise to echo, resulting in the noise being louder than expected from a distance. Perhaps further work needs to be done to validate whether those sites, too, should be a first priority. I have listened to the noise in some parts of my constituency, and I am surprised that they are not shown as being at the same level as those that are considered to be first priority.
That leads me to the two themes that I hope the Minister will address. First, when can we expect to see action for those who live in first priority locations? Secondly, where will that leave those who are not in those locations? The action plan produced a year ago sets out four potential courses of action for those who live in first priority areas. In simple terms—I am not an expert—they are to erect noise barriers, with which we are all familiar; to install low-noise surfaces; to introduce traffic management measures; and to improve the noise insulation of affected properties. I suspect that on this stretch of the A38, traffic management measures will be a challenge, as it is a long run with no junctions from the M1 to Derby, and it attracts some to drive at high speeds—except at the rush-hour peak, when the traffic tends to back up.
To what extent does traffic divert from the A38 to the B6179, which seems to run parallel to it for a long stretch?
As with all such matters, trying to work out who uses what route at what time and for what purpose is a challenge. The A38 is a major trunk road, and unless there is a problem for those travelling through Amber Valley from Derby to the M1 or vice versa, I suspect that they are unlikely to divert to other routes. People who are making short, local journeys will clearly take a different view, and there are other options for those who might prefer a different route, but it depends where they are going. Most of the noise problems are caused by heavy goods vehicles going at significant speeds, but it is unlikely that HGV drivers would divert from the main road.
I doubt whether traffic abatement measures will help. If we were to say that the solution was to reduce the speed limit to 50 mph, we would hear howls of protest, especially as the Government are apparently talking about raising the speed limit on motorways to 80 mph. If the speed limit on the A38 were reduced, I am not sure how many drivers would observe it, given that many do not observe the existing speed limit.
A low-noise surface would be an attractive solution. It is used in some places, but I understand that funding does not allow the proactive replacement of such a surface; in most cases we have to wait until the existing surface has worn away and needs to be replaced, at which point the change could be made. I wonder whether there is any scope for proactive replacement of that surface where there is a clear problem. That leaves the erection of noise barriers, when effective, or helping people to insulate their houses.
The study suggested four potential outcomes for people in high-priority areas. The first is the implementation of action, with financial resources being immediately available. That sounds like a great scenario. Will the Minister say what financial resources will be immediately available? I am not sure that we in Amber Valley look forward to his answer.
The second is the implementation of action but with no immediately available resources. That may be possible, but what resources does the Minister expect to be available in the short to medium term, and how are we to go about finding them? The problem is caused by the Highways Agency’s trunk road and there is a duty to take some action. It is not a discretionary matter, where people can say, “Yes, we know it’s a problem but it is not our problem.” There is a duty to act.
The third is that action is possible but there is no scope to construct or there are overriding technical problems. The worst potential outcome is that action will not be possible owing to large adverse effects—perhaps environmental matters.
The questions are these: what can be done and when can it be done? It is all about timing. My constituents have known about the problem for many years, and have been waiting for some kind of action. There is an action plan, and I suspect that everyone wants to see progress being made. Will the Minister say when he expects to see these projects being started? I am not sure that I can press him for this level of detail, but when can we expect to see some help in Amber Valley? The action plan implies that some of the action will start from April 2011. Is that still the case, or is there likely to be some delay?
I wish to raise one more matter, as I want to give the Minister plenty of time to respond.
You are probably wondering why I am intervening on the subject of this road, Dr McCrea. It is because it goes through my constituency as well. There are two points that I should like to bring to the Minister’s attention. First, we have difficulty with the varying speed limits, and it would be easier to have a consistent speed limit for some parts of the A38. Secondly, we need to lower speed limits to deal with the problems of noise. Can the Department for Transport be more flexible and allow our local councils to alter speed limits to suit local needs?
I am grateful for that intervention. I was talking about speed a few minutes ago. Although such a solution would be helpful for my hon. Friend, I struggle to see how practical it is as an option and how likely it is even to be observed.
Before my hon. Friend intervened on me, I was asking about the people who are not in the areas of first priority. What hope do they have of seeing some noise mitigation measures even in the medium term? Will this Parliament only be able to deal with those in the first priority areas, or is there some hope for the next highest band? A significant number of people who are not in the first priority area have to live with noise of more than 60 or even 70 dB. If it is unlikely that we will have any significant amounts of funding from the taxpayer to deal with that, what other options are available? Is it possible to consider match funding? If there is some significant development in the area that will increase traffic, is there a way in which we can raise section 106 contributions to put in noise barriers, even if they are not exactly adjacent to the new development? It is probably not right to rule out any option. If we think creatively, we may be able to improve the quality of life for people who live in these areas.
I hope that the Minister can give me some good news on when we will start seeing some action. At the very least, I hope that he can help my constituents to understand what the timings and processes are before we can resolve this long-standing issue.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) for raising the important subject of traffic noise and securing time to allow us to debate the issues. I speak for the Government on 97% of the roads in England—the local roads. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), deals with trunk roads and motorways, so the A38 is one of his roads. Unfortunately, he cannot be here today, so I am standing in for him. I will discuss with him the issues that have been raised today and draw his attention to my hon. Friend’s comments about the road in his constituency.
Nuisance from traffic noise is an issue that the Government recognise. Action is being taken to reduce the problem and real progress continues to be made. The strategic road network provides the backbone for the distribution of goods, services and people within England and beyond, thus providing a valuable contribution to the UK economy.
The network carries a third of all traffic and two thirds of all freight traffic, but represents only 3% of the road network by length in England. With such a concentration of use, combined with the speed of vehicles, noise from motorways and high-speed trunk roads is an understandable concern for those living close to them.
My hon. Friend has raised a number of concerns about traffic noise at sites along the A38 in his constituency. I sympathise with his concerns and I will explain our policy on dealing with traffic noise from roads and what measures the Highways Agency has taken, and will take in the future, to deal with the issues identified by him.
Before 1998, the assessment of noise impacts 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 the road as a means of reducing noise to more acceptable levels. Where such measures cannot be provided, either because of high costs or for practical reasons, there are provisions in the Land Compensation Act 1973 and the Noise Insulation Regulations 1975 for the provision of noise insulation at the affected properties. Such measures have, for many years, provided protection against increased road noise for those affected by new roads.
Since 1998, quieter surfacing materials have been installed on new strategic roads as a matter of course. They have also been installed on existing strategic roads when they have required resurfacing to restore them to a safe and serviceable condition. Such materials have provided significant reductions in traffic noise for many in recent years.
The UK has used quieter surfaces from 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 successfully been used for a number of years on some strategic roads, but it is a more costly solution than recently developed materials. Further progress has been achieved in the development of a new generation of quieter surfacing materials, which are cost-effective, reduce the time needed for resurfacing and can be used routinely on motorways and other high-speed trunk roads. To date, 40% of the strategic road network has been resurfaced with these materials, including a section of the southbound A38 between Ripley and Rawson Green.
The Highways Agency regularly reviews ways in which it can maintain the network in the most cost-effective way. It is currently reviewing maintenance strategies for the strategic network in its drive to reduce cost. I will ask the Highways Agency to keep my hon. Friend informed of the outcome of the review, particularly if it has an impact on future maintenance of the A38 in his constituency.
My hon. Friend mentioned resurfacing as one of the possible ways in which to deal with these matters. I am advised that the Highways Agency policy is to install quieter surfaces when a road is due to be resurfaced, but it will not resurface a road solely for noise-abatement purposes. That is deeply frustrating for hon. Members. I have been trying to persuade the Highways Agency to resurface the A27 in my constituency for similar reasons, so I understand the concerns that he and his constituents have. I am advised that there will be not much new surfacing along this particular stretch of road for the next four or five years.
Looking to the future, we will continue to manage road traffic noise levels as a result of the introduction of the environmental noise directive. The directive requires member states to undertake five-yearly cycles of noise mapping and action planning for all major sources of environmental noise, including that from road traffic.
This approach will help us to understand the extent of traffic noise problems alongside our major roads, and to identify where action to reduce road traffic noise needs to be taken, subject to funding being available. Although the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has overall responsibility for delivering the directive’s requirements in the UK, the Highways Agency has been working with it for a number of years to deliver its noise mapping and action planning requirements.
The first round of noise mapping results were published in May 2008 by DEFRA. That was followed in March 2010 by the noise action plans, which were designed to identify important areas that sustain impacts from major sources such as road traffic. The action plans require those important areas that contain first priority locations to be investigated initially. My hon. Friend referred to those locations in his constituency. I am advised that there are about 1,500 important areas containing first priority locations along the strategic road network. Two of those are along the A38 within his constituency and, as he is aware—from his meeting with Highways Agency officials on 16 August last year—they are at Rawson Green and Coxbench.
The information that I was given by officials is that there are two areas on the A38 within my hon. Friend’s constituency, but as he has put his query on the record, I will ensure that either I or my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead writes to him to clarify that point.
As with all important areas with first priority locations, the agency will investigate the sites at Coxbench and Rawson Green during 2011. Those investigations will identify what measures could be effective at reducing noise levels at the individual locations. As they are not yet complete, I cannot confirm what measures will be identified at the two sites and whether any funding will be available to install them. However, I will ask the Highways Agency to inform my hon. Friend of the outcome of the investigations at these two sites when that information is available. If there is any further information that is available when I or the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead, write to him about the points that he has raised in this debate, we will include it in the letter so that he has the most up-to-date information available at that stage.
My hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley also mentioned a number of possible solutions. Barriers will obviously be considered as a potential solution, if their use is thought to be appropriate. I must make it clear that I am not promising that barriers will be installed, but they will be considered just as a matter of common sense. Obviously, barriers have a cost and an impact on the countryside, and those factors must be taken into account when considering the use of barriers on any trunk road in the country.
My hon. Friend is probably right to say that the potential for traffic management on the A38 in his constituency is limited, although I note his comment about speed limits. Again, I will pass that back to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead. In addition, my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) made an intervention about speed limits. The general approach of the Department and indeed of the Government is to move towards having more localism, but obviously speed limits for local roads—the 97% of roads that are within my portfolio—more easily lend themselves to local authority influence than speed limits on trunk roads. However, if a local authority, particularly a highway authority, wants to suggest a speed limit for a motorway or, more likely, a trunk road, there is no reason why that suggestion should not be fed in to the Highways Agency and properly considered at that stage. If there are particular views about the speed limit on the A38, I encourage hon. Members to feed them in to the Highways Agency or to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead.
There was also mention of section 106 agreements. In principle, section 106 agreements can be designed and used to achieve helpful changes to the road network in a particular location, if they are germane to the planning application that has been submitted and agreed to. However, that is really a matter for the local authority—the planning authority—to take forward and to determine what, if any conditions, are appropriate for a section 106 agreement. That is not a process that we would get involved with directly, but if there was a feeling in an area that section 106 money should be used to tackle a trunk road problem, obviously the Highways Agency would want to become involved at that stage, to discuss whether or not that course of action was appropriate for that location.
My hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley also mentioned the action plan on noise. As he knows, that plan has already been published by DEFRA and, as I have already said, at the start of next month the Highways Agency will begin to consider noise mitigation measures that, in theory, can be installed in 2012-13.
Lastly, the policies that are already in place have led to significant improvements for many residents living close to strategic roads across England. Real differences have been made and we will continue to help those people who are most affected by road traffic noise in the long term, including people in my hon. Friend’s constituency.
I am grateful to the Minister for those comments. The “pushback” that we get from constituents is that these action plans are meant to be five-year action plans and what we all want is that, during the five years of these plans, we actually see some action. Is the Minister suggesting that we will start to see some action on some of the 1,500 projects around the country during the life of this Parliament, or is it likely that the funding constraints will mean that there is little chance of these noise hot spots being dealt with during that time? He was not entirely clear about how much resource was immediately available to address these issues.
Dr McCrea, I had actually finished my response to the debate, but I am happy to take a further intervention and respond to it as best I can. My hon. Friend will be aware that the resources that are available at the present time are stretched, because of the appalling inheritance that we received from the last Government. Therefore, we have had to look carefully at where we spend our money. On the other hand, we have legal obligations—for example, the environmental noise directive—and we will seek to discharge them.
If there is any further information that I can add about time scale in the letter that we will send to my hon. Friend—it will come either from myself or from the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead—after this debate, we will do that. We will certainly try to include as much information as possible at that time. I hope that that response has been helpful.