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Noise Reduction (M54)

Volume 538: debated on Tuesday 17 January 2012

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I compliment the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), on his management of the previous debate, and I hope that he feels a lot more comfortable with this one, which is far more firmly within his brief. It is a great privilege to have secured this debate in Westminster Hall, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), who inspired me to request it, by pointing out what the Government could do to reduce the negative impact of road noise in many constituencies, including mine.

Often, when we talk about new developments such as motorways and railways, people who object to them are accused of being nimbys—not in my back yard—and of not wanting the developments because they are not concerned about the national interest. However, the fact is that they are often concerned because they are not fully confident that the Government, of whatever political colour, will do all that they can to mitigate the effects of noise from roads, railways or other major infrastructure projects.

I congratulate my hon. Friend and neighbour on securing this debate. I completely agree with him, and I re-emphasise how much the Government can do. In my constituency, the resurfacing four to five years ago of the M6 between junctions 12 and 13 greatly improved the lives of people living round and about who were plagued by the noise from the old surface.

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. It is not that the Government are unable to act or incapable of doing anything to improve the lives of people who live close or adjacent to motorways; they can have an enormous effect and make enormous improvements in people’s lives.

One of the key reasons for requesting this debate was the fact that road noise had once again been highlighted in my constituency, on the back of some very good and positive news: the announcement by Jaguar Land Rover that it is to build a major new engine factory on the i54 South Staffordshire industrial estate. That is fantastic news, because the new factory will bring many jobs and great prosperity, not just to my constituency, but to my hon. Friend’s constituency of Stafford and many others right across the west midlands. However, to secure the development, our local authorities—South Staffordshire district council and Staffordshire county council, working in conjunction with Wolverhampton city council—had to put money forward for a direct link between the i54 site and the M54.

Any such major construction project will have an effect on local residents, and in this case the residents of Coven Heath village adjacent to the motorway are particularly affected. Residents of not just Coven Heath but neighbouring villages up and down the M54 have raised many concerns about the impact a Jaguar Land Rover plant will have, with increased traffic movement from heavy goods vehicles and from the many people who will visit the site every day. That has focused many people’s minds on the inadequacies of the M54 and on the failure of many Governments in the past to take action to reduce the impact of noise on local communities.

I am not sure whether hon. Members have had the pleasure of driving along the M54 regularly, but perhaps I can tell them a bit about it. The Minister will probably correct me if I make a mistake, but I believe that the motorway was one of the first to use the construction method of concrete slabs. That was a revolutionary idea, and it became incredibly fashionable in motorway construction throughout the country, but unfortunately, as with many things that were fashionable in the 1970s, with the benefit of hindsight, the idea was not such a good one. Concrete construction causes excessive road noise, much more than the tarmacadam system used on many motorways, and the problem has been recognised often, including by the 1994 royal commission and the 1997 addition to that.

Road noise has a very detrimental effect on many people’s lives, and the Government have recognised both that and the need to reduce its impact on people living near motorways, as outlined in the Hansard list back in, I think, 2000 or 2001. It is my firm belief that the M54 meets the criteria of that list because the noise coming off it causes sufficient disturbance to the many communities not just in South Staffordshire but in Wolverhampton and across the county boundary into Shropshire.

When people leave the M6 and turn on to the M54, they immediately drive on a tarmacadam road until junction 2. Unfortunately, it is not a low-noise-impact surface, and as soon as they pass junction 2, there is a concrete slab construction all the way to Telford. We all know that rather than absorbing noise, concrete sends it out, causing local residents great concern.

I appreciate that finances are tight, and I do not imagine that the Minister has a bottomless pit of money—if he does, I am keen to hear about it—but I urge him to look at the issues on the M54, not just in connection with the Jaguar Land Rover development on the i54 site, which, I emphasise, all my constituents welcome. We do not stand in the way of progress in South Staffordshire; we embrace it and make it happen, as we have been doing with the development on the i54. However, we look to the Government to reduce the impact of such developments, and I ask the Minister to look very closely at junction 2 and the flyover that will be constructed from the i54 to the M54 and to reassure my constituents that the Government will do all they can to reduce the impact of noise, light and other pollution, including by ensuring that sound barriers are constructed.

My hon. Friend is being generous in giving way again. Does he agree that when the M6 managed motorway scheme that the Government recently announced, for which I am extremely grateful—I thank the Minister for his part in that—is being progressed, improving sound insulation, in particular between junctions 13 and 14, as the M6 passes right through the middle of Stafford, could be looked at, for the benefit of my residents who live right up against the motorway?

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. Where motorways cut through urban areas or pass close to communities, the Government should be duty bound to do everything within their power to reduce the impact. If they wish to cultivate a positive image of infrastructure improvements—that they need not have a detrimental effect on people’s lives—they should take every step to ensure that the effects are minimised at every level. I must confess that I would like the barriers, which my hon. Friend mentioned, to be in place from the start of the M6 all the way past Manchester, but I am unsure whether the Minister will give so generously of sound barriers. Local communities often demand them, and the Government should always do everything within their power to ensure that local communities get them. I particularly ask the Minister to ensure that such measures are put in place for junction 2 and the flyover, along with noise-reducing or whisper tarmac.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate, which is so important to his constituents. It is typical of his approach that, having been at the forefront of the campaign to deliver the Jaguar Land Rover investment for his constituency, with colleagues including my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy), he now follows through to ensure that it happens in a way that benefits his constituents most effectively. In the Department for Transport’s forward spending plan, £310 million was taken out of resource funding for road resurfacing and management, but £150 million is being invested in capital spending. Is that capital spending not exactly the sort of spending that my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson) is calling for to improve the road and deliver a better quality of life for the constituency he so ably represents?

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind comments. He makes a valid point; there is a danger that the Department for Transport wants to spend all its money in the Chilterns, and we do not want that. We want to ensure that it goes to the west midlands and further afield. I hope that the Minister will assure us that some money will be spent on the M54 and many other such schemes in the west midlands.

I ask that the Minister assures my constituents that everything will be done to protect residents during the construction phase of the flyover, not only in Coven Heath, but much further afield, so that the impact of the Jaguar Land Rover plant and the i54 is minimised at all costs. Will he urgently look at the whole motorway, from the M6 to junction 2 onwards, to assure my constituents that low-noise, low-impact whisper tarmac will be used when the road surface is replaced, to ensure that they do not have to hear the roar of the M54? Will he ensure that we do not have the travesty of a concrete slab motorway surface all the way from junction 2 to Telford? Will it be properly surfaced with low-noise, low-impact tarmac, thus enhancing and improving the lives of many people, not only in my constituency, but along the length of the M54?

I hope that the Minister can assure me that the use of silent or low-noise tarmac along the whole motorway will be considered in the maintenance schedule. When will that be planned over the next few years? Those assurances will give my constituents hope that the Government will act to improve their quality of life.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson) will be pleased to know that roads are part of my portfolio, so I should be able to handle the debate slightly better than the previous one. I congratulate him on securing the debate and giving me the first opportunity to congratulate him on his work in getting Jaguar Land Rover to invest in his constituency. It is the sort of investment we desperately need.

With investment comes infrastructure issues, particularly in my Department. I am sure that all my hon. Friend’s constituents welcome the investment and the new jobs, but, interestingly, with that often comes enhancement—we could call that 106s, “planning bribes” or whatever we call them these days. As he knows better than me, there will be a lot of work on junction 2, which I will come on to in a moment. We have already moved in the debate from the whole length of the M6 to the Chilterns, so it is a shame that we have only another 15 minutes or so.

I assure my hon. Friends that investment in High Speed 2 has no effect on the money secured from the Treasury for road improvement and infrastructure. I had about £1.4 billion to spend on capital road infrastructure over the three years of the spending round and was then given just over £1 billion in the autumn statement, which is about £2.5 billion, give or take, over three years. We would not have dreamed of such investment when we entered coalition Government and inherited the financial mess 18 months ago, but the money has been found for good reasons—the biggest of which is that without infrastructure, we cannot have growth, and without growth we cannot get out of the financial mess we inherited.

My hon. Friend has done his homework correctly. There have been fads in construction over the years, and I say “fads”, because one minute something is the greatest piece of design technology we have ever seen and needs to be protected, and the next minute it is out of fashion and out of the way. There are two sides to concrete road construction. The upside is that such roads last for a very long time and do not wear out like flexible coverings—that is a technical term for tarmac. The bad news is that the concrete part of the M54 is unlikely to need resurfacing for 10 years. We will keep a close eye on it and ensure that, if it starts to deteriorate more quickly than that, we will address it immediately.

The downside to concrete is noise, and I freely admit that. It often depends on the type of tyre used on the vehicle. We have so far—touch wood—not had the worst winter, and my stockpiles of salt are doing remarkably well at the moment, but this time last year we had had a severe winter already. People—lorry drivers and hauliers—are starting to think about switching to the tyres that they use at other times of the year. That has a massive effect on noise. If people address the type of tyre they need for the environment they are working in, we will have fewer breakdowns and blockages, so it is a positive step. There have been fantastic developments in the tyre industry. In the old days, there would be a town tyre and a town and country tyre. There are much better developments now, but noise is an issue. No matter where I go in this great country of ours, road noise is an issue in every constituency, including mine.

I would like clarification of the Minister’s remarks about when concrete-topped surfaces need repair. Will he confirm that when the road needs repair, it will not be repaired with more concrete but with a low-noise surface?

There is a difference between repair and replacement. I cannot guarantee that that will be the case when the road is repaired—in other words, when potholes and so on are fixed—but what is needed to repair it will be done. I will come on to replacement in a moment.

We do not have a huge amount of concrete road, but a lot of local authority roads are concrete, and for maintenance, the longevity of the investment is an issue. My hon. Friend is right about the rest of the tarmac on the M54; low-noise surfacing, which reduces noise by about 50%, is not on that part of the motorway. I have never heard it called “whisper” tarmac, but developing that would be fantastic for everybody. The i54 development, with which he was involved, will lead to significant changes to junction 2 and the slip road, which I know the local authority has planned carefully. We will work with it to ensure that the project works for the local community and Jaguar Land Rover. I can categorically say that all the new parts of it will be low-noise.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was told by the European Commission—not many good things have come out of the Commission over the past few years, but this is one good thing—that it should do a noise survey of the whole country, including the road network. I am sorry to say to my hon. Friend that this particular part of the M54 does not fit the criteria for being excessively noisy. That offers no comfort or solace to residents in his constituency, but think about how bad the problem is on the road network in other parts of the country. Interestingly, the A449 going north from junction 2 meets the criteria and will be resurfaced imminently with low-noise tarmac. It already needs replacing, but it is deemed to have a significant problem with noise.

That is nearly all the bad news. The tarmac on the M54 where the concrete stops is also in good condition. We do not predict that we will need to replace the tarmac on the M54 for approximately four years. Although there will be new tarmac on the new roads—new, low-noise tarmac on the A449—it will be a considerable time before the M54 concrete-tarmac is resurfaced. However, I assure my hon. Friend that, when that is done, low-noise tarmac will be used on the concrete as well as on the existing tarmac.

The solution might seem simple—as I have asked my officials, surely we can lay the tarmac on the concrete, because it provides a strong sub-base—but that is not the case. It will have to be broken up and created as a sub-base, and the tarmac will then have to be re-laid in great depth on top, because the product is flexible, not rigid. Wear can cause so many problems.

My hon. Friend has alluded to the debate that is taking place, rightly, in all our constituencies throughout the country. I hold up my hand—it is happening in my constituency, where I have had exactly the same discussions. I have to look at the money available for maintenance and for capital projects that will keep the country going, and I must spend that as wisely as possible. I do not have the bottomless pit of money to which my hon. Friend has alluded, and in many ways I am pleased that I do not, because it gives me the opportunity to study carefully where our money is being spent. That makes me popular in certain parts of the country. I am pleased that the M6 widening project will be popular. It will give us capacity, and road safety will be significantly enhanced.

As an ex-fireman, I was very sceptical about managed motorways, because they were taking away the hard shoulders. Then I thought back to my time in service. Where did I see the major, serious fatalities on a motorway? It was on the hard shoulder. One of the first incidents that I ever went to involved an ice cream van parked on the hard shoulder. It is not the most robust of vehicles, because of the chassis, engine and fibreglass on top. It had broken down, pulled over to the hard shoulder and been hit by a lorry. The driver thought he was safe. Fortunately, he had left the vehicle to walk to an SOS phone. The vehicle resembled a skateboard—we would never have known that it was an ice cream van. It had been completely wiped out. If people’s vehicles break down on the motorway, they should pull over to the hard shoulder and then get out and on to the other side of the barriers, which is where they will be safest. Modern technology on the motorways means that assistance should get to them quickly. SOS phones are available and mobile phones have enhanced safety enormously on our roads.

Managed motorways have rescue areas and sanctuaries that allow us to sweat the existing assets. We do not have to go through planning all over again, because the motorway has already been built and the hard shoulder is up to road standard. It is interesting that, while hard shoulders were built to road standard all those years ago, we are only starting to use them now. The M42 pilot project showed that it works and road safety on such roads has been enhanced. We can get more vehicles on and it is much easier to control the flow of congestion. If we look at the M42, we see that there are far fewer traffic jams and stationary traffic. I would much rather see traffic running at 40 or 50 mph than it being stationary before rushing off at 70 mph and having to stop again later.

I cannot promise to put up sound barriers all along the motorway. I have made a note—and my officials are present—to look specifically at junctions 13 and 14, as my hon. Friend has asked me to do, and I will write to him about that.

I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for being so generous in giving way again. I welcome his reassurance that low-noise, low-impact tar will be used across the whole stretch of the M54 when it is resurfaced. He has pointed out that the road between the M6 and junction 2 already has a tarmacadam, or flexible, surface. Can he give my constituents and me an idea of when the resurfacing will realistically happen? Will it happen in my lifetime or in my daughter’s lifetime? My top priority as a constituency Member of Parliament—I am being selfish; there are no Members from Shropshire present—would be from junction 2 to Telford and on to junction 3. When could that happen?

It will be during my hon. Friend’s time as a constituency MP for his area—he is going to be there for a long time, because he is such a hard-working constituency MP. The time scale for the expected replacement of the tarmacadam part is four years from now. It may wear out slightly earlier than that, or—I am crossing my fingers—it may last a little longer. The longer it lasts, the more money we will have in the pot. I fully understand that that would be good news for my hon. Friend, and it would be good news for me regarding the budget. The faster it is replaced, the faster the low-noise tarmac will come in.

Sound screens will also be used and some are already up. They help, but they are not, under any circumstances, the answer to the problem. Mounding or bunding is another option—I know that that has been done in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Trees help, but they have to be placed at such depth. They have to be at about 10-plus metres before they can provide any tangible benefits. They look pretty, but if people stand on the other side of them—as I have done on many an occasion—they will see that they do not really help. We will put in sound-proofing, particularly wood-panel sound-proofing, where we can, but it is not feasible to do so across the motorway network and the A-road network.

We are looking at specific areas. On areas where we are doing new works in particular—this is why I touched on the M6—it is built into the project that we look at the issue. I am sure that that has happened with junctions 13 and 14, but please do not think that that is not also true of the A15, A16 and A17—we probably have done it. It is a massive advantage that, if we can sweat the assets, it leaves us some money elsewhere to do the sort of advanced projects to which my hon. Friend has alluded.

On the concept itself, the i54 project is so important not just to my hon. Friend’s constituency—I fully understand that—but to the country as a whole. It sends a message that this country is open for trading and investment. I was lucky to be on the Thames estuary when DP World announced a £1.5 billion investment in the newest port—it is huge—in the United Kingdom, just at the time when people were saying how difficult the situation was. Yes, the situation is difficult, but there are people who are willing to invest, and that will lock straight into the M25 and give us an opportunity.

Even though I have not said that this issue will be resolved imminently, works will be done soon in relation not only to the local authority and the i54 development, but to the A449. When the roads wear out, we will resurface them with low-noise tarmac. The estimated time is four years for the tarmac and 10 years for the concrete. I stress that the concrete is a major job and not something that can be done overnight, because the expense will be huge.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.