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Managed Motorway Scheme (South Yorkshire)

Volume 559: debated on Wednesday 6 March 2013

I am pleased to have secured today’s debate on the managed motorway scheme consultation for the M1, between junctions 32 and 35a. The consultation that could have such fundamental consequences for the safety of motorists on this section of the M1 was just eight weeks long over the Christmas period.

The Highways Agency’s proposals recommend the implementation of variable mandatory speed limits between junctions 32 to 35a, which is a section of motorway around the city of Sheffield. The section carries around 110,000 vehicles per day, and is congested during the weekday morning and evening peak hours and, like all roads, at other times.

The consultation document recommends that variable speed limits should be set in response to traffic conditions, automatically calculated from sensors buried in the road. Speed limits would be displayed on the motorway indicator signs above lanes, mounted on existing overhead gantries, and on additional verge-mounted signs. Where no speed limit is displayed, the national speed limit would be in force. However, the proposals, unlike other managed motorway schemes, include the use of the hard shoulder 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Emergency refuge areas would be created at intervals of a maximum of 2,500 metres, and would include emergency telephones. All other telephones would be removed from the hard shoulder, as it would in effect become a permanent fourth lane.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, as I wanted to have the opportunity to intervene on the issue of refuge areas. I note that the Highways Agency website refers to the emergency refuge areas that will be in operation, saying that they will provide

“an area of relative safety”.

Is she satisfied with the concept of “relative safety”, and does she hope that the Minister, in his response to the debate, will define what that means?

My hon. Friend makes an important point about “relative safety”. There are lots of concerns about “relative safety”. Having driven down the M1 on Sunday and having looked at refuge areas in other managed motorway areas, it concerns me that “relative safety” is not equivalent to the kind of safety that we expect for people on the edge of motorways.

The consultation document suggests that the benefits would lead to an increase in motorway capacity and reduced congestion; smoother traffic flows; more reliable journey times; an increase and improvement to the quality of information for the driver; and lower costs and less environmental impact than conventional widening programmes. In effect, the Highways Agency is suggesting that this proposal is the best solution to add capacity to the existing strategic road network. It claims that these benefits can only be achieved by the use of variable mandatory speed limits and the use of the hard shoulder as an additional lane 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I do not agree with all the recommendations, and I challenge some of the argumentation set out in the proposals. Worryingly, there is no objective to increase road safety on this section of the motorway, which I would have thought should have been a priority.

Managed motorway schemes have been introduced elsewhere, notably on the M6 and M42. As I said earlier, schemes on those motorways differ from the proposals for the section of the M1 that I am discussing. Other schemes have only been introduced at peak flow times—weekday morning and evening rush hours—and with the overhead gantries spaced at 500 metres. The hard shoulder then reverts to just that—a hard shoulder—when congestion is not an issue. Evidence suggests that the introduction of a managed motorway scheme on those motorways has indeed led to a reduction in congestion and an improvement in traffic flows, resulting in fewer accidents and more reliable journey times.

In response to a parliamentary question that I asked, the Minister said:

“The safety risk analysis of all lanes…of the M42… showed that the average number of personal injury accidents reduced from 5.08 per month…to 2.25 per month following the introduction of hard shoulder running.”—[Official Report, 14 February 2013; Vol. 558, c. 846W.]

That is a statistic for which the Highways Agency should be applauded, but my concern is about the very different proposals for the M1. The two schemes are not directly comparable and it is misleading to suggest, both in the consultation documents and in the reply to my parliamentary question, that they are. What is different, and what has not been taken fully into account, is the issue of hard shoulder running for 24 hours, seven days a week. I am particularly concerned that this part of the proposal, if it is adopted, would have a detrimental impact on safety and the ability of the emergency services to respond to major incidents.

It is in non-peak times that accidents are most likely to occur, a situation that could potentially be aggravated by poor visibility. The detection of a stranded vehicle would be very difficult unless CCTV cameras are constantly monitored, and as I understand it the electronic detection system will only activate when traffic slows and therefore it would do little to warn approaching drivers.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this very important debate. I think that she is aware that I have written to the chief constable of South Yorkshire police, David Crompton, about these matters. In his reply, he says:

“Of main concern to the partnership”—

the South Yorkshire Safer Roads Partnership—

“is the anticipated 200% increase in risk of having stationary vehicles in live lanes, which by its very nature may result in collisions.”

That is a very different situation from the one on the M42 that she has just referred to.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If a vehicle broke down where a refuge could not be reached, its occupants would have to exit the vehicle in a live lane, which would be an increased risk to them—as the chief constable said, an increased risk of “200%”—as well as endangering other drivers, who might hit the stationary vehicle. Information provided to the South Yorkshire Safer Roads Partnership indicates that, while the Highways Agency predicts an overall decrease in risk, certain risks will increase significantly, as my hon. Friend has outlined, including the risk of a collision with a vehicle that has stopped in a running lane outside of peak periods. That risk would be further increased by the volume of lorries, which are often driven by foreign drivers, that use this stretch of the M1 particularly at night, when the traffic is fast-moving and the lighting is turned off, as it now will be.

The proposals make much of verge-mounted speed enforcement equipment and traditional enforcement by the police to ensure that speed limits are not being exceeded. However, the roadside speed enforcement equipment that has been cited has not been approved by the Home Office. Also the traditional enforcement action by police of pulling over drivers on to the hard shoulder when they are in contravention of the law will be taken away, because there will not be any hard shoulder. This is already reflected in the enforcement strategy within the existing schemes in the west midlands, where different and more challenging methods of policing have had to be adopted, but only at peak times; at other times, which of course is the majority of the day and night, the police can revert to traditional enforcement methods.

Let me give the Minister some examples. The police chase a 16-year-old in a stolen car late at night. They manage that situation by forcing the car on to the hard shoulder. That will not be an option for them if these proposals are adopted. Similarly, in the case of an accident leaving debris on the road, the police use the hard shoulder to drive ahead and create a sterile area to protect other road users. That will not be an option for them if these proposals are adopted. Also, police chase suspects at high speed and the cars enter the motorway system. The police use the hard shoulder to intercept and contain the perpetrators, and to minimise danger to other road users. Once again, that will not be an option for them if these proposals are adopted.

I was interested to hear the first example that the hon. Lady gave. Of course, South Yorkshire police is quite different from other police forces around the country. I am not sure whether she was saying that that was an incident that had happened on the motorway, or that South Yorkshire police—using a practice that is quite contrary to that of a lot of other police forces—actually sees the motorway as a device that it drives offenders on to, which is quite a different way of operating.

I said that I was not sure whether the hon. Lady was saying that the offenders in the speeding car start on the motorway or that the police force them on to the motorway, which I understand is a practice prevalent in south Yorkshire.

No, I am not talking about a situation in which the police are forcing a driver on to the motorway. I am saying that they can manage the situation of a stolen vehicle on the motorway, which is a dangerous situation, by using the hard shoulder. If the hard shoulder is being used for permanent running, that possibility is no longer available.

A major incident in south Yorkshire would require a response by fire and rescue services from all bordering areas. Emergency services use the hard shoulder to speed up response times. Again, that will not be an option for them if these proposals are adopted. Even normal operations to reinforce good driving would no longer be an option. I recently spent time with police officers who were specifically looking at the behaviour of lorry drivers, which included identifying one who was watching a DVD. With no hard shoulders, such routine operations could no longer take place and drivers’ bad habits would not be identified and prosecuted. Such operations have been normal practice, in order to improve driving on this motorway.

The Minister will have a chance to respond to the debate later, so I will continue.

South Yorkshire police said publicly that if the proposals are adopted, they would cause fundamental operational difficulties, and it has gone on to say that the proposals could also cost lives. In addition, I am sure that the proposals will undoubtedly place a greater burden on hard-pressed police officers and other members of the emergency services.

South Yorkshire Safer Roads Partnership is a multi-agency partnership consisting of representatives of the south Yorkshire local authorities and the accident and emergency services, and it is chaired by the South Yorkshire police chief inspector responsible for roads policing. The partnership has welcomed the proposal to introduce hard shoulder running in peak flow time—the morning and evening rush hours. However, like me, the partnership is opposed to the suggestion of hard shoulder running 24 hours, seven days a week. This opposition is based primarily on safety grounds. The partnership contends that variable messaging for speed management purposes should use signs on the well understood and widely established gantry system, rather than using verge-mounted signs. Verge-mounted signs are not as visible; they are often obscured by high-sided vehicles in the slower lanes; and drivers have to take their eyes off the road ahead to view them. Gantries that are properly spaced are visible by drivers when they are looking straight ahead; therefore, they are easier to see at a glance, and importantly a glance ahead where any traffic or debris would still be visible. It agrees that the reinstatement of the hard shoulder outside peak flow times would also ensure that emergency services could use the motorway system more effectively to attend major incidents, and that safety would not be compromised by having no hard shoulder when traffic is light and fast moving, and when visibility is poor.

The proposals suggest that, where danger exists, red X signs would flash and a lane divert signal would be shown over a lane, but accidents can only be avoided if sufficient gantries are provided. Safety cannot be enhanced by the use of roadside signs, which are not as clearly, safely or instantly visible. Therefore the proposals will not be as effective or safe as having the hard shoulder available outside rush hours and using overhead gantries for messages.

The safer roads partnership also disputes the passing reference to safety in the consultation documents, where it is claimed that this section of the M1 has a trend of increasing accidents and casualties. Its data suggest the opposite: in the past six years there has been a 25% reduction in collisions on this section of the Ml.

In this short debate I have not had time to go into other concerns in detail. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), who wants to make a brief contribution, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett), who cannot attend, are particularly concerned about the impact on their constituents of increased noise and pollution, with nothing being offered by the Highways Agency to mitigate the effects.

I welcome the proposals to introduce a managed motorway scheme on the M1 in south Yorkshire during peak times, but only peak times, with proper regard to safety and signage delivered via overhead gantries. I cannot support proposals to have 24-hour, seven-days-a-week use of the hard shoulder. The adoption of the proposals will be the thin end of the wedge, and further schemes to use the hard shoulder permanently as a fourth lane will be forthcoming for all stretches of our motorway system. That will reduce road safety and have a detrimental impact on the police’s ability to uphold the law and on emergency services’ response times.

I suspect that the Minister’s reply will repeat much of the misleading and inaccurate information. I understand that he will not be able to respond immediately to all the issues I have raised today. I know he cares about road safety—he has recently been involved in campaigns about it—and will want to consider what I have said. I am asking him to go back to his officials and the Highways Agency and consider all this information carefully. I am asking him to recognise that it is highly unusual for the police to say, without good reason, that something will cost lives.

We need a proper managed motorway scheme built on facts, not one built on cutting corners, to be done on the cheap without regard to road safety.

For the record, Mr Betts, I realise that you have the permission of the hon. Member who secured the debate, but do you have the permission of the Minister to make a speech, however brief?

I asked the Minister for permission beforehand, and I thank you, Sir Alan, for reminding me of that and for allowing me the opportunity to speak. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn).

First, I quoted the chief constable’s letter, which indicates that he is concerned that the Highways Agency’s proposals are constrained by budgetary matters. It would be a matter of concern if the safety of people on the M1 around Sheffield was put at risk because of budgetary constraints. We are looking for absolute assurances from the Minister that the scheme will not go ahead until the chief constable in particular and the South Yorkshire Safer Roads Partnership in general are satisfied that there is no risk of a reduction in safety under the scheme.

Secondly, I think that the Minister is aware that I wrote to him about noise levels on the M1 in this area, particularly near Tinsley junior school, where on a hot summer’s day the windows cannot be opened because the noise from the motorway means that teachers cannot be heard by their pupils. That is unacceptable. The Minister said that he does not expect hard shoulder running to increase this problem. All I would say to him is that the problem is there anyway. I am looking for assurances that noise on the motorway, right next to Tinsley junior school, will be dealt with by the Government, irrespective of the hard shoulder running and particularly if the proposals go ahead.

Thirdly, and finally, the Minister is probably aware of a report by the Highways Agency and Sheffield city council about pollution levels around the M1 in the Tinsley area. Surveys of nitrogen dioxide levels, arrived at as a result of EU directives and translated appropriately into UK law, which were carried out in that area showed that in virtually every instance levels were 25% to 50% higher than the maximum allowed in 2010. Anything that worsens those levels should not happen. I say again to the Minister that we are looking not merely for assurances that the scheme he is proposing will not worsen those levels, but for assurances that action will be taken to deal with the unacceptable pollution that already exists in this area.

Before you proceed, Minister, it is not practice or acceptable for officials to pass notes to you. You have a Parliamentary Private Secretary and they should be present; that is their role. That is just a reminder for the future.

Thank you, Sir Alan. I will remember that for the future.

I thank the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) for initiating the debate. I hope to address a lot of what she said. If there is anything that she thinks I have not dealt with, I am happy to write to her.

I was quite disappointed by the hon. Lady’s remarks at the end of her speech and by the remarks made by the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts). This is not about cutting corners; it has never been about that or about downturn in money. It has always been about ensuring that we get the most efficient and safest motorways. I hope that they see, from my remarks, including my responses to points that they made, that that is exactly where we started from.

I made my comments in light of a response that I received from the chief constable, in which he raised the possibility that budget constraints were causing the scheme to be produced in such a way that safety could be put at risk. I wrote to the Secretary of State about that, enclosing the chief constable’s letter, so perhaps the Minister will have an opportunity to respond to that point in due course.

It might have been helpful if the chief constable had spoken to the Highways Agency before making that remark, because substantial work has been done with the agency and the South Yorkshire Safer Roads Partnership subsequent to some of the information that was mentioned. It would have helped if that had happened, rather than that remark being bandied around.

The managed motorway design and operation is well established and is already successful on the M42 in Birmingham, which we spoke about, on the M6 between junctions 4 and 5, and in other places on the M6. The latest refinement to the design is called managed motorways, with all-lane running, and it builds on our experience of operating similar schemes over the past seven years.

The infrastructure growth review in November 2011 supported the move to the revised design, recognising that the congestion and safety benefits from previous experience could be brought into other schemes. The latest design is being applied to all future managed motorway schemes, not just the project on the M1. It is the first scheme subject to some things that I will mention. Construction will start this year and the first section is scheduled for operation in 2014.

Managed motorways are about supporting safer motorways and the economy, providing much-needed capacity on our busiest motorways. They bring benefits to road users in terms of reduced congestion and improved reliability on journey time; they support the local economy and, by improving the key link, they help move people and goods around, and give people better access not only to the things they want to do in their lives, but to jobs. By providing that additional capacity, we reduce congestion and smooth the flow of traffic, which can reduce the cost of delays.

A cost saving of between 40% and 60% is associated with managed motorway schemes, which goes towards some of the motorway widening schemes. We can build more of those and benefit far more people, right across the country. The scheme makes best use of the existing infrastructure, providing maximum value for money for the taxpayer.

We know that managed motorways work. They reduce congestion and improve journey times by using variable speed limits, by giving more road space to road users and by making the hard shoulder available as a traffic lane. There is evidence that the hard shoulder can be used as a traffic lane without worsening the safety experience. Although the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley is right to say that the hard shoulder is not used exclusively on the M42, there is plenty of experience of the safety aspects of using the hard shoulder as a traffic lane and very few vehicles have experienced the issues she outlined. Moreover, there is an improvement because a number of drivers found it difficult to switch from hard shoulder running to non-hard shoulder running.

That goes to the heart of my point. It is easy to see why using the hard shoulder would reduce accidents when there is a lot of traffic, when people can see the car in front and when people are running at managed speeds. I entirely understand that, but only this afternoon, following all the publicity, I was contacted by someone—not one of my constituents—who was hit by a lorry on the hard shoulder. The problem is that vehicles will be going at faster speeds on all lanes, with nowhere to go, unless they happen to be by one of the refuges, which are very small.

We all know that we are advised not to get out of the car on to a live motorway lane, which is what is proposed—and at faster speeds. It is simply not good enough to replicate the peak-time experience, when there are a lot of vehicles, at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning or at 7 or 8 o’clock at night, when people are going much faster and cannot see far enough ahead to know whether there is a problem in one of the lanes.

There is no evidence that that experience is often seen on the M42. I will look at that point again and consult officials on the experience of others, and I will write to the hon. Lady.

Variable speed limits do not only allow faster traffic flows; they allow the smoothing of traffic flows, thereby making journeys more reliable. Variable speed limits also allow the eradication of the stop-start effect, and smoothing means that traffic sometimes moves more regularly without the speed that the hon. Lady describes.

When the M42 pilot scheme was designed, the target was to ensure that there was no worsening of safety as a result of implementing the active traffic management pilot. There was a three-year safety report and trial on the M42, although I accept that the hon. Lady will want to point out that there are differences. The pilot showed considerable improvement in safety—accidents involving personal injury were reduced by some 55%—and that was with hard shoulder running. Overall, there was a reduction in the severity of accidents, with no fatalities and fewer serious injuries, so to suggest that a move to managed motorways, or indeed to hard shoulder running, necessarily represents a decline in safety is not shown by the evidence.

Will the Minister respond to the point I made in my intervention? The Highways Agency’s website states that refuge areas provide “relative safety.” Relative to what? Are we not seeking maximum safety on our motorways, rather than making the sort of compromise implied even by the agency’s website?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point. There are two ways of answering it. There can never be total safety. As to whether or not we describe refuge areas as being as safe as possible, let us not play with semantics. Surely the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that anywhere on a working motorway is totally safe; even motorway service areas can never be totally safe. I am not sure that it would be right for the agency to say, “This is a totally safe area.” We can play around with that. If the hon. Gentleman does not like the words, we can look at the description, but if I were to suggest that the proposed refuge areas are totally safe, I am sure he would attack me because I cannot possibly give that guarantee. I understand his point, but I hope he agrees that it is sensible to indicate that even in the refuge areas there is an element of risk.

I framed my comments in the context of remarks by Chief Inspector Stuart Walne, head of roads policing in South Yorkshire. He talked about fundamental operational difficulties and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) said, about lives being at risk. The problem is that the scheme, as proposed, will be relatively less safe than the current arrangements.

I am happy to be corrected, but my understanding is that the Highways Agency met South Yorkshire police in several workshops, the most recent being on 5 February. My understanding is that the police at senior level and the Safer Roads Partnership are no longer opposed to the proposal in principle, and they are now working with the agency to find ways of operation.

I assure the Minister that my speech was prepared in discussions and it is up to date. The South Yorkshire Safer Roads Partnership and the police do not think the proposal is safe. The police are very professional; they say that if things come in, they will have to manage them, but they do not accept that the proposal is safe.

The Highways Agency met both the police and the Safer Roads Partnership. The agency has demonstrated its safety rigour and experience, and it is now working on the operating principles. I will check again, but there is plenty of evidence from pilot schemes, safety records and the safety trial to suggest that the proposal will be as safe, if not safer, than the current system.

There are three managed motorway projects on the northern section of the M1 in south Yorkshire: between junctions 28 and 31; between junctions 32 and 35a; and between junctions 39 and 42. The managed motorway scheme between junctions 32 and 35a aims to do exactly what we have done with other managed motorway schemes —to reduce the frequently experienced congestion, to provide more reliable journey times and to ensure that the road remains as safe as it is now.

The work between junctions 32 and 35a will support and enhance the role of the M1 as a national and inter-urban transport artery. The estimated cost of works for the scheme is some £150 million. The scheme requires no additional land and is built entirely within the highway’s existing boundary. As a result, the scheme can be built more quickly than would be the case with conventional motorway widening. That means we can start to reap the benefits sooner. The scheme’s environmental impact is also minimised.

The hard shoulder between the junctions will be converted to a permanent traffic lane. We are currently undertaking a thorough assessment of the environmental impact of the proposals for the M1 in south Yorkshire. The assessment is nearing completion, and I am happy to share it with the hon. Members for Sheffield, Heeley, for Sheffield South East and for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) when it is completed. The assessment will confirm whether the scheme will result in any perceptible change in noise or air quality levels. If additional mitigation is needed, it will be provided as part of the scheme. The environmental assessment is being undertaken in accordance with best practice guidelines, and it will be used to judge whether the scheme is detrimental in any way.

We know managed motorways work well and improve journey times. The evidence from a number of trials is that managed motorways are as safe, if not safer, than current motorways. I am convinced that the scheme will enable us to reduce congestion, thereby benefiting the people of south Yorkshire, earlier than had we carried out conventional motorway widening.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.