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Air Quality in Towcester

Volume 720: debated on Wednesday 19 October 2022

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Darren Henry.)

I call Dame Andrea Leadsom—[Interruption.] Order. Surely hon. Members will show some dignity and respect for the right hon. Lady, who is about to begin the Adjournment debate. Leave quietly and quickly. [Interruption.] That means all of you.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker; I am grateful to you for granting this important debate.

Picture the scene: a beautiful, historic town whose origins date back to the Roman days; small businesses lining both sides of the street; and traditional architecture providing a link to the area’s local history. [Interruption.] That is Towcester, at the heart of my South Northamptonshire constituency. It is an idyllic scene until the traffic starts—[Interruption.]

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am sitting not 6 feet from my right hon. Friend and I am unable to hear what she is saying.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. I have asked Members to behave in a decent and respectful way. I think it is a bit more quiet now.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I was describing Towcester, a beautiful town in the heart of my South Northamptonshire constituency. It is an idyllic scene until the traffic starts. Most days, and sometimes all day, cars queue down the A5 Watling Street, which is the high street through Towcester. Buses cannot pass the cars parked either side, and worst of all, whenever the M1 or the M40 are up the creek, which can happen at any point during the day or night, we have heavy goods vehicles squeezing their way through the narrow gap between parked cars. They often have to drive on to the pavement with air brakes wheezing, tooting their horns to each other to signify, “You first.”, “No, you first.” I will never forget the day, when my son was 12, that we were walking past the town hall where the pavement narrows to only two feet wide. He dropped a ball into the road and leant out to catch it just as an HGV came past. I grabbed him, but if I had not, that would have been the end of him.

HGV drivers have little concern for busy families with pushchairs or elderly residents crossing the street with walking sticks. The only crossroads in the town is at the historic Saracens Head pub, mentioned in Charles Dickens’s, “The Pickwick Papers”. Back in the day, as a coaching inn, it would have been a beautiful stop-off point for travellers, but now, having a pint in its pub garden is akin to having a beer alongside several gallons of diesel fumes. This road is unbelievably unsuitable for the size and volume of traffic that is using it, and quite apart from the obvious dangers for cyclists and pedestrians, the traffic is having an appalling impact on Towcester’s air quality, noise levels and quality of life for residents.

Towcester has been in need of a ring road for probably 50 years, and since becoming MP for South Northamptonshire in 2010, resolving that issue has been one of my main local priorities. The beauty of the town drew the eye of Persimmon Homes, which agreed to build a relief road for the town, among other things, in return for planning permission for more than 2,000 new homes on the edge of Towcester. I am no nimby and neither are my constituents. The new housing has been welcomed, and new residents are enjoying the lovely independent retail offer of Towcester, as well as the stunning walks through parkland that used to belong to the Easton Neston estate. As always seems to happen in these situations, the houses are being built at breakneck speed, but after 12 years of my beating down the door of National Highways, the local council, the Department for Transport and Persimmon, we have somehow only managed to achieve a road to nowhere. I have a meeting with them all together once a month; everyone is keen to get the job finished, but as hon. Members can imagine, the sparks occasionally fly.

The relief road will ultimately join the A5 with the A43 as a bypass to the town centre. After years of negotiation, the DFT has agreed that signage will push traffic out of the town and on to the relief road. A new consultation is also under way to improve the look and feel of Towcester town centre and put traffic calming measures in place. The future for Towcester is promising, but that happy vision is probably the best part of two years away or more.

The centre of Towcester was declared an air quality management area as long ago as September 2005. Since then, pollution levels have steadily got far worse; they are currently well above the target level set by the Government. West Northamptonshire Council wrote to all residents of Watling Street and the surrounding areas in March 2021 about air quality, reminding them that their properties fall within an air quality management area and that they might wish to reduce the amount of air pollution to which they are exposed. I am absolutely certain that they all agree.

One of the specific measures that the council proposed was to keep windows adjacent to the road closed during peak traffic periods and to ventilate homes as much as possible through windows that face away from the primary traffic route. You can imagine how residents felt about that advice, Madam Deputy Speaker. Quite rightly, many constituents have contacted me to ask why help in the form of the relief road is not being expedited. They also want to know what we can do in the meantime to protect local people from the damage that is being done to their lungs.

Average levels of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are higher in my part of Devon than across the rest of England. Congestion in Cullompton would be eased by a relief road and by the reinstatement of a railway station. Does the right hon. Member agree that railway stations and relief roads can improve air quality?

I entirely agree; I wish the hon. Gentleman success with his campaign for a relief road. However, my purpose this evening is to talk about Towcester, the Roman town of Lactodorum. It is a beautiful place, but it could be so much more beautiful if we get the relief road issue sorted and—most importantly —if the Department deals as far as is possible with relief in the meantime.

I ask my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister the following questions. First, what further action can National Highways take to stop heavy goods vehicles using the A5 at Watling Street until the relief road, which could still be up to two years away, is built? Secondly, can she confirm that National Highways intends to introduce a 7.5-tonne weight restriction in the town centre once the relief road is open? Thirdly, what other measures does she propose to improve air and noise quality in Towcester before the relief road opens? Fourthly, can the programme of signage and traffic calming on which National Highways is consulting as part of the improvements to Towcester town centre be expedited to tackle the problems as soon as the relief road is open, rather than waiting until 2025?

Fifthly, the proposed new developments, particularly logistics centres and warehousing, threatened in a large number of new planning applications in South Northamptonshire will massively exacerbate existing traffic congestion problems. What further action can be taken to stop overdevelopment and ensure that planners take into account the full aggregate impact on traffic of the various individual development projects proposed?

My final question is this. What consideration has been given to the cumulative impact of many significant infrastructure projects, such as the Towcester relief road itself, combined with HS2 and the desire for road closures and traffic movements, as well as the strategic rail freight interchange at Northampton Gateway? What consideration has been given to the aggregate impact of those projects on traffic and air quality in the local area, and what action can be taken to reduce that impact?

Knowing how diligent the Minister is and knowing of her commitment to improving local infrastructure, I look forward to her response and to hearing some reassurance that I can convey to my constituents.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom) for providing us with such a vivid picture of the idyllic town of Towcester, while also raising the important issue of congestion and air quality that affects the residents of her town. I know that she has been a staunch campaigner on this subject for a number of years, supporting her local community. Like her, the Government take air quality and its effects extremely seriously; although we have achieved significant reductions in air pollution, it remains the largest environmental risk to public health in the UK.

We are taking a range of actions to drive down air pollution across all sectors, including emissions from transport, domestic burning, industry and agriculture. In these difficult times, we are working responsibly as a Government to balance those actions with other key priorities such as achieving net zero and managing economic burdens on businesses and individuals.

I hope my right hon. Friend will not mind if I begin by specifying some of the measures that we are taking nationally. Last November we passed the Environment Act 2021, under which we have consulted on two stretching new targets for concentrations of fine particulate matter, the pollutant most damaging to human health. We know that in many cases it is bespoke local intervention that is needed to tackle local air quality issues, which is why the Government have worked to help and empower local authorities to take action. This includes allocating £883 million under our NO2 programme to help local authorities to develop and implement measures to tackle nitrogen dioxide exceedances, in the shortest possible time. It also includes the money paid to local authorities through our air quality grant scheme, which helps English councils to develop and implement measures to benefit schools, businesses and communities and reduce the impact of polluted air on people’s health. Since 2010 we have awarded more than £42 million across almost 500 projects, and this year we more than doubled the funding paid to local authorities through the scheme, to £11.6 million.

National Highways and local authorities already work together to improve local air quality, but in order to formalise that collaboration the Government are designating National Highways a “relevant public authority” through the Environment Act. As a relevant public authority, it will be required to collaborate with local authorities to tackle areas with poor air quality, identified alongside the motorways and trunk roads within each local authority, to help ensure that local air quality objectives are met and subsequently maintained. That will give greater clarity and cohesion to their partnership with local authorities in responding to air quality issues. The statutory instrument designating National Highways a relevant public authority will be laid this autumn.

Let me now turn to the specific local issues raised by my right hon. Friend. The air quality action plan for the Watling Street Towcester air quality management area, updated recently in 2021, sets out the measures that the council plans to take to improve air quality. As my right hon. Friend said, the most significant measure to sustain air quality improvements will be the proposed A5/A43 new road, which will provide an alternative to the route through the centre of Towcester for some traffic. The new road is largely developer funded, but National Highways has made available a contribution of £3.8 million to enable an earlier start to the construction. Like my right hon. Friend, I am very keen to see the road completed as soon as possible, to deliver the important benefits that she outlined.

I know that National Highways has been working closely with West Northamptonshire Council to support a solution that will help to alleviate the traffic and air quality problems in Towcester. As my right hon. Friend discussed with the previous Roads Minister, that will involve installations of signs to direct traffic via the new road, as well as a complementary programme of traffic calming measures, which she talked about. As she mentioned, those actions have already been subject to a public consultation, which closed on 11 September this year. I know that National Highways is in the process of analysing the feedback from the consultation to further inform design development.

I know that my right hon. Friend has vigorously lobbied on behalf of her constituents to introduce a weight restriction and speed reduction through Towcester’s high street. She asked me a particular question about that, and I can confirm that a 7.5-tonne limit was included within the options in the recent public consultation. Introducing a weight limit, however, would be dependent on the provision of the new road as a more suitable road for HGVs, and exceptions will need to be in place to enable businesses along the high street to receive deliveries.

My right hon. Friend will be pleased to know that the range of measures being proposed by National Highways, working alongside West Northamptonshire Council, will bring many benefits. The main objectives for the scheme include reducing the impact of air and noise pollution on the surrounding environment, making Towcester’s high street an attractive place to visit, improving accessibility to Towcester town, and above all preserving Towcester’s rich history and identity. She mentioned that the new road is being constructed by Persimmon Homes, which has assured National Highways that the road will be completed in the summer of 2024.

I reassure my right hon. Friend that National Highways has agreed to deliver both the signage and traffic calming measures on Towcester’s high street as soon as the new road is completed. In response to her questions on what further action can be taken by National Highways to stop HGVs using the A5 street, I understand the current frustration for her constituents when the A5 is used as a diversion route following accidents on the nearby M1, as well as during the ongoing works to the motorway. I assure her that the M1 improvement works, which are due to be completed early next year, will not only add extra capacity on the M1 but substantially reduce the frequency of the A5 route being used as a diversion for the M1.

My right hon. Friend raised the issue of new developments in South Northamptonshire, which will deliver immediate impacts of protecting and creating jobs, improving livelihoods and supporting the long-term transformation of the local economy. I acknowledge her views on how those developments exacerbate the existing traffic problems, and reassure her that National Highways is a consultee for any planning applications that may impact the strategic road network. For any applications that impact that network, developers are required to undertake a series of cumulative assessments of traffic levels based on the requirements set out by the Department. Once assessed, impacts of individual schemes may require mitigation measures to be put in place, which would form part of any recommendation for approval. However, as she will know, any decision on whether to grant development consent would be a matter for the local planning authority.

I appreciate the robust campaign led by the council, and the efforts of my right hon. Friend, to protect local residents from poor air quality, and I am pleased that the latest air quality annual status report, conducted by South Northamptonshire Council in 2021, confirmed a continuous downward trend of nitrogen dioxide levels, and all monitored sites in Towcester achieved legal compliance with NO2 levels in 2019.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for her perseverance in improving the lives of the residents of Towcester, and for providing us with an opportunity to outline the steps we are taking to improve both the traffic situation and air quality in and around Towcester. Improving air quality across the nation is a key priority for this Government, and I am committed to addressing it while supporting the economic growth that we so desperately need.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.