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Highway Layouts

Volume 805: debated on Monday 7 September 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what weight is given to the effect of new or modified highway layouts on adjacent sites of ecological, cultural or scientific significance.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and declare an interest as a vice-president of the RHS.

My Lords, we always try to avoid or minimise any adverse impacts when we design and develop major highway schemes. The impacts are considered carefully when making value-for-money assessments and when projects are put forward for planning consent. The Planning Inspectorate weighs all relevant material considerations and may subsequently recommend to the Secretary of State that consent is not granted.

I thank the noble Baroness for her Answer. The Government have pledged to plant millions of trees to improve biodiversity, reduce flood risks and capture carbon. However, Highways England’s proposal for junction 10 of the M25 will do the exact opposite. Some 44 irreplaceable trees will be lost. There will be longer, more polluted and more convoluted traffic journeys and building disruption lasting many years, all critically harming RHS Wisley’s heritage site. Also, the RHS charity could see an income reduction of millions of pounds. Will the Government ensure that all evidence is considered, especially the alternative, common-sense proposal to this scheme from the RHS and Wisley’s cultural significance, before making a final decision?

I thank the noble Baroness for reminding all noble Lords of government policy. She is absolutely right that this Government are committed to the environment and want to see improvements within it. The scheme she mentioned is a live planning application. It is with the Planning Inspectorate at the moment so I cannot comment on the detail, but I reassure her that the DCO process is designed to make sure that any proposal is subject to the highest level of scrutiny to ensure that it complies with planning law. It may interest the noble Baroness to know that this scheme had four rounds of public consultation.

Following on from the Question of the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, Wisley is part of the Thames Basin Heaths Special Protection Area, which is a key site for safeguarding very important fauna and flora in England and which we really cannot afford to lose. What action will HM Government take to ensure that the Secretary of State for Transport has all the evidence available to conclude with certainty, as the law requires, that the proposed new junction 10 of the M25 will not harm the integrity of the Thames Basin Heaths Special Protection Area?

It is up to the Planning Inspectorate to make sure that it feels comfortable that it has all the information it requires. If not, it will ensure that it goes out and gets it. I reassure the noble Baroness that under RIS2, the new road investment scheme strategy which came out in April 2020, Highways England has various KPIs which relate to biodiversity. HE’s KPI is that there will be no net loss of biodiversity, using Natural England’s assessment approach.

My Lords, my question cites the example of the UNESCO world heritage site of Stonehenge and the A303, where the current situation is intolerable for both the local community and air quality. Notwithstanding the importance of this route for travel to the West Country for residents and the vital tourism trade, we see constant traffic jams. Does my noble friend agree that we must come to a position balancing preservation against progress?

As my noble friend will be aware, this scheme is also with the Planning Inspectorate and I therefore cannot comment on it in great detail. However, she will know that the decision was delayed owing to an archaeological find and therefore further consultation will take place with all the relevant stakeholders within the particular field. This will enable all relevant matters to be considered and, as she rightly said, a balanced position to be reached. We expect a position to be reached by 13 November.

As part of the Planning for the Future consultation, the Government are considering the relationship between infrastructure, including roads, and the planning system. With the White Paper asserting that decisions to grant planning consent should no longer be taken on a case-by-case basis but be

“determined by clear rules for what can and cannot be done”,

can the Minister give an assurance that the outcome under these future rules for what can and cannot be done will not result in diminished consideration of the environmental impact of proposed roadbuilding, bearing in mind that the environmental impact of roadbuilding and development, including on adjacent sites of ecological, cultural or scientific significance, varies considerably from case to case?

On a case-by-case basis, each road scheme must comply with the national policy statement on national roads, which states that a DCO applicant must show, for example, how the project has taken advantage of opportunities to “conserve and enhance” biodiversity and geological conservation interests. There are many other issues in that national policy statement which will apply to roads now and in future.

My Lords, we are at a crucial point as we try to recover from the pandemic. Do we try to go back to business as usual or grasp the opportunity to build back greener? Does the Minister agree that the Government’s priority after the pandemic should be investment in a zero-emission public transport fleet, including the creation of more cycle lanes and safe walkways, and not the creation of more highways? Will the Government look at the amount of money and the number of schemes they are planning to invest in?

The Government have clearly set out within RIS2 the schemes that will be invested in and the enhancements that will be made. As the noble Baroness will know, for enhancements it is often not a case of building a new road—very few absolutely new roads are ever built—but of improving the existing roads and, as importantly, maintaining our existing infrastructure. I reassure her that, for example, within the funding envelope of RIS2 there is a designated environmental and well-being fund which can be spent not on specific schemes but where it is best needed. That fund amounts to £345 million.

I am confident that my noble friend recognises the importance of biodiversity in highway verges. I urge Her Majesty’s Government to seriously consider creating meaningful nature corridors alongside any new-build highways.

I reassure my noble friend that we certainly consider nature corridors along new highways—not for all of them, because obviously not all are suitable for that sort of thing. Highways England has a huge commitment to biodiversity. For example, my noble friend will be pleased to know that we will improve the habitat alongside the M6 corridor from Preston to the border with Scotland.

My Lords, in making the business case for the proposed roadworks close to Wisley Gardens, it is likely that the time-savings for road users will be taken into account? What proportion of the expected time-savings is of two minutes duration or less? Also, has account been taken in such calculations of the likely fall in commuter traffic and flows to and from Gatwick and Heathrow?

As I have stated previously, I cannot go into detail about the scheme the noble Lord mentioned, but I can say that the junction around the M25 is one of the most highly congested junctions on our motorway network, and it sees 270,000 vehicles a day. Therefore, even two minutes per vehicle would be a significant time saving, both from an economic and social perspective, and it would also have environmental benefits.

The scheme is also designed to improve safety. That particular junction has the highest casualty rate on the M25. It is too early to understand what the long-term impacts of Covid are, but traffic levels have rebounded very strongly. However, each scheme already has a low-growth scenario, which is taken into account in granting planning.

My Lords, to improve air quality around areas of sensitive ecology, we must encourage green transport. According to a Department for Transport survey, only 1% of households own an electric car, and 2% own a hybrid. The main barriers to increasing these numbers are access to charging points and the cost of purchase. Therefore, why are the Government spending £2 on unrestricted fossil fuel subsidies for every £1 promoting clean energy, such as the EV charging infrastructure?

My Lords, this Government have a huge respect for electric vehicles. Certainly, the numbers the noble Baroness quotes are low and are historic, because the number of electric vehicles is increasing, and we expect it to increase in the future. However, while we are transitioning to electric vehicles, Highways England is doing a huge amount of work on air quality. For example, in late September, Highways England will introduce 60 miles per hour speed limits on certain sections of the strategic road network, in order to bring down speeds and improve air quality.