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Road Schemes: Environmental Considerations

Volume 620: debated on Thursday 21 December 2000

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11.20 a.m.

How their decision to approve 39 road schemes in the local transport settlement accords with the statement in the Ten Year Transport Plan that,

"there will be a strong presumption against schemes that would significantly affect environmentally sensitive sites, or important species, habitats or landscapes".

My Lords, the Government have not changed their policy towards roads and the environment. We retain a strong presumption against accepting road schemes which would adversely affect environmentally sensitive sites. All road schemes accepted in the local transport plans have been examined against the Government's transport criteria of safety, environment, economy, accessibility and integration, using the new approach to appraisal. That ensures that all relevant factors are taken into account when making decisions to give schemes the go-ahead, including any potential impact on sensitive sites.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that very full Answer. The presumption against road schemes in environmentally sensitive sites was reinforced by my noble friend Lord Macdonald in AONBs letter to the Guardian of 31st July. Given that presumption, is it not a little odd that, of the 39 schemes, none was rejected on environmental grounds but nine of them go through SSSIs or AONBs?

My Lords, the approach to appraisal has to take strong account of all relevant factors, but the presumption is there. However, where there is no alternative to a road scheme, other factors may outweigh marginal damage to SSSIs. My noble friend will find that of the nine schemes to which he referred the majority involve slight damage and that in other cases we are talking about, for example, crossing a waterway, which does not damage or affect the whole of that site. I appreciate that in a number of those locations there has been anxiety. But the majority of the schemes which were put forward and appraised by local authorities have not been accepted. My noble friend must also recognise that in the local transport plan as a whole less than 15 per cent of the total funding allocation went to major road schemes. The bulk of it was used for local schemes, public transport improvements and safety and environmental improvements.

My Lords, I congratulate the Government on this albeit rather modest resumption, after nearly four years of famine, of the road improvement schemes. I hope that many more schemes will be approved in the near future.

My Lords, I am happy to accept the congratulations of the Opposition. I have a feeling that there was an underlying theme to the noble Lord's intervention of which perhaps I would not entirely approve. The Government have been consistent. We have never said that we would not have new road schemes. We have said that roads have to be put into an integrated transport context and that the environmental dimension has to be taken fully into account. That has been done in relation to these local transport schemes and it is being done in relation to a number of potential improvements to the highways network. But that needs to be looked at in a multimodal context so that we take some traffic off the roads as well as improve, in appropriate circumstances, the road network.

My Lords, does the Minister remember that the biggest cut in the road programme was made on 30th November 1996 by the previous government? On that occasion a large number of very much desired bypasses were eliminated from the programme. Do the Government agree that when people's quality of life in small towns and villages suffers as much as it often has from the huge increase in traffic, it is most important that they should eventually receive bypasses? Does he further agree that there is a problem with the Government's programme for detrunking roads? It will mean that responsibility for bypasses will be with local authorities, which, first, are likely to have much less money with which to provide them and, secondly, are in some cases much less sensitive to the environment than has been the Highways Agency in recent years.

My Lords, I do not think that the process of detrunking roads will have the adverse effects to which the noble Lord refers. It will allow the local transport authority to take account of the role of those roads within its overall transport strategy. The roads are not necessarily strategic roads. They just happen historically to be part of the Highways Agency's network. It is better to look at them as local and regional roads rather than as strategic roads. Resources will follow the transfer of responsibility. I believe that local authorities will be sensitive to the environment and will go through the same appraisal system as should Highways Agency roads. As far as concerns the general point on bypasses, what the noble Lord said underlines the fact that there are environmental aspects to consider on both sides. Quality of life, noise, safety and traffic congestion within villages need to be tackled for environmental reasons. In some cases, those matters are outweighed by the fact that the bypass might destroy beautiful land. In other cases, the balance of the argument goes the other way. However, in both cases, environmental aspects are important.