Traffic Growth (Blaby)

– in the House of Commons at 10:32 pm on 28 February 1994.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Andrew Mitchell.]

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan , Blaby 10:36, 28 February 1994

It is fitting that I should follow the presentation of that petition, which was also concerned with yet further pressure of the growth of traffic.

I believe that the growth of traffic is one of the biggest long-term problems—if not the biggest—facing the United Kingdom today. In my constituency of Blaby in south Leicestershire, which used to be a rural area before 1962, much has changed. Not all the change has been good; some has been excellent, but most of that change has been due to the motor car. In 1962, the M1 was built up as far as Lutterworth. That was followed by the M6—the M6–M1 junction is in the south of my constituency—and then by the M69. Rural calm in my constituency has been shattered for ever as traffic growth on all roads has increased,.

The debate is aimed to express the unhappiness of my constituents arising from the growth of traffic, and to ensure that my hon. Friend the Minister for Roads and Traffic is in no doubt as to the scale of the problem in this one constituency, this one region of the country, but is repeated nationally.

The growth of traffic impinges on all aspects of life—first, and most obviously, noise. People cannot sleep at night. People are for ever with the hum of traffic in their ears. There is also pollution, and the carbon emissions from traffic relate to our Rio commitments.

We also have asthma, which is currently the subject of much debate in the newspapers, and general health problems. We have the danger from traffic. When I was a child, I used to bicyle to school. No longer is that possible. We have the real stress caused by the growth of traffic and congestion. We have damage to the environment. We also have light pollution, about which constituents are beginning to write to me, as innumerable road lights lead to one being able, as it was described at the weekend, to read a book throughout the night in many villages.

Forecasts vary, but most would suggest that traffic will approximately double in the next 30 to 40 years, and the Department of Transport's forecasts state, in a written answer to me, that the growth in car traffic is forecast to be between 57 and 87 per cent. between 1994 and 2025 and the growth in heavy goods vehicle traffic during the same period is forecast to be between 54 per cent. and 110 percent.

What is our response to be? Will we double the number of roads? I read from a letter that I believe encapsulates the situation. It is from a constituent who has lived on the Leicester road in Glen Parva for 25 years. He writes: On first moving to my borne the road was an attractive elm tree lined avenue with light traffic even at peak times. Sunday was quiet and gardens in evening time were akin to being in the countryside. The 'dawn chorus' of birdsong was interrupted by isolated passing vehicles or at worst a single public service bus.There has been an insidious deterioration of living conditions adjacent to the A426 over the years, at the root of which I consider to be the increase in vehicular traffic, its density, nature and behaviour.Traffic noise under normal flowing conditions is now at such a level that normal conversation in the frontage of the house is not possible and proper rest within front bedrooms is elusive; the constant road noise of passing vehicles is disturbing. There is virtually no time of day or night—weekday and weekend—when no traffic noise is discernible. He continues in the same vein. My constituent wants the Glen Parva bypass to be built. It has been planned; indeed, the proposals were drawn up 30 years ago.

Development has taken place in the region because it was believed that the road would be built to take the traffic flow but, understandably, people living near the proposed route are very upset. Ironically, the route follows two old and quieter transport systems—the Grand Union canal and a dismantled railway.

Although the Department of Transport has not funded the Glen Parva bypass this year, I believe that it will be built, backed by all the locally elected representatives in my constituency. But will it be enough? In 15 or 20 years' time, will we want another, wider road and will the Leicester road be congested again? I fear so unless we have an entirely new approach to dealing with traffic growth.

It was announced today that the M1 in the north of the constituency is to be widened to four lanes each way between junctions 21 and 21A in the next financial year, 1994–95. The M1 cuts deeply into Leicester Forest East, making life hell for those who live near it. Houses are blighted, and lives are disrupted.

Of course, the M1 was not so noisy when people bought their houses, and they want proper noise screening. Indeed, the Department of Transport has given an assurance that it will extend the planned noise screens all the way along the route through Leicester Forest East. However, my constituents and I want more. My constituents want proper compensation for the disruption of their lives, for the nightmare that their lives have become.

Sadly, the nightmare continues. At a recent Department of Transport presentation in the constituency, a civil servant from the Department said that the M1 would need to be widened further by the end of the decade. If that is true, will the Department consider buying properties now to end the anguish of my constituents who live alongside the route, or will it at least consider giving proper compensation?

I quote the chairman of Leicester Forest East parish council: If the DOT predictions prove correct then we will have the situation that the Ml through LFE will be in a state of chaos for a period in excess of 10 years. The situation on the MI is indicative of the lack of long term planning which we are suffering from in all aspects of Government, we have just completed lane closures for installation of lighting, now we have lane closures because of Junction 21 A, next year lane closures for widening to 4 lanes, and in the near future closures for widening to 5+ lanes. Again, that encapsulates the point of the debate.

Next to Leicester Forest East, the A46 Leicester western bypass is being built. It is cutting off the village of Glenfield from the villages of Groby and Ratby and from the Bradgate Park area to the north as it is built to a new junction—junction 21A—which was not planned when the motorway was built because traffic was much less.

Besides all the disruption and unhappiness caused by the building, two ancient footpaths, which are still used by many residents, mostly now for recreation, are being closed. My hon. Friend the Minister—we have corresponded on this—will tell me that they are not being closed, but being diverted. He has suggested to me a mile-long walk alongside this very busy four-lane dual carriageway.

I suspect that a mile-long walk along a four-lane dual carriageway is not many people's idea of recreation, especially if they are old, or if they have dogs or children with them. I suggest that my hon. Friend chastises the civil servant who suggested that, because it is, frankly, ridiculous. In this case, as in so many, cars are being put before people.

Further south in the constituency, where the boundaries run with those of Leicester city, there is Narborough road south, which has become a major highway. Huge developments, including the opening of the MI and M69 junction—junction 21—have created vast traffic flows. What was a suburban road—a relatively quiet road—is now eight lanes of very busy traffic, with a dual carriageway in the middle and two service roads on either side. Leicestershire county council has recently imposed a 50 mph limit there, but to little avail. Trucks continue to thunder by, shaking people's houses.

Again, I shall quote a constituent, whose letter sums up everything that I wish to say: Therefore, Government legislation is required for compensation to be granted for these properties…road works associated with the MI Junction Employment Area which are responsible for the following:

  1. (1) Residents are unable to use front bedrooms and front living rooms due to excessive noise.
  2. (2) Suffer from vibration of heavy vehicles.
  3. (3) Cannot open windows due to traffic noise and air pollution.
  4. (4) Property deterioration.
  5. (5) Children cannot get readily to sleep.
  6. (6) The effect of carbon emission on residents.
  7. (7) Residents cannot sit peacefully in their gardens.
  8. (8) Suffer huge loss in house value."
Those residents are too far from the road works to qualify for compensation, although their lives have been severely harmed. Their living environment has been spoilt. I urge the Government to compensate my constituents and at least to pay for double glazing. Above all, I ask the Government to look at the overall problem of the growth of traffic.

I now move south through my constituency to the market town of Lutterworth which was bypassed when the M1 was extended north in the early 1960s, having been built up to there in 1962. How calm it must have been when the M1 was built north—but no longer. Traffic streams through the centre and heavy goods vehicles shake all the buildings.

Already, a southern bypass is planned and will be built within the next two years. However, planners propose a box around Lutterworth, a western relief road to surround the town with heavy traffic.

Lutterworth is a popular place to live. Many new housing estates are being built, the houses in which command great sums. It is a popular place to live because of the quiet rural environment, with the fields between Bitteswell and the town where a small stream meanders. That is the site of the proposed western relief road, and that too will be destroyed for ever for short-term gain.

I hope that the road will not be built, and I urge my hon. Friend to resist the pressure from developers who are offering to build the road for the county council so that they can proceed with further developments. I urge my hon. Friend not to approve the scheme, but to look at the whole environment of the town, and, if action is required, as it may be, to put a new junction on the M1 north of the town, at junction 20A. The M1, after all, was built to bypass Lutterworth. Does it really need a second bypass not 30 years on?

Also in the south of the constituency is the A47, which was once a quiet country road. It now shakes to the passing of endless HGVs. It is very dangerous; there have been many accidents and some fatalities. Villages such as Walcote in my constituency were not designed for such traffic. The village is cut in half and ruined by the traffic.

Leicestershire county council has introduced some traffic calming, but with small effect. The building of the Al-M1 link, the A14, will be a palliative, but for how long? As it is, this new road has been driven through some unspoilt countryside, which we can ill afford to lose. It was described to me by my hon. Friend's predecessor as likely to be one of the last major new roads through virgin territory; I hope so, but we need a new approach.

Still in my constituency, the A5 is now intended to be dualled all its length. That will make another major source of traffic. Leaving aside new roads and new developments, even little villages are touched as roads carry more traffic than before—more traffic than they were designed for. Rural lanes become rat runs, and villages are spoilt by traffic, while the life of the villagers is degraded.

The huge problem of traffic growth affects everyone. Roads are designed and built to cure the situation, but in my constituency the Soar Valley way and Lubbesthorpe way were built not six years ago. They are, in effect, brand new roads, but they have already been dualled to cope with the extra traffic. If the traffic should double, as is predicted, what then? Will we have to double the size of those roads again?

I have demonstrated the problems of my constituency of Blaby, but if hon. Members would like a national example or an example in London, I refer to the M25, which has created huge traffic growth around London. People commute from Chelmsford to Chertsey. That is ridiculous, but it is being encouraged by road-building policies.

I ask the Government to take careful note: the problem will not go away. The Government are making sensible moves in the right direction, and I hope to encourage more tonight. I know that they are taking greater note of public transport needs. I received a letter from my right hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman) today, in which he said: The Government is committed to a greener future for transport in Britain and wants to see the railways play their part. It is excellent to hear that. Fifty years ago—perhaps even 35—I could have gone around my constituency by railway. I cannot do that now because of the Beeching axe. We must continue to encourage the return of freight and passengers to trains. We must also encourage everyone away from roads, I hope, by a policy of carrot and stick. We must enable cleaner, better buses and trains. I hope that rail privatisation will do just that for the railways. I applaud road pricing and the increased tax on fuel in the Budget.

I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to consider further provision and much firmer action. I urge, for instance, assistance for cyclists, encouragement for pedestrians and real assistance and encouragement. Leicestershire county council—to give credit where it is due—is very supportive of transport choice and of corridors. It is opening the new Ivanhoe line, it is assisting the cycleway from Dover to Inverness, through my constituency, and it is supportive of cycle paths. I applaud that, but I urge the Government to enable and assist further car sharing.

There is a new scheme called "Leicestershire", which is run by Environ, which used to be the Leicester Ecology Trust, in conjunction with de Montfort university. I heard about it on Friday on a visit there. Many of my constituents drive into Leicester. I was astonished to discover that there are 47,000 empty car seats travelling into Leicester per day at peak times. Again, we should enable, encourage and assist car sharing.

Last week, the Leicester Mercury reported that four out of five drivers would support more environmental driving campaigns. In other words, they are prepared to change their driving habits. That is what we all must do.

On Saturday, a constituent, a friend of mine in his 60s, said: "We cannot go on like this." He was referring to traffic growth. He is right—we cannot. At 6 pm, outside the House, anybody trying to cross the road through the fumes could do so easily because the traffic is at a standstill. We cannot go on like that, in London or in Leicestershire.

Some people in villages such as those in my constituency will always have to drive. I am not anti-car as such. My hon. Friend the Minister has been quoted—I hope correctly—as having a love affair with the car.I urge him, if not to have a divorce, at least perhaps to cool his ardour. I look forward to being able to take public transport around my large, semi-rural constituency. I hope to see hon. Members using public transport to get to Westminster. We must change our attitudes. Perhaps we need to allow a little more time for travelling.

In conclusion, I urge my hon. Friend to tackle this huge problem of traffic growth before it overwhelms us all, as it is beginning to overwhelm my constituents in Blaby and in constituencies across the country.

Photo of Robert Key Robert Key , Salisbury 10:54, 28 February 1994

Because my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) has spoken with such good sense tonight, we can all be sure that it will not be reported in the national media and press tomorrow.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this Adjournment debate. He has raised a number of extremely important issues, and I would find it difficult to argue against most of his propositions. His constituents can rest assured that their Member of Parliament means what he says and carries out his word.

As it happens, I have a copy of the Leicester Mercury of Saturday 16 October 1993. The headline is: "Bridge battle will go to Parliament". It has, and here it is. My hon. Friend has brought the battle here, as he said he would. In the journal, there is a photograph of my hon. Friend with a large number of people who were showing him exactly what they meant about the issue of footpaths.

I know that I will not have time to answer all the points raised by my hon. Friend, but I undertake to write to him on the detail. I shall concentrate on his major proposition, which is that we need a new approach to transport and the car in this country.

Of course he is right, and that is happening, although one may be forgiven for not realising that from reading what is written in the press by the various environmental and some of the motoring correspondents, who seem not to listen to this sort of debate. In such debates, Members of Parliament and Ministers can sort out a few of the controversial issues of the day.

My hon. Friend talked about the growth in traffic. He is absolutely right. In December, we announced a review of the methodology of traffic forecasting. For some time, I have not been convinced that we had it right, so we are looking at that with the help of outside, independent experts.

Hon. Members may say that that is clearly meant to be a cover-up—that we just change the statistics. As someone who taught economics for 16 years before entering the House, I know that George Bernard Shaw said: If you laid all the economists in the world end to end, they would not reach a conclusion. My hon. Friend then listed a number of important and practical points which concerned his constituents—for example, noise. Noise can be so intrusive. I happen to live next to a major road. I find it rather more quiet in my tiny flat in central London than in the pastures of Wiltshire, and the reason is traffic noise.

My hon. Friend was generous to point out that my Department is providing a great deal of screening from traffic noise. We are doing more. We are making enormous technological and engineering progress—for example, in new kinds of concrete surfaces. I am not talking about those terrible road surfaces that roar all night across the country; I am talking about whisper concrete technology and porous asphalt technology, which is coming on apace. Therefore, we can tackle noise to some extent.

Clearly, pollution also extends to emission pollution. My right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, with his policy on fuel duties, has given a long-term signal of the direction in which we mean to move here. My hon. Friend referred to sustainable development. That is very important. The Department of Transport was a major player in my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's launch of our sustainable development policy a little while ago.

My hon. Friend also referred to asthma, which afflicts so many people. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health has established a working group on that, which expects to report in the first half of this year on asthma and traffic. A number of other reports have been made, which of course I have seen.

My hon. Friend also mentioned light pollution. I could not agree with him more. One of the most distressing things about the countryside now is the way in which it tends to be lighted by roads. But good news is at hand. Only last year, I published a good lighting guide for transport engineers, which points out that new lighting technology has improved the situation dramatically. Spillage of light from roads will be minimised—we will never get rid of it completely. Light on our major motorways and trunk roads is important for safety, but I am at one with my hon. Friend on the distress which light pollution can cause in the countryside.

I am looking urgently at the deep problems which affect transport in this country. For example, we must look at the motives for travel. Obviously, freight is a prime motive for any kind of transport in different modes, as is commerce and business. Leisure and pleasure are increasingly important motives for use of different modes of transport. They are important, because 90 per cent. of our journeys and freight travel by road, yet 40 per cent. of my Department's budget is spent on public transport subsidy, and quite right too.

Nevertheless, we must discuss the motives for travel, and we must address fairly and squarely issues such as demand management. That means different things to different people. To some it means marginal cost pricing. I feel strongly about that. I have thought it odd for many years that we priced marginally the cost of a journey by train, plane, taxi or bus, but not by motor car or goods vehicle.

There is also the question of integrating planning with our transport, which is a part of demand management. Urban congestion, charging and road pricing are also involved. Of course, the management of demand can also refer to the management of the consequences of demand, and that is different. The consequences of demand include the congestion and pollution to which my hon. Friend referred. We must address also the important issues, such as whether it is the number of cars or the number in use at any one time.

We must do much research with the motor industry, which is concerned that the number of vehicles will fall in the coming years. That would be bad for employment in this country. The Government are often criticised for our failure to achieve long-term planning. The current roads programme was envisaged and detailed in 1989 in a White Paper.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have been engaged since August last year in a prioritisation review of the road programme in this country. One of the motives for that is the establishment of the Highways Agency, which will be up and running from 5 April and will be charged with our road programme and the planning and maintenance which eats up such a substantial and growing part of the roads budget.

That will leave Ministers with rather more time to concentrate on proper integrated transport policies. Of course, it is right that we should encourage the use of modes of transport other than motor car. We must also recognise that the car will be with us for a long time.

My hon. Friend may be interested to know that this afternoon I was the co-chairman of the Greener Motoring Forum, which was established by my hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment and Countryside. The forum had representatives from car manufacturers, motoring organisations, local authorities and a number of other people who are interested in the future of transport in this country. That included the Department of Trade and Industry, because we do not build roads for fun. We build roads, and improve and maintain them, to ensure the economic prosperity of this country.

My hon. Friend said in the Leicester Mercury on 16 October 1993—I am sure that he remembers it as if it were yesterday—that, if we are to have roads, we must take account of the people who already live near them and their ancient rights of way.

My hon. Friend mentioned the Grand Union canal and the dismantled railway that traverses his constituency in the area of Glen Parva. I have so much sympathy for his constituent who described what the area was like some years ago.

I am sorry that we were not able to accept the Glen Parva bypass for transport supplementary grant in 1994–95. Competition for funds was fierce this year, particularly as it has been necessary to reduce funding for local transport infrastructure by 15 per cent. Even more rigorous scrutiny of local authority bids than usual was warranted in the light of the current economic climate. The decision letter to Leicestershire county council included some detailed advice on bidding for funding for new major schemes in the context of the package bids for funding in urban areas.

I know that I shall have to end on this note, Madam Deputy Speaker. Package bids are a new feature of our transport supplementary grant. It means that we can invite local authorities to put together integrated transport bids that give proper attention not only to the motor car, to roads and to the quality of life of people who live beside roads as well as those who use them, but to cyclists and to pedestrians.

I shall shortly announce a new Government cycling policy. I am not sure that we have ever had one, but it is high time that we did. Also, we shall encourage local authorities in those package bids to bid for pedestrianisation schemes, which will add so much to the quality of life.

The Department of Transport is accused of many things. It cannot be accused of failing to look forward with optimism and realism to the needs of the next century. It is a demanding challenge, and one which I accept. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing me to air some of the arguments tonight.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at five minutes past Eleven o'clock.