The second Severn crossing—in spite of having an uninspired name—is a wonderful engineering achievement that has rightly won prizes. It is also valuable to those of us to the east of the river, as well as to south Wales and west Gloucestershire. However, the gains have been at the expense of residents, particularly in the parish of Pilning and Severn Beach in my constituency. The villages have been cut in three by the new approach roads, with a large motorway junction in the middle.
We have known for some years that that would happen. The routes of the roads are determined by the siting of the bridge, which itself was dictated by engineering considerations and by the position of the rocks in this most difficult river. When the private Bill went through the House, it was recognised that there would be great damage to life in those quiet rural villages. This damage was recognised by colleagues who served on the Committee, and by the Government and their agencies.
An undertaking was given that, in making decisions, the spirit as well as the letter of the law would be followed in dealing with the residents. I am here to tell my hon. Friend the Minister for Railways and Roads that it is time to honour that undertaking. The motorway is built and has been opened. The road users are benefiting, and the impact on residents is now apparent.
I asked for this debate because too many detailed matters are still outstanding, which affect residents of the area. There was a tremendous push to get the road open, but since it opened last summer, I have had the impression that the Highways Agency has rather pushed the remaining work to the back of the shelf and told its people to concede as little as possible, as slowly as possible.
There are a variety of detailed matters that I could mention, but I want to illustrate my point with three. They are separate issues, but what they have in common is that they were all left over from the end of the building process. The first issue is noise mitigation. We all know that we cannot have a motorway without noise, but where—as in this case—the road inevitably passes close to the houses because of considerations such as the siting of the bridge, we should do the maximum to mitigate that noise.
To give one example—it is the best, but there are others—the residents of New Passage are insufficiently protected from the noise of the new motorway and the M4-M49 junction, which is near them. New Passage is a hamlet with a number of houses, mainly dating from the days of the railway ferry before the Great Western railway tunnel was built under the river 120 years ago. They are downwind of the prevailing winds off the river and some houses are less than 100 yd from the motorway, which at that point is raised level with the eaves of the houses.
Some protection was supposed to have been provided by an earth bund, which was to be constructed opposite the eastbound entry and exit slip roads of the interchange. I discussed the proposals with the Highways Agency after the motorway opened in July, and I was eventually told in November that the bund is to be continuous instead of having a gap in the middle and is to be 2 m higher than the original proposal. I welcome those improvements.
However, I must point out that I was told in November that the bund was supposed to be completed by the spring or summer of this year. It will take some months to build, including a three-month pause in the middle of building to allow for settlement. So far, nothing has been done, so it will be late spring—if not late summer—when we can expect even that, by which time the motorway will have been open for more than a year.
In any case, the bund will do nothing at all to shield the houses at the eastern end of New Passage road, which are near the exit from the motorway and the interchange, and where there is nothing between them and the motorway and the interchange. An acoustic fence along the motorway has been refused on value-for-money grounds. Many of the houses are solid Victorian buildings, but the noise inside them—even with double glazing—is continuous. The residents used to live in a peaceful rural backwater, but they are now supposed to live with their windows shut. One needs to shout to hold a conversation in the garden when the wind is blowing. That is a big change in the residents' life style.
I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to take a personal interest in the matter, and not just in New Passage. He must ensure that the Highways Agency, which is responsible to him, acts with sympathy towards local citizens. They did not oppose the road, nor did they dig tunnels where it was to be built—as we have seen in other recent cases. They relied upon the promises given to the Committee by the Government and the agency, and they are entitled to fair treatment.
There is also the wider question of why low-noise porous asphalt is not used where motorways are close to residents. Information from the Refined Bitumen Association suggests that modern porous asphalt—at an extra cost of about 2 per cent. for a new road—will reduce noise by about 50 per cent. I am told that some of it has been laid on the M4 near Cardiff and has been successfully used on the continent for a number of years. I am concerned that it was not used near Pilning and Severn Beach, as it would have been a great help. I am told locally that a top dressing of that type, Safepave, has been laid on the A38 between the M5 and Filton, and—although I cannot be sure whether it is responsible—noise seems to be at a lower level there than before.
I realise that the Treasury—one of my old Departments—will be looking over the Minister's shoulder as he replies, ever present, like Long John Silver's parrot, except, of course, the parrot said, "Pieces of eight, pieces of eight," whereas the Treasury—not being a parrot—says, "Pieces of eight, pieces of seven, pieces of six," and so on. Perhaps the shadow Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown), is the parrot because he gives an official "Hear, hear" to everything that my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer says. But that is another matter.
The next important date is the first anniversary of the opening of the bridge next June. It is important because that is when compensation claims can be submitted. The fact that every successful act of noise mitigation will reduce those claims should be some encouragement to the Treasury. Indeed, at one point, New Passage residents collectively offered to forgo their rights to compensation if the noise was reduced. Whether they were wise to do so is a matter for them, but it certainly shows that they would prefer less noise to more compensation.
The second case is different. It is that of an individual—my constituent, Mr. Philip Jones. He owns salmon fishing rights on the Severn, which he has fished under Government licence for many years by the traditional method of lave net fishing—highly skilled and potentially dangerous work. It was his livelihood and that of his father and grandfather before him and it is an ancient method of fishing for salmon, much used on the Severn in years gone by.
Two things are clear. Building the bridge, with its many piers, has inevitably altered permanently the currents and, therefore, the sandbanks on the river, although I accept that it is extremely difficult to know exactly how they have altered. It is also clear that, in the same period, Mr. Jones's fishery at Oldbury has become impossible to work because of movements in the sandbanks. His problem is to prove that the one was a consequence of the other, although to the layman the coincidence of timing makes it look highly likely, as far as I can see.
Mr. Jones has spent more than three years arguing the case and has been forced to commission several expert reports because of the refusal of the authorities to decide the matter. It has already cost him and, latterly, the Legal Aid Board a great deal. If the case goes to court after all this time, it will cost even more.
As there are practically no lave net fishermen left, very few people are likely to be able to claim the case as a precedent. Why not pay Mr. Jones a reasonable amount now, rather than paying it to lawyers and consultants and in court fees?
The third matter concerns the attempt of South Gloucestershire council, supported by others, to protect the public rights of way that have been affected by the building of the approach roads. Like me, the council thinks that the Highways Agency is trying to do the minimum, so the public are losing amenity and being encouraged to use their cars. For example, the agency has resisted for months a cycleway between Redwick road and Northwick road, which is an essential link for the national cycleway. It has also failed to provide alternative bridleways at a time when everyone else is trying to encourage horse riders to use off-the-road routes. An example is that it will not provide suitable parapets and fencing on the M4 bridge near Holm farm, and expects the council to provide an alternative bridleway.
The British Horse Society, whose golden jubilee some of us had the honour to celebrate this morning, is rightly concerned about that, and I pay tribute to the society's work in that area and generally. The Countryside Commission is also concerned about the matter. I hope that the Minister will be able to confirm that it is the Government's policy to encourage the off-road riding of bicycles and horses and that the Highways Agency should provide alternatives when road construction closes or affects footpaths, bridleways or cycleways. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport will back the provision of cycleways. As we all know, he is a keen cyclist. I, too, think that they are important. The excellent Sustrans is based in Bristol. It has done so much and is doing excellent work with the backing of the Millennium Commission, particularly on the national cycleway. I am sure that the Minister will want to support Sustrans.
Those are three different aspects of the same thing—the consequences of the building of the approach roads. I welcome the bridge, but residents in my constituency and in that of the hon. Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes), who has joined the debate and represents those on the other side of the river—the other half of the bridge and the approach roads on that side are his concern—are paying the price of the building of that valuable facility.
I have sketched in a few cases. There is a lot more detail and there are other cases. My constituency probably has more motorways than any other—20 miles of the M4, 17 miles of the M5, plus the M48, M49, a bit of the M32 and half of both Severn bridges. When new motorways are built or old ones altered, the Government, through the Highways Agency, must do their best to mitigate the harm for those affected. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will help to achieve that in this instance.
I wanted to endorse the sentiments expressed by the right hon. Member for Northavon (Sir J. Cope) about noise levels. I represent an area on the Welsh side of the crossing that was formerly very quiet and secluded. The way of life has changed quite a lot since the opening of the new bridge. Apparently, the prevailing wind is from the west and residents in the Rogiet and Caldicot areas get the worst of all worlds, so to speak.
The main environmental problem that arises from the opening of the new bridge is caused by the fact that tolls are collected only on one side, so people tend to drive down the A40 through Monmouth and on to the A449, do whatever business they have to do and travel back across the bridge toll free. That seems detrimental on environmental grounds, besides being most unfair. I hope that the Minister will be able to consider those two matters.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Sir J. Cope) on his diligence and persistence in pursuing the cause of his constituents and bringing these matters before the House today.
As my right hon. Friend acknowledged, the new Severn crossing is a magnificent structure, but he rightly expressed concern about the impact that the opening of the second Severn crossing and the Avon approach roads have had on his constituents. The hon. Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) also referred to the impact on his constituents in Wales. I am not sure whether I am permitted to reply on behalf of the Welsh Office, but if I do not have the opportunity to do so during this brief debate, I shall ensure that he receives a written reply.
The roads were constructed in pursuance of the Severn Bridges Act 1992. During the planning and design stages, great care was taken, in decision making, to maintain the sensitivity of the local environment. The environmental statement that was published in 1990 identified and limited construction access routes. It also required separate drainage networks and outfalls, as well as environmental protection and landscape planting.
Extensive consultations were held with local authorities, landowners and representatives of others with key interests, including environmental bodies, prior to and during the planning and construction stages of the scheme to ensure that local views were taken into account. Regular liaison meetings continue to be held to discuss any outstanding matters.
The choice of motorway alignment was made carefully to balance its impact on local communities. As a result, environmental bunds have been constructed at several places adjacent to properties along the M4 and M49, to provide visual and noise mitigation. Where the M49 joins the M5, environmental noise fencing has been erected. As the construction contract has progressed, the bunds have been increased in height where possible to improve visual screening and further to reduce traffic noise.
My right hon. Friend will be pleased to know that we have been able to accommodate the request for screening from the majority of residents of New Passage by the provision of a new earth bund to the north of Pilning interchange, up to 5.5 yd high, which will replace the temporary topsoil bund left over from the construction works for the second Severn crossing. The replacement bund is an additional measure. Preparatory work for its construction is under way, and it should be completed by this summer. My right hon. Friend referred to the agreed timetable, and I believe that the bund will be completed on time.
Landscape planting of the area is programmed for later this year and will help to screen the motorway from properties. Unfortunately, as my right hon. Friend said, we have not been able to accommodate his constituents in New Passage with an extension to the bund, because the motorway rises as it approaches the second Severn bridge, and any extension to the bund would be below the level of the motorway and therefore would not provide any further protection for the residents. There is also a lack of available land to produce a bund that would be wide enough to support a height above the level of the motorway and provide protection.
Following representations from my right hon. Friend and from residents in the Redwick road area, we propose to erect a fence to fill the gap in screening over the River Pill. A planting programme to screen local views and integrate the roads into the surrounding landscape was started this winter, and eventually about 250,000 to 300,000 trees will be planted both off and on site along the motorways.
Among the many indigenous species to be planted will be oak, ash, field maple, hawthorn and blackthorn. Evergreen species and species tolerant of pollution will be used in strategic locations to provide visual screening for properties along the route. Owners of 138 properties identified as eligible under the Noise Insulation Regulations 1975 have received offers of noise insulation, and about 70 have already accepted. A public notice will be issued early this month giving advice on the appeals procedure for insulation against traffic noise to anyone who has not received an offer but considers himself to be entitled to one.
Following representations from my right hon. Friend, and complaints from residents, including two petitions, a study to examine the benefits of noise fencing in the vicinity of Pilning interchange was undertaken. It showed that fencing would not provide a noticeable improvement in noise levels, and would be visually intrusive to properties in New Passage and the Redwick road area, so the estimated cost of about £300,000 could not be justified. Properties in the eastern part of New Passage are shielded by an earth bund provided as part of the environmental mitigation, varying in height from 1.3 yd to 3 yd high above the motorway adjacent to properties.
My right hon. Friend referred to porous asphalt. He will recall that the approach roads construction contract began in March 1993; porous asphalt, which can reduce traffic noise by an average of 3 to 5 dB(A), was not approved for use on motorways and trunk roads until 1994. It was therefore not possible to specify its use in the contract, and to incorporate it would have required extensive modifications to the water drainage system, leading to delays and disruption to the completion of the contract.
In addition, porous asphalt is considerably more expensive than conventional surfacing materials, as well as being less durable, so it is doubtful whether value-for-money considerations would have permitted its use. Although it can be extremely valuable in the appropriate circumstances, it cannot be used everywhere and will not always provide good value.
I give my right hon. Friend the assurance, however, that when we resurface the road, as must inevitably be done, we shall consider using whatever quieter appropriate surfacing materials are available, which can be used without completely rebuilding the road. Porous asphalt was laid on the M4 west of Cardiff in 1996 to reduce surface water spray and ameliorate a poor wet weather accident record.
Some new proprietary products for renewing existing road surfaces can help to reduce surface water spray and traffic noise, but many of them are not yet approved for general use on trunk roads and motorways, and could not have been employed in place of the conventional materials used in the contract. All available materials will be considered when the road needs to be resurfaced at some time in the future.
As well as trying to offset the effects of the scheme by both physical and financial means, we have examined the safety issues. At the Church lane footbridge, timber fencing will be provided to the path on the eastern approach embankment. On the western side, both the steps and the alternative ramp approach have pedestrian guard railings and there is considered to be sufficient ambient lighting for use during the hours of darkness.
South Gloucestershire council has expressed concerns about a pedestrian crossing on the A403 at Church road. My right hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that a revised location has been identified for the crossing, north of the Church road junction, and that discussions will shortly be held with the council. The site chosen should allay the concerns about poor visibility of approaching vehicles for pedestrians trying to cross the A403. Clearly, we want to provide the safest facilities that we can for pedestrians.
Pilning and Severn Beach parish council has sought changes to directional signs on existing roads, for fear that otherwise heavy goods vehicles will continue to use unsuitable local roads. The signs are the responsibility of South Gloucestershire council and Bristol city council, but we have already agreed to reimburse the reasonable costs of necessary consequential signing undertaken by those authorities, and we await their proposals.
A request has been received from South Gloucestershire council to provide a cycle track at the south side of the M4 between Redwick road and Northwick road. Although it is not part of our remit, as it would fall outside the motorway boundary, we have made provision within the works on the A403 overbridge, and by modifications to earthworks, for a future cycleway to be provided by South Gloucestershire council and local transportation groups. As my right hon. Friend said, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State would be very much in favour of such a development of cycling facilities.
We have recently discussed the issue with South Gloucestershire council, and have agreed to allow the proposed route to cross over part of the adjacent land that we acquired for the schemes. During construction of the approach roads, one bridleway was diverted over the new M4, and an equestrian bridge parapet was provided. Replacement routes have been provided for all bridleways stopped up as a result of the scheme.
In accordance with national policy, we have not provided those higher equestrian parapets on the other overbridges, which are frequented by horse riders but are not part of the bridleway network. We have, however, provided mounting blocks to assist riders. Discussions are taking place with South Gloucestershire council on its proposed alterations to a bridleway route at Awkley hill, to move it further away from the motorway, and on an addition to the bridleway route between Holm lane and Greenditch street, to provide a continuous route for horse riders in the area.
My right hon. Friend spoke about the effects of the second Severn crossing on salmon fishing in an area known as Oldbury lake, about six miles upstream from the new bridge. The Government carried out several studies prior to the construction of the second Severn crossing to determine any effects on siltation in the Severn estuary, including hydraulic model studies and bathymetric surveys, which have continued after construction.
The earlier studies predicted that the bridge would have only a local effect on flow, and that was confirmed by recent surveys. It is also considered that any effects caused by the bridge would be insignificant when compared with natural changes occurring in the estuary.
Oldbury lake is not covered by any of the studies, but it is not considered possible for the bridge to have had an effect there without having a discernible effect on the waters nearer the bridge. Oldbury lake is very close to Oldbury nuclear power station, which outfalls into the estuary, and that may be of some significance.
I am happy to say that completion of the outstanding works is progressing well, and it is expected that they will be substantially completed by Easter. Progress has been somewhat delayed by additional works resulting from the safety audit process and by extra works requested by local councils. Remedial works will continue from time to time until the end of the contract maintenance period in January 1998.
Responsibility for the side roads was formally transferred to South Gloucestershire council on 24 October 1996 for the M4 and on 11 November 1996 for the M49. There are, however, some outstanding matters to be resolved. Inevitably, a scheme on that scale creates disruptions, although we do our best to keep them to a minimum. I hope that the major problems for my right hon. Friend's constituents are at an end. I ask him to thank them for their patience and forbearance during construction—