I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise a subject of enormous importance to tens of thousands of my constituents—the urgent need to complete stage 2 of the Avon ring road. I am grateful that the Minister is here to respond.
Proposals for the Avon ring road around the eastern fringe of Bristol between the M32 and the A4 have been implemented progressively since 1986. One last section remains to be constructed, which is known formally as stage 2. It will run between Shortwood to the north and the A420 at Warmley to the south. Locally, we refer to stage 2 of the Avon ring road as the missing link. Some three quarters of the ring road is in place, but the link between Shortwood and Warmley is missing. It is therefore clear that I am not seeking to make a case for building a new road. The decision whether to construct the Avon ring road was, rightly or wrongly, made many years ago.
The issue I wish to raise this evening is when a road that is three quarters complete will be finished. The road has a beginning and an end, but it has nothing in the middle for more than a mile and a half. The overwhelming majority of my constituents who are affected want to see the road completed as quickly as possible.
It is not difficult to see why. Because the ring road has a gap in the middle, heavy vehicles are diverted on to residential roads that are totally unsuitable for such traffic. The inevitable consequence is that the lives of thousands of local residents have been made a misery. Heavy lorries pound up and down narrow residential roads in places such as Mangotsfield and Warmley, and the results are obvious, including noise, fumes, environmental pollution and the daily risk to life and limb. On behalf of my constituents, I say, enough is enough. The situation has got to stop.
The strength of feeling on the issue is clear for all to see. There have been countless petitions to the local authority, as Avon county council and, more recently, as South Gloucestershire council. There are regular demonstrations in support of completion, and I recently delivered more than 1,000 individual letters to the Secretary of State for the Environment calling for urgent action.
Naturally, some are opposed to the completion of the ring road. Those people are in a small minority. They are certainly a minority of those who have written to me on the issue. Most of the opponents seem to live outside my constituency, a safe distance away from the residential roads where heavy lorries pound back and forth. Two of the major objectors live eight miles away, in Bath. The people who live locally face a nightmare of gigantic proportions.
Those who do not want the ring road to be completed try to invoke the arguments against road building. Those are familiar arguments that I will not comment on further, but, as I have said, this is not a matter of building a new road. The choice is not whether or not to have a new road but whether to complete a road that is already three quarters built or to leave it as it is. Do we allow the crazy situation to remain whereby the road comes to an abrupt end whether one is travelling southward or northward, so that traffic is inevitably diverted on to residential roads, causing enormous environmental damage?
I make no apology for claiming the environmental high ground for the case for the completion of the ring road. There are other cases of this kind, but those of us who would describe ourselves as concerned about the environment cannot possibly say that the environment is improved by having a gap in the ring road, with all the environmental damage that that causes for thousands of families with lorries going up and down residential roads, compared with the situation if the ring road were completed. It certainly is not.
Many conservationists, such as the Council for the Protection of Rural England, support the completion of the Avon ring road. No one in their right mind wants to build more roads unless the benefits clearly outweigh the costs. But, as the CPRE has said, in this particular case, the environmental benefits of completing the ring road far outweigh the costs.
The critics of completing the road have invoked a second argument, saying that the Bristol-Bath cycleway and footpath is under threat. That is simply untrue. In fact, under the agreed scheme, there will be greater provision for cyclists, and there should be no difficulty making temporary arrangements during the construction period.
In addition to the urgent need to close the so-called missing link in the ring road, to remove heavy traffic from residential roads, it is necessary for local business development and employment in the area that the road should be completed. For example, it is needed for the new development at Emerson's Green. Many businesses have located in my constituency in Kingswood and nearby on the assumption that the road would be quickly completed. It is no exaggeration to say that, if the road is not completed, many of my constituents will run the risk of losing their jobs as their firms locate elsewhere where communications are better.
I make those points not because I believe that there is any disagreement on the case that I have put forward between me and the Government—I do not believe there is—but because, inevitably, there is some debate locally, and I want to put my strongly held views firmly on the record. There is an overriding case in terms of the environment for completing the ring road and removing the misery that exists for many people in my constituency.
The situation can be briefly summarised. Just over a couple of years ago, in October and November 1994, there was a public inquiry to consider objections to the various orders and applications necessary for the project to go ahead. A year later, in October 1995, the Secretaries of State for the Environment and for Transport confirmed those orders and applications. At the time, that seemed to many of us a rather excessive delay, but it was nothing compared with the delays that were to follow.
Next, a legal challenge was lodged in the High Court by a Mr. Nicolson and a Mr. McNeeny, both of whom live eight miles away in Bath, and who therefore do not have to suffer the misery inflicted on my constituents. They both also, as it happens, obtained the benefit of legal aid to pursue their action, a matter to which I shall refer briefly in a moment.
The precise reasons for that legal challenge need not detain me. They are well known to those with an interest in the matter, but the purpose was pretty obvious, and it has been clearly stated: it is to frustrate the wishes of local residents to have the road completed.
As a result of that legal challenge, I made representations to the Secretary of State for the Environment, asking him to do all he could to expedite the High Court hearing.
At the end of February last year, the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Sir P. Beresford), sent me an encouraging reply. He told me:
Avon County Council as the promoting authority for the scheme have applied to the Court for an expedited hearing and I can assure you that my Department are giving every possible support to that request … you may rest assured that we will do everything in our power to avoid unnecessary delay.
I was indeed encouraged by that.
However, I was disappointed when the High Court hearing due to commence on 18 July last year had to be aborted. Why did that happen? As I was subsequently informed by the Under-Secretary of State, it was caused by the late submission of affidavits by the Department of Transport. Two drafts were made available only on the day of the hearing, 18 July.
Inevitably and regrettably, therefore, the High Court hearing had to be postponed—a further delay. The hearing finally took place in November, following which the High Court gave the go-ahead to complete the missing link. As soon as that happened, along came the solicitors acting on behalf of Mr. Nicolson and Mr. McNeeny, who lodged notice of an appeal.
So on to the Court of Appeal we go, in this sorry saga. Again, I immediately wrote to the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment urging the Government to do all they could to expedite the appeal.
I see that the Minister for Railways and Roads is to respond to the debate tonight, so I must explain that I wrote to the Department of the Environment because that Department had just met representatives of South Gloucestershire council to discuss the local government finance settlement. In that discussion, the question of the ring road had been raised, and South Gloucestershire was awaiting a response.
Although I did not raise the matter with the Department of Transport, I understand that the letter that I sent to the Department of the Environment on 24 January has been passed to the Minister who is to reply. In fairness to him, I must acknowledge that he received the letter only on 21 February. I hope that he will respond favourably to my request.
As things stand, we see a sorry state of affairs. The appeal has been entered on the appropriate Court of Appeal list, and I am advised that a target date 12 months ahead is anticipated for the hearing. After all the delays that we have had on stage 2 of the Avon ring road, further delays are unacceptable.
I therefore ask the Government above all to respond positively to the request in my letter to the Department of the Environment dated five or six weeks ago. I hope that they will respond, and will do all in their power to expedite the Court of Appeal hearing. We cannot wait another 12 months for a decision. South Gloucestershire council, with which I have worked closely on the matter, has already applied for expedition of the hearing date. Its grounds for doing so have my strongest possible support, and I shall place them on the record.
First and foremost, as I have repeatedly said, there is an urgent need to complete the ring road to relieve damage to the residential environment caused by heavy traffic using roads totally unsuitable for that purpose. Secondly, it is necessary to complete the ring road to facilitate wider economic benefits, such as the Emerson's Green development, which I have already mentioned, and to reduce the number of accidents.
Thirdly, there is a need for certainty to avoid further unnecessary expenditure on short-term relief measures. Inevitably, with all those delays, the local authority has had to spend substantial sums on such measures. Clearly that is nonsense, and we need to get the matter sorted out so that that is no longer necessary.
Fourthly, there is a need for certainty to allow transport supplementary grant applications to be processed for the next financial year, and to allow tendering procedures to be commenced. Certainty is also needed to remove the blight on private properties affected by compulsory purchase orders.
I have referred in passing to one aspect of the appeal that has caused enormous anger among my constituents—an anger that I share. The applicants, Mr. Nicolson and Mr. McNeeny, have been awarded legal aid. I have made representations to the Legal Aid Board expressing my profound concern about that.
South Gloucestershire council has made similar representations of a more detailed nature, asking the board to review its decision to grant legal aid in the case. In the council's view, legal aid is not justified, either on the legal merits or in respect of the proper use of public funds. I look forward to the Legal Aid Board's review. Constituents who want legal aid for divorce proceedings or to get the Coal Authority to accept responsibility for local mine shafts have enormous difficulties obtaining it. As all hon. Members know, it is incredibly difficult for constituents to get legal aid. I find it astonishing that those two gentlemen have been granted legal aid. I hope that the Legal Aid Board will review that as a matter of urgency.
After the previous debate, I am not sure whether I can deal with funding without some embarrassment, because am calling for increased public spending. A road cannot be built without being paid for. South Gloucestershire council's transport policy and planning submission for 1997–98 included a bid for £8.3 million to fund stage 2. In December last year, the council received its TPP settlement. Supplementary credit approval for a mere £1 million was reserved, for a scheme costing £25 million. That is insufficient to begin construction this year, whatever happens in the Court of Appeal. In addition to the commitment that I hope to hear this evening from the Government to seek to speed up the Court of Appeal hearing, it is essential that they clarify their position on funding.
A £25 million scheme will have to be funded largely from Government grants. If it is based on local authority borrowing, it will cost £3 million a year simply to service the debt. The local authority has a capped budget and has just made £10 million of cuts in services, including education and social services. It cannot afford to fund the ring road.
My constituents are suffering in their tens of thousands because of delays in completing the missing link in the Avon ring road. I ask the Minister to respond positively to my request that the Government should do all that they can to expedite the Court of Appeal hearing. I also urge the Minister to give South Gloucestershire council the assurances on funding that would enable the Avon ring road to be completed as a matter of urgency.
I rise briefly to support what the hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) has said. More of his constituents are affected than mine, but some of mine are affected in ways similar to those that he has outlined.
The debate is not about road building in principle. I detected some hesitancy about road building in principle in some of the hon. Gentleman's remarks. I agree that we should be selective about which roads are to be built. For example, I was against the A46 improvements that were proposed not long ago, not far from the scheme that we are discussing.
Local people all support the completion of the ring road. It is important for my constituency and for the hon. Gentleman's constituency. It is also important for the whole of the south part of Bristol. As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, it is important for the completion of Emerson's Green, the new development in the north part, and to ensure that it is a success.
Like the hon. Gentleman, I find it extremely irritating, to put it mildly, that the two objectors keep getting legal aid to delay the scheme. I find that decision of the Legal Aid Board difficult to understand.
I support the hon. Gentleman's comments. I would like the road to be completed as soon as possible. I reinforce his pleas to my hon. Friend the Minister in support of that objective.
The hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Sir J. Cope) have both explained the history of the scheme and the frustration which they and their constituents feel at the lack of progress in implementing what is obviously a vital missing link. Coupled with that is the frustration of their constituents at seeing their money as taxpayers being recycled through legal aid and used to thwart their wishes. The hon. Member for Kingswood will understand that I cannot comment on legal aid policy.
The hon. Gentleman and my right hon. Friend have said that the opponents of the scheme live a comfortable distance away from the problem. In this age of acronyms, I have one of my own for such people. They are not NIMBYs—not in my back yard—but what I describe as NIYBYs—not in your back yard. They tell those who suffer from traffic congestion that they should be denied a solution to their problems.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the lack of progress is not in the hands of the local authority or my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport. It is the further legal action by Mr. Nicolson and Mr. McNeeny which is causing the delay. However, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has also applied to the court for an expedited hearing. We believe that it is important that the issue should be resolved quickly.
On funding, I can reassure the hon. Gentleman in the light of today's earlier debate, that, although he might have thought he was, he is not in fact asking for an increase in the total of public expenditure. The funding for the road would come out of the existing baseline of my Department. When it is able to be funded and can go ahead, it will not be adding to the control total. He will not be adding to the criticisms that my right hon. and hon. Friends were heaping upon other members of his party earlier.
On the funding of the scheme, we are satisfied that it continues to meet the Department's criteria for transport supplementary grant under the TPP system, and, subject to the outcome of the current legal processes, the normal rules will apply. That means that, unless there is any significant change in the nature of the scheme, and as long as work progresses satisfactorily and the costs remain reasonable after it has passed its final legal hurdles, we will fund it through to completion in the normal way.
The amount allocated to the project for 1997–98 is, as the hon. Gentleman said, only £1 million. That is a recognition that the delay caused by the further legal challenge is likely to prevent a much greater rate of spend in that financial year. It is not an indication that we have lost the will to support the project, but it shows simply that the phasing of expenditure will be less in 1997–98 and more in the subsequent years.
I hope that my response has given the hon. Member for Kingswood the assurance he needs, personally and for his constituents. I join him in hoping that the legal issues are resolved rapidly. At that time, the authority will be in a position to go out to tender and start the construction. The hon. Gentleman has my assurance that funding will continue through to completion on the basis that I have set out.