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Mr. Cummings, I thank you for your chairmanship of this debate, which is important for residents in my constituency and neighbouring constituencies. I thank the Minister for coming along today to respond to the debate. I welcome him to his new position and wish him every success in his role as a Minister.
The M3 motorway and network roads are at the heart of the reason why, over a number of decades, Basingstoke has become not just a great place to live, but a great place to run businesses. We have more than 60,000 jobs in the borough of Basingstoke and Deane, making it one of the top 10 centres for employment in the south-east. Many companies are located there because of our communication network, our highly skilled labour force and, importantly, because we have superb residential communities throughout north Hampshire.
We are proud to be home to many household name companies, including Macmillan books, Motorola, Sony, the Automobile Association, Game and Barclays: I could go on. The Prime Minister has recognised how important Basingstoke is and has recognised the opportunity it affords to the whole of the south-east of England and the role it could play in helping build the United Kingdom economy into the future. That is perhaps why it has been designated by Ministers as a business growth point, recognising the area's potential for sustainable economic growth. The South East England Development Agency has recognised the area as just one of eight diamonds for growth: it has been identified as such for its potential to drive economic growth both regionally and nationally.
On the housing side, the Government have set targets that mean that we are already building 1,000 houses a year in Basingstoke. I understand that they would like even more to be built in future, although I am not sure that market conditions or the residents will favour that demand.
The Government are right to identify the strengths of the community that I represent, but this can never be a one-way street. No area can accommodate the considerable scale of house building and business growth that is expected in my constituency without the necessary investment in local infrastructure and services. The motorway is the critical element driving the Government's focus on Basingstoke, both in terms of housing and business targets, yet local residents and local businesses who already use the motorway regularly, or live by it, are experiencing significant congestion and noise pollution. Noise pollution, particularly, has spiralled as a result of growth not just in Basingstoke and Deane, but throughout the south-east region.
Despite all those demands on my constituency, there are neither current not future plans, as I understand it, to address a mounting infrastructure gap for the M3. The raw facts, which I have gleaned through parliamentary questions, are as follows. Congestion between junctions 6 and 7 has increased by 5,000 vehicles a day over the past 10 years; there have been some slight changes to the signals at junction 6 to maximise traffic flow, but no increase of capacity over that part of the motorway. Junction 6 already operates in excess of capacity, with 100,000 vehicles using it every day. The most sobering fact of all is that accidents between junctions 5 and 8 have increased by a staggering 42 per cent. over the past 10 years, including a notable increase in fatalities.
Residents are also troubled by traffic noise, which has doubled in the past 20 years, leaving many more residents affected by that sort of noise pollution than was ever the case in the past. Yes, there are residents who live close to the motorway, but now such issues are affecting people far further away than previously, including in the villages of Mapledurwell and Up Nately in the east, areas around Hatch Warren and, in the constituency of my right hon. Friend Sir George Young, Beggarwood and Dummer in the west.
I am concerned that things look set to become more of a concern for local residents and businesses. There is talk of yet more house building, but in the present conditions the Government's ambitions in that area may be more limited. There are plans by Southampton airport to double passenger numbers in the next 10 years, which will add further pressure on the motorway that passes through my constituency. All those plans amount to additional vehicles on the M3 and additional noise and congestion.
What does that mean for businesses and local residents in my constituency? The Government need to start listening when the chairman of one of the major employers in my constituency—indeed, in the UK—says that:
"congestion on the M3 in the vicinity of Basingstoke at peak times has reached a level at which it has a significant negative impact on local industry. Indeed, it is likely now to be an important factor in companies' decisions about locating or expanding operations in Basingstoke."
The Government need to listen carefully to such comments.
Basingstoke will not be the diamond for growth, or the growth point that the Government need it to be in these difficult economic times, if employers see the reason that they chose Basingstoke—its location and road networks—becoming a problem rather than an advantage in terms of location. I am sure that the Minister will make himself familiar with the congestion problems suffered by businesses in Reading and will know about some of the actions taken there.
For residents, Basingstoke's attractiveness is as a great place to live and work: 80 per cent. of my constituents live and work in the constituency. However, noise from the motorway has become a growing problem for many of them. As the number of vehicles, both commercial and domestic, grows, so the noise from the motorway grows and affects ever more communities. That direct cost of growth cannot be ignored, but I fear that that has been the position to date—the approach taken to mitigating its effects has been at best patchy. Some remedial work has been done in my constituency. On a nationwide basis, the Government set aside a limited pot to deal with remedial noise measures, primarily through the use of fencing. However, the limited use of such provision in my constituency is causing me a great deal of concern. There has also been a limited use of noise retardant material on the motorway surface, but there is a lack of clarity about how to move that forward to ensure the sort of noise-reduction measures that my residents would like to see.
Returning to sound barriers for a moment—I should like the Minister to pick up on this issue—they have been used on a limited basis to deflect noise away from residents, but that usage appears somewhat haphazard and is not always co-ordinated, because it is dealt with by the Highways Agency, not the local authority. Some of the worst-affected communities in my constituency are those situated near a sound barrier, where sound has been deflected from one residential area into another. In my closing comments, I shall return to matters that the Minister might want to consider in that regard.
Villages in the east of my constituency are so badly affected by noise that the Highways Agency has acknowledged that, if their population density were greater, they would be eligible for Government support. However, because of the sparseness of those villages' populations, they receive no help at all. That method of allocating money is not an equitable and fair way of recognising an extreme problem for some of the communities in my constituency. Some might say that that discriminates against rural communities in areas such as Basingstoke.
Many already appreciate the great scale of the problem locally in Hampshire. The M3 Action campaign has presented a petition with 2,000 signatures calling for action to be taken to reduce noise and congestion on the M3. Hampshire county council has already identified that £300 million of improvements are needed to our roads in Basingstoke, and that £160 million is needed to improve reliability and safety on the M3.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support for the campaign. The issue affects many of the constituencies through which the M3 runs.
Hampshire county council believes that it is critical to improve junction 6 if house building figures are to be sustainable in the county, and that was a key part of its submission on the south-east plan. The highways department clearly recognises the problem, but there is a lack of clarity as to how it fits into ministerial priorities for Hampshire. The council has made it clear that growth is conditional on the infrastructure being funded, with the M3 being pivotal. Without that investment, it is difficult to see how the Government's house building targets, and their plans for business development in my constituency, can be sustainable.
Will the Minister take the opportunity afforded by the debate to confirm that, as detailed in his Department's answer to my parliamentary question on
Will the Minister undertake to consider how noise barriers, such as those that his Department commissioned in my constituency at the Hatch, can be better co-ordinated to ensure that noise is not just bounced around into neighbouring residential areas? Perhaps there should be an obligation on local authorities to ensure that sufficient noise protection is in place before new house building is allowed in the vicinity of established motorways such as the M3. Again, neighbouring residential areas have significant problems in that respect. Most importantly, will the Minister give an undertaking to identify how improvements to junction 6 of the M3 will be funded to cut accidents and rat running through neighbouring communities, where drivers try to find ways of avoiding the long tailbacks at peak times?
Basingstoke businesses and residents need to hear from the Government that they understand the problem and that action will be taken. They cannot be expected to take on the burden of Government-set targets for businesses and house building with no clear way of funding the necessary improvements to our motorway. We look forward to the Minister's response and to hearing firm proposals for his Department's plans to support Basingstoke residents and businesses. We need to hear what action will be taken, not just more kind words.
I congratulate my hon. Friend and neighbour, Mrs. Miller, on her choice of subject for this important debate this morning, and on the eloquent way in which she made the case for improvements in congestion and noise pollution on the M3. I want to follow briefly in her slipstream and to add a footnote to what she said. I pay tribute to her M3 action campaign and her presentation of a petition earlier this year. Everyone in Basingstoke and Deane borough is grateful for her campaign.
My constituents in Beggarwood suffer from exactly the same problems that my hon. Friend mentioned, but further east the villages of Dummer and North Waltham suffer from constant and growing background noise from the M3. As my hon. Friend said, it is now a much busier road than it was some 10 years ago, so the amount of noise that it generates is higher.
A footnote on congestion is that I was caught on the eastbound M3 on Friday evening and spent an hour in my hon. Friend's constituency, which I had not planned to do. The road's capacity is being tested, but the point that I want to leave with the Minister is that people want to know when. They understand the problems of departmental budgets and pressure on public expenditure, but they want some idea of when they might get some relief. Perhaps the Minister could share with us his and the Highways Agency's priorities, and when the sort of measures to which my hon. Friend referred might be introduced. It would help them to live with the problems that they currently endure if they had some knowledge that help was around the corner. Any information that the Minister can share with us would be appreciated. I welcome him on his appointment and his shortly-to-be-delivered maiden speech in his new capacity. I hope that what he has to say will be welcomed in and around the M3 corridor.
I congratulate Mrs. Miller on securing this debate, and providing us with the opportunity to discuss noise pollution and congestion on the M3. I know that it is a matter of concern, and the hon. Members for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) and for North-West Hampshire also contributed to the discussion. I am aware of the keen interest that the hon. Member for Basingstoke has shown with her M3 action campaign and the presentation of a 2,000-signature petition earlier this year. I hope that my response will clarify the route forward by dealing with some of the issues that we understand are of concern to the hon. Lady's constituents.
The M3 is part of the core motorway and strategic road network, providing a link from south-west London to Southampton. It is an important key road corridor for long and medium-distance traffic travelling between Southampton and London. I am delighted that the hon. Lady endorsed the Prime Minister's forward thinking and the importance of Basingstoke in the decisions that have been taken. It is an important part of the M3 route.
Protecting and enhancing the environment is an increasingly important role for the Highways Agency, and that includes mitigating the impact of traffic noise wherever practicable. The Highways Agency is committed to taking action by March 2011 on those sites listed in Hansard in November 1999—the Hansard list. Under the national £5 million ring-fenced annual budget, the Highways Agency has installed acoustic barriers at various locations on the M3 in the hon. Lady's constituency since 2001 on the basis of priority according to their noise severity rating at a total cost of approximately £8.5 million. They include Hatch Warren, Black Dam and Hatch caravan site.
The 2007 comprehensive spending review confirmed that resurfacing of concrete roads for noise mitigation reasons ahead of maintenance need would not be allocated funding. Traditional surfacing with hot-rolled asphalt uses high-quality stone rolled into the top layer, but quieter surfacing requires that higher quality stone throughout the full depth of the wearing course leading to an increased environmental impact at quarry sites. The hon. Lady will appreciate that there is environmental impact from that process.
I am sure that the hon. Lady is aware that the Highways Agency is working closely with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the production of noise maps and action plans in line with the Environmental Noise (England) Regulations 2006. The maps for England's roads were first published on
The action plan is expected to identify practical and cost-effective solutions for reducing road noise. It will include a cost benefit analysis of measures to ensure they are sustainable and estimates of the reduction in the number of people affected by excessive noise as a result of the proposed measures. The Highways Agency is also developing a forward strategy for noise mitigation that will include implementation of a new system for identifying and prioritising problem sites. As I am sure the hon. Lady appreciates, it would be inappropriate for me to comment further on that until the work is complete and I have fully considered the region's advice.
As has been identified by right hon. and hon. Members, congestion generally occurs during morning peak times on the north-bound approach to the M25, south bound on the approach to the M27 at Southampton and at junction 6 at Basingstoke in both directions. We recognise that problem.
The Command Paper produced in July 2008 by the then Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend Ruth Kelly, highlighted locations for potential funding for improvements to the strategic road network. As part of my right hon. Friend's proposals, she highlighted a number of techniques to get more out of the existing network, such as the dynamic use of hard shoulders to provide additional capacity. Following the Command Paper, two studies are now underway to investigate the feasibility of traffic using the hard shoulder during peak periods on two stretches of the M3 between junctions 2 to 4A, and junctions 9 to 14.
To allow maximum to access and egress from Basingstoke, the Highways Agency has programmed the traffic signals at junction 6 of the M3 to give priority to clear the queuing traffic exiting the motorway and to reduce the hazard of vehicles queuing on the main carriageway. As the hon. Lady said, that could make a significant difference. Delays into Basingstoke town centre on the A30 and A339 are due to the high volume of traffic on all approaches to the Black Dam roundabout, which links the local network with junction 6 of the M3.
I noticed that the hon. Lady talked about the sustainability of jobs, homes and housing. Equally, we need sustainability in terms of traffic and transport options for people going to and from work, home, schools and so on. That is why it is important that we work collectively on sustainable solutions and do not put all our eggs in one basket. Strategically, of course, although that transport corridor—the M3—is important to Basingstoke, there are other options, which I will come on to shortly.
A scheme to reduce the hazard of traffic queuing on the main carriageway is currently being worked on. The scheme will include extending the off-slip roads at junction 6 by using the hard shoulder. A study programmed for 2009-10 will model the wider road network around junction 6 and assess the impact of the growth point status of Basingstoke that was announced by the Department for Communities and Local Government in October 2006, as the hon. Lady noted. That study will include further options for improvement.
As I have said, there needs to be sustainable solutions that take all parties and all stakeholders into account, which is why the Highways Agency is working with all the local planning authorities along the M3 to reduce traffic demand in relation to future developments. Measures will concentrate on providing workable alternatives to car-based travel, principally by improving public transport and facilities for walking and cycling. I am well aware of the problems concerning the location of junction 6 and of coming off there and meeting the Black Dam roundabout, which I know has been phased to make the situation easier. Of course, there are substantial business and residential developments off that road, but I am well aware that Basingstoke station is close to that area. Therefore, when we talk about sustainability for housing or jobs, we must consider the multitude of options available. We have been working closely with local authorities to consider how we can take options forward.
I hope, Mr. Cummings, you do not mind me mentioning something slightly tangential to this debate. The Minister raised the issue of the station and he may be aware that we were promised an additional station in Chineham. Am I to take it from his comments today that that proposal is firmly back on the table?
What the hon. Lady can certainly take from my comments is that we look at all possible and affordable options. That is where we have to be. The programme on the various road surfacing and changes that are ahead, which I shall run through in response to her final points, obviously has to be subject to the funding available. The hon. Lady has said, and rightly so, that we have specifically identified a ring-fenced budget for some of the work. Equally, she will be aware that there are many demands on that budget from the length and breadth of the country.
On the three specific areas that the hon. Lady raised and in terms of looking for whisper quiet surfacing and so on, we are committed to a programme of working through priority areas and what finances permit. Further resurfacing work will take place between junctions 5 and 7 in 2008-10 and, funding permitting, further work on quieter surfacing is scheduled for between junctions 5 and 6 by April 2010.
On a co-ordinated approach to noise barriers, far more joint working is needed. Some £8.5 million has been put in by the Department for noise barriers along road sections that fall within the Basingstoke constituency. The hon. Lady will also be aware that others have been agreed with developers through the planning process and in co-ordination with themselves. I understand and hear clearly what she is saying about the potential knock-on affects in other areas. That is why there needs to be joint working across local authorities and planning agencies.
Finally, on the co-ordinated approach to junction 6, I have already indicated that work will take place on the off-slip roads and on ensuring that the hard shoulder can accommodate and make the access and egress from junction 6 into Basingstoke safer. Overall, in terms of flows, we must take all possible options into account and look at sustainable transport measures to meet the needs of what is obviously a thriving community in Basingstoke, where there are strong jobs and strong possibilities for further development. Together, we need to find a solution to making sure that the traffic of people to jobs and schools in the community continues to flow.
Will the Minister undertake to meet a delegation of business representatives from Basingstoke, so that he can hear first hand some of the problems they are experiencing?
I am more than happy to give an undertaking to listen to people who are at the sharp end—whether in relation to operating businesses or living and working in a community. I am more than happy to meet a delegation and directly listen to their concerns.