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Surrey: M25 Noise Pollution

Private Rented Sector – in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 17th March 2020.

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Photo of Jonathan Lord Jonathan Lord Conservative, Woking 4:30 pm, 17th March 2020

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered M25 noise pollution in Surrey.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary, and I am delighted to have secured this debate.

The issue at hand is a simple one. Between junctions 10 and 11 on the M25, the surface of the motorway consists of concrete blocks. The concrete surface itself is noisy, and there are gaps between each of the concrete blocks that constitute the road. The repetitive buffeting that occurs as a vehicle’s tyres pass over these expansion joints adds substantially to the overall noise levels. Take it from me, Sir Gary, it is unpleasant and noisy to drive on, and it causes noise pollution for several thousand of my constituents who live in Byfleet, West Byfleet and Pyrford. The noise is so loud and incessant that it can regularly carry for up to 3 km or so, but when the wind is in certain directions, it can also affect those who live up to 4 km away.

The noise is, of course, also heard by residents living and working near the M25 in the neighbouring constituency of Runnymede and Weybridge. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to my hon. Friend and neighbour Dr Spencer for his diligent work and support on this important matter, and to his predecessor, the right hon. Philip Hammond, with whom I have also liaised closely on this in previous years. I also acknowledge the work and campaigning of the key members of the M25 J10-11 Action Group, who have highlighted this matter very effectively since forming their group in June 2019, and the leadership of that organisation by Councillor Amanda Boote, who has brought formidable amounts of drive and energy to that role.

Some 20 years ago, the then Labour Government announced their commitment to replacing or overlaying all concrete main roads with lower-noise materials by 31 March 2011, irrespective of maintenance needs. Sadly, during a subsequent Labour Government’s spending review—in 2008, I believe—it was considered that that commitment was no longer affordable, presumably due to fiscal tightening in the immediate aftermath of the global financial crisis.

Since then I have been told by Highways England and by Ministers that, while they appreciate the concerns of residents, there are currently no plans to resurface the 7 km section of the M25. They have assured me and my constituents that they are looking for ways to improve the situation, and Highways England has recently done work to repair failed joints in the concrete carriageways.

However, it is clear to all those who use this section of the M25 that the driving experience is still unpleasant and noisy, and the feedback so far from local residents is that the work has not made an appreciable difference to the overall noise levels for surrounding communities. At one point in our recent correspondence, Highways England told me that it does not now resurface a concrete road unless it is strictly needed from the point of view of driving safety, and that in the case of the M25, with continued maintenance, it did not expect the road to need resurfacing for many years to come.

But what about the lives of residents who have to put up with these unacceptable noise levels? Why should residents be kept awake at night? Why should residents not be able to enjoy their gardens in summertime or even be able to open their windows? What about the impact on teachers and children, who cannot help hearing this noise in their schools? Mrs Letitia Mackie, the deputy head of Byfleet primary school, told me the other week:

“Byfleet primary school lies directly beside the M25, at a stretch where the concrete is in place. Our children and families live within the catchment area for the school and many of their homes are very close to the M25 as well. The sound of the vehicles rumbling over the concrete can be heard in our playground and on a windy day it tends to be even louder. However, at night the sound carries much further and many of our pupils speak of not being able to sleep, or having a disturbed night, every night. Sleep is a major factor in growing up to be healthy and strong, and we are very concerned that some of our children have had this sleep disruption all of their lives. How has this affected their ability to learn and what are the long-term health issues that they may face? It is a serious limiting factor in our aim to enable each child to reach their full potential.”

Those are wise words, expressing genuine concerns.

Surely something must be done about this issue. Doubtless the cost of resurfacing this section of road will be high, but I am confident that that cost pales in comparison with the damage that this section of road is doing to the lives of thousands of my constituents and their children.

Last month, my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge and I joined members of the M25 J10-11 Action Group to deliver a petition signed by over 3,000 local residents to No. 10 Downing Street. The petition is not asking for every motorway section in the UK to be resurfaced and nor is it asking for the other concrete sections of the M25 to be resurfaced where there are no built-up or residential neighbourhoods nearby. However, it is petitioning for the carriageway between junctions 10 and 11 to be resurfaced properly, so that residents and pupils can enjoy their lives without this incessant noise.

The petition read as follows:

“The petition of the residents of Woking declares that the resurfacing work and noise reduction must be carried out on the M25 between junctions 10 and 11…further that these residents, children attending local schools and people who work in the area have been and are currently adversely affected by the ever increasing volume of traffic and continued deterioration of the original surface;
and acknowledges that an online petition for drivers has collected a significant number of signatures calling for the resurfacing of the road. The petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Department for Transport and Highways England to fully resurface and significantly reduce the noise levels on the M25 between junctions 10 and 11.”

On 3 March, I received an answer to two written parliamentary questions, which I believe is the most recent formal response on this important matter that I have received to date from either Ministers or Highways England. The reply from the Minister who is here today—the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Kelly Tolhurst—read as follows:

“Highways England is aware that noise is an important issue for residents living next to the M25 motorway between junctions 10 and 11, and is actively looking for ways to improve the situation.

Work to repair failed joints in the concrete carriageways was completed in November 2019 and this should help to reduce the noise level.

There are currently no plans to resurface the carriageways on this section of the M25, but there is a trial to test materials and techniques which could help to reduce noise and improve the performance of concrete surfaces which is currently being carried out on the M1. The trial includes measurement of the noise reduction achieved and the rate of deterioration of the different treatments and is anticipated to continue until 2022. The results of this trial will help Highways England to decide how to manage concrete surfaces on its roads in the future, including this section of the M25.”

It is hugely disappointing to me that the Government and Highways England seem to have set their face against an acceptable resolution of this matter within the next year or so. I hope that the arguments set out in the petition and put forward by me and my colleagues in this debate can lead to the urgent work that I believe is required. After all, we have been waiting since the millennium for an initial Government promise on this matter to be fulfilled, and the long-suffering residents of the areas most affected have had to put up with this noise since the opening of the M25 in 1986.

If urgent action does not prove possible, I would like a firm undertaking from the Minister that this issue will be fully sorted out within 12 months of the results of those tests on the concrete surfaces of the M1 being completed. That is a reasonable request to make on behalf of those residents whose quality of life has been blighted for the past 34 years.

Photo of Ben Spencer Ben Spencer Conservative, Runnymede and Weybridge 4:40 pm, 17th March 2020

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Mr Lord for all his work in this area, and to the M25 action group. Most of what I intended to say was quite eloquently summed up by my hon. Friend, so I will just go over a few points, to reiterate the strength of my hon. Friend’s argument. I appreciate that, given current events, this is arguably not the right time for this debate. It is right that the Government must prioritise tackling the current pandemic, but Members must also continue to represent the wider needs of our constituencies.

When we emerge from the current social restrictions, ensuring a swift return to economic and social activity will be vital, and our infrastructure will be key. However, improvements to our infrastructure also need to be quality, because it cannot be that our residents are already hugely adversely affected by the impact of our infrastructure—noise pollution on the M25. Many of my constituents are quite seriously affected by the noise. In parts of New Haw, Addlestone and Chertsey, cars can be heard rattling past a kilometre away from the motorway. When driving up the motorway, as I have done many times, cars shake with the noise. It is quite clear to everybody how that noise can go over the barriers and affect people living locally.

Is the Minister willing to commit to reviewing the proposals for this stretch of the M25 later this year, and to meet me and my hon. Friend, in order to take this forward and look at how we can improve the situation?

Photo of Karl Turner Karl Turner Shadow Minister (Transport) 4:42 pm, 17th March 2020

It is always an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Gary. I congratulate Mr Lord on securing this debate, which is incredibly important to his constituents. I intend to keep my remarks incredibly brief, not least because I know the Minister, and I know that she is working incredibly hard with her officials on other business.

Noise pollution is an issue, and motorists clearly find this problem deeply unpleasant when driving. I know that the AA is often inundated with complaints and concerns about faults to vehicles, and I also know that this is a road safety issue, in that some people slam on the brakes when they hear the noise. Noise pollution is a major issue. It causes physical and mental health problems. The Budget committed to a £30 billion investment in road networks, but a surge in road building will only increase road noise and pollution.

The Government should reduce road usage by better investing in public transport, such as bus networks and—in the area of the hon. Member for Woking—the South Western rail network. In addition, the Government need to do much more to encourage the uptake of electric and hybrid vehicles. That is all I want to say.

Photo of Kelly Tolhurst Kelly Tolhurst Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 4:43 pm, 17th March 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I thank my hon. Friend Mr Lord for securing this debate on an issue that I know he and his constituents feel strongly about. I also thank my hon. Friend Dr Spencer, who offered his thoughts on the subject.

I believe that the roads Minister, my colleague, Baroness Vere, would be happy to meet hon. Members to discuss their concerns about the M25. I will highlight that I am very aware of the problems that hon. Members have mentioned in relation to this section of the M25. I travelled on it extensively over the years prior to my becoming a Member of Parliament, so I am not completely ignorant of the challenges.

I understand and appreciate that the constant noise generated by road traffic can be seen as a real burden by those living next door to a busy road. As this debate has highlighted, the road surface in place on this section of the M25 in Surrey is a real problem for those who live near it. The use of concrete as a road surface undoubtedly has flaws, compared with asphalt. Nevertheless, it was and remains a resilient and durable material, which is why it was used extensively throughout the 1980s, and specifically in 1985 when this section of road was built. Concrete is extremely durable: it lasts about three times as long as asphalt, demonstrated by the fact that this section of the M25 has not been resurfaced, as others have been.

The concrete surface of the road is not the only reason why noise levels in this area are high. It is important to remember that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has done extensive work to highlight those areas of this section of the M25 that are considered excessively noisy. DEFRA has designated those areas as noise important areas, and Highways England is working hard to do what it can to reduce noise levels in them. I will say more about that issue later.

Much has been made of the fact that one solution to the noise problem could be to resurface this section of the M25 with asphalt. It has been suggested that a layer of asphalt could simply be put over the concrete, or the whole section could be removed and replaced. However, both of those approaches would lead to further problems. Resurfacing over the concrete with a layer of asphalt would mean that the joints between the slabs would continue to show through, which would present real weaknesses in the road surface. This is particularly the case because this section of the M25 was widened in the mid-1990s, so the joints are now in the lane, not under the white lines as they were originally. Because the asphalt on those joints would be subjected to constant wear and tear from vehicles, it would degrade more quickly, resulting in more frequent closures to repeatedly resurface the road. It would also mean that one of the causes of the noise in the area—that is, the noise created by cars travelling over the joints—would not be properly resolved.

An alternative proposal is that the concrete be removed in its entirety. However, doing so on one of the busiest sections of motorway in the country would be prohibitively disruptive and expensive. Lanes would need to be shut entirely for extended periods of time to both remove the concrete and replace it with a new surface, and the difficulty of removing the concrete from under and around bridges would further increase costs. Therefore, both resurfacing over the concrete with asphalt and replacing the road surface in its entirety are costly and disruptive options: covering with asphalt would not resolve the issue sufficiently and would lead to an increase in disruptive works on the motorway, and replacing the concrete would be prohibitively expensive and disruptive.

Having covered some of the proposed solutions to the problem of noise from the M25 in Surrey and explained why they do not make either practical or economic sense, it is important to highlight what is being done. A great deal of work is going on that aims to reduce or resolve the noise issues experienced by those who live closest to the motorway. Highways England is well aware of the noise important areas that DEFRA has highlighted, and has done extensive work to ensure preventative methods are in place at these locations. In most cases, those preventative methods take the form of a barrier alongside the road that shields the properties nearby from much of the noise. There are no further sections of this part of the M25 in Surrey at which barriers would be of significant benefit to those living in the vicinity.

There are, of course, other areas that are not as densely populated and are without barriers, but nevertheless still need noise mitigation action to be carried out. In those areas, designated as locations where there are fewer than 10 properties, it does not make economic sense to install a barrier. Therefore, in those locations, there has been an offer to install noise insulation, which is essentially double glazing designed to reduce the amount of noise experienced in those properties. I absolutely take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Woking that such measures do necessarily not control the noise levels residents experience in their gardens and the wider atmosphere outside properties. I also note his point about the primary school.

Nine sites on this section of the M25 have already had noise insulation offered and installed where house- holds wanted it; on a further two sites it has yet to be completed. Highways England has also identified further sites where noise insulation would be a possible solution.

Noise insulation is not the only approach being taken. Extensive work is under way to replace the joints between the slabs of concrete. As my hon. Friend outlined, the joints are one of the main causes of noise, and replacing them is not only good for the condition of the road surface but helps to reduce noise. The joints are being made flush with the surface of the road.

Although work on this section of the M25 has been focused on mitigating noise and improving the experience of those living close by, other sections of the strategic road network also have concrete surfaces. Highways England is currently running a trial on the M1 at junction 5 near Bricket Wood in which it is looking at materials and surfacing techniques that could be used to reduce the noise of traffic travelling over concrete. The trial started in 2018 and is due to complete in 2022. So far, Highways England has identified a number of potential solutions to reducing noise. There are still more options to investigate before the trial finishes in 2022. I do not want to prejudge any the results of the trial, but the solutions that it identifies will help form the basis of Highways England’s planning as it looks to the future. That is particularly important because any ways to reduce road surface noise effectively and cheaply mean that locations such as those in Surrey on the M25 can be treated, with the lives of those living nearby significantly improved.

Finally, I turn to what is happening now and in the immediate future on this section of the M25. Highways England is focused on maintenance to ensure that the road infrastructure on this section of the M25 remains in a suitable condition. That includes work to reduce the amount of water ingress through joints. There is a programme of retexturing that will increase safety for the travelling public as it will increase grip on the road surface, which has been smoothed down over time. Highways England will also conduct a review of the joints between junctions 8 and 10 this year, with an expectation that any works will be carried out in the 2020-21 financial year.

Once again, I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate and for the constructive approach that Members have taken to tackling an issue that affects their constituents so much. As I said at the start of my speech, I recognise the noise concerns of those living in the vicinity of the M25. The Government are well aware of these issues—as my hon. Friend outlined, he and colleagues have been lobbying on it over a number of years—and Highways England is fully committed to doing what it can to reduce noise levels in those areas.

My hon. Friend asked me to guarantee that works will be agreed within 12 months of the trial finishing. He will appreciate that I am unable to guarantee that absolutely, but I guarantee that once the trials have taken place, Ministers will work with hon. Members to ensure that we can take forward the remedial works that are possible and economical. That will be either through mitigation such as barriers, noise insulation or regular maintenance of the road surface, or through innovation and development of new techniques and use of materials to reduce the level of noise for constituents living around the M25 and for those who drive over it.

Photo of Jonathan Lord Jonathan Lord Conservative, Woking 4:55 pm, 17th March 2020

I thank the Minister for responding to the debate. My hon. Friend Dr Spencer and I would very much like to take up her offer of exploring the potential solutions and reiterating the challenges and problems with the roads Minister, so I look forward to that meeting. I was encouraged, and even tantalised a little, by what treatments might be being tested. I hope that they can bring some succour and an end to the worst aspects of the problems that my constituents have faced over many years. I also thank the shadow Minister, Karl Turner, for speaking, I think, broadly in support of my constituents and for recognising the challenges that they face.

I would particularly like to offer warm thanks to my friend and colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge. It was a great pleasure to go with him and some campaigning constituents to take the petition outlining these problems right to the door of No. 10 Downing Street—to the heart of Government. If I may say so, he is already a great champion of his constituents. I very much look forward to working with him in the months and years ahead on this and any other issue that affects both our constituencies.

Thank you, Sir Gary, for your chairmanship. I look forward to battling on for my constituents on this important matter in the months and years to come.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered M25 noise pollution in Surrey.

Sitting adjourned.