Nick's speech in the Westminster Hall debate
Nick Herbert (Arundel & South Downs) (Con)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) on initiating this debate.
I will talk about the A27, which runs through my constituency. It was envisaged as a coastal highway although, as anyone who has travelled along it knows, it is too often a coastal car park. Stretches of dual carriageway give way to very congested spots that cause severe delays. Every single day, 25,000 traffic movements, most of them not local, pass through the historic town of Arundel, with severe delays every morning and afternoon. That exacts a price from the local economy in the relatively deprived areas of West Sussex—there are some, in fact—and places such as Littlehampton need better transport infrastructure. Sussex Enterprise estimates that the cost to the local economy of poor infrastructure links, including a poor rail service, is £2 billion a year, so there is certainly an economic case for upgrading the A27. There is also, however, an environmental case, and that is important.
The consequence of traffic queuing for long periods at Arundel is of course air pollution. Furthermore, people seek to avoid the congestion in Arundel either by rat-running through the historic town itself, which makes for high volumes of traffic there—so often the story up and down the country is that towns and villages suffer as a consequence of delays and of people seeking to avoid those delays—or by making the south downs suffer. In order to get from east to west, people will go above Arundel, driving up through the south downs.
The South Downs national park is therefore affected, and so are its villages and adjacent villages. Storrington, just above the national park, has some of the worst air quality in the whole of south-east England, caused by queuing traffic. It is important to weigh claims that the construction of a much needed bypass at Arundel might damage the environment against the environmental damage caused by queuing traffic and traffic passing through the national park.
On one route, an Arundel bypass would have to pass through a short section of the South Downs national park, but the A27 already passes through extensive parts of the national park, including at Arundel. The part of the park in question, right at the bottom of it, is not chalk downland but replanted woodland. My contention, which I hope will be borne out, is that there will be a net environmental gain from construction of the bypass, even though a small section of the national park would be passed through; that could be mitigated.
The environment could even be enhanced—I have made this case before, although my hon. Friend the Minister, whom I welcome to his place, may not have heard it—if we constructed a beautiful bridge across the river Arun. My hon. Friend is learned and erudite, and I am sure travels through France extensively, so he will know that the French are very good at constructing beautiful infrastructure. The Millau viaduct over the Tarn gorge was controversial when first proposed, but is now a sensation and a sight in its own right. Designed by a British architect, it is considered to enhance the environment and not to despoil it.
The former Roads Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), who is still a Minister of State in the Department, has spoken about the importance of beauty in construction. If we ensure that schemes will be attractive, we could deal with much of the public opposition that can sometimes find its way into debates about such projects.
That said, it is important for the Minister to know that there is strong local support for an Arundel bypass—there always has been, since it was first planned more than three decades ago. On the preferred route, which is now the starting point for a consultation that I will come on to, there was near-universal agreement by all the local authorities. Those authorities remain committed to an Arundel bypass, and it is my judgment as the local Member of Parliament, as it is the judgment of local councillors, that there is overwhelming support for the bypass among the local population. Indeed, that support increases the further away from Arundel one is—but even in Arundel, my judgment is that there is strong public support for the bypass.
In December 2014, when the Government announced that they would invest in an Arundel bypass under the roads programme, we were delighted. That came after the previous Labour Government had shelved the scheme. In conclusion, I simply ask: will the Minister confirm that the public consultation that Highways England is due to hold on the Arundel bypass route will go ahead this summer, or later this year?
Highways England states not only that the scheme will still go ahead, that the cost will be between £100 million and £250 million and that the start date will be before the end of March 2020, but that the public consultation remains subject to agreement with the Secretary of State. I noticed that the list of schemes announced last week by the Department for Transport, although not exclusive, made no mention of the Arundel bypass. I therefore seek the Minister’s assurance that the bypass will still go ahead and that the consultation will be announced this year. I am convinced that this road scheme will benefit the local community, the economy and, crucially, the environment.
Jesse Norman (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport)
The fact of the matter is that this is twice as much money as the last Labour Government put in, and that should be recognised. To fail to do so is, frankly, to insult our motorists—to insult the people who use these roads.
If one looks down the list, it is perfectly true that the National Audit Office has talked about a degree of over-programming. It has also praised the significant improvement in the road investment strategy, and I think rightly so. The NAO report should indeed acknowledge what is well known in transport circles, which is that there is always a bit of over-programming in these things; not all these schemes arise, in terms of public investment, at the same time. An over-programming of 7%, which is what it amounts to, is not substantial. Where there are bottlenecks, undoubtedly we as a Department will be looking at them.
Let me turn now to some of the specific points. I absolutely welcome the points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert). I can confirm that construction will begin this year, as he has requested, on the A27.
Sorry, consultation; I cannot read my own handwriting. Consultation will begin on the schemes that my right hon. Friend mentions. He rightly highlights the importance of beautiful bridges and infrastructure—a point made by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State. His points have also been raised—
Graham Jones (Hyndburn) (Lab)
Will the Minister give way?
I will not. The points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs were also raised elsewhere by my hon. Friends the Members for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) and for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and I welcome those comments.
In the few seconds that I have left before handing back to my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle, let me say that the point about cycling was well made by the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran)—I am a very keen cyclist myself. The Government are investing £1.2 billion to support cycling schemes, and rightly so. The point about constraints on economic growth from lack of investment in roads was very well made by my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts). I am running out of time and I want to be sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle has the chance to close the debate if he wishes, so let me end here and thank colleagues on both sides of the Chamber very much indeed for their comments.
To read the full debate, see Hansard, here