Adjournment Debate - A27 Improvements - Arundel Bypass
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Coaker.]
Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): I am grateful for this opportunity to raise the need to improve the A27, both in and outside my constituency. I am sorry to detain the Minister this evening, but may I first congratulate him on his recent appearance on "Top Gear", and in particular on his performance as a star in a reasonably priced car? He came 15th among the celebrities, beating Sir Cliff Richard, Jordan and Vinnie Jones, but coming a full two seconds behind Dame Ellen MacArthur. His licence would not be at risk if he were to travel on the A27 in my constituency, however, because the traffic is at a complete standstill for much of the time.
The A27 runs for 68 miles along, or just inland of, the south coast. It links Portsmouth and the M27 in the west with Pevensey and the A259 in the east. It is the only defined east-west lorry route across Sussex. It is part of the south coast lifeline, giving access to the south coast ports and the channel tunnel, and it is regarded as a strategic road in Britain's transport network. Most of the A27 in West Sussex is dualled. The only stretches that are not are in Arundel and Worthing. I shall focus on the A27 around Arundel, because that is in my constituency, but I know that many of my hon. Friends are equally concerned about the lack of improvements on sections of the road in Chichester and, in particular, in Worthing.
Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): Just in case the Minister has not been down to the A27 recently, his advisers will tell him that it is faster to go through Chichester than to use the bypass, it is sometimes faster to go through Arundel than to use the bypass, and it is probably faster to go along the coast road than along the national road in Worthing, Shoreham and Lancing. Will the Minister please come and try it for himself?
Nick Herbert: I echo my hon. Friend's request; I hope that the Minister will come and see the problems for himself. He is smiling at the moment, but there is a serious problem.
Plans for the Arundel bypass were first formulated in 1985. Two decades later, the bypass still has not come to fruition. The bypass that exists runs between two sides of the town, cutting off one mainly residential half from the town centre. If one travels west on the A27, having eventually escaped the congestion in Worthing, one will get on to a dual carriageway for a few precious miles, but it simply runs out at Arundel. The flyover is there, and was ready for the dual carriageway to continue, but lies moribund.
That has a serious impact in several respects, the first of which is congestion. Traffic flows are continually rising on the A27. In the six years between 1994 and 2000 alone, they increased by 25 per cent. Traffic flows on the A27 are three to four times more than the designed capacity of the road, which causes long tailbacks. I became personally aware of that before I was elected as Member of Parliament for Arundel and South Downs, when I missed my grandfather's funeral as a result of extended delays, first at Arundel and then in Worthing. The traffic flow on the A27 through
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Arundel—a town of 4,200 inhabitants—was 27,000 vehicles a day in 2001. As the right hon. Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong), then a Transport Minister, said in 2000:
"Few can deny that the volume of traffic that passes through Arundel daily has an impact on the quality of life both of local residents and of those who must use this section of the A27 for their journey."—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 7 March 2000; Vol. 345, c. 152WH.]
There is also an impact on safety. The accident rate in Arundel is twice the national average for the type of road and four times the national average for dual carriageways. I saw that again for myself on Friday when there was yet again an accident at Burpham junction, which is a particularly dangerous section of the existing inadequate road. The Highways Agency estimates that off-line improvements to the A27 at Arundel would prevent 425 accidents and 580 casualties over the next 30 years.
Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend, because he is describing a dire situation on the A27 in his constituency and in mine. According to the Minister's own recent written answer, however, the level of traffic in West Sussex over the next 10 years is predicted to increase by as much as 23 per cent. An increase of a quarter in the congestion that we already have can only lead to those roads being completely gridlocked in the next few years.
Nick Herbert: My hon. Friend makes a good point.
There is an impact in terms of local pollution and an environmental impact as traffic is pushed away from the A27, rat-running through the South Downs area of outstanding natural beauty. However, I want the Minister to focus on one particular impact of the failure to upgrade the road—the economic impact on the whole region.
The Minister will know, as an MP for a costal community in Kent, that while the economy of the south-east is strong, and the economy of West Sussex has traditionally performed well, there are significant areas of deprivation along the south coast, and pockets of long-term unemployment. Poor transport links continue to hamper economic growth and investment in those areas and along the whole south coast. It is estimated, on the basis of figures compiled by Sussex Enterprise and British Chambers of Commerce, that problems with transport infrastructure cost Sussex businesses an average of £29,000 a year. Cumulatively, that is an annual cost of £2 billion to the Sussex economy. The South East England Development Agency highlights the fact that one of the main issues facing the south-east is regeneration. It states:
"Major transport projects of regional significance for regeneration of the coastal South East include the comprehensive improvement of the A27, especially deliverable solutions for Worthing and Arundel."
The Government's house building plans will also be affected by inadequate transport infrastructure. The South East England regional assembly has proposed that West Sussex should provide 58,000 new homes over the next two decades. The Deputy Prime Minister could impose larger numbers still. As West Sussex county council points out, however,
"any further development would depend on infrastructure capacity being available, especially on the A27."
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That infrastructure is not available at the moment.
The unhappy history of the Arundel bypass is that broad agreement on it was reached between all parties before the current Government took office. The Department for Transport, the local community, the environmental lobby, the county council and the district council all signed up to what is known as the pink-blue route, seen as minimising damage to the environment. That was for a bypass of just four miles, then costing £23.1 million, which was in the main roads programme. In the Government's 1998 roads review, however, the bypass was de-prioritised. Then, in 2002, the south coast multi-modal study recognised that there was a case for the bypass, and that it should go ahead. It recommended that, along with improvements to Chichester bypass, and consideration of Worthing and Lancing bypasses. Again, however, in 2003, the Secretary of State rejected those on environmental grounds. Since then, successive Ministers told my predecessor that the Government accepted the case for dealing with congestion at Arundel, and that proposals would be brought forward, modified to deal with the environmental objections. Those, however, have been subject to constant delays.
Most recently, the Minister informed me in September that the Highways Agency was working with the county council to find less environmentally damaging options. He also said that as part of the spending review, he would seek regional advice from SEERA's regional transport board on the priority of any emerging schemes. That means that even if the Minister decided to go ahead on the basis of the regional advice, there would not be a consultation until later this year. The timetable has slipped again.
Peter Bottomley: I think I can speak for the other Members whose constituencies are on the A27. We all know that Arundel should be dealt with first. Worthing is important but probably comes second, along with Chichester. If that saves consultation, it probably saves a year.
Nick Herbert: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's recognition that Arundel should come first, but I think that all the upgrades are important for the economic health of the region.
Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) (Con): What about Chichester?
Nick Herbert: I should of course mention the need for improvement at Chichester. There is already a dual carriageway there, but it needs to be upgraded.
As the Minister will know, all the regional bodies agree. The South East England Development Agency strongly supports the bypass. It points out that road investment in the south-east per capita is lower than investment in any other UK region. SEERA also supports the bypass. Indeed, it strongly condemned the Secretary of State's rejection of the A27 improvements, which it said was "perverse" and risked turning coastal Sussex into
"a social and economic backwater."
The county council is strongly in favour of the bypass. West Sussex Economic Partnership, representing the local business community, is also in favour of it,
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believing that congestion on the A27 is one of the main barriers to economic regeneration of the coast. Sussex Enterprise supports the upgrades. Last year a poll of its members and other local businesses found that one fifth of businesses would have to consider relocating outside Sussex unless the transport infrastructure, particularly the A27, improved soon. The RAC Foundation has condemned the Government's rejection of the A27 improvements, and says that it believes strongly that the decisions should be reconsidered.
Let me deal briefly with some of the objections to the bypass. I do not believe that they stand. The first relates to the environmental impact. The original bypass route was not seen as a threat to the environment. Indeed, the Secretary of State's own decision on the preferred route noted that it was supported by English Nature, Sussex Wildlife Trust, the Arun branch of Friends of the Earth and the Sussex branch of the Council for the Protection of Rural England.
I recognise that road building is unpopular with those who are directly affected, but I hope that the Government's reticence and reluctance to support a scheme is not being influenced by protesters who began to build tree houses as a decision on the bypass seemed imminent. Decisions on these matters must be made democratically, not as a result of direct action by Swampy's friends. I myself would be anxious to ensure that a bypass did not result in the building of new housing between it and Arundel, thus changing the character of the town irrevocably, but I am assured that that could not happen, as the land concerned would be on the flood plain of the River Arun.
There is also the question of whether the bypass would go through the national park, depending on where the park's southern boundary would be, and indeed on whether such a park is created. I can tell the Minister that the bypass would run not through the downs, but below them. The council points out that the land south of Arundel is not naturally beautiful, as statutorily defined. Indeed, the preferred route does not even run through an area of outstanding natural beauty. The real impact on the national park would occur if traffic continued to be forced up through it and the downland villages. That would constitute an impact on an area of outstanding natural beauty, whether or not the park came into being.
There is also concern about the visual impact of a bridge crossing the River Arun. France seems to deal with problems of this kind very well, as anyone who has driven over the stunning Millau viaduct over the River Tarn will know. It would be perfectly possible to design a bridge that would complement the stunning view of Arundel and its castle and cathedral, which can be seen from the river bank.
I mentioned that the Minister had written to me saying that he was taking regional advice. I am concerned about the ranking of the schemes in relation to the regional transport board. The Government have been responsible for the fact that an Arundel scheme has not been developed. The board has told Arundel town council that the fact that a solution to the problems at Arundel has yet to be agreed on, together with the potential timing of any work, explains the relatively low current ranking of Arundel's bypass. We are in a Catch-22 situation. The Minister will not move until he has regional advice, while the region will not give the scheme
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priority until the proposals are presented. Fortunately, the merits of the bypass are being recognised at the regional level and the sub-regional report submitted to SEERA last week highlights the need to improve the A27.
In conclusion, I would like to ask the Minister how many times we have to make the case for a bypass and for improvements to the A27. Frankly, the economic case is unarguable and I believe that there is also a strong environmental case. We have been waiting 20 years since the bypass was first agreed by the Government. It has strong local support. Of course, there are some exceptions, but most people back it. In a MORI poll commissioned by the South East England Regional Agency last year, 82 per cent. of residents cited traffic levels in the region as an area of major concern—on a par with crime as a key issue. About 72 per cent. indicated a preference for bypasses that would draw traffic around towns. If the Minister is unmoved by the local case, the impact on the regional economy should surely be of concern to him. Now is the time to end the delay and give the go-ahead to improvements to the A27 at Arundel and also at Chichester and Worthing.
The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Dr. Stephen Ladyman): I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) on securing the debate and on the passion with which he has put his case. I am delighted to hear that he spends his Sunday evenings watching my brief appearance on television. I regard it as no shame whatever that Dame Ellen beat my time very considerably. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman watched last night and saw that Nigel Mansell did even better, which I put down to the fact that I had lunch with him on Tuesday and gave him a few tips.
I hear the case that the hon. Gentleman makes and I understand his passion and that of his hon. Friends who have intervened in the debate. I rather suspect that, while I am fortunate enough to hold this office, I will hear more and more questions, address more and more Adjournment debates and have more and more meetings with the relevant Conservative Members as we take the process forward.
I remind the hon. Gentleman that he said that it has been 20 years since the scheme was first proposed. By my arithmetic, that means that the Government whom he supported ignored it for 12 years. He might like to take that point up with the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley), who is in his place behind him and was a transport Minister for part of that time.
Tim Loughton: Let me offer the Minister a truce. Rather than having lots of meetings with me and other West Sussex Members or face Adjournment debates at this late hour, will he agree to come down to West Sussex, as I have requested before, and see for himself at first hand the congestion and problems that occur on the A27 in Worthing, Lancing, Chichester and Arundel? I, for one, would refrain from detaining him here late at
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night if only he would offer to come and meet some local people who have to face those problems every day of every year.
Dr. Ladyman: I would not rule out visiting the area at some point in the future, but I would like to see the regional advice first and then I will need to prioritise the various visits that I make around the country. I will certainly come down at some point, but I am not promising to do so in the immediate future.
Peter Bottomley: I am grateful to the Minister, who is a good fellow, for giving way. Twenty years ago, I had not yet become the Minister for Roads and Traffic; my predecessor was in office. When I was a Minister and saw what happened at Crossbush, I asked my officials whether it would be right to build the Crossbush section. They said yes, so we did it at Clapham and Patching. I suggest that the Minister ask his officials whether it would be right to build the Arundel bypass and then get on with relieving Chichester, Worthing, Shoreham and Lancing. He might then find that the ratio was right. In my day, Ministers said, "Is it necessary, is it right, will it work? Let's do it."
Dr. Ladyman: That is no different from what Ministers say these days. In fact, that was the reason why we commissioned the south coast multi-modal study, which the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs mentioned. Our continuing strategy is based on that study. I would ask Conservative Members to acknowledge at least that the area through which the A27 runs is environmentally sensitive. Indeed, for the greater part of its length through the two counties, the A27 is either inside or forms the boundary of the South Downs area of outstanding natural beauty. That was the principal reason why we asked the Highways Agency to work in partnership with local authorities and statutory environmental bodies to identify less environmentally damaging, alternative schemes to those recommended by the SoCoMMS report.
Good progress is being made on all these proposals. The first outcome of the partnership in West Sussex was the public consultation on a package of transport proposals—some road-based and some public transport-based—for the city of Chichester. The public exhibition in November and December 2004 setting out the proposals was attended by 2,600 people and the Highways Agency received nearly 10,000 responses. It has completed its analysis of them and is finalising the scheme assessment, taking on board the views expressed during the consultation.
In East Sussex, the public inquiry into the Southerham to Beddingham improvement to the east of Lewes ended last month. The inspector's report is expected early next year, so I am severely limited in the detail that I can go into, but subject to the inquiry's outcome, that scheme is still on target for a programmed commencement of works in 2006–07. Following the SoCoMMS decision, other ongoing work includes major studies of traffic issues at both Arundel and Worthing. It is generally agreed that there is no simple solution to the problems in those towns.
As the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs said, the A27 separates the old town centre of Arundel, including the cathedral and the castle, from the more
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recent, mainly residential development to the south of the town. Approximately four out of five vehicles on the A27 at Arundel are through traffic—in other words, both their origin and destination is outside the town. On the other hand, the surrounding countryside is environmentally sensitive and borders the South Downs area of outstanding natural beauty. There are also other designated sites near Arundel, so any outer bypass of the town would seriously affect that landscape. That was the case for the proposals recommended by SoCoMMS.
At Worthing, the trunk road route passes through densely developed urban areas, and I appreciate the problems that that brings to the town. However, the proposals recommended by SoCoMMS consisted of a series of four tunnels each up to 2 km long, with major road developments in between—all located within the South Downs area of outstanding natural beauty. Not only was the scheme environmentally damaging, the cost of the tunnels alone would have made it unaffordable. I remind Members present that I recently called for a review of the Stonehenge tunnel when that scheme's cost rose to £470 million. The Stonehenge scheme involved just one 2 km tunnel, not four.
The problems at Worthing are exacerbated not only by the dense urban areas but, as I said earlier, by the fact that the boundary of the South Downs area of outstanding natural beauty comes right up to the urban area of Worthing and Lancing. It is therefore proving to be very difficult to find an acceptable working solution to the problems associated with the A27 at that location.
Mr. Tyrie: I agree that the Minister is a good chap, as my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) said a moment ago, but I really do think that he is slightly off the rails now. He has said four times that the proposed road improvements are close to an area of outstanding natural beauty and that they might cause environmental damage. Surely we need some joined-up government, particularly in the Chichester area but throughout the region. Will the Minister speak to his opposite numbers and do something about the huge amount of house building that is going on, which is creating the demand on the road and generating the pressure? One lot are building the houses while the other lot are saying that we cannot improve the road because it is near an area of outstanding natural beauty.
Dr. Ladyman: I assure the hon. Gentleman that in respect of all the assessments that I have mentioned this evening, I have asked the Highways Agency, in undertaking them, to take account of any proposed house building in the area. The fact that development will take place in the area will be taken into account when the road building decisions are made.
I want to say a little more about the scheme in East Sussex that complements the major Southerham to Beddingham improvement scheme. In line with our announcement on the multi-modal study, the Highways Agency has been working in partnership with the county council and the statutory environmental bodies to identify longer-term improvements to the single carriageway length of trunk road between Beddingham, east of Lewes, and Polegate, north of Eastbourne, including possible bypasses at Selmeston and Wilmington. Again, that is an environmentally sensitive area and it is proving difficult to find solutions.
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On the points that the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs made about the regional funding allocation process, we expect to receive by the end of January 2006 the South East England Regional Assembly's advice on which transport schemes should be given funding priority.
With the exception of the Southerham to Beddingham improvement scheme, which is already committed to, all the A27 improvement schemes that I have mentioned so far—at Chichester, Arundel, Worthing, Selmeston and Wilmington—have been included in the prioritisation exercise. It seems to me, therefore, that the hon. Gentleman would do well to make his representations in the region, to raise the priority of the proposals. He says that the schemes are strongly supported, but is the support strong enough for the region to put them into the top priority category of the schemes that it wishes to move forward most urgently?
Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): When the regional priorities are identified, is the Minister undertaking to deliver them?
Dr. Ladyman: I have made it clear that the region offers advice, and we do not expect to accept its advice absolutely and always. There may be reasons why the hon. Gentleman himself might not always want us to accept the advice of a region, but to judge it to be flawed—and we have reserved that right. However, we have said that where a region does have a consensual position on which schemes should take the highest priority, and the region and the Government office seem to have done a good job in consulting everybody and taking their views into account, we would certainly pay very strong regard to that advice—and I would be surprised if we deviated very far from it.
In addition to the advice, we are awaiting the inquiry inspector's report on the Southerham to Beddingham stretch. The Highways Agency is also expecting to report back on the consultation on the improvements at Chichester early next year, and a little later it expects to report on its studies at Arundel, Worthing, Selmeston and Wilmington. We will consider the way forward for all those schemes in the light of the advice received from the South East England region about its priorities.
The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs raised housing as a specific issue, and it was also raised in an intervention. I said that the Highways Agency had been asked to take it into account in its reports back to me. Complementary to that process, the agency is currently working with local authorities as they produce their local development frameworks to ensure that transport issues are fully addressed, and that integrated transport proposals are included in each authority's plan.
In addition to the major improvements, the Highways Agency has a three-year rolling programme of maintenance and smaller-scale improvements to the A27. The agency has just completed modifications to the Stockbridge roundabout on the Chichester bypass, reducing the diameter of the roundabout and improving the approaches, which will improve the flow of traffic through the junction.
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At Worthing, signals have been provided at the Grove Lodge roundabout. I know that there has been some local disquiet since the signals were installed, but early indications are that traffic flow through the junction is better.
Several hon. Members rose—
Dr. Ladyman: I think that I should give way to the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), as he represents part of Worthing.
Tim Loughton: The Minister mentions the traffic changes on the Grove Lodge roundabout. I carried out a survey recently among residents who use that roundabout, and overwhelmingly they say that the changes have increased the problems on that stretch of the A27. If he is saying that they, along with the other roundabout adjustments at Chichester, are his panaceas for the congestion on the A27, he is sorely underestimating the scale of the problem. When was the last time he came down to the A27 in West Sussex and saw it for himself?
Dr. Ladyman: The word "panacea" never passed my lips. Those small-scale schemes are simply some short-term measures by which we are trying to improve things while we try to move forward on the wider agenda that all the Opposition Members here are keen to promote.
Mr. Tyrie: Does the Minister realise that the idea that the changes to the Stockbridge roundabout will improve
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the situation whereby a large chunk of my constituency is effectively cut off every day by a huge traffic jam almost an hour long leading into Chichester will be greeted by my constituents with a hollow laugh? What we need is some real road improvements.
Dr. Ladyman: I do not deny the possibility that the hon. Gentleman's constituency may need some major road improvements. My point is that we are making some short-term improvements while we work out the way forward. That is a not unreasonable position to take. We have made several short-term improvements throughout the area.
The proposals and the major road improvements, which have been backed by significant investment, are an indication of the Government's policy of trying to develop sustainable solutions to the transport problems of the south coast corridor. I understand the need for economic regeneration and accessibility to those towns and I understand the frustration of the constituents of the hon. Gentlemen opposite. I undertake to do my best to keep the issues moving forward—[Interruption.] I will, as the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) suggests, ask whether it is a good thing that we do this and, if so, on what time scale and how fast can we get on with it. If we can make a case, if the scheme is value for money and if the region agrees that it is among its priorities for progress, I am confident that we can get this sorted out—unlike the Government of whom he was a member.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at half-past Ten o'clock.