Sir George spoke up for residents in Dummer, North Waltham and Beggarwood in a debate initiated by his neighbour, Maria Miller MP.
See extract from Hansard below.
Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): 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 the Member for North-West Hampshire (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:
“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.
Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester) (LD): I entirely support the hon. Lady’s comments. My constituency borders hers, and many of her comments about the M3 apply in Winchester.
Mrs. Miller: 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 15 January 2007, by 2010 both carriageways of the M3 between junctions 5 and 6 will have noise retardant material in all lanes? Will he tell the House what consideration is being given to lowering speed limits, not just on the M3, but generally, as a way of reducing noise? I understand that cutting the speed limit to 50 mph could have a considerable impact on noise levels, as well as cutting accidents and congestion. The Minister will be aware that that technique is used on the M25.
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.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend and neighbour, the Member for Basingstoke (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.