Alan Hurst (Braintree, Lab)

Before I start my speech, I should like to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir Teddy Taylor), who is retiring. As he and other hon. Members will know, I have had some association with his constituency over a number of years, and I can confirm the enormously high regard in which he is held by people of all political parties.

I turn now to a matter that affects my own parliamentary division of Braintree, and it concerns a road. For a Member who represents a rural or semi-rural area close to a town, roads can be a plus but they can also be a minus. Many Members will have travelled along the M11 out of London towards Stansted or beyond, and many will have travelled along the A12 from London to the east coast. A large part of the area between those two roads is my parliamentary constituency. Joining those roads is another road: the A120.

I do not wish to exaggerate, but until recently, most of the A120 was little more than an improved country road. It is now right to say, however, that after many years, many deliberations and an extensive public inquiry, the road west of Braintree leading to Stansted is a modern, fast-moving motor road. Indeed, those who travel on it are amazed at how quickly Stansted is left behind and Braintree appears. On reaching Braintree—which, not many years ago, the old A120 used to go through—there is a bypass. The cars spin along it, their drivers thinking that they are going to the end of the land, as they travel in such speed and style. They then reach a landmark that has historically been known as Galley's corner, although some people now call it McDonald's corner or the "cholesterol roundabout", because it is surrounded by fast-food outlets, multiplex cinemas, designer fashion shops and every other attribute of modern life. The roundabout, though, was not designed to take such a throughput of traffic, and however quickly someone might leave Stansted and approach Braintree, they will soon hit an enormous tailback.

However, that is not really the point that I want to raise, because the Highways Agency is seeking to resolve that tailback problem by constructing the A120 east of Braintree through to the A12, thus joining the two cardinal routes. Every time we design or construct a road, there will be winners and losers. I went to see the Transport Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson) about this matter about 18 months ago, because a rumour was being circulated by one of the political parties in my division that the line of route was already known. These stories always spread like wildfire—there is always a conspiracy involved in anything to do with government. Those of us who have served in public office for a number of years performing various functions will know that the conspiracy theory is invariably not the one that holds water, and that another theory will always be much more apt.
I went to see the Minister, and he showed me on a map that there were about 13 possible routes—I did not count them—to take this road east of Braintree to join the A12. I was informed that there was no preferred route at that stage—they were all being worked on and considered—so I went away and told my constituents that I understood that either three or six options would be presented to the people of Braintree and the adjacent areas, to ascertain which route they would prefer. Indeed, I believe that that was the policy that was pursued on the western section.
My constituents and I were therefore somewhat surprised—to put it mildly—when it was announced in February that there was one preferred route. We were being given the Henry Ford option: "You can have any route you like, as long as it's this one." It is right to say that one or two other lines were sketched in on the maps as possible routes, but it is not for us humble members of the public to design roads. That is not our calling. The designers of roads are engineers and surveyors, and it is for them to put before the local people a number of choices about where a road should go.

The route that has been chosen gives great offence to the historic, tightly knit communities through which, or close to which, it will run. It will leave the roundabout that I have mentioned and sweep across country at elevated level past the villages of Tye Green, Cressing and Lanham Green. The fact that it will be elevated will make a difference, because people will be able to see the wretched thing from their back gardens. Not only that, but they will have the disadvantage of its being illuminated at night, and there will be a constant hum of traffic going through. They will experience a sudden change from living in an historic rural community to living by the side of a motor road.

After that, the road will skirt Silver End, which I have had occasion to mention here before. It is the model village that was built by the Crittall window-making company, and which produced the first Labour Member of Parliament for the county of Essex in 1923. The road will skirt close to the village before cutting across country between the town of Coggeshall and the village of Kelvedon, passing a little hamlet called Half Way, which might not be at the forefront of hon. Members' minds. I called a meeting at Half Way, a hamlet of about 40 residents, and we got a higher turnout than we do at most elections: I think that about 35 attended. They were very reasonable; they did not scream and shout. They discussed the reasons why it was inappropriate for this road to run right past their little hamlet to the next hamlet and the next village along before crashing down into the Blackwater valley.

The Blackwater river is not one of the great rivers of history—it is not the Mississippi or even the Thames. It is a river that runs across Essex and out into the North sea, with a number of tributaries, and it provides a real aspect of old England that is so often now missed and lamented: a river valley with water meadows. We read in the environmental magazines that one area of the countryside that has declined more than any other is the water meadow, yet in the Blackwater valley we have water meadows teeming with extensive wildlife that is native to old Essex. The new road will sweep down the valley, and rather than tunnelling under the river, it will go over the top of it. It will be quite hard to disguise a road bridge of that kind. Eventually, the road will make its way out through other fairly unspoilt countryside to the north of Feering to join the A12.
A resident who lives on the A12—a brave man, but he has jolly good double glazing on the front of his property—bought his bungalow many years ago and improved it over the years. He told me that he had bought a little field at the back of his property, and that the road would go across the corner of it. He said that there was also a railway line there. He told me that if the road was built he would no longer be able to sit in his back garden and look at the stars coming out in the clear sky, and that he would have to look instead at a sweeping bridge with traffic roaring across it, right at the bottom of his garden.

It is open to the Highways Agency to go back to their drawing boards and to conduct proper studies of alternative routes for this road. I do not think that they have carried out environmental surveys, or that they have fully assessed the social impact of a road of this kind sweeping through this part of Essex. I am pleading on behalf of my constituents. I want them to make representations to the Highways Agency—as I am doing indirectly now, through the Minister—in their own handwriting, rather than ticking boxes on a standard questionnaire. Questionnaires are designed to elicit the answer that the designer of the questionnaire wants. I want to see as many letters as possible going to the Highways Agency describing exactly what the consequences of this road will be in blighting the lives and properties of so many people, and I want the Highways Agency to come back and say that it is going to offer us costed, planned, easy-to-understand options from which we can choose.

House of Commons Hansard Debates for the 24th March 2005 (pt25) 24 Mar 2005 : Column 1053 24 Mar 2005 : Column 1054 24 Mar 2005 : Column 1055