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Mr. John M. Taylor (Solihull): My hon. Friend is making a thorough job of cataloguing the misery and anger of our constituents. Will she take account of one

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other environmental factor? The fact that such an area will be lit all through the night means that some of our constituents will never again see the night sky from their homes. What a price is that to pay?

Mrs. Spelman: A very high price; light pollution is one of the hazards of the modern age. At our crossroads in the midlands we are prone to suffer that sort of erosion of our environment. My hon. Friend's constituents who live at Catherine-de-Barnes, the hamlet closest to the development, are very anxious about that aspect. There is no question but that there will be environmental harm; the decision is based on the idea that the benefits to the motorist outweigh that harm.

The Government considered some mitigating measures, but they involved providing auxiliary lanes for the motorway, and those, too, have an environmental impact. I am sure that all motorists are familiar with what happens to the traffic when, after a three-lane motorway has been widened to four lanes in one place, it goes back down to three lanes, as would happen to the M42: immediately, there is congestion.

The development has been proposed at a time when the widening of the motorway is under serious consideration as part of the west midlands multimodal traffic scheme, which has not yet been decided on. It therefore seems to me that any question of mitigating measures involving the widening of the motorway should wait for that regional decision to be made.

In the statement, the Secretary of State referred to the important question of setting precedents. He said:

I am not quite sure what that means, but perhaps the Minister will enlighten us--

My response to that is, "Do not believe it." The fact that the Secretary of State is "minded" to grant planning permission for a motorway service area that might include provision for a lodge--a Travelodge with 66 lettable bedrooms--will unleash a deluge of applications for hotels in the green belt. Such developments have hitherto been strongly resisted at this point in the Meriden gap, and a number of developers who have had their planning applications in the green belt turned down are looking eagerly at this aspect of the decision.

The decision is being justified because it is thought

I hate to disappoint the Secretary of State, but that hotel, if built in the Meriden gap, will be filled by people attending the NEC. A weary motorist might roll up at the service station in the hope of finding a bed for the night, but he would be most likely to find it fully booked by people attending an event at the NEC. Therefore, I do not think that that argument stands up at all.

Another important point is the footprint. The Secretary of State agreed with the inspector that

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The size of the footprint is very controversial in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull.

It is significant that, in July 1998, the Under-Secretary, Lord Whitty, made a statement about motorway service areas having a footprint of 5,000 sq ft as a limit, but it was unclear whether that should be taken as applying to the main amenity building or the MSA site as a whole. That has created a loophole for development, which has been exploited in the case of this decision. There is a warning in this case for other hon. Members who may be faced with a similar situation.

At the Catherine-de-Barnes site, the permitted area for a fuel sales building is 360 sq m--I am sorry to switch from imperial to metric measures--but that is in addition to 465 sq m of retail space. The 465 sq m of retail space marries up with the Under-Secretary's statement about 5,000 sq ft. However, unless I am much mistaken, there has been a terrible error here. In the case of Catherine-de-Barnes, the 465 sq m has been conceded, but, in addition to that, there will be an extra 360 sq m for a fuel sales building. Together, that makes 825 sq m, or 8,800 sq ft. That would seem to fly in the face of the limit that the Under-Secretary described, and we seek clarification on that important point.

I can anticipate what the Minister will say. He will say that the previous Government are to blame. They are not. Until 1992, the Department of Transport--as it then was--was responsible for promoting new motorway service areas. Its policy was to provide them at intervals of half an hour's driving time, or of about 30 miles, although when one is driving at 70 mph those figures have to be approximate. The important point is that the previous Government used discretion. A written answer on 24 November 1994 cited a letter from Lawrie Hayes to Sir David Mitchell, in which he stated that

That is on the record. For the record:

In a debate in another place in 1992, the then Government spokesman said:

That is an important point. Planning permission was refused by the local authority--Solihull metropolitan borough council--and democratically elected local councillors who sit closest to the decision and know the environment best of all, but the Secretary of State has chosen to override that decision, ignore public opinion and back the developer--small wonder that my constituents doubt the Government's commitment to listening to the people.

I have another important point to raise with the Minister, which has been brought to my attention by the Council for the Protection of Rural England, whose representatives--

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local people living in the constituencies that will be affected by the change--played an important part in the public inquiry. They say that the inspector's report gives the impression that the Highways Agency was fully represented and section 10 contains eight pages on "The case for the Highways Agency", but what happened was unsatisfactory. My hon. Friend the Member for Solihull and I attended the inquiry, so I can vouch for that.

Mr. John M. Taylor: We also gave evidence.

Mrs. Spelman: Indeed. The inspector allowed the Highways Agency to get away with submitting written statements rather than offering a witness who could have been cross-examined. The inspector's report relied heavily on the Highways Agency's views on motorway operational matters, but it gave no evidence that was open to cross-examination on need, the operation of the motorway system, signing or the M42 widening, which is needed to enable the Catherine-de-Barnes site to be developed.

Unless I am much mistaken, that was the first occasion on which the Nicholson principle was not obeyed. Under that principle, it should be possible for cross-examination on the main evidence to be conducted. That is an important point, because the opinion of the Highways Agency is crucial to the interim nature of the decision. As I understand it, its finality will hinge on whether the Highways Agency is satisfied about its agreement to widening the motorway at that point. Its non-appearance for cross-examination fundamentally undermines the value of the inquiry and its findings.

I strongly urge the Government to think again. The site that they have chosen for a motorway service area stands at the narrowest point of the Meriden gap. In the same segment of land, we find Birmingham international airport and the NEC--both public amenities of wider regional, national and international significance. What is needed is clear strategic planning for that vulnerable strip of land. It has suffered for too long from piecemeal planning decisions, such as those that collectively led to the erosion of the Meriden gap.

The projections for the expansion of air travel are bound to lead to pressure to expand such an amenity, yet the service station site would lie at the foot of any runway extension and it would be uncomfortably close to the flight path. That element was not discussed in any great detail at the inquiry, so I simply ask the Minister, is it wise to allow the development to be built in such proximity to the flight path?

To keep pace with international demand for exhibition sites, the NEC had to expand. Although I hated to see green belt consumed in such a way, I recognised that our NEC needed to remain competitive. However, that aspect has to be considered hand in hand with what happens to the transport network at that point in the midlands motorway crossroads.

My constituency contains pockets of deprivation with huge unemployment, but the motorway service station would be yet another employment opportunity plonked down in the countryside with no public transport available, so local residents would get all the hassle, but none of the benefit. Those are strategic issues and I appeal to the Government to stop and think: to try, like an eagle, to fly above the Meriden gap and look down at the airport, the NEC, the four-track widening of the west coast main

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line and the building of the Birmingham northern relief road; and to stop and, in strategic terms, think about whether it is really the right site. The development would stick out like a sore thumb in the green Arden pasture land, next to a gridlocked motorway. It would be a white elephant.

The dome stands as a monument to misplanning; let us not make the same mistake a second time. If the Government want to prove that they listen, if they want to claim their green credentials and if they want to demonstrate that they have strategic planning capability, let them please think again.

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