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Henry Bellingham (Shadow Minister, Justice; North West Norfolk, Conservative)

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow.

The county of Norfolk has seen substantial economic success over the past decade or so. It has also seen significant population growth and growth in the amount of vehicles driving on its roads. I will return to that in a moment, because it is particularly relevant in respect of the A47, which is Norfolk's key east-west trunk road.

Only 25 per cent. of the A47 is dualled and much of its dualling dates back to the 1970s. For example, the King's Lynn southern bypass, the Swaffham bypass and the Dereham bypass were all built in the 1970s. We are talking about roads that were built nearly 30 years ago. Since then, we have seen the opening of the Norwich ring road, which links with an important part of the A47. Under the last Conservative Administration, the important Tilney-Wisbech stretch of the A47, which is dual carriageway, was opened. More recently, the Thorney bypass was opened. However, roughly 75 per cent. of the A47 is still single carriageway.

I should like to mention the sheer folly of building new bypasses of single carriageway standard, as happened at Narborough and Wisbech. More recently, under this Administration, we saw the absurdity of building the new Hardwick flyover to single carriageway standard.

The impact of busy single carriageway traffic rumbling through villages is significant. Let us consider some of the villages in my constituency on the route of the A47. For example, the communities of Middleton, East Winch and West Bilney are totally cut in half. Children going to school have to cross that road every day, and people going to shops and pubs face exactly the same challenge.

There is no question but that single carriageway roads are substantially more dangerous than dual carriageway roads. On Monday, a lorry turned over on the Acle straight. On Friday last week, there was a fatality on the A47 at Narborough, in the constituency of my hon. Friend Christopher Fraser and that road was closed for a substantial period. Of course, when busy single carriageway roads are closed, there have to be diversions. Such diversions are time-consuming and put a huge amount of strain and pressure on local villages. Often, the diversion routes are totally unsuitable. We are talking about some 23,000 vehicles a day being pushed off a busy trunk road on to minor roads.

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Christopher Fraser (South West Norfolk, Conservative)

The accident in my constituency, which my hon. Friend described, illustrated a wider point that we need to deal with in Norfolk. Our trunk roads are unfit and unsafe for the traffic that they carry in the 21st century. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is about time that the Government woke up to the fact that, if Norfolk is going to realise its true economic potential, they must recognise that those roads are of national, not just regional, importance and that proper upgrading and proper funding for them should come from central Government?

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Henry Bellingham (Shadow Minister, Justice; North West Norfolk, Conservative)

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. I will deal with that point in a moment. The Government are forcing ever-larger growth figures for housing on Norfolk, yet they are not supplying the infrastructure that is vital for those growth figures.

I should like to quote Adrian Gunson, the Norfolk county council cabinet member for planning and transportation, who commented last week on the problems and challenges arising due to single carriageway stretches of the A47 carrying large amounts of traffic, and on the cost to the local economy of accidents that happen on those stretches of road:

"Quite apart from the loss of life and limb in accidents, any sort of incident in these single carriageway stretches of the A47 has a serious effect on travellers, businesses and surrounding communities. This is happening month after month, year after year. The cost is probably incalculable, yet many of these accidents would not have happened if the road had been dualled."

That sums it up.

I should like to deal with the growth figures for Norfolk, in respect of which one should not miss out Cambridgeshire, because the A47 goes through a substantial part of Cambridgeshire as well. Looking at the greater Norwich area, which includes Norwich city council, Broadland district council and South Norfolk district council, the figure for housing increases between 2006 and 2026 is 40,000 dwellings, and some 35,000 more jobs are anticipated. That is a huge number of extra people along an important part of a vital trunk road.

Recently, the go-ahead was given for the construction of Yarmouth's east port and outer harbour. That will lead to a substantial amount of extra freight traffic coming on to the A47. In fact, there will be a significant number of extra lorry movements, as freight traffic is concentrated on the new east port at Yarmouth, away from some of the other east coast ports in East Anglia.

The housing requirement for Fenland district council in Cambridgeshire between 2001 and 2024 is another 12,250 homes, with the market town of Wisbech expanding by more than 4,000. In Breckland, in the constituency of my hon. Friend Mr. Simpson, although a lot of the growth will be concentrated along the A11 corridor, there will be substantial growth in Dereham, Swaffham and Narborough. Again, a lot of extra pressure will be put on the A47.

In my constituency, the housing requirement increase for the borough council of King's Lynn and West Norfolk between 2001 and 2021 is 12,000 new homes, increasing to 14,400 by 2026. King's Lynn will be named as a regional transport node. King's Lynn is, as the Minister will know, a key centre for development and change. Furthermore, the council has submitted a bid for King's Lynn to become a new growth point. As the Minister will also be aware, we have a major brownfield site scheme, encompassing quite a lot of the old industrial area of South Lynn, which is known as the Nar Ouse millennium community housing project. The Minister will know that a development cap of 450 units has been imposed on that project by the Highways Agency, even though its total potential is 874 housing units. The agency needs to be satisfied that there will be traffic improvements before lifting the cap. Of course, the A47 is vital to that project, because the community is just on the edge of the A47 South Lynn bypass.

We are seeing already a huge amount of overload on single carriageway stretches of the A47. I have done some research into figures on vehicle movements on some of those stretches. Along the Guyhirn to Wisbech B198 stretch of the A47 in Cambridgeshire, there are more than 24,000 daily vehicle movements. I understand that the normal threshold figure for the Government to decide that a dual carriageway should be built is 11,000 vehicles, although I am sure that the Minister will correct me if I am wrong. More than 20,000 vehicles a day travel along many stretches of the A47. We need serious action on that stretch of road, the whole way from the A1, west of Peterborough, to Great Yarmouth.

I want to touch on the discussion, which has been somewhat vexed of late, about the trans-European network. The A47 from Yarmouth through to the A1 at Peterborough is part of a strategic trans-European network—the TEN—that links various European cities. However, within the TEN designation, there are also priorities axes that are more likely to receive European TEN-T funding. The A47 is not currently regarded as a priority axis.

I wrote to the Minister a while back to ask why the A47 was not a priority axis and, in particular, why it had not been made a priority axis in the light of the go-ahead for the Yarmouth outer harbour and the figures for extra housing and development that the Government have imposed on Norfolk. The Minister wrote back on 7 February, saying:

"I can confirm that the A47 between Great Yarmouth and the A1 near Peterborough remains part of the Trans-European Network (TEN-T) and this status has not been amended".

However, he did not explain why it is not a priority axis. Unless it is a priority axis, it will not attract extra funding from Europe or, possibly, even from the Government. Will he therefore answer that question today? All MPs with Norfolk constituencies regard it as an incredibly important matter.

We need from the Minister and the Government a firm commitment to dual the entire length of the road. We already have some good bypasses that are dual carriageways. If anyone goes along those stretches of dual carriageway, they will see for themselves how much safer they are, but then they will hit a bottleneck of single carriageway. We therefore need a firm commitment from the Minister.

Without making a key list of priorities, I shall note the really bad parts of the road. The Acle straight is very bad. The Blofield to North Burlingham stretch is very bad. The Middleton, East Winch and West Bilney stretch in my constituency is very bad. The North Tuddenham and eastern stretch to the west of Norwich is particularly bad. The Narborough bypass, where the accident that I mentioned took place last Friday, was absurdly and foolishly built as a single carriageway. It is a fast, new and wide stretch of road, but it is a single carriageway, so given the volume of traffic, it is a very dangerous stretch of road. The Great Yarmouth third river crossing was a priority for improvement to dual carriageway standard, as was the A47 going west of Peterborough through to the A1. The A47 is Norfolk's key east-west axis, and we really want action on it—not promises or fine words, but a commitment to action.

I shall very briefly touch on the other roads that concern my constituents. Although they are perhaps not as important, they are nevertheless vital to the economic well-being of west Norfolk and Norfolk as a whole. First, the A11 is the key link from the south and from the motorway network to Norwich. Over the years, all Members with Norfolk constituencies have campaigned hard to secure improvements to the A11, and we have, I am pleased to say, more or less succeeded. However, one stretch remains a problem—from Barton Mills to Thetford. Will the Minister tell us today when that stretch of that vital trunk road will be dualled?

Secondly, the A10 is the important link from King's Lynn and West Norfolk, going south to Cambridge and the M11. The road was de-trunked about five or six years ago and there are no dual carriageway sections on it whatsoever. Again, we have seen the folly of various bypasses being built on the A10—for example, around Downham Market and around Ely—as single carriageway roads. Goodness, how much easier and more economic it would have been to put in another carriageway at the time, rather than later.

The A10, because it is de-trunked, is the county council's responsibility, and on a part of the road in my constituency, going through West Winch and Setchey, two villages have been completely cut in half. It is now a priority for the county council's road building programme, but because the road does not have regional priority, there is little chance of it being built in the near future. Will the Minister tell us today why that regional priority has a low designation? Can he do anything about it? Can he speak to the relevant people in those regional bodies to ensure that the A10—in particular, that bypass—is given more priority?

Thirdly, the A17, which is the vital link road from King's Lynn and West Norfolk going north, was similarly de-trunked about five or six years ago.

Photo of John Bercow

John Bercow (Buckingham, Conservative)

Order. I counsel the hon. Gentleman not to refer to, still less to dilate upon, roads that have been de-trunked, for which the Government do not have any responsibility. I also very gently point out to him that I feel sure that he is nearing the conclusion of his speech, because he awaits with eager anticipation that of his hon. Friend Mr. Simpson.

Photo of Henry Bellingham

Henry Bellingham (Shadow Minister, Justice; North West Norfolk, Conservative)

Thank you, Mr. Bercow, for that gentle reminder. I am bringing my remarks to a conclusion.

It is important to mention that we are trying to get the de-trunked roads re-trunked, and I should like the Minister to tell us the chances of him using his good offices to ensure that we have extra dual carriageways on the two roads that are so important to my constituency and those of my hon. Friends the Members for Mid-Norfolk and for South-West Norfolk.

In conclusion, Norfolk is a county with a very important future. It has a great economic future, but it needs the infrastructure to service that extra growth and to guarantee and secure those jobs. On the one hand, a Minister says that Norfolk must grow and meet those housing targets, but on the other, other Departments say, "All your pleas for better infrastructure will not actually be met or fulfilled." I therefore look to the Minister this afternoon to give us some guarantees and to confirm that there really will be progress.

4:45 pm
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Keith Simpson (Shadow Minister, Foreign Affairs; Mid Norfolk, Conservative)

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Bellingham on obtaining the debate. I thank him for allowing me a brief opportunity to speak, and the Minister, too, for his generosity.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, a sizeable part of the A47 runs through my constituency, and only part of it is dualled. I have been campaigning on the issue since 1997, I am a member of the A47 alliance, which brings together many interested groups, and I help to represent all the MPs on it. The A47 is a crucial link road between the east midlands and Great Yarmouth, but there are frequent serious accidents, and when they occur, they not only completely block the A47, but there are diversions around the whole of Norfolk. It is almost like going back to mediaeval times.

The Government were mistaken when they decided to downgrade the status of the A47, alongside that of many other roads, from a strategic route of national importance. It was done several years ago, and the French, the Germans and the Dutch would never have made such a mistake on such an important road. As a consequence of that decision, as my hon. Friend touched upon, effectively, the European Union also downgraded the road's status as a trans-European network. Our friend, Mr. Robert Sturdy, an MEP for the eastern region, obtained that information from the EU.

The Government say that it is no good lobbying Ministers about the future of the A47, because decisions and priorities are at a regional transport board level. However, the conclusion of everybody belonging to the A47 alliance is that, sadly, at that regional level, every area is set against another area, and they all compete for a limited amount of money. That is not satisfactory.

The A47 alliance recently commissioned studies from three district councils—Broadland, Fenland and Breckland district councils—and King's Lynn and West Norfolk borough council, in my hon. Friend's constituency. The study was entitled, "The Potential Implications of Proposed Growth on the A47". Based on the Government's figures, the report shows that the Government's and the eastern region's housing targets for those councils and Norwich will make the present problems on the A47 much worse,

"and indeed in some instances the housing targets will not be achieved unless the A47 is improved."

When the outer harbour at Great Yarmouth is completed, as my hon. Friend said, there will be even more traffic congestion.

Finally, the responsibility rests at ministerial level. That is not just my view, but the view of local businesses and local authorities. I urge the Minister to consider reinstating the A47 as a strategic route of national importance, because without that measure, we will continue to have a rather poor debate.

4:49 pm
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Christopher Fraser (South West Norfolk, Conservative)

Thank you, Mr. Bercow, I shall make one very quick point.

The Minister is fully aware that Norfolk is the only county in England that does not have a dual carriageway network linking it to the national trunk road network. As such, its road networkis not fit for purpose or for the current traffic on it. I hope that the Minister will address my earlier point about Norfolk's potential economic growth being stifled by the fact that it does not have the roads infrastructure that it should. Previous Ministers doing his job have considered the issue and come out with platitudes but not a great deal of action, so I hope that he will not use his response to suggest that the issue is of regional importance. As my hon. Friends the Members for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) and for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) said, the roads infrastructure in Norfolk is clearly of national importance and needs national Government support, rather than—dare I say it to the Minister, who is a decent man?—fobbing off to some regional prioritisation for which nobody will take responsibility.

4:50 pm
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Tom Harris (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport; Glasgow South, Labour)

I congratulate Mr. Bellingham on securing the debate and commend the comments made by his colleagues. I understand the importance of the subject, as it is a common concern among Members on both sides of the House when the pot for carrying out works to strategic roads in an area is necessarily limited and tensions obviously emerge between the various stakeholders in each region. I want to say a little more on that later.

I will address some of the specific comments made by the hon. Gentleman. He asked when the last part of the A11 was due to be dualled. It has been scheduled for dualling in the period between 2009-10 and 2015-16, which is a long period and I understand his impatience in that regard. He also raised a point that has been raised with me before by Robert Sturdy MEP on why the A47 is part of the trans-European network but not designated as a road of national importance. Four criteria must be met before a road can be designated as a national route, one of which is that it must be part of the trans-European network. The three additional criteria are that flows should be greater than 60,000 vehicles a day, that heavy goods vehicles should comprise more than 15 per cent. of the total and that any such routes should link two of 20 major cities in England. The A47 does not meet those four criteria.

I understand the argument that the hon. Gentleman made. He will not be surprised to note that, from a number of discussions with colleagues on both sides of the House, the obvious solution seems to be to change the designation of a particular route from a road of regional importance to one of national importance, thereby, it is assumed, generating an unspecified and presumably limitless amount of cash from a source that has previously been unidentified. Were that course to be pursued, the money that would have to be used for any changes to those roads would not simply be additional to what has already been given in the regional funding allocation, but would have to be top-sliced from the regional funding allocation, so we would be back to exactly where we began. Mr. Simpson referred to the regional transport boards as comprising stakeholders who basically fight for funds for their own areas. We would end up in exactly the same situation, but with a smaller pot of money to argue over. The solution in this case is not as simple and straightforward as the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk suggests.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about vehicle flows on the A47 with regard to the criteria for dualling. He suggested that a single carriageway carrying 11,000 vehicles would automatically qualify to be upgraded to a dual carriageway. My understanding is that 11,000 is the figure at which the Highways Agency will begin to look at a road to see whether dualling would represent value for money, rather than a definite criterion. He raised a number of issues, so if I cannot answer them all in the short time left, I will of course write to him to clarify those matters.

The economic performance of the east of England depends, as has been said, on good connections at national and international levels. We work closely with regional partners to deliver the transport infrastructure that the region deserves and requires. Norfolk, by virtue of its location, is sometimes perceived as on the sidelines, especially by those living there. However, in recent years there have been some additions to the strategic transport infrastructure, which have improved accessibility to the rest of the country.

Norfolk is served by six major roads from the west and south—the A47, A11 and A12, and the A10, A17 and A140, which are the responsibility of Norfolk county council. In recent years, there have been several improvements to those roads, such as the dualling of the Attleborough bypass, which removed a major congestion point on the A11 and significantly reduced delays along the route, and the Hardwick flyover on the A47 in the hon Gentleman's constituency.

A number of local transport schemes in Norfolk have also contributed to improved access to the wider strategic network and, therefore, to connections with the rest of the country. However, it is not only within Norfolk that we need to look for improvements. Improvements outside the county can benefit accessibility to it. We have completed the Thorney bypass in Peterborough on the A47, which had been promised by successive Governments for more than 60 years.

Future provision of additional transport infrastructure will be met through our goals of delivering sustainable growth and economic prosperity throughout the country. The agenda for that growth in the east of England is being set by the emerging regional spatial strategy, or east of England plan. Underpinning that is the regional transport strategy, which has an overall vision to deliver the spatial strategy. That provides a regional framework for delivery of transport investment and policy priorities focused on two levels: first, encouraging sustainable transport solutions for the key growth centres of the region; and secondly, emphasising the need to improve the strategic and regional road networks by providing journey reliability through tackling congestion and improving safety and efficiency.

In the east of England plan, the Norwich area has been identified as a transport investment priority. As it is a key centre for development and change, I welcome the approach by the three local planning authorities in joining forces to form the Greater Norwich development partnership, with the aim of delivering a joint core strategy for their local development framework. From a transport perspective, that will help to provide an integrated approach to identifying transport solutions to the delivery of that growth.

I will move on as quickly as I can to the infrastructure that links the urban areas. The regional transport strategy has identified key elements of infrastructure requirement, and I am pleased that the region has prioritised the funding of those schemes through the regional funding allocations. I am talking, of course, about the dualling of the A47 between Blofield and North Burlingham and of the A11 between Mildenhall and Thetford. Both are subject to statutory procedures but could be delivered between 2009-10 and 2015-16. I am delighted that after many years of Government investment, the longer-term strategy of completing the dualling of the A11, linking the north of the region with the motorway system and the midlands via the A14, is finally in sight.

The hon. Gentleman and his colleagues have campaigned long and hard for further dualling of the A47, and I pay tribute to the efforts that they have made on behalf of their constituents. Although that is commendable, I hope that they will consider their aspiration in the context of the related housing and economic development programmes identified in the east of England plan. Transport should be seen not in isolation, but as part of the regional strategic decision-making process. That is why there is a regional transport strategy and why, apart from the A47 Blofield to North Burlingham scheme, the strategy has not identified the A47 outside the Norwich area as a priority for further study. That position is in line with the recommendations made through the Norwich to Peterborough multi-modal study a few years ago.

The regional funding allocations provide the means for delivering the transport priorities of the east of England plan, and there will be an opportunity to reconsider regional priorities again this summer as part of a review of the regional funding allocations that the Department for Transport will be conducting. I welcome the recent announcement by the East of England Development Agency to commission a study to consider how transport can unlock the economic growth potential of the region.

As I am running out of time, I suggest that the refreshing of the regional funding allocation might be the opportunity for hon. Members to lobby the regional transport board in their area to try to persuade their colleagues there that priorities should be re-ordered to give the A47 the attention that it has not had hitherto.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Five o'clock.