I wish to express my grateful thanks to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to raise an important subject for east Anglia. I also express my grateful thanks to the Minister for coming to the Dispatch Box for the second time in less than three weeks to consider roads not only in Norfolk—as we discussed recently—but in east Anglia.
I wish to speak about the A11, which covers more than just my county of Norfolk. It begins at junction nine of the M11. There is a small part of it in Essex, some in Cambridgeshire, a greater length in Suffolk and the balance in Norfolk. I have the support of a number of my hon. Friends in constituencies representing those counties, for which I am grateful.
The issue of the A11 has received widespread public support in east Anglia. The local newspaper with the largest circulation, the Eastern Daily Press, has conducted a campaign. However, the general campaign has been waged for much longer than that waged by the newspaper. Many of my hon. Friends have sought improvements to the A11 for 15 or 20 years, if not longer. I am grateful to them for their past lobbying, which has secured some improvements.
Why do I seek improvements to the A11? I shall give the House a short travelogue of the A11 in east Anglia. It begins at junction nine of the M11. As soon as it leaves the M11, one is on a single carriageway from Stump Cross to the Newmarket bypass—although that is not the A11, as it was built as part of the A45 to the port of Felixstowe. On leaving that bypass, one is immediately on another single carriageway until reaching Freckenham Red Lodge, when there is, to one's joy, three quarters of a mile a dual carriageway. That soon slips by, and one is back to a single carriageway to Thetford. There is a proposal for a Thetford bypass, but it is for a single carriageway outer bypass. I ask the Minister to change that to a dual carriageway. After Thetford, it is single carriageway again to Roudham, where there is about three miles of dual carriageway—heaven upon heaven for the motorist — until another single carriageway all the way to Cringleford. The distance from where the A11 leaves the M11 to Norwich is about 62 miles. There is less than five miles of dual carriageway, other than the Newmarket bypass. Without doubt, it is a poor road.
Paragraph 1.3 of "Policy for Roads in England 1983", relating to industry and commerce, says:
The lorry has offered consignors of freight a unique degree of convenience, responsiveness and speed. It plays a vital role in keeping down the cost of goods and services and maintaining our competitiveness. By cutting down journey times and congestion between cities, the motorway network has produced important efficiency gains for commerce and industry and indirectly for all of us in the greater range and competitive prices of goods in the shops.
That description could surely not be applied to the A11.
I should like to refer to some of the remarks made to me by representatives of industry and commerce in Norwich. The A11 is the primary road into East Anglia and into Norwich, my constituency, and the constituencies of my colleagues, for goods and services. Colman is a well-known national firm, and 100 per cent. of its goods in and out go by road; 60 per cent. of all those goods go by way of the A11. I am told by the managing director that in the peak holiday months of July and August, when all the holiday traffic is on the road, there are about 100 40 ft trunkers each day using the A11—about 50 in and 50 out.
The Norwich Brewery, also in my constituency, has a total trunk in of 166 barrels a week and a total trunk out of 144 barrels a week. The percentage of its total production going by road is 82 per cent., and 90 per cent. of that uses the A11.
I could quote statistics from other firms in my constituency, but time does not permit me to do so, because my hon. Friends also wish to speak in the debate.
There is no doubt that the capacity of the A11 is very limited and that it is very dangerous. I have from the chief constable the most recent accident statistics. They refer to the Norfolk and Suffolk parts of the A11. In 1983 there were 311 accidents on the A11 in Norfolk and Suffolk, 158 resulting in damage and 146 resulting in injuries, and there were seven fatal accidents. The statistics are available only for three-quarters of 1984. There have already been 264 accidents, 119 of them resulting in damage alone and 134 resulting in injuries, and 11 fatal accidents already this year. Those statistics show clearly that the A11 as it is at present is a dangerous road. When we also consider the congestion that is caused every day of the week we can see the problem involved.
I had the privilege of entertaining my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the night in Norwich, and I had the pleasure of driving him down the A11 the next morning. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister of State will have consulted her colleague on his experiences.
I draw attention to the comment of the Secretary of State for the Environment, who used the A11 last Friday. He is quoted in the newspapers as saying:
Having travelled along it this morning, I can understand. We were held up by a bypass under construction and that is welcome. What you need is more of them.
I heartily agree with that comment.
I hope that I have amply demonstrated the effects on commerce and industry. I ask the Minister to consider very carefully the economic benefits that will accrue not only to East Anglia and the firms in my constituency but to the country as a whole if we have an efficient road system into east Anglia serving not only my constituency but those of my colleagues.
East Anglia does not want assisted area status—we are not in that league. We want an efficient road system—the A11 is the primary road—that will enable firms in our constituencies to use their time efficiently, get their goods in and out efficiently, keep their goods competitively priced and provide jobs. I remind the House that Norwich, South has the highest unemployment rate in east Anglia, excepting Peterborough. That means a lot to the firms and people in my constituency. I hope that the reasons I have given my hon. Friend the Minister of State will convince her that she should look again seriously at the road's present condition. We are grateful for the improvements that are under way, but improvements are still needed for the much more efficient running of the A11.
I am glad to have the opportunity to speak briefly in support of the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Powley) about the A11 from London to Norwich. Fresh in my mind is the experience of driving yesterday to Westminster down the A11 and three weeks ago being at the wheel of a heavy goods vehicle driving with caution and increasing confidence, as described in the local newspaper, so I have been able to see for myself what it is really like to drive down the A11. That experience strengthens my determination to campaign for higher priority to be given to roads in east Anglia.
My hon. Friend the Minister of State has already by letter referred to the necessity for traffic flows of 20,000 vehicles per day for the road to qualify for dual carriageway status. It is right to point out that the proportion of heavy goods vehicles on the A11 is especially high, leading to overtaking and safety problems. My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South referred to the poor accident record on the A11—indeed, only recently there were fatalities on that road.
I remind the House that, by the time the Attleborough bypass is completed next year, only 6 kms of the 47 kms of the A11 in Norfolk will have become dual carriageway. Like my hon. Friends, I believe that that is not good enough. I hope that tonight we will convince my hon. Friend the Minister that it is necessary in the short, medium and longer term to give higher priority to road communications in Norfolk, especially the A11. I hope therefore, that in this respect, as in many others, we will see fairer treatment for east Anglia.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Powley) for allowing me to intervene briefly. I entirely support everything he said. My hon. Friend the Minister of State must be getting fed up with Members representing Norfolk constituencies coming to debate these topics, but she must admire us for our persistence. My hon. Friend could easily have been short of one hon. Member in this debate, because, on my way to Norwich last Friday on the A11 I was nearly the twelfth fatality this year. Just north of Attleborough a lorry coming towards me careered out of control, mounted the pavement and narrowly missed my car.
I certainly endorse everything my hon. Friends the Members for Norwich, South and for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson) said about safety on the A11. The A11 has an abysmal safety record, and that is why we need improvements so badly. My constituency does not have the A11 coming into it—the A11 goes into the heartland of Norfolk. If the heart is strong, the areas about it are made that much stronger. That is why King's Lynn in Norfolk would obviously benefit a great deal from improved communications into the heartland of Norfolk.
I also endorse the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South about assisted area status. We are not asking for that. We have asked for it in the past because parts of Norfolk have high unemployment, but we are realists in Norfolk. We are not asking for that type of Government assistance; we are asking for special help from my hon. Friend's Department for communications and in particular for this crucial road into the heartland of Norfolk. If that road is improved, Norfolk's prospects generally will improve.
First, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Powley) has been most fortunate in securing the debate and giving us a further opportunity, just two weeks after our last debate on Norfolk's roads, for hon. Members to put, and for me to hear, their views about the A11, one of the three trunk roads serving the county. Of all Norfolk's roads, it is the A11 about which not just they but I feel most anxious.
My postbag is full. The local feeling is clear. I am sure that while the county feels that it has been less than fairly treated in the past, we shall show bit by bit that the vigorous campaign that has been waged by all my hon. Friends in Norfolk, including my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South-West (Sir P. Hawkins), many of whom are here tonight, has brought to light the increasing traffic caused by the growing economic activity in the county, which must be recognised. The anxiety has come across loud and clear. They need have no fear of that.
I recall the points that my hon. Friends made in the earlier debate. I told the House then of the priority that we were giving to our plans to provide Norfolk with better road communications. In determining the standards of individual schemes we must aim to satisfy the needs of the traffic to be expected on any particular length of road.
It is not common sense to adopt one arbitrary standard of road because it happens to be a departmental road. We must provide a road that will meet the needs rather than uniformity. To do otherwise will only involve us in higher expenditure and greater use of land. It will also involve the diversion of resources from deserving work to provide other communities with traffic relief.
In the debate on 6 December my hon. Friends said that no extra funds should be spent. If we were to dual the remaining 33 miles of the A11 it would cost at least £35 million. That would mean that six bypasses would not come forward in the foreseeable future. I ask them to think about that at the same time as I assure them that we are considering improving stretches of the road in addition to those that they already know about.
By the end of the decade, I have no doubt that the A11 will meet Norfolk's needs for a good direct link to London and other parts of the national network. We have heard a great deal from my hon. Friends tonight about the lack of overtaking opportunities on the A11. We heard of the near miss of my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Bellingham). I am glad that it was a near miss, but I wish that it had been a fair miss. Of course, it is frustrating for drivers to be behind a tractor or several heavy goods vehicles on a single carriageway.
I am aware that about one quarter of the vehicles that use the A11 are HGVs. They are often interspersed with slow-moving agricultural traffic. As I think several hon. Members know, I have driven over the route several times this year already. I know the position at first hand.
Our published improvements provide for greater overtaking opportunities. They will also bring much needed relief to the local residents along the route to be bypassed, who have had to Live with the nuisance of heavy through traffic for so long.
It has also been said tonight that the accident rates are unacceptably high. I am In no way complacent about accidents, nor of the importance of reducing their number. I emphasise that a significant objective in all our improvement proposals, both large and small, is to attack and, where possible, remove those factors which contribute to their occurrence.
I should like to say a few words about the areas of the A11, of which hon. Members may not know tonight, which I am proposing to consider in greater depth. That is in addition to the schemes of which they are already aware. For the southern end of the A11, between the junction with the A505 and the Four Wentways junction with the A604, we have a scheme in the programme. We have yet to go to consultation, but we shall deal with that stretch and those two junctions. A bit further north, at the Balsham crossroads, there is a regional scheme that we are now investigating, with the possibility of improvement at that place in a few years time.
Further north, between Chalk Hill, where I very much regret the three recent fatalities, and the Fiveways junction, we have the Barton Mills bypass, where the orders have been made, we are going out to tender and intend to start construction in March next year. That is the most serious stretch that is not so far under construction, which is why it will be the next section to have a dual carriageway.
Further up the road, we shall extend another section of dual carriageway just to the south of Larling Ford, and from Larling Ford to Snetterton race course we are investigating measures to improve that stretch, the entries on to the road and the cross traffic at those points.
Therefore, those are five more areas where we are giving careful extra attention, in addition to the work that is going on now.
The Attleborough bypass is under construction, and is due for completion next spring, and, in addition, there are eight schemes for the A11 in East Anglia, between the M11 at Stump Cross and Cringleford. There is good progress with the proposals for the construction of just over five miles of dual carriageway between Wymondham and Cringleford, which went to public inquiry earlier this month. Subject to the satisfactory outcome of the statutory procedures and provided that funds are available—there is no reason why they should not be—work could start late next year.
Design work has already started on the next stretch—a 2·9 mile dual carriageway improvement between Besthorpe and Wymondham. At Bridgham Heath, north of Thetford, work should start next summer on a one-mile extension of the existing dual carriageway to bring that section of the road up to current design standards. At Thetford itself there will be a public inquiry into our proposals for the northern bypass in the spring. I know that hon. Members wish that that were not to be a single carriageway. Many of them have written to me and discussed the matter with me, but they will remember from my reply on 6 November that the proposals for Thetford include two crawler lanes on the gradients to allow the passing of slow-moving vehicles. I said at the time, and I must repeat tonight, that the traffic flows, when they reach that point on the A11, are not great enough to justify the dualling of that section, but with the crawler lanes and the other improvements that I mentioned and a few more that I shall mention, the opportunities will be there for safe overtaking provided that the rules of the road are adhered to by the traffic.
At Barton Mills the planned dual carriageway bypass is over two miles in length, and it will go out to tender with a start in the spring. I mentioned how sad I am at the fatal accidents on the existing section of the road to be bypassed in a short period earlier this month. The police are investigating the causes of those accidents, but for our own part, prior to the accidents we had already been making plans to change the road markings and make the signs more prominent. That work is now completed. We shall consider whether any further measures are needed, pending the completion of the bypass. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths), and one of his constituents who lives near the scene of the accidents, have written to ask me to introduce a limit of 40 miles an hour. I am considering their request and will reply shortly. However, it is important to have realistic limits. Wherever we see a need to place signs or white markings prior to the completion of further work, I will see that the necessary signs or markings are put there.
South of Barton Mills, two further dual carriageway improvements are programmed—one at Red Lodge, of 1·8 miles, and one from there to the Newmarket bypass. That will close the gap between the existing lengths of dual carriageway. South of the Newmarket bypass, the scheme that I have mentioned to improve the junctions of the A11 with the A604 and A505 at Four Wentways will go to public consultation.
When all those improvement schemes have been completed, some 46 per cent. of the 61 miles between Stump Cross and Cringleford will have been dualled. Additional dual carriageways to be provided will be mainly between Attleborough and Norwich, on the basis of the investigations that we have carried out. Further investigations are now in progress.
The other area which will justify dual carriageway is the stretch southwards from Barton Mills, where the A11 traffic from Norwich is joined by traffic from north Norfolk on the A1065 and the local traffic from Mildenhall, which is sometimes quite heavy.
Hon. Members will recall my pledge two weeks ago that those stretches of the A11 currently without schemes in the trunk road programme are being investigated to see how remaining problems may be tackled. We are also conducting checks on traffic passing along different stretches of the A11, to find out whether there is a case for another limited length of dual carriageway which could prevent a build-up of heavy traffic. Long platoons of slow-moving vehicles are particularly difficult to pass because they tend, very foolishly, to drive nose to tail, so that if one tries to overtake one has no room to pull in between the vehicles. I have a number of ideas for making it safer to overtake on stretches which do not justify dualling at present.
The road has changed dramatically in the past 10 years. Our plans for improving the A11 are not insignificant. Schemes at present in the programme involve an investment of over £30 million. However, I am not satisfied that that is all that can or should be done. That is why I restate my pledge to my hon. Friends tonight that the A11, which is taking an increasing amount of traffic to the busy areas of Norwich and Great Yarmouth, will receive individual attention both from my eastern regional office and my own office, so that as well as pressing on as quickly as resources will allow with the plans that have already been agreed we will investigate most carefully the areas where the accident levels, while not excessively above the norm, are still far too high. Every accident is an accident that we want to combat and prevent.
I hope that my hon. Friends will agree that we are doing everything possible. It will take time, but they need have no doubt of our earnest intention to meet their concerns for safe travelling, and reasonably speedy travelling, within the limits of the A11.