The story of the A249 road to Sheerness is a story that should gladden the hearts of our competitors abroad and that should make the British people weep.
In an age when we pride ourselves on the claim that we have got Britain moving, we cannot get a good road built to one of our main deep water ports, to a major industrial growth area, to a large resident population in the prosperous south-east of England. I welcome this chance to tell the House of our problems in securing a first-class road link from the M2 and M20 motorways to the port of Sheerness, the town of Sheerness and the Isle of Sheppey. I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Transport will be visiting us to see for himself on 20 May. I hope that he will then understand our frustration and that after his visit he will inject into his Department a political determination to plan and to build soon a continuous and good road link to Sheerness.
Let me remind my hon. Friend of what I am sure he knows but that many, apparently, do not. The Isle of Sheppey is a real island. It is linked to the Kent mainland by one bridge—a lifting bridge that was opened in 1960. It is now heavily overloaded and is undergoing major repairs. The bridge has been raised 60,000 times since it was built to allow yachts and commercial shipping to use the river Swale.
Sheppey has a population of 33,000, rising to probably over 80,000 in the summer. It is a major and expanding industrial area, about which I shall say more in a moment. It has an important deep water port, about which I shall also say more in a moment. My hon. Friend will find, as he leaves the motorway, a winding, single carriageway road for several miles, passing through the villages of Bobbing and Iwade. He will see our lifting bridge. He will also see another single carriageway road over the Sheppey marshes linking up with a stretch of new bypass that leads almost, but not quite—we never quite make it to the port—to Sheerness and to the docks.
The road is narrow and winding, passing is almost impossible. Traffic is usually heavy. Certainly at peak hours, with repairs and perhaps the bridge lifted, delays and tailbacks can be great and the frustration even greater. However, I can almost guarantee that, when my hon. Friend the Minister comes, there will be no jams, no delays and no bridge up and that he will sail through without delay. That is life. However, the position is generally as I have described it.
It is not my purpose to talk about our problems with road repairs, but it would be wrong not to put on record the frustration of the Sheppey community and others about the coincidence, despite all the assurances we received beforehand, of major repair works on the bridge, on the A249, on the M2 and on the M20 simultaneously. It makes those of us who live in Kent feel as though we are totally beleaguered.
I acknowledge readily that there are some road plans in the pipeline, but I hope that my hon. Friend will understand that when nothing comes out of the end of the pipeline people grow somewhat cynical and frustrated. Let
me take, for example, the (wade bypass. I have a letter from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport dated 3 November 1982. It reads:
We hope to be in a position to consult the public on the route during the summer of 1983. The normal statutory processes will then follow, which would allow the work to start in 1986.
We have not even got into a planning inquiry yet and the prospects of that starting seem to diminish all the time. Can my hon. Friend tell me what has gone wrong?
Let me remind my hon. Friend of some offerings from his Department regarding improving the road north of the bridge. On 28 July 1986, two years ago, he told me that that was a candidate for inclusion in the road programme. In regard to the same stretch of road, on 23 April 1987 he said that the Department was bearing the question in mind in the current review. Five days later, on 28 April, he told me that it had not been possible to add a scheme. He then held out the hope that there might be some additional consideration later in the year, but that came to nothing. These are modest extracts from the massive file.
We have had meetings with Ministers, petitions to Downing street, endless correspondence and so on. The Sheppey Industries Association, VOICE, the employers' organisation for Swale, and the borough council have all been tireless in pressing the case, let it be said, not just For a local road for local interests which any hon. Member would always espouse, but for a national route of fundamental importance to the road network, to industrial output and also to the ordinary motorist and to the residents of the locality.
It is not my purpose to speak at length about the Kingsferry bridge because it is too big a subject to deal with in a short Adjournment debate. The Government know that Swale borough council recently commissioned Mott, Hay & Anderson, eminent consulting engineers, to undertake a feasibility study into a new Swale crossing. We should congratulate the council on its initiative and the engineers on their report.
The estimated cost of a single carriageway bridge would be £18 million. The cheapest tunnel would be £24 million. This is a nettle which the Government will have to grasp before long. The consultants said that a second crossing would probably be justified in about 10 years' time. If we start planning now, it will be 10 years plus before we get a second crossing. At the very least we should be taking serious initial steps to put the new crossing into the programme. In the meantime, there are various traffic management suggestions which could improve traffic flows. These should be considered urgently by the Department.
May I draw the attention of my hon. Friend to the traffic figures which show that there is complete justification for dualling the road north of the bridge? At the bridge itself last October the count was 20,200 vehicles a day. This flows on to the narrow single carriageway for which, I understand, the design flow now would be little more than 10,000 vehicles a day. We should compare that with, say, the A20 at Harrietsham where there are 28,000 vehicles a day. Admittedly that is more, but it is getting a three-lane motorway bypass. The A226 at Gravesend, with only 15,000 vehicles a day, is getting its bypass now. At Thanet way, where again the figures are less than for Sheppey way, miraculously dualling has leapt into the programme and work has been started. Perhaps that is because it is a county programme. Somehow the county seems to be able to get on with the job more quickly than the Department does when trunk roads are involved. It is also noteworthy that the number of heavy goods vehicles on Sheppey way is 13 per cent., which is considerably higher than the national average. There again the growth forecast for traffic is also higher than the national average.
With regard to growth, even in recent months there have been announcements of new industrial investment at Ridham dock and on the island. With all the industrial land that is available for development and the strategically important location of Sheppey, it is obvious that traffic growth will continue apace. Sheppey is already an important industrial area. For example, we have Sheerness Steel, one of our national success stories. It is a major steel industry which produces 5 per cent. of the total national steel production. Despite the company's commitment to rail traffic, rail sidings and its wagon fleet, it still uses 240 vehicles in its works. It is a great success story for the United Kingdom, but it faces tremendous road problems. There are glass, electrical, pharmaceutical and other steel industries and a range of other significant employers. There is major Canadian, Japanese, German and American investment. Sheppey is truly an international island.
However, the greatest success story is that of the port of Sheerness which, from the darkest days following the closure of the naval dockyard, has transformed itself into one of the most thrusting and competitive ports in the United Kingdom. It is the largest fruit port and the largest car terminal for imported vehicles in the United Kingdom. It is one of the largest and the fastest expanding port in forest products, such as paper, pulp and timber.
The ferry business there has grown dramatically and continues to expand at a rapid rate. Last year, the Olau Line, with its three superb ferries, carried 570,000 passengers, 104,000 passenger cars, 4,000 coaches, 60,000 freight units and 35,000 trade cars, but that capacity will be enormously increased when the two new ferries are delivered soon. The port generates almost 2,000 jobs. Sheerness is now, excluding oil and bulk carriers, the fifth largest port in the United Kingdom, yet it does not have a decent link road from the motorway.
The strategic importance of Sheerness is even greater than I have indicated. It is the only deep-sea port in Kent, and indeed in the south-east, as far as Southampton, that can service the international shipping trade in respect of the Channel tunnel. With 40 ft of deep water at low tide, Sheerness has some of the deepest water in the United Kingdom and is, apart from the wretched road link, the ideal deep-water port to service the Channel.
If we are to attract major shipping lines to the United Kingdom and then tranship, via rail or road, through to Europe, Sheerness is the ideal location. If it happens the other way round, Britain will lose that trade and the jobs and economic spin-off from it. It is evident that a first-class road system linking Sheerness to the motorways is an integral part of any sensible strategy for the south-east, so why have we been left behind? Why have we not had the same priority as other places? More important, will the Minister use his authority to ensure that we now receive priority?
Let me spell out briefly what is being sought and what could be achieved by the Minister putting his weight behind the scheme. First, the general objective is to establish that there needs to be a dual carriageway from the M20 to Sheerness, certainly as far as the new Queenborough bypass on the island. Secondly, the proposed dualling of the section from the M2 to the A2 is in the programme. May we have construction urgently and without any slippage?
Thirdly, the Iwade bypass from Key street on the A2 to Sheppey bridge is in the programme. I welcome the proposed dual carriageway and readily accept that it will be a superb road of immense benefit, but we are becoming alarmed at possible slippage. It has not yet even gone to public inquiry. Will the Minister stress to his officials that it is a priority route and that no delay can be tolerated?
Fourthly, north of the bridge, from the bridge to the Queenborough bypass, we need a dual carriageway, either as a road improvement via Cowstead corner or, preferably, a new fairly short stretch of dual carriageway as a direct link from the bridge to the Queenborough bypass. That is not a major road scheme in terms of distance, cost, land acquisition or engineering. When my hon. Friend sees that miserably inadequate stretch of road, stuck between the proposed end of the new dual carriageway to the south and the new Queenborough bypass to the north, he will understand our frustration. If he agrees, will he please put it into an early construction schedule and not into a distant programme for the 21st century?
Fifth is the scheme for the entrance to the Sheerness docks. I believe that it is ready to go. May we please get construction started? Sixthly, I return to the really difficult problem—the Kingsferry bridge. I do not think that there is an immediate, satisfactory solution, but the Government should authorise investigation into the best long-term solution—it has to be a tunnel or a second bridge—while backing interim management schemes to improve traffic flows over the bridge.
Of one thing I am absolutely sure: with dual carriageways either side of the bridge, there will be major improvements in traffic flow. We must not hold up the dualling of the road on the ground that the bridge is a bottleneck. That is a recipe for eternal inaction.
Most of what I am asking for is already committed. Most of it is already in the programme. Therefore, what we need is not money but speed, no slippage, no further delays, a sense of purpose and action. The other improvements that we seek, especially those north of the bridge, are not costly in road spending terms. All it needs is a simple political commitment to the concept of a first-class road to Sheerness soon, and a ministerial boot up backsides if there is any avoidable delay.
If we really are trying to build a modern Britain, will my hon. Friend the Minister please do his bit to ensure that we have a modern road to this vital part of the United Kingdom?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) for raising the important matter of the A249 to Sheerness. He has for many years pressed successive Ministers through correspondence, meetings and visits to the area. He has also had a good deal of success. His aim is to improve the A249, which is the only access from the mainland to the Isle of Sheppey and its expanding port of Sheerness. His ardent campaign for improvements has been ably supported by the Sheppey Industries Association, VOICE—Voice of Industrial Company Employers in Swale is, I think, the plain English—and local authorities. I pay tribute to his energy and to his concern for his constituency.
By a mixture of oratory and rough language my hon. Friend has perhaps given me a foretaste of what I shall experience when I visit the area. I am sorry that I was not able to go on the previously appointed day, and when I do go I do not intend to make any earth-shattering announcement. We shall, however, reconsider the need for improvements to the A249 between Kingsferry bridge and the Queenborough bypass in the next review of the trunk road programme. To assist us in our consideration, a scheme identification study on the relevant section of the A249 is to be carried out by Kent county council. We shall arrange for the study to cover the possibility of providing extra capacity at the bridge, although it is too early, as my hon. Friend said, to say whether that can be justified or, to put it more moderately, when it can be justified.
The trunk road programme remains one of the Government's priorities. We are determined to do as much as possible to continue to develop the trunk road network for present and future traffic needs. The major schemes on the A249 that are already programmed are good examples of schemes that meet our policy of improving roads to ports and getting traffic out of villages. Further improvements to the A249 will be considered in the next review. I look forward to my planned visit to the A249 on 20 May, when I shall meet my hon. Friend and the Sheppey business community.
My hon. Friend referred to the port of Sheerness. The Government fully accept its importance to the local area and to the nation, and the need to improve access to it. If I have time, I shall say more about that. Sheerness, which is owned and operated by the Medway Port Authority, is, as my hon. Friend said, the fifth largest continental car ferry port after Dover, Portsmouth, Harwich and Ramsgate. It handles more than 1·5 million tonnes of cargo each year. Half of that is accounted for by 50,000 freight vehicles on the Olau Line service to Flushing. There are also 700,000 passengers and 100,000 cars. The port also handles car import operations and other deep-sea trade. Confidence in the future success of the port is shown by the opening by the Medway Port Authority of a £9 million car terminal in February 1987. The Olau Line has also announced the building of two new jumbo ferries, an investment of £100 million. They will enter service on the Sheerness-Flushing route in 1989 and 1990. To meet that demand, MPA plans to start new berth construction later this year.
My hon. Friend talked at length about the A249. It is clearly the vital link both to the port and to the industrial and commercial interests of Sheppey. It is a lifeline to those who live and work there. The A249 extends for about 20 miles north-eastwards from Maidstone to Sheerness, and has major junctions with the M20, M2 and A2. Before 1979, the A249 was the responsibility of Kent county council. Because of the industrial development on Sheppey and expansion of the port of Sheerness, it was decided to transfer responsibility for the section between the M2 and Sheerness dock to the Secretary of State for Transport. A short section northwards from the M2 to Chestnut street was trunked in July 1979, and the remainder—about 10 miles—to the docks in October 1983. South of the M2, the A249 is the responsibility of Kent county council.
Between the M2 and Sheerness the road is a single carriageway of varying standards of alignment and visibility. The route undoubtedly has a very poor accident record. In the three years from 1984 to 1986 there have been 145 injury accidents—seven involving fatalities, 44 serious injuries and 94 slight injury. For every injury accident, there are many damage-only ones.
The present traffic on the M2 to Kingsferry bridge section is in the range of 13,000 to 16,500 vehicles a day, taking a I6-hour day. As my hon. Friend said, to overcome those problems we have two major schemes under preparation comprehensively to improve the A249 to dual two-lane carriageway standards from the M2 to Kingsferry bridge. The latter is a combined road and rail crossing, and the only crossing to the Isle of Sheppey.
I realise that, welcome though those schemes are to my hon. Friend and his supporters, they do not satisfy their demands to replace the Kingsferry bridge and to upgrade the road northwards to Sheerness docks. I hope to deal first with the programmed schemes and come to the suggestions for further improvements.
The Iwade bypass was added to the programme in February 1982. What started off as a scheme for a small local bypass of the village of Iwade has been extended to cover the four miles between the A2 at Key street and Kingsferry bridge. The scheme will provide substantial relief to the village of Iwade and the neighbouring communities of Bobbing and Howt Green, as well as greatly improving the road link to Sheerness docks. Public consultation was held in December 1985 and a preferred route, which runs to the east of the present A249, was announced in December 1986.
Last autumn we had hoped that by now we should be able to publish the necessary statutory orders for our preferred scheme under the Highways Act. For reasons over which we had no direct control, the programme for the Iwade bypass has slipped. Kent county council has recently brought forward, in its transport policies programme, proposals for a Sittingbourne link to connect directly with our scheme. That means that a new interchange will be needed. We accept that it is sensible to take account of the Sittingbourne link in our planning for the Iwade bypass scheme, but it will require us to take a fresh look at the traffic and economics for the combined proposals. In particular, it could have a consequential effect on our present proposals for the A249-A2 junction at Key street. All that will inevitably delay the publication of the draft orders for the Iwade scheme. We now hope that the draft orders for Iwade will be published early next year and that the proposals for the scheme and those for the Sittingbourne link will be dealt with at inquiries at about the same time, possibly later in 1989. Experience suggests that it is unlikely that an inquiry can be avoided.
I realise that any delay is disappointing. My hon. Friend talked about assurances. It is my policy to try to avoid giving assurances. I spend most of my time picking up ones given by Hore-Belisha and various Ministers at the Department of Transport between him and me. My hon. Friend also asked whether I would grasp the nettle. I have a special pair of gloves because there are so many nettles in road planning that it would become painful otherwise.
Our experience shows that a scheme should be taken forward only after careful preparation. We want to get the design right and to avoid unnecessary delays later. The scheme, to improve the A249 to dual carriageway standards between its junctions with the A2 at Key street and the M2 at Stockbury, was added to the programme in the 1985 review. Public consultation on two route options was held in February 1987. We expect to announce the preferred route decision this summer. We hope thereafter to be able to proceed fairly quickly with the scheme, but timing will depend on the necessary statutory procedures.
We recognise the importance of the A249, but it was not possible within the resources available and against competing pressures of other schemes to add a scheme to the programme at last year's review, either for a second crossing of the Swale or an improvement north of the Kingsferry bridge. We have said many times that the cost of a second crossing would be considerable and hard to justify. That is still the case.
The Department's view on a replacement bridge received some support from the results of a study commissioned by Swale district council, which concluded that although the present bridge and its operation did cause delays, any major improvement would be difficult to justify economically. However, I hope that the announcement that we are asking Kent county council to see what can be done will be of some comfort.
As my hon. Friend knows, the Kingsferry bridge is jointly owned by British Rail and the Department. British Rail operates it and is responsible for maintenance. In June 1985 the Department was informed of possible chloride problems. Testing by BR confirmed the presence of chloride contamination in the deck of the bridge. Extensive remedial works were started in early December last year. Early in the contract it became clear that contamination was much worse than feared and required a greater degree of remedial work.
Because of the importance of communication with Sheppey, we considered carefully with BR the requirements to be imposed on the contractor to keep delays to a minimum. We have been able, by night-time working, to keep two lanes of traffic open between 6 am and 8 pm. Traffic flow through the works has inevitably been slowed. There have been delays.
BR says that the remedial work is nearing completion and is expected to be finished by the end of June. My hon. Friend will wish to know that the necessary rewaterproofing and resurfacing works cannot be carried out without extending the existing night-time single lane operations to include some daytime lane closures. A press notice will be issued. We intend to allow single lane operation from 8 pm to noon on both Fridays and Saturdays. Every effort will be made to reduce this and to keep traffic disruption to a minimum.
Problems with planning and executing the Kingsferry bridge repairs have resulted in a backlog of essential work and postponed schemes. While the Department is anxious to avoid more than one set of roadworks at a time on the A249, works cannot be postponed indefinitely. It is planned to avoid roadworks on the A249 during the summer school holiday period.
I say to my hon. Friend that if every hon. Member pushed as hard as he did, my job would be more difficult than it is. When I visit on 20 May, I expect to come with my ears and my eyes, rather than with my mouth. I look forward to seeing for myself and hearing from my hon. Friend and those associated with him in working to give the best road communication with the Isle of Sheppey.
When I heard that my hon. Friend had secured this important debate, I hoped that it was to celebrate what I call our joint campaign to build the Rochester way relief road. One of the first things that I remember when I came to the House was my hon. Friend asking for that road to be completed. I apologise for the fact that we managed to open that road before solving the problems of the A249 to Sheerness.