A5 Trunk Road

– in the House of Commons at 12:49 pm on 5th November 1997.

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Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson Conservative, North Shropshire

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing the deplorable state of the road north of Shrewsbury to be brought to the attention of Parliament.

I believe that the matter was last debated in 1817, when Irish Members, exasperated by the road stretching from London to Holyhead, which goes back to Roman times, managed to persuade Parliament to commission Thomas Telford to rebuild the road. He found that the condition of the road between London and Shrewsbury was not too bad, but the road from Shrewsbury to Holyhead had to be completely rebuilt. It was described after that time as the finest road in Europe.

There are echoes of that today. A person leaving Dover can drive 200 miles on motorways or dual carriageway. Coming to Shrewsbury, that person will drive on a new dual carriageway built in 1992. There are roundabouts at Shrewsbury, and the road later becomes single carriageway. That person's life is at risk. He passes through Nesscliffe, the first village to be traversed since leaving Dover.

Reaching my constituency, the driver comes to Shottaton, a crossroad that has not changed since Thomas Telford built it. It the most dangerous crossroad in Shropshire. Two miles further on, at Queen's Head, there is the second most dangerous junction. At Oswestry, there are four roundabouts. For the purposes of this debate, I am including the road from the Shropshire boundary on to Ruabon, which is designated the A483. That is also single carriageway. From Ruabon onwards, it is plain sailing—dual carriageway right the way through to Holyhead.

It is extraordinary that we expect long-distance goods traffic and express buses to travel at high speed all the way from Dover, and then suddenly to cope with the demands of a narrow road built in the early 19th century, competing with local traffic, local buses, local delivery vehicles and local people going to school and trying to cross—there are 94 access points to the A5, 23 junctions and 23 footpaths. The result is confusion.

Traffic is increasing. At Moreton Hall, 21,300 vehicles cross on an average day. That is an increase of 44 per cent. from 1991 to 1996. Already this year, there has been an increase of 5.9 per cent. in traffic. There is dreadful confusion, congestion and, above all, an entirely unacceptable level of accidents.

I could read out the most harrowing letters, outlining the human misery caused by those accidents, which are totally unnecessary. I shall give the figures, which speak with a horrible, cold clarity. From 1992 to September this year, between Shrewsbury and Ruabon, there have been 276 accidents; 367 people have been slightly injured; 147 have been seriously injured; and 25 people have been killed.

The West Mercia police have a formula for calculating the cost to the community of accidents. They estimate that slight injury costs us all £10,000, a serious injury £150,000, and a death £1 million. I estimate that the road has cost the country more than £50 million in the past five years.

The only solution is to build a dual carriageway from Shrewsbury to Ruabon. The new dual carriageway round Shrewsbury has reduced the accident rate to levels below the national level. If those levels prevailed on the A5, next year there would be 45 fewer accidents, and two fewer people would die.

The road would not be cheap. Shropshire county council's engineers estimate £48 million for the stretch from Shrewsbury to Oswestry, and another £34 million from Oswestry to Ruabon. However, the payback in simple human terms—the reduction in human suffering and loss of life—would be rapid.

There is also a local economic cost. Oswestry has the highest unemployment in Shropshire at 7 per cent., and the Victoria ward of Oswestry has male unemployment of 13 per cent. However, the Highways Agency has the statutory duty to overrule local planners if any new project would bring extra traffic to the A5 above 3 per cent.

That has already happened. A supermarket project was cancelled at Mile End, and now there is a complete blight on any further development on that site. It is extraordinary, considering the fact that storage, refrigeration and food distribution is a major industry in Oswestry. To deliver just on time to supermarkets all over the country, those distributors need a road that they can rely on. The existing road is not reliable.

Just up the road, at Gobowen, there is the Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt orthopaedic hospital, offering care second to none in the world, serving 8 million people and employing 900. The future of that hospital must be prejudiced if health authorities are loth to risk their patients on the road, which is dangerous and subject to delays. The workings of that major hospital are constantly disrupted by the delays caused by the accidents on the A5, as patients and consultants do not arrive on time.

There is a regional aspect. The Shropshire Gap links the west midlands industrial conurbations and also Wrexham and the industrial area of north-east Wales. Soon, those areas will also be damaged by the constant delays of freight and passenger traffic being held up on the A5. That is bizarre, when one considers that the road has been designated one of the key roads in the trans-European road network—that is the road from Felixstowe, Britain's largest container port, through to Holyhead. Of the 333 miles, 32 miles are single carriageway, and those are the miles between Shrewsbury and Ruabon, which are as narrow as 7.3 m in parts of my constituency.

It would be entirely consistent with the strategy laid out in the Government's discussion paper to invest in a dual carriageway on the A5. The Government would not be reacting in an ad hoc manner to a spirited local campaign, as the investment would be the final link—the final 10 per cent.—in a strategic road, which would conform to the Government's idea of long-term investment in planned integrated trunk roads.

Photo of Mr Christopher Gill Mr Christopher Gill Conservative, Ludlow

As the House may know, my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) was born and bred in the county of Shropshire and knows the county and its problems well. Is it his impression that over the past few years, since the completion of the Shrewsbury bypass, and the making of the road north of Wrexham into a dual carriageway, the weight of traffic on that section of the A5 through Shropshire has increased exponentially? Does he recognise that some of the so-called improvements that have been carried out on that road have created accident blackspots, which the Government would do well to study, with a view to making the road more capable of carrying the volumes of traffic that currently go along it, and making it safer?

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson Conservative, North Shropshire

I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful intervention: I concur entirely with his views. As I said, traffic at Moreton Hall increased by 44 per cent. from 1991 to 1996 and has grown by 5.9 per cent. this year. My hon. Friend is absolutely correct when he says that some minor improvements have made the situation worse. Queen's Head junction was built in 1986 and is a relatively new road, but it is the second most dangerous junction after Thomas Telford's road at Shottaton.

There would certainly be environmental gains if the road were improved. The village of Nesscliffe, just outside my constituency, is totally blighted by heavy traffic passing through it. Because of the interminable delays and accidents on the A5, heavy traffic tries to find a way around it through the narrow byroads and the little villages of north Shropshire. Those villages and roads are totally unsuited to the heavy traffic that tries to force its way through. Road improvements would produce air quality gains: it is well known that heavy engines running at a constant speed produce less pollutants than engines that stop and start.

There would also be a political gain—I am trying to be helpful to the Government. I am sure that the Minister is well aware of the poor communications between north and south Wales. Plugging the Shropshire Gap with a dual carriageway would sharply reduce the travel time between north Wales and Cardiff.

I stress to the Minister the extraordinary support that the campaign has aroused since a summit was held in Oswestry on 4 July. I am pleased to see the hon. Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) in the Chamber. I assure the Minister that the project enjoys the full support of the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Mr. Marsden). I also thank the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) for attending the debate. I have the full support of Shropshire county council, the four district councils and 13 parish councils. The project has the full support of the West Mercia police, the Shropshire fire brigade, the Shropshire ambulance service, the national health service trust at Gobowen, the Confederation of British Industry, the National Farmers Union, the chambers of commerce in Shrewsbury and Oswestry, and the overwhelming support of the business and the farming communities in the area.

Judging from the letters that I have received, I also have the overwhelming support of the people of northern Shropshire. The project also enjoys the support of Shropshire's leading newspaper, the Shropshire Star, which sells more copies in Shropshire than all the national dailies combined. In a short time, it has gathered 13,000 to 14,000 signatures in support of the project. That is a significant number.

I would like an assurance from the Minister that she will discuss the matter with her colleagues in the Welsh Office as the stretch of road north of the Shropshire border does not fall in her bailiwick but is an integral part of the project. I also seek an assurance that the Minister and her ministerial colleague from another place, Baroness Hayman, will come to see the road for themselves. As the project has never been a priority in any previous Government's strategy, I would like an assurance from the Minister that that fact will not prejudice it when the Government discuss the very difficult priorities that they must set for the road building programme.

To give a flavour of the strength of feeling in Shropshire about this issue, I cannot improve upon the words of my constituent Mr. Simon Boyes, a teacher from Ruyton-XI-Towns. On 8 October, he wrote: Recently my son was involved in a major accident on this road and is lucky to have escaped with his life. I know that you are leading a cross party campaign for the A5 to be upgraded to a dual carriageway. This, in my opinion, cannot be done any too soon. Be assured you have the fullest possible backing from your constituents of whatever political persuasion for anything that can be done to improve the situation. This is a matter of pressing importance and needs instant action on the Ministry of Transport's part.

Photo of Glenda Jackson Glenda Jackson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment) 1:13 pm, 5th November 1997

I congratulate the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) on obtaining the debate and on delivering such an informed and passionate speech on behalf of his constituents without the benefit of a single note. I also congratulate him on his generosity in taking an intervention from the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) and in referring to my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Mr. Marsden). Both the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend have devoted a great deal of time and effort to drawing the attention of my noble Friend the Minister for Roads to the problems on the A5 between Shrewsbury and the Welsh border. The hon. Member for North Shropshire has detailed those difficulties to the House today.

The hon. Gentleman referred to discussions with the Welsh Office about the project. As he knows, funding for that part of the A5 which runs through Wales is a matter for the Welsh Office, and it will be considered with all other requests for funding. The consideration of road schemes is part of the Welsh Office roads review, which runs in parallel with our roads review for England and Scotland.

Photo of Mr Christopher Gill Mr Christopher Gill Conservative, Ludlow

I am most grateful to the Minister for giving way. On that point, does she recognise that there is great resentment in Shropshire where we have very inadequate roads? When we cross the border, we generally find that Welsh roads are in much better condition than those in Shropshire. Much more money has apparently been spent on roads in Wales even though the density of traffic and road usage is comparably less than in Shropshire. That causes an enormous amount of resentment, quite apart from the practical problems so ably outlined by my hon. Friend.

Photo of Glenda Jackson Glenda Jackson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment)

I shall certainly consider the concerns that the hon. Gentleman has expressed. I knew that part of the road on the Welsh side of the border well as a child, and resentment was clearly felt then on the Welsh side about what was perceived to be unfair expenditure in Wales.

Before I touch on the specific issues regarding the A5, it might be helpful if I explain how the roads review fits into the overall thrust of the Government's transport policies. We are working to develop an integrated transport policy, which provides the immediate context for the roads review. The backdrop to this fundamental review of transport policy is a candid recognition of the fact that we cannot carry on as at present. The predicted growth of traffic and the consequent congestion are unsustainable, and the environmental, economic and social implications are totally unacceptable.

However, the appropriate response cannot be simply to hack away once again at the roads programme without taking any other action. We need to take a much broader view, looking at all modes and using broadly based criteria to assess schemes. One of the encouraging aspects of what is a hugely ambitious task is the degree to which there is agreement that we do need to change.

We need to look at the role of the motor vehicle in providing mobility in a more integrated transport system: one which makes the best use of the contribution that each mode can make; which ensures that all options are considered on a basis that is fair and is seen to be fair; and which takes safety—an essential part of the hon. Gentleman's contribution—environmental, economic, accessibility and integration considerations into account from the outset. It should do that in a way which ensures that we can have confidence in the system and which, above all, is sustainable. That is the context for the roads review. It is an integral part of our integrated transport policy. It is about the role that trunk roads should play alongside other modes in an integrated and sustainable transport policy.

Photo of Mr Peter Bradley Mr Peter Bradley Labour, The Wrekin

On the road safety point, does my hon. Friend accept that priority should be afforded to people who live alongside major trunk roads, such as the A5? My constituents in the Wrekin, through which the A5 passes, must cross that road occasionally—although they may not use it—at extremely dangerous junctions. I also press the point about the pressure on local roads that is caused when through traffic seeks to circumvent traffic jams and pinch points by rat running through country lanes. I hope that those specific pressures in my constituency and in those of other hon. Members will be considered in the integrated review that my hon. Friend has outlined.

Photo of Glenda Jackson Glenda Jackson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, which highlights difficulties, real dangers and concerns that are not limited to his constituents or his constituency. They can be replicated across the whole country, which is why the issues on which my hon. Friend has touched will be central to our White Paper.

The issue that looms largest in the roads review is undoubtedly congestion. On current predictions, if we do nothing, in 20 years' time there will be roughly half as much traffic again on our roads. We could allow increasing congestion to ration road space, but the costs to industry, the environment and society more generally would, I believe, be unacceptable. That leaves us with three broad options—making better use of the existing infrastructure, managing demand and providing new infrastructure.

Making better use of the existing infrastructure is the obvious first choice. It may also be the least painful. Making better use of the network may help to provide a much-needed breathing space, but there must be some doubt about whether it can cater for more than a small fraction of the forecast increase in demand. That means that we have to look very seriously at the other, harder options—managing demand and providing new infrastructure.

Managing demand is a vast topic, cutting across all modes. It encompasses reducing the need to travel, through land use planning and by changing the way in which we live, work and enjoy our leisure. It must include an assessment of the extent to which we can encourage a shift to other modes. Inevitably, it involves controlling demand by pricing or rationing mechanisms—unpopular though they may be.

At bottom, managing demand is about changing human behaviour. It follows that it is an extremely difficult thing to do. I am sure that we could readily achieve a consensus that as a society we should use cars less, but making it happen is another matter. Managing demand has to be a question of carrots and sticks. The carrots include ensuring that there are attractive public transport alternatives and that there are safe and unpolluted routes for those who would prefer to cycle or walk.

Photo of Mr Christopher Gill Mr Christopher Gill Conservative, Ludlow

During her deliberations on these very difficult questions, will the Minister bear in mind the fact that Shrewsbury was effectively cut off from the capital of the country with the withdrawal of the inter-city service from Shrewsbury to Euston some years ago? One of the greatest boons to the encouragement of public transport in our county would be the restoration of the inter-city route from Euston to Shrewsbury. Many Salopians travel to Crewe, Birmingham International and other stations to catch their trains to London. That, I believe, would not happen if there were an adequate inter-city service from the county town.

Photo of Glenda Jackson Glenda Jackson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment)

It would be churlish for me to remind the hon. Gentleman why our integrated railways became less than integrated. It may have had something to do with his Government's policy of rail privatisation, but we, as the new Government, have to deal with the situation with which we have been left. He will be aware that we are concerned to ensure that the £1.8 billion of taxpayers' money that goes into our railways every year produces a high-quality railway service for the people of this country. We are continuing to urge Railtrack to ensure that it really does invest the amounts that it claims it is prepared to invest into our railway system, so that more passengers and freight can be moved on our rail network.

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson Conservative, North Shropshire

I had a meeting last week with Railtrack and Virgin Rail and am pleased to say that they are planning to bring forward by a year, to next summer, the planned date for restoring daily services from Shrewsbury to London. However, in Shropshire we want both. We want better rail services, but we also want, indeed need—this is the point of my speech—a better road, because certain traffic will not go by rail.

Photo of Glenda Jackson Glenda Jackson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment)

I am delighted to hear that Railtrack and Virgin Rail are producing the desired results for Shrewsbury. The hon. Gentleman referred to the needs of the people of Shrewsbury. Those needs could be replicated anywhere in the country. The Government are concerned to create a properly integrated transport strategy in which the carriage of passengers and freight can genuinely be shared. Easy access to public transport and good interchanges between different public transport services are critical. However—to refer to my carrot and stick analogy—carrots may get us only so far. We must also look at the sticks.

Telling people that they cannot do something that they have hitherto done, or are continuing to do, will cost them more is never easy. We must also be careful that we do not cut across our objective of creating a just and inclusive society and so make mobility the province of the rich.

That brings us to the third and last option: providing new infrastructure. This is also a very difficult option, both financially and in terms of its potential impact on the environment. Circumstances vary from case-to-case. In some cases a new or widened road may be the only option. In others, it may be the best—or least worst—option. There is no substitute here for rigorous case-by-case examination of the options.

We are looking region by region at the perceived traffic problems and the roads programme we inherited from our predecessors. We regard the existence of a scheme in the inherited programme as prima facie evidence of a transport problem. Apart from the roads already under construction and those on which we took decisions in the accelerated review last July, the Government are not committed to any of those schemes at this stage.

Mr. Lembit Öpik:

Will the Minister assure the House that the strategic implications for economic development, in this case for north, mid and west Wales, will be included in such a review when assessing, for example, the A5 trunk road?

Photo of Glenda Jackson Glenda Jackson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment)

As I have already pointed out, the whole purpose behind our consultation process and the publication of a White Paper next year is that there should be a strategy to create an integrated transport system not only for the short and medium term but well into the future. I refer the hon. Gentleman to the point that I made earlier: in Wales a similar review is taking place, based on exactly the same principle. We have to have a strategic overview.

Once we have identified the priority problems, the next step is to ensure that all the credible options are properly evaluated. There is no presumption that a road scheme is the right solution, or that a scheme in the roads programme is the best option. We envisage two outputs from this part of the review: first, a short-term investment programme; secondly, a programme of studies to look at the remaining problems—from which we will develop the medium and longer-term investment programme.

The short-term programme will include measures to make better use of the existing network, and new construction schemes. The new construction schemes are likely to come from the inherited roads programme and address priority problems in a way that is consistent with our integrated transport strategy. We will not put schemes into the programme if it is clear that an alternative option could obviate the need for the existing scheme. The right thing to do in those cases is to study the alternatives more fully before reaching decisions.

I now deal with the specifics of the hon. Gentleman's point about the A5 between the west midlands and north Wales. As he said, the A5 is an important transport link in regional, national and international terms. It is designated as part of the trans-European network route known as the Ireland-UK-Benelux road link. Over the past few years, improvements have been made to the Oswestry bypass, the Chirk bypass and its extension over the Welsh border to Ruabon, and the Shrewsbury to Telford improvement.

Other schemes to improve the Wolfshead Weirbrook section and provide a bypass of Nesscliffe have not gone forward. However, the hon. Gentleman has made it quite clear—both to my noble Friend and in his speech this afternoon—that the A5 has a poor safety record in this area. The Highways Agency is well aware of these problems and is considering various options, including options for an improvement at Shottaton crossroads, for which a 50 mph speed limit and speed cameras, are proposed. The cameras will be installed this year, and speed limits will follow once the statutory processes have been completed. The Highways Agency also proposes to introduce camera sites west of Churncote. It is seeking more information on accident problems on particular sections of the road and is looking at options for traffic-calming measures in Nesscliffe.

The whole of the A5 corridor is being considered as part of the roads review. The Government office for the west midlands is seeking regional views on priorities for investment on trunk roads for the region in the context of an integrated approach to transport planning. Officials from the Government office met local authorities from Shropshire and from Hereford and Worcester on 30 September. At that meeting, the local authorities expressed clear support for dualling of the A5 between Ruabon and Shrewsbury. I know that a route assessment study is being carried out for Shropshire county council, which is partly funded by the Highways Agency. We shall take that work into account when we make decisions on the road programme that will emerge from the review.

I must make it clear that a roads-based solution might not be the best one. As I have already said, we want to look afresh at the role of our road system in an integrated approach to transport planning. We seek long-term solutions that will promote sustainable economic development. The criteria are open and above board—integration, environment, accessibility, safety and economy. We should remember that the A5 forms part of the trans-European road network.