I am grateful for the opportunity to speak about the A14 in Cambridgeshire and I am pleased that my hon. Friends the Members for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) and for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) are in their place this evening. I hope that they will be able to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, because the road runs through their constituencies as much—in some cases more—than mine and it affects all three of us.
Before dealing directly with the main issue, I want to express to the Minister in the strongest possible terms my anger at how I have been treated by the Highways Agency over the last few days. On Monday, I requested the latest information on traffic volumes to prepare for this debate. After several prevaricating and clarifying conversations, my office was informed at nearly 5 pm this afternoon that the Minister's office had refused to release the information—[Interruption.] The Minister seems to be suggesting that that is untrue, but if he listens, I will tell him exactly what happened. That fact was confirmed to me by his office as being in accordance with the Freedom of Information Act 2000. Subsequently, his office claimed that he had given permission for the information to be released, for which I am grateful, but I shall show that I have been given only partial answers to some of my questions. I have to question the basis of a freedom of information Act that apparently relies on a Minister to decide whether or not information should be released.
The critical issue to all three of us—it has been for many years—is the A14. Prior to 1997, most of the route from the Suffolk border almost as far as Huntingdon was in my constituency. Now, my patch includes only the section east of the Girton interchange. This debate is primarily about the sector from what is known as the Spittals interchange at Huntingdon to the A10 junction in my constituency.
The road is of local and national significance. It is the main commercial route between the west midlands and our biggest container port in Felixstowe. It is the main north-south route to east London, docklands and the channel crossing. Indeed, it is signposted as such on the A1. Within a few short miles, six lanes become four, then two—yet the traffic does not diminish. The stretch eastward from Girton is also the Cambridge bypass, but it is also a local road, which people have to use to get to and from Cambridge to work or study.
The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has decided that we must have 47,500 new homes in the Cambridge sub-region, including a new town at Northstowe, a few miles east of the A14. That development cannot go ahead without A14 improvements. That is not just my view; it is the considered view of Cambridgeshire Horizons, the organisation representing all the local authorities, businesses, the university and others who are taking the development forward.
On the matter of the road conditions, anyone using it will, anecdotally, testify to the problems, particularly daily traffic jams at peak times, often stretching for several miles. Local and national radio traffic flashes feature the A14 probably more than any other road in the country. One constituent wrote to me over the weekend:
"The journey time to Peterborough can now take anywhere from 1–2 hours. I never know what time I will arrive at the office or what time I will arrive home".
Those anecdotes are supported by the few statistics that I do have. Traffic volumes between the Hinchingbrooke and Girton interchanges—not quite the whole length that we are discussing—have increased from 63,000 in 1997 to almost 72,000 in 2003. It worries me, Madam Deputy Speaker, that the Government and the Highways Agency are so anxious not to publish all the figures, presumably because the picture is so awful.
What I can tell the House, as the county council kindly provided me with the information, is that, sadly, there has been an increase in accidents over the last nine years—not a politically significant period. Particularly on the stretch to which I referred, the number of accidents has risen by almost 40 per cent. I understand that it was particularly bad for two years, in 2000 and 2001, and it improved a little after that. It is now worsening again. Last year, there were 106 accidents in which, sadly, four people lost their lives, 232 were seriously injured and 148 slightly injured. The accident figures show that the accident rate per million vehicle kilometres on this critical stretch of road has increased from 0.13 in 1997, to 0.15 in 2003. That means that the road has become 15 per cent. more dangerous over that period.
Behind those statistics lie some very personal matters. One of them is the huge cost and distress inflicted on people caught up in the aftermath of accidents. It is not unknown for the road to be closed for many hours; it was closed for a whole day on one occasion last year. I received an e-mail from a consultant working in the accident and emergency department at Addenbrooke's hospital. He said:
"As an A and E consultant at Addenbrooke's hospital . . . I sadly see all to frequently the so many badly injured people from the notorious A14 motorway. A large number of us doctors, nurses and other staff spend hours, days, weeks and months putting their shattered bodies back together again and hopefully their lives too. Unfortunately, many succumb, leaving behind their families to pick up the pieces."
The consultant continues:
"I believe that if the A14 is improved, we will see a dramatic reduction in the number of motor vehicle crashes, with an associated reduction in the number of deaths and seriously injured patients. There is robust scientific evidence that such road improvements and other preventative measures make a difference and lead to fewer and less serious injuries."
That consultant sees the real impact of what has not been achieved. However, there is also environmental damage. We all know that slow-moving traffic is a serious cause of pollution. There is also the impact on all villages in the area. The county council is spending thousands of pounds on traffic calming measures to deter the many drivers who use the villages as rat runs to avoid the A14. The county council itself is seriously affected in a direct way because it is prevented from making plans to improve various other roads locally because it does not know what is happening to the intersections on the A14.
A former roads Minister said:
"the No. 1 priority for East Anglia has been the A14. That dual carriageway trunk road all the way from the M1 . . . to Felixstowe is one of the key strategic routes for the region . . . The A14 is . . . one of the 14 Christopherson priority projects for the European Community and it is eligible for some funding from the trans-European networks budget.—[Hansard, 14 February 1996; Vol. 271, c. 1117.]
That was John Watts, in 1996.
The present Government inherited a scheme between junction 14 on the M11 and the A1-M1 link—that is, to Huntingdon—and £122.3 million was allocated to meet the standard cost. By 1998, the scheme had been downgraded from "scheme in preparation" to one that was
"subject to further studies and/or consultation by regional planning conferences."
In 1998, my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire held an Adjournment debate on the A14. The then Minister, Glenda Jackson, replied by previewing the multi-modal study that was finally completed in 2001. It recommended extra lanes for most of the existing dual carriageway, with a new southern bypass for Huntingdon. It also recommended a public transport system along the lines of the old St. Ives railway, to take some commuter traffic off the A14 and to serve Northstowe. The present Minister is aware that the county council has proposed a controversial guided bus system, and we await the outcome of the public inquiry.
The Secretary of State for Transport announced a project worth £490 million to build a three-lane carriageway and a southern bypass for Huntingdon. That was on April Fool's day, 2003—and perhaps that was no coincidence—but we all cheered, and there is no getting away from that. He said that the improved road was expected to open around 2010, and added that the Highways Agency would develop the scheme to the stage where the public could be consulted.
That was almost two years ago. Just before Christmas 2004, the present Minister said that the public consultation had been put back to allow more time for the Highways Agency to consider an alternative proposal—as if the multi-modal study had not had time and opportunity to consider all options.
Replying to questions from me and my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon, the Minister said that the consultation could start in spring 2005, and that he hoped that slippage would be slight. He told Mrs. Campbell that it was incumbent on the Government to "tackle the worst first", and that the greatest problem had to be dealt with first. But when the Cambridge Evening News, which is rightly campaigning for the improvements, phoned the Highways Agency, it was told that there was no priority list and that the agency could not name another A road in more need of upgrading than the A14. That statement was confirmed to me by the Minister's office today.
It is now February 2005 and, as far as my constituents are concerned, we are getting nowhere. In the view of the Cambridge Evening News, it is "Delay, delay, delay". I look not for pleasantries from the Minister tonight, but for real commitments. He may wish to dismiss my comments as electioneering and seek to reassure us that all is on track. Frankly, nobody will believe him. Every local authority involved in Cambridgeshire Horizons, the chamber of commerce, the local papers and all the businesses in the area are convinced that no progress has been made. As a constituent said to me in an email:
"No-one in the Highways Agency appears to be taking control of this matter. This would not be allowed in a PLC, heads would roll and so they should."
Will the Minister tell us when the public consultation will begin? He should by now be able to be absolutely specific—my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire has some detail of previous promises on that point. Will a public inquiry be necessary or can the Minister assure us that that can be avoided? If we must have one, when will it be and how much delay would it involve? Most importantly, when will we see some action? Can the Minister confirm that the announcement of £490 million in 2003 is still in the programme? When does he expect soil to be shifted and work to begin? When does he expect the new road to be open? Given the delays that have occurred and the increasing problems that I have described, I believe that the people of Cambridgeshire are entitled to the answers.
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend Mr. Paice for permitting me to make a short contribution. I congratulate him on securing this debate and on presenting it so comprehensively and expertly. I know that my constituents will be grateful to him for the way in which he has presented the issue.
My hon. Friend kindly mentioned that I had also brought up the issue on
My hon. Friend rightly said that some villages are deeply affected by this issue. He knows that because he represented them in the past. I have represented them since 1997, and they include Bar Hill, Lolworth, Conington, Longstanton and Oakington. It is virtually impossible to leave those villages or to travel south or north when the A14 is blocked—and that is often the case. That makes life in those villages intolerable and it is vital that we have a public consultation on the route as quickly as possible, so that the people living in those villages can see an end in sight to the blight on their lives.
My hon. Friend said that I had more detail on the date of the public consultation and indeed I do. I wrote to the Highways Agency in June and it told me in a letter later that month that the public consultation would start in September 2004. It did not. I wrote to the Minister in October and he replied the same month, saying:
"We now expect to start public consultation on proposals for the scheme in December."
I wrote to the Minister in November, but he replied that there was
"nothing to be gained by rushing this stage . . . public consultation is now expected to start early in the New Year."
I wrote to him in December, when he replied:
"This will delay the public consultation until the Spring of next year."
Well, if we look outside at the weather, it would appear that spring has arrived. I wrote to the Minister in January and he replied on
"You will be advised as soon as a date is fixed for the public consultation."
As my hon. Friend said, it is now approaching two years since the targeted programme of improvements was announced. I said back in 1998 that it would be unacceptable for it to be as long as 10 years before work was undertaken on this road. We are now approaching the point at which it will go beyond 10 years, and it is indeed unacceptable.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Paice on securing this debate and thank him for allowing me a couple of valuable minutes in which to speak.
The people of Huntingdonshire are tired—tired of constantly hearing of the accidents and deaths on the A14, tired of their inability to get around Cambridgeshire, tired of diversions, tired of A14 accident traffic running through their villages, and tired of this Government's consistent shilly-shallying, delaying and false raising of hopes.
I have written more letters to Ministers and asked more written and oral questions on the A14 than on any other issue. Much good it seems to have done anyone. Every few months, there is a new reason for delay and some lame excuse from Ministers. In December, the Minister wrote to me that the consultation was delayed from January to spring 2005. He has not, however, seemed in much of a hurry to set a date.
In demanding action on behalf of my constituents, I make three brief points. First, last Saturday, I talked to a pre-eminent research doctor who lives in my constituency. He works in Cambridge, but is now considering moving because of his inability to commute on the A14. Thus we see the ripple effect out from Cambridge— which is meant to be a regional priority—going into reverse. We all have big plans for the eastern region, but if this road is not sorted out, those plans are next to useless, as will be this Government's plans to build thousands more houses in the region.
Secondly, the Government must start to put the A14 plans in the context of the separate plan for the A1 and the A428. I have been shocked at how disjointed the Government are on what is meant to be multi-modal transport.
Thirdly this is a national problem. If every local car between Huntingdon and Cambridge were taken off the road, traffic would decrease by less than 5 per cent. on the A14. Therefore, while better local public transport is welcome, it will do next to nothing in itself to solve the problem of what is the main road from the docks to the west midlands.
With rail expansion simply not happening, the Government owe it to the people of my constituency, the region and the country to get the new A14 built and to do it now.
I congratulate Mr. Paice on securing this debate, and on giving the House an opportunity to discuss this section of the A14. Unfortunately, the hon. Gentleman started the debate in rather a churlish manner, and complained about the way in which he said that he was treated by my office. He requested some information in an e-mail—I have it here—that arrived at 6.19 pm on Monday.
No, not for a moment. The hon. Gentleman will listen to what I have to say now.
At 6.19 pm on Monday, the hon. Gentleman requested some information via a complex set of questions, and my officials set about putting the information together for him the next morning. The information arrived in my office at 2 o'clock today, and as soon as possible I made sure that the information was provided to his office in a fax that went out at 5.34 this afternoon. Had the hon. Gentleman put in his request in good time, we might have been able to get him more information, and more complete information. As it was, I had to make sure that the information that had been provided to me was properly and fully checked. We were not sure whether some of the information provided by the county council was entirely accurate, so we wanted to check that, too.
Therefore, the hon. Gentleman was provided with information. As someone who has occupied ministerial office in the past, he should know that it takes more than 24 hours to get a complex set of questions answered. Now I will give way to him, and will perhaps hear his explanation and apology.
There are words that one is not allowed to use in this House, but if I were, I would use them. What the Minister is suggesting is totally untrue. On Monday, my office telephoned the Highways Agency in the morning, and subsequently rang and asked for written confirmation, to which he has referred. This afternoon, his office—I could name the individual in his office, but I will not—stated clearly to me that he had personally ruled that the information could not be released to me because of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. That is absolutely clear.
Yes, Madam Deputy Speaker. I have explained to the hon. Gentleman when the information was sent in writing. In fact, what I asked to be conveyed to him was that we could not provide the information until we had checked its accuracy. Fortunately, that was done later in the afternoon and it was then given to him. He was told that under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, there could be a delay of up to 20 days before he received it. I hope that I have clarified what happened, for the benefit of the House.
The A14 was established as a trunk road in 1994 following completion of a new high-standard dual carriageway between the M1 and M6 junction at Catthorpe and Huntingdon. It is a route of strategic national importance, connecting the midlands with the ports of Harwich and Felixstowe. As the House will know, it is a mixture of dual two-lane and dual three-lane carriageway and has a variety of junction types, some with flyovers and some without. Congestion at peak hours at the Milton and Histon junctions caused by traffic queuing into Cambridge affects A14 through-movements. Average daily traffic flows on the A14 in Cambridgeshire range from 40,000 at Ellington to 72,000 between the St. Ives interchange and Bar Hill.
We are concerned about the casualty rate on the A14. Records for the period 2002–04 show an average of 200 personal injury accidents per year. Although the number of accidents is relatively high—any accident is unacceptable—the rate is below the national average for similar dual carriageway. That said, I do recognise that any accident is regrettable and involves human misery.
Following the Government's strategic review of the roads programme in 1998, we announced our intention to carry out a study of the problems on the A14 between Cambridge and Huntingdon. The Cambridge to Huntingdon multi-modal study—known as CHUMMS—reported in August 2001. The East of England local government conference, the predecessor to the East of England regional assembly, concluded that the preferred plan was consistent with the emerging regional transport strategy for the east of England and represented an integrated package that should form the basis for resolution of transportation problems in the corridor. The Government accepted the Conference's view that the package was a sound basis for pursuing integrated transport solutions, and asked the Highways Agency to take forward the recommended A14 improvement scheme.
The multi-million pound A14 Ellington to Fen Ditton improvement was added to the Government's targeted programme of improvements in April 2003. I should remind the hon. Members for South-East Cambridgeshire, for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) and for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) that this scheme includes the widening of the A14 between the M11 and the A10, and that such a scheme was withdrawn by the previous Conservative Government in 1996. The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire said with mock indignation that the situation is a disgrace, but if his party were in government, there would be no such scheme at all. The 2004 spending review has confirmed that the scheme is of national importance and will be progressed for future construction.
But there is much that we are doing in the short term, and the Highways Agency is also doing a lot to improve safety. Measures to improve traffic signing and white lining are programmed for completion before the end of this March. Such measures, combined with the installation of closed circuit television cameras and incident detection equipment—the latter has already been installed—are elements of the CHUMMS preferred plan. The agency is also in the early stages of planning other safety improvements for later in the year, including a further extension of the existing CCTV coverage.
The Highways Agency has also undertaken in-depth analysis of the accidents at the Spittals and Brampton Hut junctions, and it is developing short-term and medium-term measures to reduce the number of crashes at these locations. A scheme to provide improved traffic signs and road markings at the Spittals interchange is programmed to commence later this month; it will take about a week to complete. That will be complemented in 2005–06 by the installation of traffic signals, which will bring safety and journey time benefits. Many other improvements are being made to that stretch of road, but I do not have time to expand on them this evening.
Following a tragic accident on the A14 last year, the chief constable of Cambridgeshire asked representatives of the Highways Agency to travel the A14 with him and undertake an audit to address safety issues and driver behaviour. In September 2004, the agency assisted Cambridgeshire police in a multi-agency operation to monitor safe driving practice along that section of the A14. Special patrols spent a week monitoring drivers in a bid to put a stop to tailgating, needless overtaking and other offences involving mobile phones and seat belts. That survey exposed many instances of poor driving behaviour.
Returning to the Ellington to Fen Ditton improvement, I acknowledge the support for the scheme, but whatever the level of support, it is important to ensure that all opinions are properly invited and considered. Hon. Members will be aware that as a result of consultations with local authorities in preparation for the public consultation about the scheme, an alternative proposal, which differs from the strategy proposed by CHUMMS, has been suggested by the residents of Buckden in the constituency of the hon. Member for Huntingdon.
One reason why the delay has occurred is that we have listened to local residents and are examining the alternatives. The alternative proposal would retain the existing A14 past Huntingdon operating as a dual carriageway trunk road with a new route from Fenstanton to Ellington as a two-lane dual carriageway. The net effect would be to provide four lanes in total in each direction, instead of the three provided by the CHUMMS option.
An initial examination of the alternative proposal has concluded that it is essential that its merits and impacts are fully and properly assessed. At an early stage, CHUMMS assumed that the existing A14 past Huntingdon would carry local traffic only. I believe that it is important that work at this stage is carried out in sufficient detail to enable the proposals put forward for public consultation to be robust and to minimise the risk of lengthier delays to the scheme later in its programme. Public consultation on proposals for the scheme has therefore been put back a little to allow the Highways Agency time to consider the alternative.
My hon. Friend Mrs. Campbell has also attended this debate and also takes an interest in that stretch of road. Her representations to my Department have been constructive, however, and instead of taking the churlish approach adopted by Conservative Members, she has been helpful.
We expect the consultation to start in spring 2005. There has been a great deal of media coverage about the delay to the scheme. When the scheme was added to the targeted programme of improvements, the Highways Agency aimed to start work in 2008–09. That will be difficult to achieve, but the agency has confirmed that it may still be possible. The scheme has not been delayed by the spending review announcement and was always scheduled for delivery in 2008 onwards.
I am glad that we have had time to expose some of the arguments. Anybody reading the Hansard report of the debate will reflect on the remarks made by Conservative Members—but were they in office, this debate would not need to take place because that road would not be being improved at all, and I am glad to have had an opportunity to put that point on the record.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at eight minutes past Eight o'clock.