Highways Agency

– in the House of Commons at 5:53 pm on 5 June 2008.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Blizzard.]

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) 6:00, 5 June 2008

I am particularly grateful to Mr. Speaker for granting me this Adjournment debate at relatively short notice. When threats to local jobs are involved, he is always concerned to ensure that Members have the opportunity to raise the matter on the Floor of the House.

I shall briefly sketch my constituency for the Minister. It had a fairly extensive industrial base, particularly in the Dunstable and Houghton Regis area, where we used to make the Bedford truck, and a large auto components industry sprang up around that making car batteries and so on. We had the ACDelco factory at the north end of Dunstable high street, the BTR rubber factory at the south end, and in between a number of other factories producing high-quality jobs and exporting goods all over the world. Sadly, much of that industry has gone in recent years, notwithstanding the excellent efforts of the economic development team and others in South Bedfordshire district council to bring new jobs to the area. We have some excellent new retailing and distribution jobs in the area, but we have lost much of our industrial base. The most recent loss was the closure of the ecomold factory, where some 200 jobs were lost, along with Dunstable's last link with the car trade.

On 27 March this year, I hosted the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Mr. Wright, in my constituency. We were accosted by a developer who was seething about his dealings with the Highways Agency while trying to create jobs in the south of Dunstable. I took a close interest in the subject and followed up that developer's concerns—I should make it absolutely clear that I have no financial involvement with him. What I discovered disturbed me very much.

My interest in this debate is to make sure that the redevelopment of the site of a former major factory that employed a great number of my constituents in days gone by is brought to fruition, and that the economic base of my constituency has a chance to recover. I should also point out to the Minister that the issue of local jobs is particularly critical for my constituency, because we are in one of the Government's housing growth areas. The Government want 43,000 extra houses in our area. The people in those houses need to work and many of them will need the opportunity to work locally. For reasons of sustainability, and for various other reasons, they will not all be able to commute for miles, even should we want them to.

Unfortunately, the Highways Agency has a slightly chequered history. I shall mention two other issues before I come to the main substance of the debate, which is the agency's dealings with the development on the former BTR site. My first general concern, which I mentioned briefly to the Minister last night, is the agency's involvement in building what is known as the A5-M1 link, formerly the Dunstable northern bypass. That is a key requirement for all of my constituency, including Leighton Buzzard, and all the villages and towns outside my constituency, such as Aylesbury. It must function properly to serve local people and ensure that we have a vibrant economic base.

The Highways Agency and many other stakeholders are coming to Dunstable on 4 July to a meeting, which I shall chair, with the secretariat of the Government office for the east of England. It is critical to get the Dunstable northern bypass—the A5-M1 link—in place well before the housing growth occurs. Congestion in the area is awful. It is the reason for our losing many jobs recently and for the retail base in the centre of Dunstable experiencing particular pressure. I therefore look for a positive move forward on 4 July from the position at the December meeting.

South Bedfordshire district council has raised concerns with me about the fact that the new employment land lying alongside the growth area around proposed junction 11A of the M1—the point where the A5-M1 link will join the M1—means that the housing growth will start well before the transport infrastructure is in place to enable the land to provide the jobs for the extra 43,000 dwellings that are proposed for my area.

The main reason for the debate is the proposals for the site south of Dunstable. I understand that the design was first submitted to the Highways Agency in September 2006, but technical approval took a further 11 months to obtain—it was granted only in August 2007. If the final hurdles are successfully surmounted—as of today, that has not happened—it will take a good two years for building work to start on the site. I was especially concerned to learn from the developers that the Highways Agency had apparently not factored in the major factory site south of Dunstable, next to the A5, when it undertook its traffic modelling for the "green wave", officially known as the A5Q relocation works, on which it spent £2 million a couple of years ago. It was a controversial scheme, which was subject to National Audit Office censure, unusual though it is for the NAO to focus on a local project and produce a report on it. However, the developers tell me that the traffic modelling did not take account of the major factory site, which included some 243,000 sq ft of former BTR buildings.

The developers, iCP, tell me that it has taken a long time to get the project near the starting blocks and able to move forward. They also tell me that they struggle with the fact that, despite being responsible for the full cost of working with the Highways Agency, they feel that they have no control over the process that the Highways Agency has imposed on them. I understand that the drainage design was submitted in November 2006, yet comments from the Highways Agency were not received until April 2007—five months later.

I gather that the Highways Agency offered two different types of procurement process to the developers, but advised them to choose one because the other entailed more legal complications. I further understand that there was a meeting with the Highways Agency on 28 April to try to iron out the final problems. I understand that iCP responded with everything that the Highways Agency had asked for on 7 May. Apparently it then took three weeks for the developers to receive minutes of the meeting. They were then told that the final legal document—the section 278 agreement, as I understand it is called—would be ready by the middle of May. However, I have spoken to the developers today and I understand that the document has still not been supplied.

I could provide the Minister with more detail, but I should say a little more about the fact that the costs to the developer have risen significantly because of the two-year delay. That has altered the economics of the project. In this debate, I am asking the Minister is to ensure that the new chief executive of the Highways Agency, who comes into post shortly, takes a personal interest in ensuring that the agency is as co-operative as possible, so that that important project, which will provide many jobs for my constituents, comes to fruition. The Minister will be aware that the financial climate has changed dramatically in the past six months or so, because of the credit crunch. We are lucky that iCP still thinks that it will be able to develop the site.

In essence, what I am saying to the Minister is that everyone in public life, including us, whose salaries are paid out of the profits of successful businesses, and all the civil servants and local government officers, who are also paid out of the public purse, need to realise that when they deal with commercial projects of this nature, there is a certain momentum about the business deal. Of course things have to be done properly to ensure that the traffic flows. However, if officials in the Highways Agency do not realise the commercial necessity of moving at a speed that will enable a project's developers and financial backers to bring it to fruition within a realistic commercial time scale, a lot of projects—not just in my constituency, but throughout the country—will not come about.

At a time when unemployment is starting to rise—I have mentioned the 200 jobs lost in my constituency—and when, sadly, significant extra job losses are possible across the country, as we have read in the papers over the past few days, it is imperative that all Departments and all Executive agencies, including the Highways Agency, realise the need to ensure that such projects come to fruition.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

My hon. Friend is clearly a powerful champion for his constituents and has made an impressive case on their behalf this evening. I agree with his call for the Minister to urge the Highways Agency to get its act together. In my constituency, which is also in a growth area, there are no plans to improve the A14 around Kettering until after tens of thousands of new houses have been built. That is simply the wrong way round. We cannot have extra houses first and road improvements afterwards. The developments should be the other way round, as my hon. Friend has said.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. It seems that the issues in my constituency are similar to those in his and, no doubt, throughout the country.

I wanted to raise the issues that relate specifically to my constituency. I am passionate about the provision of local jobs in my constituency. Genuinely sustainable communities—that is what the Government like to call their housing growth plans—are communities in which there is a proper balance between housing and employment, with the necessary transport to get people between the two. Many people need the chance to work locally. The site in my constituency is next to the Downside estate, to the south of Dunstable. Many people will able to walk to work at the site, in a carbon-neutral and sustainable way.

I am grateful to the Minister for the opportunity to brief him last night on the issues. I ask that he give them serious consideration. I am determined that the commercial deal in my constituency should come to fruition. I also ask him to ensure that the officials in the Highways Agency develop a slightly better understanding of the pressures under which people in commercial life operate, especially in the new, constrained circumstances resulting from the credit crunch, when funding for commercial deals such as these is much less readily available than it was in the past. Land prices are falling, and, because of the two-year delay, the costs of the project, not least those arising from the Highways Agency, have risen considerably. I repeat: we are fortunate that the developer thinks that it can bring the project to fruition. I want to make sure that that definitely happens and that those jobs are available for my constituents.

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 6:15, 5 June 2008

I congratulate Andrew Selous on securing this debate. I also thank him for doing me the courtesy of briefing me last night on the subject that he wished to raise today. Of course, it was not a complete surprise, given that we have had an exchange of correspondence on the subject as recently as 21 May.

I have reordered my prepared speech, because I want to address the specific issues that the hon. Gentleman has raised before I talk generally about the role of the Highways Agency. I know that he has maintained an active interest in the conditions on the A5, both strategically and locally in his constituency, as well as in the development activity, and the infrastructure requirements needed to underpin it, in and around Dunstable.

The Highways Agency is an executive agency of the Department for Transport, responsible for operating, maintaining and improving the strategic road network in England on behalf of the Secretary of State. The agency plays a vital role in supporting the everyday lives of individuals and communities, and it is crucial to the success of the UK economy, giving good service directly to road users and thereby ensuring that the economy continues to thrive while ensuring that environmental conditions are not adversely affected.

In the case of the development at Dunstable, there were delays, but they were caused not by the Highways Agency but by shortcomings in the design presented by the developer's agent. I fully respect the role that the hon. Gentleman is playing in representing an important developer and potential investor in his constituency, but I hope that he will accept that he has, perhaps inevitably, been presented with a one-sided illustration of the situation by the developer. That is inevitable, because the developer can speak only from his own point of view.

The criteria to which developers have to adhere when applying to participate in a development of this kind are well understood and well publicised. There really is no excuse for any developer to find himself out of the loop or for him not to adhere to any of the criteria. If that happens, however, the Highways Agency has no alternative. It cannot, for example, fast-track an application. It certainly cannot fast-track an application if the information that has been presented to it is in any way at fault, or if it in any way falls short of the criteria and standards that have already been publicised, and that any developer would know that he had to meet.

I do not mean to suggest, by those comments, that the developer has absolutely no grievance against the Highways Agency. I gave the hon. Gentleman an undertaking here in the Chamber last night that I would ensure that the agency approached this case with some priority, to ensure that we do not lose the valuable opportunity for this level of development in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. That is clearly a target that we both want to achieve—as does the Highways Agency. I would certainly be concerned if the agency had done anything to put that investment at risk.

I should like to refer the hon. Gentleman to the letter that I sent him on 21 May. There is no evidence, as far as I am concerned, that the Highways Agency is at fault in this regard. In fact, in any future similar development proposal, if the agents for a developer did not provide the required information, I would not expect the Highways Agency to proceed with the application.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I said I understood that things had to be done properly, and I gave the Minister specific examples of time scales which to my mind seem quite long. Let me give him one more. iCP gave the last legal documents to the Highways Agency on 7 May. It is now 5 June. They were vital to get the section 278 agreement signed and the agency knew how urgent that was. I understand that consecutive members of the Highways Agency have been on holiday over that period. Frankly, that is not good enough. Did the Highways Agency tell him about that today?

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

If that is the case, I agree that it is not acceptable. I shall make inquiries to ensure that I am fully apprised of those facts. There is no real major point of principle separating the hon. Gentleman and me on this case. We both want the same thing, and I would contend that the Highways Agency also wants the same thing. However, I shall ensure that there are no unnecessary delays between now and the final acceptance of this particular application.

With regard to the comments by Mr. Hollobone, we have discussed the matter he raised a number of times, not least during the Transport Committee hearings a few weeks ago. Instead of there being a presumption that housing growth comes before the development of the necessary road infrastructure, he suggested it should be the other way around. I would suggest that there could be a third way, which is that road infrastructure development should happen at about the same time as housing infrastructure. I would not support a situation in which perhaps billions of pounds—certainly hundreds of millions of pounds—are spent on a particular region in advance of housing growth. I do not think the hon. Gentleman would suggest that either. It cannot be the other way around, as he suggests. I think that the development has to happen simultaneously.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

My hon. Friend and I are experiencing the same problem in that we are not getting roads at the same time as development is taking place. In my constituency of Kettering, the Highways Agency is proposing that the A14, which is a dual carriageway, is split into three lanes on both sides of the carriageway without widening it. Local people are frightened of driving on the road now. They will simply not go on it in future. There are no plans to change that until after 2016. In both Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire, the Highways Agency simply does not get the growth agenda of the Department for Communities and Local Government.

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

My understanding is that the A14 is a road of regional importance. The reason the work is not going ahead is that it has not been prioritised by the regional transport board in the hon. Gentleman's area. However, I find it difficult to believe that following its transition to a three-lane dual carriageway, as it were, his constituents would refuse to travel on it. One overarching principle of any such development is that safety procedures and standards, which are very high in this country and in the Highways Agency, are adhered to. I encourage him to encourage his constituents to continue to use the road network, particularly following such developments.

I shall return to my prepared comments, because they refer specifically to the issue raised by the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire. The developer subsequently proposed a number of changes to the highways works as a means of reducing the cost. The agency afforded all the bidders the opportunity to review their prices as a consequence. All of that is in accordance with good procurement practice. Hence the overall cost of the scheme rose because the estimates prepared by the developer's own advisers proved to be considerably lower than the cost of the current anticipated works. Also, the design costs of the agency's agents are inevitably higher owing to the previously mentioned shortcomings of the original design and the resulting additional time required to recheck the submissions.

You will not be surprised to know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that the agency has to charge developers the full cost associated with preparing documentation for section 278 work. I do not expect that procedure to end, and I think that hon. Members in all parts of the House would support it. However, I emphasise that the Highways Agency, the Department for Transport, I, the hon. Gentleman and all hon. Members accept that it is imperative for the Highways Agency to use every effort to ensure that we do not lose the opportunity for crucial investment—investment that creates necessary jobs and leads to the growth of our local economies and our national economy. In that regard, I do not think there is anything for the hon. Gentleman and I to disagree on—although there may be other things on which we wish to disagree.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I hear what the Minister says, and he is right. There is no difference between us: we both understand that roads must be safe, and that trunk road entrances and exits in particular must work properly so that there is no danger to the travelling public. What I have not quite heard the Minister say, however, is that he will make a serious attempt to ensure that the Highways Agency, going forward, understands the commercial dynamics of each project and at what point it might fail by virtue of the Highways Agency's going through its various processes—which would waste everyone's time, including that of the Highways Agency.

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

I am genuinely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. As he said, the Highways Agency is in the process of appointing a new chief executive. I assure him that at my first meeting with whoever the new chief executive may be I will raise that point as a priority, and will ask him or her to do exactly what the hon. Gentleman has suggested. Having said that, I should add that "going forward" is an expression that I never use. It is a horrible expression, and I urge the hon. Gentleman not to use it again.

The Highways Agency is committed to the delivery of the Government's growth agenda, as exemplified by its input to the spatial planning process at all levels and specifically in relation to growth areas, new growth points and eco-towns. The challenge for the agency is to enable that necessary development to proceed, while ensuring that the reliability of the strategic road network is maintained. To do that, the agency has built good relationships with national, regional and local planning stakeholders. It continues to seek new ways of improving those relationships and contributing to truly sustainable solutions.

In operational terms, the agency minimises disruption to the travelling public, and hence the impact on local economies, by carrying out as much maintenance and improvement work as possible at off-peak times and/or overnight. Clearly the environmental consequences of overnight working preclude its being done on routes that are close to residential properties. That applies particularly to work on the A5 in Dunstable, where the trunk road also forms the town's high street.

Although it is undesirable for the trunk road to be located in such an environment, the agency must work according to the realities of life while attempting to mitigate the effects of the road. However, as the hon. Gentleman knows, plans to remove the road from the centre of Dunstable are in the Department's major roads programme. The proposed A5-M1 link to which he referred—the Dunstable northern bypass—will provide an alternative route for strategic traffic on the A5, and will provide significant benefits in terms of journey time reliability across the network. The preferred route for the scheme was announced in February last year; since then there have been minor changes, which were shown locally at an exhibition early in October.

We are not viewing the link road in isolation. Planning proposals are likely in the near future for a significant housing development consisting of up to 16,000 new homes north of Dunstable, between Houghton Regis and the link road. The development is part of the large Milton Keynes-south midlands growth area.

The Highways Agency and its consultants have been working closely with developers who have an interest in developing the land north of Dunstable and south of the A5-M1 link. A position paper which was signed recently sets out the matters that have been agreed between all parties so far, including the Highways Agency. The agency has also been giving its comments to Luton and South Bedfordshire district councils on the local development framework documents, which set out the proposals for future development in the Dunstable area among others. It has expressed a desire to become more closely involved with the traffic-modelling work that will underpin the transport strategy for the local development framework. For some time it has adopted a proactive approach to development in the Dunstable area, and it meets developers and others regularly to establish what must be done.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

The one thing that all my constituents want to know about the A5-M1 link is when it will be built. Can the Minister specify a date?

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

I think that if I were to give the hon. Gentleman a date he would be more surprised than me, but I am happy to write to him informing him of the stage that the planning process has reached. It would not be appropriate to make such an announcement during an Adjournment debate.

The regional funding allocations provide the means of delivering the transport priorities for each region, and hence fulfilling those in the east of England plan. The Secretary of State for Transport's response to the region on 6 July 2006 accepted its advice that the construction of the A5-M1 link road should start during the period between 2008-09 and 2015-16—a date that is not as specific as the hon. Gentleman would like—but also required the Highways Agency to proceed with the scheme through statutory processes—

The motion having been made at Six o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Deputy Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Six o'clock.