A5-M1 Link

– in the House of Commons at 8:11 pm on 3rd November 2008.

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

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Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) 8:16 pm, 3rd November 2008

I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for granting me this short Adjournment debate on a subject of huge importance to not only my constituency but a considerably greater area. I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Paul Clark, to his place. I appreciate that he is deputising for a colleague who has overall responsibility and sits in another place. He is possibly the fifth or sixth roads Minister that I have faced in my seven years in the House in my quest to try to get the road completed. It may therefore be helpful to him if I sketch out a little local detail from my point of view as a constituency Member of Parliament. I appreciate that his officials will have briefed him well about some of the wider issues.

There is a long history of trying to get a bypass for Dunstable, as the A5-M1 link is better known locally. The first record that I have found dates back to 1934. The A5, which goes through the middle of Dunstable, carries approximately 22,000 vehicles a day. Many are heavy goods vehicles, which do not want to deliver to businesses in Dunstable or take finished products out of Dunstable, but are simply trying to get through the town to go elsewhere. Consequently, many people who want to shop or do business in Dunstable are prevented from doing so by the amount of excess traffic that goes through the town and wants to be elsewhere.

Often, the M1 is diverted to the M5 when there are blockages. The M1 is currently being widened but, according to the Highways Agency, we are officially a relief road for the M1, and that causes dread for many of my local schools. People look out of the window at 3 o'clock many afternoons and realise that they cannot get their children—perhaps special needs children—home on local authority transport and so on.

We therefore face huge difficulties locally, not least an increasingly difficult economic environment, with unemployment in my constituency having unfortunately risen by 23 per cent. in the year till August. Since then, I know of three local businesses that have, sadly, closed.

The Minister knows that the Government have significant ambitions for housing and business growth in my area. Indeed, they wish to build some 43,000 extra houses by 2031. That objective cannot be fulfilled without building the road. The view of many local people is that, given the bypasses that they have seen elsewhere around the country—and, indeed, in the county of Bedfordshire—the bypass is required for the area's current needs, not only for future growth. It is the view of many local authority officers in my area, as well as the authorities themselves, that the Highways Agency has been stalling development in the area, through a lack of commitment to deciding either how the M1 is to be widened north of junction 10 or what the precise form of the A5-M1 link should be.

The then Secretary of State made an announcement to the House on 9 July 2003, starting at column 1177 of the Official Report, that the Dunstable northern bypass—the A5-M1 link—would be built. That was originally supposed to be completed by 2010, but it is currently not scheduled for completion until around 2015 or perhaps even later. The then Secretary of State, now Chancellor, announced the Government's decision to build that vital bypass, telling the House:

"In the past five years, there have been long and detailed studies, but the time has now come when we need to get on and implement them".—[ Hansard, 9 July 2003; Vol. 403, c. 1195.]

My constituents would have very much agreed with those sentiments, but according to the Government's projections, we are now looking at a 12-year delay between the announcement that the road would be built, which was made at the Dispatch Box in July 2003, and the current scheduled completion date. That is an unacceptably long time. Perhaps the Department should think about having a maximum period between the announcement that a road is to be built and when it is actually completed.

More recently, on 6 July 2006, a later Secretary of State made a written statement to the House about the regional funding allocations for transport schemes. He referred in that statement to a letter to the chair of the East of England regional assembly, in which, referring to the A5-M1 link, he had stated:

"we would therefore like that scheme to be considered for an earlier start than you have proposed if there is any slippage in other schemes in your region."

As far as I am aware, that policy, enunciated by the then Secretary of State for Transport, has not been changed by any Minister or official in the Department, but I would be grateful for confirmation that that is the case.

It was therefore with great alarm that many of my local councillors and council officers learned in July, at a meeting in Dunstable in which I was involved, that the East of England regional assembly had proposed the A11 improvements as one of the two priority schemes to go forward with the A5-M1 link, should any extra money become available in the region. I understand that the Highways Agency had raised two issues, which had not been fully discussed with the local authority officers concerned.

Let me say in passing that I hope the Minister will encourage the Highways Agency to discuss such issues fully with the knowledgeable and expert officers in local authorities who are tasked with such matters before they are announced at a regional planning panel. I will be meeting representatives of the Highways Agency in London with many of my local officers on 24 November to take such matters forward.

Of the two reasons why the A5-M1 link could not be brought forward as the priority scheme, as a previous Secretary of State had said in 2006 that it would be, the first, and I gather the most significant, was an air quality issue. I understand that the Highways Agency had identified some

"relatively recent European air quality compliance complications".

I would not wish anyone to live with any pollution, but I understand that the recommendation is that pollution should not exceed a limit of 40 micrograms of nitrogen dioxide per cubic metre of air. For a small number of houses near junction 11, it was expected that the limit would be breached, with the level rising to around 42 to 43 micrograms per cubic metre when the new bypass was built.

I wonder whether the Minister is aware that the annual mean level of nitrogen dioxide in the centre of Dunstable is around 68 micrograms per cubic metre, with hourly peaks of up to 260 micrograms in the rush hour. It seems pretty strange that a European directive is prepared to subject my constituents—families who live in the centre of Dunstable—to far higher levels of pollution between now and 2016 rather than countenance a possible much smaller breach of the guidelines in the run-up to 2016.

I pay tribute to Councillor Tom Nicols of South Bedfordshire district council, who went to Brussels last month and discussed the European directive with German and Dutch Transport Ministers who were in the European Parliament. My understanding from conversations with him is that there is flexibility in such directives. If the Department went back to Europe and said, "It's a slight breach, which we're working to avoid in the run-up to 2016, versus much higher levels of pollution, which would be avoided if we could build this road in Dunstable sooner," he might find that European officials would be more understanding about reducing overall levels of pollution. Again, I commend Councillor Tom Nicols for going the extra mile in trying to resolve the issue.

We have information that perhaps only five houses will be affected by any potential breach in the run-up to 2016, but will the Minister confirm that? If that is the case, I wonder whether the Highways Agency already owns those houses and whether they are already blighted because of the possible M1 road widening.

That brings me to the second issue that was raised with the East of England regional assembly as a reason why the A5-M1 link could apparently not be prioritised, as the previous Secretary of State had said it should be. The reason is that no decision has been made on whether the M1 is to be widened or whether there is to be hard-shoulder running, which I understand the Department terms active traffic management. Another previous Secretary of State announced in March that large sections of the M1 that are awaiting improvements could benefit from hard-shoulder running, but to date we have had no firm decision.

I gather that the lack of a decision was also used to put a spanner in the works, as we see it, so that the East of England regional planning panel did not give the full green light, which we so desperately need to get the road back on track. Will the Department be announcing a decision on the widening of the M1 next month? My information is that that is possible, and confirmation of that would be helpful. If we can get this issue sorted out, either by building an extra lane or using the hard shoulder, we can then plan to put in junction 11a.

I turn next to the escalating cost of building this road. The Minister, like every other Member of the House, knows that public money is precious money and that, sadly, there is never enough of it to go round. I am sure he will be alarmed, therefore, to learn that, when this road was first proposed and the Highways Agency went out for contracts in September 2005, it was going to cost £48 million, yet by February 2007 the cost had gone up to £124.3 million, and by July this year it had reached £142 million. By my calculations, that is an almost 300 per cent. increase in under three years, while inflation was running at up to about 4 per cent. as far as the rest of the economy was concerned. That is a virtually Zimbabwean level of inflation. Where is the value to the public purse? Are the Government being held to ransom by a small group of large road builders? Do we need to look at this, as a country, to ensure that the Minister and I are getting value for our taxpayer dollar when building these roads? If the costs are going to get higher and higher, the Department will obviously be able to build fewer roads. We all understand that. I would be extremely grateful if the Minister could say something about the costs.

Another thorny issue that has not been fully resolved is whether the new junction 11a, which will obviously join the M1 between junctions 11 and 12, will be built at the same time as the M1 is widened, if the decision to widen it is taken, or whether it will have to be built later. As far as I am aware, no hard decision has been taken on this. Answers that I have had to parliamentary questions suggest that, were the Department to widen the M1, and then have to come back at a later date—because the Dunstable northern bypass scheme had not been agreed—and rip up the newly widened M1 in order to put in the new junction, it would cost the taxpayer an extra £12 million or so. Local people—and, indeed, taxpayers all over the country—would not understand or forgive the Government if they wasted that much public money, when a little bit of co-ordination could result in implementing the two schemes at the same time and putting in the junction at the same time as widening the M1 or sorting out the hard-shoulder running measures. Saving £12 million in that way would clearly be sensible.

I want to clarify what the decision of the regional planning panel of the East of England regional assembly meant in the minute of 30 September, which stated that it was resolved that

"the A5-M1 link should be treated as a de facto committed scheme...on the assumption that the reasons for the scheme being unable to be accelerated at this time would shortly be resolved".

I think that those words were meant to be of comfort to people like me, who will be on the Minister's back for as long as he is in this position on this issue, to my local councillors and to the local people. We are grateful for any words of comfort, but I have a couple of questions in relation to that statement. It includes the words:

" on the assumption that the reasons for the scheme being unable to be accelerated at this time would shortly be resolved".

How soon is "shortly" in relation to the air quality management issues and the M1 widening issues? What progress has been made since the end of September? Finally, I want to ask whether the A5-M1 link is a suitable candidate for regional infrastructure fund investment to help to plug the funding gap.

Last week, in an effort to be helpful, I faxed a number of the questions that I intended to raise in this debate to the Minister's officials—I am not playing party politics with this debate; this is far too important an issue—and I hope that that was helpful to him. My intention was to have as constructive and helpful a debate as possible. He will be aware that his response will be read carefully by people locally, because this is such an important issue. I would be grateful if he could give me as many answers as possible, but if I have raised any extra questions to which he is understandably unable to give me answers now, I would be extremely grateful if he could ask his officials to look at the record of the debate afterwards, and to write to me.

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Photo of Paul Clark Paul Clark PPS (Rt Hon Ed Balls, Secretary of State), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport 8:34 pm, 3rd November 2008

I congratulate Andrew Selous on securing this debate and providing a further opportunity for us to discuss what I accept is a very important issue—not only for the hon. Gentleman's constituents in respect of the A5-M1 link road, but for the wider area. I thank the hon. Gentleman for contacting my officials to run through some of the issues that he wanted to raise.

Let me make a few points about the hon. Gentleman's opening comments. The Highways Agency does not view the link road per se only as a relief road for the M1, but when incidents close the M1, alternative routes obviously have to be found. We all hope that the number of such incidents will be few and far between. I do not believe that the Highways Agency is stalling on its commitment; indeed, it would not be fair to say that any of the parties are stalling rather than recognising the importance of the issue. I hope to answer all the hon. Gentleman's questions. I know that he has been assiduous in raising these issues in numerous meetings with my ministerial colleagues—I believe he said that I was the seventh—including the Prime Minister in May last year.

The A5-M1 link forms part of the recommended strategy of the London-south midlands multi-modal study, which clearly demonstrates its wider importance. The scheme entered the Highways Agency's targeted programme of improvements in July 2003 and it has been promoted to address traffic congestion on the A505 and the A5 in the centre of Dunstable, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. The A5 is generally straight in Bedfordshire as it follows the line of Watling street—the old Roman road. It is part of the core trunk road network, linking London and the south midlands. The A505, the A5 and the Leighton to Linslade bypass also form an important strategic east-west county route.

As a result of being part of those key transport links, which facilitate the movement of large volumes of traffic, parts of the A5 become heavily congested, particularly Dunstable High street and the urban areas along the London road. These sections of the A5 and the A505 run through an urban environment, so their design has to consider the need to maintain pedestrian safety and is bound by the physical constraints of a built-up urban environment, both of which contribute to the congestion currently experienced. Local improvements to the A5 north of Dunstable have been made over the years, but south of the Leighton-Linslade bypass junction, the road is bounded by urban development, again limiting opportunities for improvement.

In order to resolve those issues, the Highways Agency proposes a 4.5 km long two-lane dual carriageway from the A5, just north of the Leighton-Linslade bypass roundabout, to the new junction 11a on the M1 north of Luton. I will say more about that later in my speech. By offering an alternative high-standard direct link to the motorway, the proposed A5-M1 link road would act as a northern bypass for Dunstable and satisfy part of the county's outer relief strategy for the Luton and Dunstable area.

The scheme is expected to reduce the number of through-Dunstable trips by between 8 and 24 per cent. The highly variable journey times measured on the A5 between the A4012 junction in the north and the M1 junction 9 in the south would also improve. Along this 17.2 km section of road, peak journey times are predicted to reduce from the current average of 51 minutes to nearer 20 to 30 minutes, which is near the average off-peak journey time.

In addition to easing congestion in Dunstable, the scheme aims to reduce traffic through the villages of Houghton Regis, Wingfield, Tebworth and Toddington. The scheme is also expected to improve road safety and the overall quality of life for residents and shoppers. As a result, it is also expected to deliver benefits to the region's overall economy.

In September 2005, the Highways Agency appointed a contractor under its early contractor involvement initiative to take the A5-M1 link through the statutory process and the construction phases. Also during September 2005, the Highways Agency held a public consultation that attracted more than 1,200 people. The preferred northern route was announced on 23 February 2007. The scheme was subsequently developed and a public information exhibition was held in October last year. To date, more than 100 written responses have been received from individuals, elected bodies and other groups. That feedback was taken into account in the recent work to prepare the draft orders.

The hon. Gentleman will also know that, following the spending review of 2004, the Government announced that routes on the strategic road network would now fall into two categories: those that are of national importance, mainly major motorways such as the M1 and the M25, and those that are predominantly of regional importance. On the basis of those criteria, the A5-M1 link has been classified as a route of regional importance.

Although decisions on all schemes and funding commitments remain with the Secretary of State for Transport, in 2005 the regions gave us advice on priorities for major transport schemes. They were asked to work within indicative regional funding allocations, and to include in their advice the priority that they attached to Highways Agency schemes on routes of regional importance such as the one that we are discussing. The Department received the East of England region's advice on its priorities in January 2006, and I am aware from that advice that the region considers the A5-M1 link scheme to be a priority because of its contribution to a number of economic and transport objectives, including improvement of east-west transport links and the provision of better regional access to the strategic road network. The region is considering the scheme as part of its review of future priorities. We have asked regions to provide their updated advice by February 2009.

In view of the scheme's important contribution to regional objectives, I expect the region to continue to regard it as a high priority. It is currently included in the south Bedfordshire local plan, and is recognised as being part of the infrastructure needed to support the development north of Dunstable. That includes potential growth areas for housing, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, and the new commercial developments outlined in the Milton Keynes and south midlands sub-regional strategy.

In order to support the development plans, consideration has been given to the nature of the junctions built as part of the scheme. The A5-M1 link proposals include a roundabout where the A5120 Bedford road would cross the new route, allowing local users to join the M1 via the link road. That junction was designed to facilitate improvement in due course, given the anticipated north Dunstable and Houghton Regis developments.

The scheme also includes a new junction with the M1, named junction 11a. The location and arrangement of junction 11a was planned to support the county's outer relief strategy by allowing for a connection with the proposed Luton northern bypass. It was also designed to allow for a local road connection that joins the A5-M1 link at its eastern end. Current traffic projections predict that allowing local road access at the junction is not likely to have a significantly detrimental impact on strategic traffic travelling on the M1.

Let me answer another of the hon. Gentleman's questions by saying that I am assured that the proposed junction 11a could be built concurrently with the proposed improvements to the M1 between junctions 10 and 13. As the hon. Gentleman suggested, that has the potential to yield significant cost savings and reduce the adverse impact of construction works on traffic on the M1. It is, of course, subject to the satisfactory conduct of the statutory process and the availability of funding. The scheme was designed to provide a number of dedicated routes and safe crossings for vulnerable non-motorised users, those enjoying recreational activities, and landowners with businesses in the area.

The hon. Gentleman noted that the impact on air quality was likely to be a significant issue. By providing an alternative link to the M1 the scheme will increase traffic volumes on the M1, which could increase net exhaust emissions. That has the potential to affect air quality, especially in the Luton air quality management area.

The Department is working actively with other agencies to understand the impact that the A5-M1 scheme is likely to have on air quality, and to resolve that challenge in the light of our obligations under EU air quality rules. I take on board the hon. Gentleman's comments about the effect on parts of Dunstable in comparison with the possible effect on a smaller number of properties, but, according to our requirements, any new schemes cannot make any area worse in terms of air quality.

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

Will the Minister ask his officials to have a dialogue with the people in Europe on this issue, to see if there is flexibility regarding current pollution levels?

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Photo of Paul Clark Paul Clark PPS (Rt Hon Ed Balls, Secretary of State), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

I have said that our officials are having dialogues with relevant personnel, including opposite numbers in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and I take on board the hon. Gentleman's comments on European members. I believe discussions on the air quality issue are moving forward quickly, however, and that it can be resolved.

The hon. Gentleman raised the timetable for delivery of the A5-M1 link. That is partly dependent on other road schemes, in particular the proposed capacity improvements to the M1 between junctions 10 and 13, because capacity improvements on the M1 are required to handle the additional traffic that the A5-M1 link scheme would feed on to the motorway. Without the M1 capacity improvements, building the A5-M1 link would create additional congestion problems on the M1, and would probably lead to the new piece of road the hon. Gentleman talks about becoming a car park.

In 2008, the public inquiry for the M1 was postponed while further investigations were carried out into possible alternatives for delivering capacity improvement. This followed a successful feasibility study of advanced motorway signalling and traffic management, including the use of the hard shoulder as a running lane on the M42. The Department is currently evaluating the potential for the use of hard-shoulder running on this stretch of the M1, which could be an alternative to full-scale widening. While that may appear to delay the programme, it is right that we look for value for money and that we spend it on meeting congestion issues. Also, while there may be a delay in decision making at this stage, if the hard shoulder were to be used instead of the M1 being widened, the construction time would be less, and I have already given a commitment that plans will be worked up in such a way that junction 11a can be built in either scenario.

The review of the M1 scheme has implications for the A5-M1 link. This is because the decision on the nature of the capacity improvements on the M1 has the potential to affect the design of the A5-M1, particularly where the two schemes connect, and, therefore, the nature of the orders required. We hope to be in a position to reach a decision on the preferred option for the M1 scheme as soon as possible in 2009. Ministers are likely to receive advice in the run-up to Christmas; that may be why the hon. Gentleman referred to there being a decision very shortly. Once a decision has been reached on the M1, we will be in a position to confirm the proposed way forward for the A5-M1 link.

In its advice to the Department in January 2006, the East of England regional assembly proposed a timetable that included a construction start date in 2013-14. This date remains possible regardless of the outcome of the M1 review. I also understand that there is a desire in the region to see if implementation of the scheme can be brought forward. This possibility is, of course, dependent on the region's funding priorities, the potential effect on air quality of earlier road opening, and the M1 timeline. It would, therefore, not be appropriate to offer a firm delivery timetable for the A5-M1 link at this stage. However, I recognise that the hon. Gentleman and other stakeholders wish this to be resolved as soon as possible.

On the hon. Gentleman's later points about the Highways Agency and dialogue between partners, I can assure him that, while I am in this job, I will encourage all partners to have proper dialogue, whichever stakeholders they represent. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we, along with him and other stakeholders, see this as an important scheme and that we will do all we can to bring it to an early conclusion.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eleven minutes to Nine o'clock.

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