It is good to see the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my hon. Friend Chris Heaton-Harris, at the Dispatch Box to reply for Her Majesty’s Government. I have known him for many years. Ironically, I lobbied him very recently about the atrocious performance of Abellio Greater Anglia on the Southend to Liverpool Street line. However, as today’s debate is about roadworks, I will concentrate my remarks on those—but the rail line is not getting any better.
Let me give the background. Last autumn, Essex County Council’s Essex Highways granted three property developers, Barratt David Wilson, Countryside Properties and Silver City Estates, permission to begin digging up the roads in and around Rayleigh, all at the same time, in some cases on the day that schools resumed after the summer holidays. Unsurprisingly, that led to traffic chaos in and around Rayleigh, including in nearby Hullbridge. As the local MP, I had to intervene repeatedly with Essex Highways and all three developers to try to sort the situation out. Crucially, this included Countryside agreeing to lift its contraflows during the morning and evening rush hour on Rawreth Lane, and Barratt David Wilson working 24/7 in Hullbridge to finish the job.
After an autumn of severe disruption, the works finally concluded, and I held a summit in my Westminster office with Essex Highways, the developers, local councillors and residents’ groups, at which we all faithfully agreed that this could never be allowed to happen again. Crucially, we agreed that when further planned works took place in Rayleigh in the following year, it would be necessary to separate the works, and ideally lift the contraflows during morning and evening peaks, and during the school run, to make the situation liveable for local residents, even if it took longer to complete the works as a result.
However, a further meeting took place at Rochford Hundred golf club in February this year, at which Essex Highways and the developers agreed a new schedule of works, to commence in March, principally on the A129, London Road—a single carriageway that is one of the principal arteries in and out of Rayleigh. It now transpires that Essex Highways officers granted Silver City permission to work throughout March, seven days a week, from 7 am to 7 pm, with contraflows in place throughout that time—that is, they were not to be lifted during the morning and evening peak and the school run, as was previously suggested.
Moreover, Countryside was then told that it could work for three months on its much larger site from early April to late June, again from 7 am to 7 pm. In other words, the developers would be able to dig up one of the primary arteries in and out of Rayleigh for 12 hours every day for four months. Thereafter, Barratt David Wilson would begin work off Rawreth Lane to construct a new major roundabout. Some of that work can be undertaken offline, but there will still be weeks of disruption when the roundabout is connected to the main carriageway. Yet again, that work is permitted to be carried out from 7 am to 7 pm. For the avoidance of doubt, I declare that I am a resident in the Rawreth Lane area.
I am afraid to say that part of this has occurred because of a total lack of effective oversight by Essex Highways, which has clearly reneged on the commitments it gave me in my Westminster office prior to Christmas. Moreover, there appears to be an unhealthily cosy relationship between the highways officers and the developers, much of it based on first-name terms, with the county council failing my constituents in its regulatory duties to oversee the roadworks effectively.
As a result of those decisions, Silver City began its work early in March and, to cut a long story short, my constituents have gone up the wall. There have been extremely long tailbacks trying to get in and out of Rayleigh during the rush hour and the school run, with some constituents reporting journeys that would normally take about 15 minutes now taking well over an hour each way. In some cases, it is even worse. Businesses have suffered, with one small dance school having been put in real financial jeopardy because parents have cancelled lessons. Medical appointments have also been missed and children’s education has been interrupted.
No one undertook any strategic communications to warn my constituents of these four months of impending chaos until I posted a video on Wednesday evening on my Facebook page to explain to my constituents exactly what is going on. The Minister might like to know that that post has since been viewed by more than 24,000 people. Aside from perhaps coronavirus, this is currently the overwhelming topic of conversation in Rayleigh. Many residents have left comments, of which the following four stood out. Mr A said:
“Well done Mark. And thanks for the best efforts possible. It’s a shame it’s all about the fast profit for fat cat companies in construction, and the quick buck and fast turn over in more council tax, etc. Than the thought of others losing out from struggles to get to work or schools.”
Mr P said it is an
“Absolute joke of a system. How can we get them out of a job? It’s the only thing they will listen to. Enough is enough—crazy when a five minute journey takes 40 minutes.”
Ms B said:
“It’s completely unacceptable that these two works run consecutively. That in itself should not happen. Developers should be inconvenienced, not existing residents and our livelihoods…Developers in this situation should be forced to work nights irrespective of cost to them. As per usual, why is it the general public that appear to have more common sense than the idiots that make decisions”?
Lastly, Ms C said:
“24/7 working is a fantastic ethic to implement. Silver City should cover the cost for overtime or be fined if they don’t complete by a certain timeframe. I live on Little Wheatley Chase”— one of the local roads—
“and I can tell you…the workmen don’t seem to be in any rush! Lots of cups of tea…smoking…slowly walking up and down whilst cars sit in queues. It is very distressing.”
There have been some instances of residents abusing the workmen. For the avoidance of doubt, I completely deprecate that behaviour, but that does give some idea of how frustrated local people have become. Yet again, I have had to intervene on behalf of my constituents to try to sort out this mess, which I was faithfully promised by Essex Highways would never happen again. In the last week I have had meetings in Westminster with the managing director of Silver City, the new corporate chief executive of Countryside and County Councillor Kevin Bentley, the current deputy leader of Essex County Council and cabinet member for infrastructure, including roads.
I asked both Silver City and Countryside if they would consider lifting the contraflows during the rush hour in order to make the disruption more bearable. I also asked Countryside, whose work site is a couple of hundred yards away from any inhabited dwelling, if it would consider working 24/7—as, indeed, Barratt David Wilson did in Hullbridge last year—in order to try to accelerate the works as much as possible. I regret to inform the Minister and the House that neither has been forthcoming. In the case of Silver City Estates, which is based in Rochford, I received a two-paragraph email, written with the grammar of an eight-year-old, effectively saying that it intended to carry on regardless. The company is clearly only interested in its own profits, and obviously does not give a damn about my constituents, who I hope would not want to buy its houses in return. This is the two-paragraph memo—I am ripping it up to show the House what I think of Silver City Estates.
Countryside, conversely, has written me several charming letters, admittedly saying that it would look into all this, but not actually promising to do anything at all. Given my experience of dealing with developers over nearly 20 years as an MP, particularly last autumn and this spring, I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that they generally do not give a damn about the disruption they cause to local communities, and that all they are really interested in is maintaining at least a 20% profit margin on house sales while keeping construction costs, including for labour and roadworks, to an absolute minimum.
I know that the Minister is not responsible for housing, but I think that one of the reasons that almost any major housing development in this country is met with hordes of placard-waving local residents is that they have come to realise the utterly hard-nosed attitude of the developers and the local traffic chaos that is likely to result if and when the houses are actually built. In fairness, that is a challenge for the whole house building industry, not just the three companies that I have highlighted today, but I throw it out there none the less, and will be interested to see whether any of the developers have the moral courage to reply.
When I met Councillor Kevin Bentley two days ago, he agreed that the situation was unacceptable and said that he would look again at Essex County Council’s process for giving consent to these proposals—not least as I understand that Essex County Council has not yet signed Countryside’s permits to legally allow it to commence the work. In other words, it has agreed in principle, but has not formally permitted it. County Councillor Bentley has now agreed to review the situation to see if the proposals can be altered, and I am very grateful to him for doing so. Silver City is clearly beyond the pale, but I do hope that Countryside might yet be reasonable, perhaps encouraged by Essex County Council, and might yet adopt some of the mitigating proposals that I have recommended before its work commences on the London Road in April. I shall certainly be keeping up the pressure on it to do so.
One thing that I have learned from this whole debacle is that the regulation of roadworks in this country is a mess. One of the great frustrations in modern life is queuing for ages to get through a contraflow on the highway to then discover that there is no one actually working on the site in the first place. The whole process is massively weighted in favour of the developers and the utility companies, at the clear expense of local residents and motorists. Indeed, Councillor Bentley has told me frankly that he would like to see the law changed to give highways authorities much greater powers to limit how and when people should be able to dig up the roads.
By sheer chance, after 19 years in this place, for the first time ever I got a placing in the private Members’ Bill ballot this year, and my Control of Roadworks Bill is now due for its Second Reading on Friday
In summary, I had honestly hoped that lessons had been learnt from the chaos last autumn and that I would never again need to intervene like this. Nevertheless, now that these problems have arisen once again, I have sought to raise them in the House of Commons and, in so doing, to reflect the extreme frustration of many of my constituents at the whole way that this has been badly maladministered. I hope that County Councillor Kevin Bentley will now indeed act proactively to help sort this mess out, and that Countryside, and Barratt David Wilson after it, will adopt a more co-operative approach, even if it costs them money.
Finally, I hope to get legislation on to the statute book to codify the regulation of roadworks, which is currently spread across multiple pieces of legislation, into one clear and simple Bill that everyone can follow. That will be designed to ensure that when people do unfortunately have to dig up the roads, they will do so with a sense of urgency, rather than complacency, and with a determination to respect the local communities within which they are working. I earnestly hope that the Minister can offer me some comfort that in that aspiration I might yet receive Government support. Thank you for your patience, Madam Deputy Speaker.