It is a great pleasure to have the opportunity to raise this fraught issue again. I am grateful to the Minister for giving up his time to respond to the debate. He has been generous with his time on debates on the A21 in the past, in which we have discussed the issue in some detail, and will be familiar with many of the points that I shall raise. I know that he will not want to read out the official script, but will want to respond directly to points raised by me and other hon. Members.
We may be privileged enough to have a visit from the Minister on
The A21 is the main arterial strategic route from the M25 to Hastings, and provides the economic lifeline not only to my constituency of Tunbridge Wells, and to Tonbridge, but right down to Hastings, which we know to be an area of relative economic deprivation with comparatively high levels of unemployment. I am delighted that Mr. Foster is here today. Yet, as a result of a series of ad hoc initiatives over the past 30 years, instead of a strategic approach being taken to the road, there has been an hourglass effect: the road is dual carriageway, then a single-lane bottleneck followed by dual carriageway, then a single lane, then the new dual carriageway at Lamberhurst bypass, then a single lane right down to Hastings, which creates immense frustration to local people, delays at each bottleneck in each rush hour, and safety hazards.
The impact of the problem cannot be underestimated: it is the factor holding back economic development in our area and, more seriously, down to Hastings. That is illustrated by the following quotes. The superintendent of Kent police said:
"The Castle Hill section of the A21 is a nightmare. It adds at least 25 minutes to the journey into Tunbridge Wells. Police movement, despite the assistance of sirens, is inhibited by the current situation."
The managing director of AIM Plastics in Tunbridge Wells said:
"Companies like mine will very soon move away rather than waste our time in a daily unavoidable traffic jam."
It was, of course, the previous hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle, Mr. Charles Wardle, who famously said that
"the probable reason that Harold lost the battle of Hastings was that he was held up on the A21."—[Hansard, 11 February 1998; Vol. 325, c. 329.]
One can imagine the dismay felt by people in west Kent and Sussex in July 1997, when the Weald and Downland design, build, finance and operate scheme—the previous Government's plan to improve the A21—was binned and the contractors compensated to the tune of £4 million to £6 million, I believe, and it was announced that instead there would be the trunk roads review. Nevertheless, many local people were prepared to accept that the incoming Government were going to adopt a different approach and were heartened by the announcement by the then Minister for Transport, Dr. Strang, that the Government intended:
"to bring a fresh approach to the process of making decisions on the roads programme."—[Hansard, 28 July 1997; Vol. 299, c. 33W.]
People then looked forward to a fresh approach that would be not only environmentally sensitive, but strategic. What emerged, in reality, was a protracted series of consultations and reviews, endless local consultation and tactical prevarication, yet, even today, there is no strategic approach to the overall construction of the route, no deadlines, no serious commitments to a timetable and immense local concern and indecision.
The process began with the trunk roads review, then the "Access to Hastings" study, which recommended "on-line improvements" at Castle Hill and improvements south of Pembury. That study is particularly important because it involved consulting all the local people, and the subsequent report on it was the subject of consultation by all the relevant regional authorities, including the South East England regional assembly, which was almost unanimously in support of the recommendations for improvement. The process was exhaustive and consultative, and it received virtually unanimous approval.
At that point, the Government had all the information required to go ahead with proposals for strategic improvement throughout the route. Indeed, that appeared to be happening. The then Secretary of State for Transport announced shortly afterwards that work would probably start on the A21 at Castle Hill in 2006–07, and a further review would be undertaken to define the best route for improvement for the area south of Pembury. Hope burgeoned and we were all much encouraged. The Government appeared to have a logical strategic approach.
In July 2003, people from the Highways Agency arrived in Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells and went round the public with computer simulations of the preferred route, showing what it would look like at Castle Hill. We were led to believe that the matter was in hand, the pubic inquiry would ensue and so on. Late in 2004, after much delay and local debate, a preferred route was also defined for the route from Kippings Cross to Lamberhurst, south of Pembury. The Minister and I had discussions on the matter, the Government formed their conclusions with regard to the preferred route, and it was announced to the public. Whether we liked it or not, that was the route that was taken, and it appeared that everything was likely to go ahead.
Ever since then, we have seen slippage and inaction, and I want to illustrate that with some quotes. The first is from the Highways Agency newsletter of November 2002, which said that
"it is expected that construction of the Castle Hill scheme could commence in 2005/6."
Seven months later, in July 2003, the Minister wrote to me—he might remember this—saying:
"The Highways Agency are looking to publish highways orders in 2004"— last year—
"and hope to start work in 2005/6 with the road opened in 2007/8."
That was the commitment from the Minister himself. Never have we had a word of apology or explanation for any subsequent delay. In fact, no such orders were published in 2004 and no public inquiry has taken place or is scheduled. Latterly, we have had no word from Ministers and no explanation to hon. Members. Instead, a press release has slipped out from the Highways Agency. It says:
"While both the A21 Tonbridge to Pembury Dualling and A21 Kippings Cross to Lamberhurst Improvement schemes remain in the Government's programme, for schemes of regional importance such as these, priorities and decisions will take into account advice from the regional planning body, the South East Regional Assembly.
The detail of how this will work is still under consideration, but we expect to know more early in 2006."
By which time, of course, the road was meant to be under construction. The press release continues:
"This means that construction . . . will not start before the financial year 2008/9 at the earliest."
So we have another consultation, with bodies that have already been consulted and which expressed unanimous approval, and no explanation from the Minister, despite the fact that that is in direct contradiction to his statements in previous letters. Furthermore, we do not even know exactly how the consultation will take place, who will be consulted or how it will work. I have contacted the Highways Agency and am told that it is still waiting to hear from Ministers exactly what form the consultation will take.
There can be little wonder, therefore, that local people regard the process with some cynicism. We started by hearing that we would have a fresh approach to roads decision making; we embarked wholeheartedly on another series of consultations, despite the fact that there had been a public inquiry on the whole thing in 1991 and all the issues had been thrashed through before; we involved the local regional authorities, Kent county council and other such bodies; everybody was in support and the Minister said that we were going ahead. It appeared that we had a strategic approach, as we were dealing with not just Castle Hill but the area south of Pembury—we were going to tackle the whole route. It all looked very encouraging, but it just slipped and slipped, and, even today, there is no commitment on the time scale. We do not even know how further consultation will take place.
Local people may be forgiven for thinking that all of that is a shallow excuse for deferring and spreading out public expenditure. The Minister may want to tell me whether that has anything to do with it. Equally, they may wonder whether the intentions of the Government in respect of this part of west Kent and Sussex were ever sincere. There is widespread cynicism about the Government's intentions. There has always been a belief—colleagues of mine have expressed it—that there never was a sincere intention to do the work. I do not believe that that is true. I believe that the Minister will be as good as his word, but he should recognise that people are now looking for a strategic statement of intent and a commitment on the time scale. We want to know what the consultation is for and whether we can avoid further delay. He will recognise that it will serve very little value. Once the consultation has taken place, when is work likely to start? Is there a coherent time scale, or will the work at Castle Hill dribble on for ever? When will work start south of Pembury? Finally, what process will be undertaken for the preferred route for the area south of Flimwell that was recently announced? That is now going out to consultation.
This is not just a question of convenience or even of economic development, as important as that may be, but of safety. The road is one of the 100 most dangerous roads in Britain. There have been 300 accidents on the Castle Hill stretch in the past five years, four of them fatal. On the Flimwell stretch—a very short stretch of road—there have been 116 accidents in the past four years, seven of them fatal. The longer we delay, the more fatal accidents there will be, the more the future economic development of Hastings and other locations along the route will be held back and the more local people will wonder whether the Government have a coherent roads and transport strategy at all.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend Mr. Norman for giving his consent for me to contribute to this debate. He has announced his retirement from the House at the next election, and no one could have done more than he has during his time in the House to promote improvements on the A21. I know that his constituents are grateful for his consistent Herculean efforts.
I shall speak about the section of the A21 between Tonbridge and Pembury, which is the part that affects my constituency. The lack of dualling on that section has the most baleful economic consequences for the whole of the business life of the Tonbridge, Southborough and Tunbridge Wells area. It has serious implications for ambulances and the police, and it is a continuous source of acute frustration for any number of motorists who find themselves in a jam between Tonbridge and Pembury at any hour of the day, but particularly during the rush hour. It is a very serious impediment to all those who live in the area.
The history of the A21 is simple. A perfectly good scheme was ready in 1997, having gone through the planning and public inquiry processes. The funding was in place and the scheme was about to go ahead, but since 1997 there have been eight wasted years. A perfectly good scheme was unnecessarily scrapped. The new one included access to Hastings, but this is about access to Tonbridge, Tunbridge Wells and Southborough. Huge amounts of money were wasted on consultancy fees and further inquiries. As of today, we are no further forward and, as we look ahead, we find that there is no construction date and that the whole scheme has now become enveloped in the regional bureaucracy beloved of the present Government.
I say this with great regret, but I have to say it straight to the Minister: the handling of this scheme by the Government has been characteristic of so much of their activity. It has been marked by a huge wastage of public money—taxpayers' money—by ever greater layers of bureaucracy, and by no delivery of goods in the end. Will he set a date today for the start of the construction of the scheme, particularly the dualling of the A21 between Tonbridge and Pembury?
I beg your pardon, Mr. Deputy Speaker. There are more than two of us who will not be here after the next election. However, that will be the choice not of the electorate, but of those who could be standing for the seat.
I was pleased to hear the contribution from Sir John Stanley and I am pleased to see my hon. Friend Mr. Foster, who has been campaigning on the issues all the way along the road for a considerable time. The road is much busier than it was. There is a lot of economic activity around the country, but particularly in the south-east. My hon. Friend recognises that the A21 is vital to his constituency and to economic development in that area.
There are essentially four schemes: Tonbridge to Pembury, Kippings Cross to Lamberhurst, the Lamberhurst bypass, and the Flimwell to Robertsbridge improvements. Before 1997, the only schemes that had been given any priority were the Tonbridge to Pembury scheme and the Lamberhurst bypass. The Kippings Cross to Lamberhurst scheme had no long-term commitment in 1996. There was no funding; there were just some plans. Then there is the Flimwell to Robertsbridge scheme. In fact, many of the improvements—considerable though they were and despite being valuable to many of the communities on that road—were abandoned in 1996 with no view to reinstating them. It is important that we put the debate in context, because we are doing a great deal, as I shall outline.
The debate comes at an opportune time because next
After less than two years of construction, the Lamberhurst bypass will open next week, at a cost of £19 million. Although we had hoped to have an early opening of the bypass last autumn, it is now back on target and will be opened next week. This much-needed bypass will bring relief to the village of Lamberhurst. The sinuous alignment of the A21 there does not comply with current design and operational requirements, and there are steep gradients on either side of the village. As a result, any incident or routine maintenance on the existing road quickly leads to delay and congestion. The volume of traffic now passing through the village causes community severance and a decrease in air quality, particularly at peak times and during the summer months. On completion, the bypass will remove approximately two thirds of existing trunk road traffic from the village. That will reduce congestion, delay and vehicle pollution in the village, which will benefit not only residents but those on longer journeys from the M25—perhaps all the way to my hon. Friend's constituency.
As with all improvements to the A21, this scheme is located in the high weald area of outstanding natural beauty; the design and construction of the scheme has consequently been handled in a way that respects the sensitivity of the environment through which it passes. Of particular note is the land bridge that forms part of the scheme. A land bridge is somewhat wider than a normal bridge with space on each side for planting.
As I mentioned earlier, the scheme for dualling the A21 from the end of the Tonbridge bypass to the start of the Pembury bypass entered the Government's targeted programme of improvements in July 2003. In December 2004, the Government announced the investment of £950 million in regional transport infrastructure in the south-east. That is in addition to the £1 billion being invested in national schemes, which includes a major upgrading of the M25.
Even with that level of investment, the number of schemes coming forward was greater than could be accommodated, and decisions had to be made on which schemes could be included in the programme. It was subsequently decided that the A21 Tonbridge to Pembury dualling scheme would be remitted to the regions for advice on priorities. Remitting schemes to the regions is happening throughout the country. We are trying to engage the local regional bodies in informing decisions on major schemes; in the past, the Highways Agency may have had a link with local bodies, but not the sort that we now intend. If the scheme is a priority for the south-east, I am sure that it will be indicated to us through the Highways Agency; the scheme can then move up the agenda.
Will the Minister accept that, as expressed by the Government, the purpose of the "Access to Hastings" study and subsequent consultation was exactly that—to involve the regional authorities and local people so that they could express an opinion on whether improving the A21 was a priority? In a sense, regional involvement has already taken place. Further to that, will he tell us exactly what form the consultation will take, how long it will last and who will be consulted and involved?
Yes, of course. There was consultation on the multi-modal studies, and some good work was done locally, but we are now prioritising the funding. Funding has been allocated to the various regions as fairly as we can, but we now want the local bodies to give an indication of their priorities for funding.
The hon. Gentleman raised previously the link made in the planning permission for a new Pembury hospital. I emphasise that one condition of the planning permission relating to the A21 restricts the level of occupancy of the hospital until the start of construction of the Tonbridge to Pembury dualling, or until the completion of suitable mitigation measures to junctions on the A21 in the vicinity of the hospital. Options are open to the developer as a result, and the Highways Agency is willing to discuss the way forward in order to obtain the full opening of the hospital in advance of the start of construction of the Tonbridge to Pembury scheme if that should turn out to be the case.
May I gently point out that the idea of investing £200 million in a new general hospital at Pembury and not doing anything about the road is a manifestly unco-ordinated strategy? Is the Minister telling us that even if the regional bodies say that it is not a priority, the Government will still want to go ahead with the hospital? If so, how does he propose overcoming the planning condition stating that it cannot be achieved?
Surely the hon. Gentleman will have noted that the Government are providing the funding for the new hospital, as well as the money for the road. He did not say that, and anyone reading the report of the debate might reflect on the probability of either of those things happening under a Conservative Government, if that had continued from 1997, or in the unlikely event of a Conservative Government after the next general election. I have said that whatever the state of progress of the dualling of the section of the road in question, the Highways Agency is willing to consider how the hospital can have a full opening when it is completed.
The Kippings Cross to Lamberhurst improvement entered the Government's targeted programme of improvements in May 2004. The scheme will link the southern end of the Pembury bypass to the northern end of the Lamberhurst bypass. When that scheme and the Tonbridge to Pembury dualling have been completed the A21 will be a continuous dual carriageway from the M25 to the south of Lamberhurst. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that the completion of those schemes in due course will bring significant improvement to the existing A21 through Kent.
In line with the Government's announcement in December 2004 the scheme will not be constructed until after 2008, and it has also been remitted to the regions for advice on priority. Moving further down the A21, the Government are aware of the problems on the section between Lamberhurst and Flimwell. Both the Kippings Cross to Lamberhurst and Flimwell to Robertsbridge schemes will provide journey time and accident savings, with Kippings Cross to Lamberhurst providing the missing link, so to speak, between the Pembury bypass and the Lamberhurst bypass, and the Flimwell to Robertsbridge stretch providing a reduction in community severance.
The Highways Agency has been liaising with the hon. Gentleman about the development of measures to deal with problems at the largest accident cluster on the relevant stretch of the A21, on which I know my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye has a view—the Bedgebury junction on the short stretch of dual carriageway north of Flimwell. It is planned that the measures will be implemented in May, and, together with other small scale safety schemes that are to be brought forward as and when they are identified, they are considered sufficient to deal with the safety issues until a scheme for the upgrading can be brought forward in due course.
The matter of the safety of the Bedgebury junction was identified during consultation on the Flimwell to Robertsbridge scheme. Consequently that scheme has been extended northwards to include the junction and a roundabout is now planned to replace the existing junction. The Flimwell to Robertsbridge improvement is the fourth major scheme on the A21. Hon. Members will recall that it is the one that was abandoned in 1996. Although only a small part of the scheme is in Kent—most of it is in East Sussex—it demonstrates the Government's total commitment to the upgrading of the A21.
I announced the preferred route for the scheme only two weeks ago, on
To conclude, I hope that the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells and his right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling will appreciate that with four major schemes on the A21 the Government are committed to its upgrading. The Lamberhurst bypass will open next week and others will follow in due course. I hope that the debate has been a reasonable airing of the issues, but if the hon. Gentleman wants further discussion with me and the Department I shall be happy for that to happen.