A555 Relief Road

– in Westminster Hall at 12:58 pm on 6th June 2006.

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Photo of Mark Hunter Mark Hunter Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 12:58 pm, 6th June 2006

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise one of the most important issues facing my constituency. It also affects the wider south Manchester and Cheshire sub-region.

Following the Government's roads review in 1998, long-held plans for three new road schemes in the south-east Manchester area were reconsidered as part of the Government's multi-modal study for the north-west region. The three schemes are: the completion of the Manchester airport link road, west; a new Poynton bypass; and an A6 Hazel Grove bypass. The three roads are all interlinked and together make up what is commonly referred to as the south-east Manchester multi-modal study area—SEMMMS—or the A555 relief road. It is not a catchy name, I admit, but its importance to our area is immense. The plans for those roads, in various different forms, have been on the cards for decades. Indeed, the route of the relief road in my constituency has enjoyed protected planning status for around 60 years, and large numbers of houses and businesses in the locality have been shaped around those plans.

I hope that hon. Members appreciate the patience displayed by local people in my constituency and those neighbouring it. A succession of MPs, including my predecessor Patsy Calton and my hon. Friend Andrew Stunell—who I am sure will give his views this afternoon on the importance of the scheme to his constituency—have fought doggedly to keep the relief road high on the agenda and to deliver a transport network that is fit to meet the needs of our communities.

Since the completion of the SEMMMS strategy five years ago, Stockport council and the neighbouring authorities in Manchester and Cheshire have invested considerable resources, time, effort and expertise into developing the road scheme. That represents one of those rare tripartite alliances at political level, but it has involved considerable co-operation on a professional basis, too. I would like to take the opportunity to pay tribute to the work done by staff in the local authorities who have been involved in developing the scheme.

In addition, the Government have provided substantial funding for aspects of the SEMMMS strategy and other local transport schemes in order to support the wider aims of the project. The public transport and regeneration improvements are welcome and are testament to the multi-modal nature of the project. There are, however, two gaping holes in the SEMMMS strategy that will ultimately determine the success of the policy, and with it traffic conditions in the community for a generation or more to come. The first is the extension of the Metrolink tram network, about which many of us have strong feelings, but which I shall leave for a different debate. The second is the relief road.

As we debate the issue this afternoon, Stockport council has been in the process of re-submitting further technical and financial details to the Department for Transport, as requested, in advance of what we understand will be a final decision this autumn. We have reached an absolutely critical stage of the process, and as decision day looms I am grateful for the opportunity to put the case in favour of the road to the Minister. I hope that she will be able to take on board the views expressed this afternoon.

The case in favour of the relief road is substantial to say the least. For example, consultation with residents and other stakeholders on the SEMMMS strategy, and more recently on the relief road itself, has been thorough and its results extremely positive. Environmental studies have been carried out in a meticulous fashion. The key local authorities involved have co-operated with the Department for Transport's funding criteria and an expression of interest for a private finance initiative bid was submitted to that end. On the finer details of the road itself—traffic analysis, the organisation of junctions, use of land and consideration for other road users, such as cyclists, those using public transport and pedestrians—no stone has been left unturned in developing the best possible solution. It is my firm belief that this work makes a compelling and outstanding case for the construction of the relief road. It will provide value for money and undoubtedly enhance the quality of life for many thousands of residents and millions of commuters.

In the meantime, the relief road scheme has received the backing of local, sub-regional and regional partners, all of whom recognise its importance. The Greater Manchester chamber of commerce supports the plans; Manchester airport—a key economic driver for our region—is in favour; the regional assembly emphasises the strategic importance of the road not just to south Manchester but to the north-west as a whole; and most importantly, local people, who know the roads best, are overwhelmingly in favour of the scheme. During the last major public consultation, approval rates were around the 90 per cent. mark.

I have repeated on many occasions during this long process that a policy of building our way out of the trouble when it comes to traffic congestion is not the solution by itself. That is precisely why this scheme has been designed not to attract extra traffic but to deal with existing levels more sensibly and efficiently. It is also why it is an integral part of a wider package of public transport improvements, including Metrolink, which I mentioned earlier. The simple fact is that the south-east Manchester area has a road network that never has been, and never will be, able to cope with its volumes and patterns of traffic. Previous Governments have ignored and compounded the situation, but Ministers have now been presented with an ideal opportunity to correct and improve matters.

If further evidence of the unsuitability of the current network is required, one has only to look at the existing A555 airport link road. In short, the A555 currently represents a colossal waste of public money insofar as the central section of the scheme was built first, but its beginning and end were never built. It is no wonder that it has been christened by local residents as the "road to nowhere". It stands as a monument to bungled, short-term transport planning and its legacy has been to funnel congestion through Heald Green, Bramhall, Woodford and Poynton—to name just a few of the districts affected. With that congestion has come damage to the quality of life for people living in those areas. Residents in the Cheadle constituency put up considerable opposition to that "road to nowhere" at the public inquiry 15 years ago, and they were right to do so. I believe that they are right now in their support for the relief road and the need for its urgent completion.

The benefits of the scheme as proposed go much further. There are many roads in the Cheadle constituency that simply were not designed to carry the weight of traffic that currently passes over them, which has such a negative impact on the quality of life locally. They include, to name just a few: Finney lane and Wilmslow road in Heald Green; Jackson's lane, Bramhall lane south and Woodford road in Bramhall; and the A34 at Gatley. I have not even mentioned the knock-on effects felt in other communities such as Cheadle and Cheadle Hulme, or at locations such as the A6 between Stockport and Hazel Grove—one of the busiest bus corridors in Europe and a transport route that all too often resembles one enormous, polluting car park.

Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government)

My hon. Friend has made a powerful case, and I hope that the Minister has listened carefully. He has just drawn attention to the A6 in my constituency, and the part of the A555 known as the Hazel Grove bypass will complete the road network in my area. It is a key part of the Government's strategy. It is cost-effective, essential and has broad local support. It is part of a package; my hon. Friend mentioned the tram and rail links. Does he agree that we need the Minister to give the go-ahead to the public inquiry, so that we can roll the scheme forward for the benefit of his constituents and mine, and the whole community of south-east Manchester?

Photo of Mark Hunter Mark Hunter Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

My hon. Friend makes his point in his usual exemplary way. I agree that we are looking for the Minister to indicate that the Government will give the green light to the public inquiry and allow the urgent completion of the road scheme that is so badly needed.

Of course, the south-east Manchester region is not alone in facing severe traffic congestion; I am fully prepared to acknowledge that. We are not alone in lobbying for major improvements, as I am sure the Minister will testify, but the plan is unique in that it is a long-term, sustainable scheme. It is my firm belief—shared by many others—that it deserves the approval of the Department for Transport. To the best of my knowledge, no other scheme has been in the planning for so long while having so much support from so many different sections of the community.

A vast array of information has been made available to the Department for Transport about this scheme—much more than we could possibly do justice to in the short time we have this afternoon—concerning traffic flows, junction design, environmental factors, public transport integration, consultation, cost-benefit analysis and much more. On every count, the SEMMMS A555 relief road comes out positively.

Ministers have made themselves available to speak to me and other Members over the years about the importance of the scheme, and I thank them for that. Without wishing to tempt fate, I have always found their attitude to the scheme to be positive and their responses to be constructive, if slightly more non-committal than I would have liked. However, as I have already said, I simply do not believe that any other transport project has jumped through as many governmental hoops, has overcome as many obstacles and has the backing of such a wide group of interested parties as this relief road.

It is not a cheap project and as we continue to await the Government's response costs will inevitably creep upwards, but its benefits to our region mean that it is worth fighting for. The Minister and the Government have been presented with a chance to deliver a visionary, ambitious and truly integrated transport strategy for our region. I implore the Government to seize this unique opportunity and approve the road. My constituents and many others are depending on it.

Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport 1:10 pm, 6th June 2006

I congratulate Mark Hunter on securing the debate. I have carefully listened to the points that he has made so clearly.

I feel that it would be helpful if I structured my response. First, I will set out the background as I see it; secondly, I will review the progress so far; thirdly, I will review the current state of play; and last but by no means least I will outline the issues before us, many of which I realise the hon. Gentleman appreciates.

To set out the background, the south-east Manchester multi-modal study—SEMMMS—was one of 22 multi-modal studies set up following the 1998 review of the roads programme to consider the case for major schemes on key sections of the road network. An important feature of the studies was that they looked in detail at the contribution that public transport improvements could make to resolving the identified problems on the road network, reflecting the principles set out in the 1998 integrated transport White Paper.

Three linked road schemes were originally planned as trunk road improvements—the A6 Stockport north-south bypass, the A555 Manchester airport link road west and the A555-A523 Poynton bypass—and were all remitted to the SEMMMS. After examining a range of options, the study concluded that those road schemes should be taken forward on a smaller scale than the original trunk road proposals to cater more for the needs of local traffic than for longer distance strategic traffic.

The study recommended that the road improvements should be implemented alongside a package of other improvements including quality bus corridors, light and heavy rail improvements, measures to encourage cycling and walking, and initiatives to encourage more sustainable patterns of travel, all of which I am sure would be welcomed by the hon. Gentleman's constituents. The study also recognised that although some of those measures could be implemented quite quickly, the larger investment proposals would require further detailed development and appraisal before they could be considered for entry into the Government's approved programme of transport improvements. In particular, that applied to the major road scheme proposals.

March 2002 brought our response to the study's recommendations, which invited the three local authorities to continue the development of the road schemes and to bring forward detailed proposals for further consideration under the local transport plan funding arrangements. An issue raised generally by multi-modal studies was that many of them proposed ambitious programmes of investment that, in aggregate, would not have been realistically affordable.

It is worth pointing out that partly because of that experience we have now introduced a much more transparent system for seeking regional views on the transport investment priorities within indicative regional funding allocations. Regional and local bodies have a much clearer picture of the resources that are likely to be available to their region over the next 10 years. We have given them the opportunity to advise the Government on how they think those resources should be allocated to best serve the region's needs and objectives. The advice was received from the regions earlier in the year and we plan to respond to it shortly.

Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government)

Can the Minister confirm that the region offered strong support for the scheme and that the funding package is there?

Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

I will be addressing that point, so the hon. Gentleman will have to be a little patient.

I want to move on to reviewing the progress that we have made so far in implementing the SEMMMS recommendations. Good progress has undoubtedly been made and many of the shorter-term measures are in place. Up to 2006-07 we have allocated £55 million for small-scale integrated transport works and £23 million to the SEMMMS quality bus corridor scheme, which is now well advanced. I am glad to say that that funding is bringing real benefits to south-east Manchester through improved bus reliability and patronage, the regeneration of local and district centres, improved pedestrianisation and cycling facilities, road safety improvements and initiatives to reduce the number of cars on the road. I want to put on record my congratulations to the authorities concerned on the progress that they have made with the measures. I look forward to seeing that continue.

I turn now to reviewing the current state of play. Alongside all the work that I have described, the three local authorities, led by Stockport, have made significant progress in developing and appraising the major road improvements recommended by SEMMMS: the north-south bypass of Stockport, the completion of the link road into Manchester airport and the Poynton bypass. The authorities' detailed appraisal of the proposals and bid for funding was submitted to the Department in July 2004. A number of issues on the transport modelling, scheme appraisal and funding arrangements were followed up over the following year.

In the light of that further work, the Department is satisfied that the transport modelling and appraisal of the scheme is now sufficiently well developed for the purposes of a decision on the entry of the scheme into our approved programme of transport investments. We also recognise that the scheme appraisal produced by the authorities demonstrates that the SEMMMS road proposals would bring significant benefits to the south-east Manchester area, including bringing traffic relief to a number of local centres and the improvement of access to Manchester airport and other employment centres. They would provide a high-quality route for freight traffic from south-east Manchester to access the trunk road network and help to facilitate complementary measures to encourage walking, cycling and bus usage.

However, we have to remember that alongside those benefits there would also be some negative impacts, particularly on the environment. In particular, the north-south bypass of Stockport would run through the Goyt valley, adversely impacting on the landscape and biodiversity of the area.

I recognise that it is now some time since the Department concluded its work on the appraisal of the scheme, and the hon. Member for Cheadle asks why that is so. It would be helpful to outline the challenges that need to be addressed before a decision can be reached. First, I would like to consider the cost of the SEMMMS road scheme. A key factor that has to be very carefully considered is that the SEMMMS road proposals are extremely expensive. Although it is true that the proposed scheme is on a smaller scale than the previous trunk road proposals, the authorities' latest estimate of the cost of delivering the complete SEMMMS road scheme is around £550 million. That assumes that construction will start before the end of the decade and that construction inflation will run at 2.5 per cent. over the period. That cost estimate is significantly higher than that produced for the multi-modal study.

Moreover, evidence has emerged across both the trunk road and the local roads programmes in recent months that suggests that construction inflation has risen significantly more quickly than 2.5 per cent. per annum, partly due to increasing oil and commodity prices. In view of that evidence, departmental officials recently asked Stockport to review the current cost estimate, looking in particular at the potential pressure on construction costs. We are awaiting Stockport's response on that. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that no Government could enter into such a large investment decision without considering carefully the scheme's affordability and deliverability, and the implications for other priorities.

Photo of Mark Hunter Mark Hunter Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I am grateful for the generally positive and supportive things that the Minister has said about the relief road scheme, but does she not accept that it is somewhat frustrating for those who have long campaigned for the relief road to be completed to hear the Government talking about cost escalation, especially given that the delay caused by successive Governments has led to much of the increase in costs over that period? I acknowledged earlier that a substantial price tag was attached, but none the less local residents feel strongly that the Government ought to be prepared to meet their part of the bargain.

Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

I appreciate the frustration expressed by the hon. Gentleman on behalf of his constituents. He rightly acknowledged, however, that previous Governments have failed to respond as he would have liked. I stress the need to take all factors properly into account before taking a decision.

That leads me to the second point: funding and procurement. As is normal with all large transport schemes, we invited the three authorities to explore the possibility of private finance as a means of delivering and funding the SEMMMS road scheme. One of the principal advantages of private finance is that, for such large schemes, it can offer valuable efficiencies in the procurement and subsequent management of the assets over the life of the concession, which is normally 25 years. However, PFI is approved only when it represents better value for money than the alternative of conventional funding.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Government provide financial support for local authority PFI schemes through the system of PFI credits. The amount of the PFI credit broadly represents the amount of capital investment that the Government are supporting financially. The authorities' latest estimate of the PFI credit funding requirement for the SEMMMS road scheme is about £860 million, which covers both construction and future capital maintenance. As I have already noted, we have asked the authorities to update their cost estimate, which makes it possible that the estimated PFI credit requirement will increase further.

Even at £860 million, that is a very large amount of funding. For example, it is more than the Department's total PFI budget for the current year for local authority transport PFI schemes in the whole of England. We must therefore consider the affordability of SEMMMS alongside our other priorities for PFI funding—including, for example, our programmes for street lighting and road maintenance, as well as other major investment schemes. We are still considering the provision of PFI funding for the scheme, which raises some complex issues, but it has to be recognised that delivering SEMMMS as a conventionally funded scheme would raise even more difficult questions on affordability.

As I mentioned earlier, we provided each region last year with indicative funding allocations for major transport schemes over the next decade. In the north-west, the funding allocation starts at £115 million in 2006-07, rising to £135 million in 2014-15. The north-west has an ambitious programme of transport improvements and, even without SEMMMS, it has faced some difficult choices in deciding which schemes to prioritise. It is clear that SEMMMS, at its current estimated cost of some £550 million, would take up several years of the region's allocation if the scheme were to be funded conventionally. It seems doubtful that the region would be prepared to prioritise funding for the SEMMMS scheme by sacrificing a major part of its other scheme priorities.

Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government)

I am sure that the Minister will have papers showing that the public sector contribution to the scheme is £32 million. We are talking about a PFI scheme, which is outside those limits—and that was the point of the refinancing package supplied by the three authorities.

Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

I thank the hon. Gentleman, but that is all that we are considering in reaching a decision. I must tell both hon. Gentlemen that we need to consider how such an ambitious scheme can be funded other than conventionally. It is only right and proper to put those issues before the House.

All of that raises significant issues about the provision of funding for the SEMMMS road proposals. We recognise the good work that Stockport and the other authorities have carried out to develop and appraise the SEMMMS road proposals, and we understand their desire, as well as that of the hon. Gentlemen, for a decision to be made as soon as possible.

We also recognise the importance of the scheme and the benefits that it would bring to the south-east area of Manchester. However, it would represent an enormous investment by Government. We need to consider the risks associated with the scheme as well as our other funding priorities. I cannot today give a definitive date for reaching a decision. I can say only that we aim to work through the issues and to reach a decision as speedily as possible. I anticipate that that will be before the end of the year.

Once again, I congratulate the hon. Member for Cheadle on securing this debate, which has given me the opportunity to set out the position and associated issues in respect of such an important matter.