I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for granting permission for this debate. I welcome the Minister and look forward to his response. I also welcome my hon. Friends the Members for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone), for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson), and for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley). I look forward to helpful interventions.
The A14 is the major road in my constituency. It runs east to west—or west to east, depending on one's direction of travel—and bisects Kettering. It runs from the junction of the M1 and the M6, through to the east coast. The bit of the A14 that goes rounds Kettering is known to local people as the A1-M1 link because that was its main purpose for the town when it was built. The A14 is of European significance and has both local and national importance.
Of particular concern to residents in Kettering is the fact that 70,000 vehicles a day go past Kettering between junctions 7 and 10. The road is now straining at the limit of its capacity. Something needs to be done urgently; otherwise the A14 and Kettering will grind to a halt. If any of my colleagues want, to make a helpful intervention at this point, it will be most welcome.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. As he knows, my constituency abuts his. The A14 is the main emergency route for vehicles from Wellingborough to the hospital in Kettering, which is my local hospital. When the A14 gets congested, loss of life can occur, because ambulances cannot get through. I hope that he is aware of that.
Between Huntingdon and Cambridgeshire, in my constituency, there is already intense congestion. As it happens, this debate comes almost on the ninth anniversary of the first time that I, like my hon. Friend, called for the rebuilding of the A14 in my constituency. In theory, we are three years away from the start of works. I hope that the Minister will be able further to reiterate that that work, which is vital to my constituents, will start not more than three years hence. However, from my hon. Friend's points of view, rebuilding the A14 between Huntingdon and Cambridgeshire will further add to the attractiveness of the A14 corridor as a trans-European route, including through his constituency.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and on introducing it in his usual eloquent style. Does he agree that the key issue for the A14 is that it links significant growth areas, including not only south Cambridgeshire and Stansted, but greater Peterborough and the south midlands growth corridor? As such, it is vital that the Government should consider the A14's improvement as part of the growth and infrastructure of those key areas.
My hon. Friend is spot on, and that is the main focus of the debate. We were promised joined-up government in 1997, but I am afraid that the Department for Transport needs to have a closer dialogue—and fairly soon—with both the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Highways Agency if its growth agenda in the part of the world that my hon. Friend and I represent is not to stall.
Another problem is that when the A14 is congested and does not work properly, the traffic spills over into Kettering, adding to the already gridlocked situation in the town and affecting other villages in my constituency, such as Welford, which becomes clogged up with lorry traffic.
The problem with the A14 is bad enough, but it will be added to by the huge number of houses that the Government are imposing on Kettering and the surrounding area. The figures are staggering: in the next 15 years the Government want 52,100 new houses to be built in north Northamptonshire. I asked a parliamentary question the other day about the Department for Transport's working assumption of the number of car journeys a year generated by each new house built. The answer comes to 1.29 car journeys a day. My maths is not great, but 52,100 new houses in north Northamptonshire will mean 468,900 extra car journeys a week—almost half a million more. Because the A14 is used as a bypass round Kettering, it simply will not be able to cope. That is why the Department for Transport, the Department for Communities and Local Government, and the Highways Agency need to come up with a proposal for an eastern bypass for Kettering, to relieve the town not only of the traffic that it already experiences, but of the huge growth in traffic that it will experience in the next 15 years.
The problem in Kettering is compounded by the old road network. My local newspaper, the Evening Telegraph, recently ran a series of stories about the traffic situation in the town, including the junction under the railway bridge, which is described as
"the worst in the...county for...congestion".
That junction is usually bad, but when the A14 is clogged up, it is an absolute nightmare. I say in all frankness to the Government, as I have done on many occasions before, that their growth area agenda for Kettering will not work unless they come up with some sensible road infrastructure proposals for Kettering, Corby and Wellingborough.
I am not the only one to say that, because the Highways Agency says the same itself. It has already imposed a series of article 14 directions preventing development in Corby, not unrelated to the A14. I also have documentary evidence that says that the Highways Agency cannot approve planning applications for developments in and around Kettering unless a solution to the problem of the A14 is found. On the one hand, the Department for Communities and Local Government has imposed a statutory obligation on the local authorities to deliver more houses; and on the other hand, an executive agency, the Highways Agency, says that those houses will not be able to proceed unless the road network is sorted out.
The statutory duty is for 52,100 houses in the next 15 years. There are no improvements in line for the A14 round Kettering in the Government's transport plan until 2017 at the earliest. The situation is the same for other roads that feed into the A14 round Kettering, such as the A43, for which there are no improvements until 2021. Alarm bells are ringing in Kettering, because local people rightly fear that we are going to have the new houses first and that the road infrastructure—if it comes at all—will only follow them. That is completely unacceptable to my constituents.
One does not have to take my word for it. I have here documentation from the Milton Keynes and South Midlands Inter-Regional Board, chaired by Baroness Andrews, and its meeting on
"that there is insufficient A14 capacity to deliver more than 3,000 additional houses in the Corby/Kettering area without provision of restrictive junction access control measures in the short term."
So local residents in Kettering are not only worried about the provision of improvements to the A14 in the long term; we now face the threat of junction access control measures on to the A14. If they are introduced, I can tell the Minister that the traffic will back up along the A43, back up into Kettering and back up into Wellingborough and the area will simply grind to a halt. Worryingly, the document goes on to state that there is
"No guarantee that value for money A14 capacity improvements can be identified, or that they can be afforded or delivered before 2016".
I am using this debate to draw the Government's attention to this very serious problem. The Minister and his colleagues need to get to grips with it, and fast.
Will the Minister confirm that the Highways Agency, North Northants Development Company and Northamptonshire county council are looking at a study into improving the A14, but that the conclusions of that study have been delayed? When is the report likely to be published? When is the Government's response to that report likely to appear?
I have also highlighted the fact that the problems with the A14 are not only of local but national concern because of the strategic importance of the route. I have been supported in that argument by my hon. Friends. Will the Minister confirm that the Department for Transport, together with the Highways Agency, will be providing appropriate funding for improvements to the A14 before 2017? Will he give specific advice on the nature of the various DFT funding schemes that would be available to provide those improvements? Also, will he be doing something to improve the north-south highway network through north Northamptonshire, including giving approval to the southern section of the Isham bypass in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough? Will he confirm that he will encourage the county council to bring forward plans for the dualling of the A43 Kettering to Northampton road?
Will the Minister consider extending the funding of the sustainable towns initiative to Corby, Kettering and Wellingborough to assist in the implementation of the Government's sustainable transport agenda as, under that scheme, the Department has already given £10 million to Worcester, Darlington and Peterborough to encourage people to use sustainable modes of transport?
In the short time available for this debate, I hope that I have stressed that this is an issue of great importance to local residents in Kettering and north Northamptonshire and, as my hon. Friends have highlighted, further afield. I would not want the Minister to leave Westminster Hall without being aware that the local residents in all the constituencies represented here today expect the Government to get to grips with the issue and sort out the A14 before the whole area becomes gridlocked.
I congratulate Mr. Hollobone on securing this debate and making his case. I wish I had his knack and could insist on my hon. Friends making only helpful interventions. Unfortunately, that is not allowed.
The hon. Gentleman and his colleagues make an important case, but I take issue on the implication that somehow the extra housing growth in Northamptonshire is something being done to Northamptonshire by a Machiavellian Government. It is not the Government who are going to buy these houses; it is the people who do so. They decide where they want to live. The businesses of this country decide where they wish to invest and where they feel it is necessary to create jobs. It is necessary for the Government to respond to those forces. That is why it is necessary, as the hon. Gentleman says, to provide about another 50,000 houses in Northamptonshire. I understand that that creates problems and that he and some of his constituents may not like it, but it is the reality we have to deal with, and whoever is in government will have to deal with that reality.
The hon. Gentleman is, however, correct when he says that, having recognised that we will have to provide that housing growth, we have to ensure that it is sustainable and that appropriate infrastructure goes with it. It is not necessary to provide that infrastructure in advance of the growth; it is necessary to ensure that the infrastructure goes with the growth. That is what the Government are attempting to do.
The importance of transport in accommodating growth is beyond doubt. I certainly do not dispute that. Over the past five years, about £70 million has been invested in Northamptonshire through the local transport plan. We need to ensure that that money is effectively invested in things that have appropriate priority to local people. That is why the east midlands, along with regional bodies, local authorities and other key stakeholders, were brought together and asked to provide us with advice on how they wanted to see the local funding allocation spent in the area.
We received that advice at the end of January. On
In addition, since April this year, we have approved schemes worth more than £27 million under the community infrastructure fund—they include the Corby northern orbital road and the Wilby Way roundabout improvement. We are also considering a bid for funding the Kettering and Wellingborough intelligent transport system, which would provide advanced and responsive traffic management facilities within and around those towns.
That is what we are doing with local transport schemes, but the A14 is a core national road which, as the hon. Member for Kettering says, links the midlands with the east coast ports. It is also part of the trans-European network, and those functions must not be compromised by developments that generate local traffic. We are very much aware of his concerns and those of others about capacity on the A14, especially in the Kettering area where there is clearly conflict between local and through traffic, which often causes considerable congestion. As he says, that is seen as a major constraint on the potential for growth. As the hon. Gentleman has also said, the Milton Keynes sub-regional strategy proposes 52,100 new homes in north Northamptonshire, with the county overall set to grow by 99,500 in the 20 years up to 2021. The sub-regional strategy also indicates that the number of new jobs should grow in north Northamptonshire by 42,800, which is a significant level of growth.
With all this in mind, this Government have placed a high priority on investigating potential improvements to the section of the A14 that the hon. Gentleman referred to. In July 2003, the Secretary of State responded to the recommendations of the "London to South Midlands Multi Modal Study" to widen the A14 by tasking the Highways Agency to undertake further work on the A14 Kettering bypass section of the route, with the eventual aim of completing the improvement by 2017.
In response, the Highways Agency commissioned an options study on the Kettering bypass section of the A14 and various improvement alternatives are being assessed. The agency will present its findings to the Department when the study is complete and that will have to take into account the housing and employment growth outlined in the Milton Keynes and south midlands sub-regional strategy.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the delay to that report and certain alternative proposals have been put to the Highways Agency, who would not be doing its job if it did not take account of them. The proposals have been put to the Highways Agency by the local authority and local developers who see a way of providing a solution to the problems identified, perhaps on a shorter timescale than we can deliver the widened A14. At the very least, if we did not consider those options carefully now, it would cause a delay to the public inquiry process because people would immediately ask why we had not considered them. It is important we take a bit more time properly to study the options and we may want to introduce those that provide a more cost-effective solution.
I suggest to the hon. Gentleman and to local developers that it is in their interest that we do this study properly and take account of the other proposals that have been put to us. Following that, if we have alternatives that can be pursued or we need to go ahead with the widening of the A14, we can do so.
No final decisions have been taken on the timing of any improvements, but the statutory process and study work will have to be factored into the delivery timescale. Any major improvement works that might be introduced have to be the right ones and have the support of local stakeholders.
The management of the A14 is the responsibility of the Highways Agency. The Agency's general approach to development and the possible impact on trunk roads is set out in circular 4/2001, which I can provide or the hon. Gentleman can obtain from the Highways Agency website. I have met with agency colleagues and I know that they are endeavouring to be as helpful as possible in the consideration of development proposals. Article 14s are used occasionally when the Highways Agency does not have sufficient information available in order to determine a planning application within the given statutory period. The agency can use an Article 14 to put a hold on the application so more information can be provided and a decision can then be made. That is why article 14s are used, but I am loth to see them used more often than is necessary.
Given that I share the objectives of Government colleagues to see growth in this area facilitated, I entirely share the hon. Gentleman's desire to see it done in such a way that infrastructure is provided hand in hand with the development of that growth. I will be insisting that the Highways Agency work with local stakeholders as expeditiously as possible to move this forward.
I am grateful for the explanation given by the Minister. Would it not be a good idea to move thousands and thousands of cars each year away from the A14 by building a hospital in Wellingborough so that people do not have to travel to Kettering? There are hospitals in Northampton, Kettering and Corby, but not in Wellingborough. Joined-up government thinking would surely conclude that a hospital in Wellingborough was a good idea.
The primary objective of the hospital building programme has to be to make people feel better and to ensure health specialisms are concentrated in the right way, at the right level and in the right areas. Sometimes objectives to provide hospitals of a particular size that are able to deliver the best possible health outcomes to a local population do not entirely align with our wishes in the Department for Transport for a road network. We have to accommodate that tension.
I do not know what the health concerns of the hon. Gentleman's constituency are—although 12 months ago when I was Health Minister I probably would have—so I cannot comment on that. But I can tell him that these are difficult and complex judgements that have to be made. I can understand why he might be campaigning for a new hospital by arguing that that would take some cars off the road, but I suspect that health professionals are probably campaigning for a particular configuration of hospitals that they think will deliver the best health outcomes. That is probably where the priority has to end up. I do not want to get into a debate about hospital services in Wellingborough this afternoon.
I am conscious that the Minister does not see the Milton Keynes and south midlands growth corridor in isolation given that adjacent to it is the Greater Peterborough growth corridor where we will have 21,000 new houses. That will be almost 80,000 new houses over the next 10 years so it is not simply about Northamptonshire.
I want quickly to clear up a couple of points. Mr. Lansley asked about the scheme in the Ellington to Fen Ditton area, further along the A14. Our plans for that road have not changed. However, there are outstanding legal matters and an appeal to be considered. The appeal will be heard in October; obviously, we shall have to take due account of whatever comes from it. When I know more, I shall write to the hon. Gentleman and confirm.
The hon. Member for Kettering asked about other issues. On alternative sources of funding, the A14 is part of the core national trunk road network, so funding for any improvement to it would come from the Highways Agency budget. Potential sources of funding for other schemes in the area are growth area funding, the local transport plan that I have talked about and the transport innovation fund.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about whether the sustainable towns initiative could be extended to Corby, Kettering and Wellingborough. We do not intend to extend the initiative beyond the three towns on which it is currently focused. These days, we expect all local authorities to take account of sustainable development, and I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is likely to be able to exploit that opportunity.
In conclusion, I emphasise again that I entirely understand the need to ensure that infrastructural development and congestion issues are dealt with hand in hand with congestion growth. I am talking to those colleagues, from across the Government, who are responsible for the growth of housing and other developments in the area. We take account of all such issues and are considering alternative solutions. That said, we are well aware of the congestion on the A14 and we intend to tackle it. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is suitably reassured, although I suspect that we shall return to this debate at some time in the future.
Question put and agreed to
Adjourned accordingly at thirteen minutes past Five o'clock.