It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Anderson, and I thank Mr. Speaker for granting me this debate. He has been generous in providing a series of debates on the expansion of north Northamptonshire to both me and my hon. Friend Mr. Hollobone. I thank the Minister for his attendance, and I hope that this debate will be constructive and that he will be able to provide answers to my questions and concerns. I look forward to his response. I also thank my hon. Friend for attending. He will try to catch your eye, Mrs. Anderson, later in the debate. He works tirelessly on behalf of his constituents and, like me, he has grave concerns about the road infrastructure in north Northamptonshire.
The A45 and A14 are east-to-west trunk roads passing through or near Wellingborough. My constituents must use one or both roads to get about in their daily lives, and they are both extremely busy. The A45 and A14 trunk roads feed into the M1 and are the main links through the constituency to the east of England. They are extremely well used, extremely busy and extremely underfunded.
It seems that things are set to become much worse for my constituents who use those roads. The Government are forcing 52,000 new homes on north Northamptonshire in the next few years as part of the south midlands and Milton Keynes spatial core strategy. That equates with about a 50 per cent. rise in the number of existing homes. Moreover, plans for two large developments in my constituency—Wellingborough East and Wellingborough North—have already been submitted to the planning authority. They will not happen in the future; that huge increase in development is happening now, but where are the plans for the infrastructure to support it? Who knows? That is what I am trying to find out.
The fact is that there are no plans to improve capacity or to carry out major and necessary improvements to the A45 and the A14 in time for the increased development, increase in population and increase in the number of vehicles. What is even more worrying is that it is not just our roads that will fall behind; it is our local public services, which are already stretched to the limit with the current population. In Welllingborough we have no hospital, a demolished secondary school and no available NHS dentist.
Let us consider one issue—the hospital. One might ask what that has to do with the road infrastructure. As there is no hospital in Wellingborough, my constituents must travel by car or, in an emergency, by ambulance to Kettering or Northampton general hospitals. If they go to Kettering, they must use the A14; if they go to Northampton, they must use the A45. When those roads are congested or blocked my constituents' journey time to hospital could be severely delayed, which in turn could be life threatening. I have argued strongly that there is a moral and financial case for a hospital in the Wellingborough and Rushden area. If we had such a hospital, at a stroke thousands and thousands of car journeys along the A14 and A45 every year would not be necessary. If there were any joined-up government thinking, there would be a plan for a hospital in the Wellingborough and Rushden area—but of course, there is not.
Today, the Institute for Public Policy Research report confirms that outside London, Northamptonshire has seen the largest influx of workers from eastern Europe. Even more worrying is that we have been told that a third of the new development will be used by migrant families from eastern Europe.
I run a rolling survey in my constituency as part of the "Listening to Wellingborough and Rushden" campaign, which lets me know regularly what is of most concern to my constituents. For the first time ever, the latest survey shows that immigration is local residents' No. 1 concern. A year ago, that was not an issue, and did not even register. It is now a concern because of the huge impact on public services, including our major roads, which cannot cope with the amount of new development and increase in population.
There was a recent borough council by-election in the Redwell ward, which adjoins the proposed Wellingborough North development. It is a safe Conservative ward and the Conservatives easily retained it. However, for the first time, a British National party candidate stood, and he stood on the issue of overdevelopment and lack of infrastructure, including the state of our roads. He received more than 15 per cent. of the vote and beat Labour into third place. That should be a wake-up call for all mainstream politicians in north Northamptonshire.
Before I talk about specific housing developments in the very near future, I want to relate how overcrowding on the A14 and A45 creates not only long delays and frustrations for those who must use them, but the more serious effects of underfunding our roads: casualties and accidents. In 2004, there were five fatal casualties on the A14 and one on the A45. By 2006, the numbers had risen to eight fatal casualties on each road. Since 2004, the number of fatal, serious and slight casualties on the A45 has risen dramatically. In 2004 the total number of casualties was 96. In 2006, it was 194. The casualty reduction target set by the Highways Agency for the number of casualties on the A45 in 2006 was 149. The actual number of casualties was 194. That is about a third more than expected. Something must be seriously wrong if targets are being missed by such a large proportion. That was the situation in 2006, before the extra development took place.
The A14 and A45 trunk roads are part of the Highways Agency's area 88. Within that area it also manages the A1, A421, A428, A5 and A43. The total number of casualties on all those roads in 2006 was 907, of which 447—almost half of all casualties in that year—happened on the A14 and the A45. Again, it does not take a rocket scientist to realise that accidents and casualties on those two trunk roads are too frequent and too many. The reason is lack of planned infrastructure and lack of funding to improve those roads.
One issue on which I have campaigned at Westminster and in my constituency is the lack of improvements to the Chowns Mill roundabout at the A45/A6 junction at Higham Ferrers. The "Listening to Wellingborough and Rushden" campaign demonstrates what is wrong with the system. Chowns Mill interchange is a roundabout designed for 4 roads. It now has five roads going into it. A grade-separated junction is desperately needed at Chowns Mill to alleviate the enormous congestion caused by the short-sighted and inappropriate layout. There have also been a number of accidents and casualties at Chowns Mill because, although small improvements have been made, they have been so minor and confusing that drivers are still unsure about which lanes to use. I used that roundabout recently and was in the right lane to head forward when a car shot straight across me. I do not believe that that was a bad driver; I just think he was confused by the road layout.
The campaign for improvements to Chowns Mill roundabout has been led by my constituent Mrs. Julie Nacca, who had an accident on the site. She was so incensed by not being able to get anything done to improve the roundabout that she started her own petition. I presented that petition to Parliament in March 2007. I would like to praise Mrs. Nacca's hard work and dedication in raising the matter with the relevant organisations and in trying to get improvements from which everyone can benefit.
The campaign has resulted in a meeting between the parish, district and county councils, the Highways Agency and me. It was universally agreed that improvements should be made, but then things went horribly wrong. The decision was made by an unelected, undemocratic, unaccountable quango: the East Midlands regional assembly. The assembly is a regional organisation based in Leicestershire. It might vaguely know where Wellingborough is, but certainly would not know where Higham Ferrers is and would have no idea of the problems at Chowns Mill. The assembly refuses to make the improvements at Chowns Mill a priority and does not put it in its forward plan, which covers the next 15 years.
Mrs. Nacca, Councillor Derek Lawson, who has also been campaigning on the issue, and myself met the chief executive of the East Midlands regional assembly at the end of last year. We were told that these desperately needed improvements to our road system would not be carried out, regardless of the amount of new development, the numbers of new businesses and the increase in new vehicles that would soon be on the A45. We were told that there was no chance of the grade-separated junction being put into the programme.
Two new major developments planned for Wellingborough in the immediate future are Wellingborough East and Wellingborough North, which includes Upper Redhill and Pulse Park. Some 3,200 houses have already been approved for Wellingborough East—or WEAST as it is more commonly known—and more than 3,000 homes are planned for Wellingborough North. Moreover, plans will shortly be submitted for a new development east of WEAST, which will include thousands of new homes and will create a new urban conurbation. Where does that development lie? Right on the A45. It is my understanding that the Highways Agency does not have any proposals for major improvements to the A45 between the M1 and the A14 in the next 15 years. I would be interested to learn whether the Minister has any updated, more encouraging information on that. The Wellingborough North development, for which there are two planning applications at the moment, will cover more than 3,000 new homes that will be linked by the A509 directly to the A14. That will mean more houses, more people and more traffic for the A14.
It is clear that the Government have a blinkered approach; they have tunnel vision and can only see houses. They are determined to build thousands and thousands of new homes in north Northamptonshire. Those homes are already being built, yet the Government have no serious, structured or firm plans for improving the road infrastructure. If they were to take their blinkers off, they would realise that the A14 and the A45 are heading for complete gridlock.
I am delighted to be here to support my parliamentary neighbour, my hon. Friend Mr. Bone. He works tirelessly day in and day out for his constituents, and I congratulate him on securing this special and important debate.
It is obvious to anyone who lives in and around Kettering that the A14 needs urgent attention. There are far too many accidents on the road and it is getting increasingly congested. Kettering simply will not be able to cope with the thousands of extra houses unless the A14 is improved fast. The Government and the Highways Agency have dithered for far too long over this issue, yet it is the most important infrastructure improvement that Kettering needs. Local roads are becoming more and more congested, and the Kettering rail service is to be cut back. The strain on existing public services is increasing as each month passes. Unless the Government agree to guarantee the additional infrastructure that Kettering needs, the plans for housing expansion in the area need to be radically scaled back or stopped altogether.
The Government's overall plans for Kettering envisage 13,100 new dwellings by 2021, which would increase the population of the borough by one third. There are to be 145,000 new houses across the county as a whole, increasing Northamptonshire's population from 660,000 to 1 million. Yet the current situation with the A14 is that there are no official plans to improve the road around Kettering until 2017 at the earliest. However, more than 70,000 vehicles a day already use the A14 around Kettering and the road is at capacity. Specific detailed plans to improve the A14 have been awaited for at least two years. Growth in local traffic is such that the Highways Agency is now considering restricting local vehicular access on to the road through so-called demand management measures. Planning approval for large-scale housing expansion to the east of Kettering, possibly involving up to 5,000 homes, simply cannot proceed until improvements to the A14 are announced.
BB Developments and Buccleuch Estates have submitted to Kettering borough council, of which I am proud to be a member, a planning application for 5,500 houses to be built to the east of Kettering. Without guidance from the Highways Agency that plans are to be put in place to improve the A14, Kettering borough council is unlikely to be able to make a decision either way on the application within the requisite timetable. That is likely to lead to an appeal by the applicants to the planning inspectorate, which would involve the council in a costly and lengthy planning inquiry. Likewise, plans to develop the old scrap yard site at the junction of the A43 and the A14 near Broughton are blighted until firm proposals for an improvement to the A14 are announced by the Department for Transport.
Since being elected in May 2005, I have asked a series of parliamentary questions about the A14, and the timetable for an announcement about the road continues to slip. In July 2005, the answer given was:
"The HA has commissioned an options study, and is currently gathering information and constructing a transport model for the area. The study is expected to report in February 2005".—[Hansard, 20 July 2005; Vol. 436, c. 1793W.]
"I have asked the Highways Agency to submit recommendations on potential improvements this autumn."—[Hansard, 15 May 2007; Vol. 460, c. 459.]
In September 2007, the answer was:
In November 2007, the Minister said:
"The Highways Agency is investigating possible low-cost improvements to the A14 around Kettering with a view to assisting the delivery of growth...This study is due to report early next year".—[Hansard, 14 November 2007; Vol. 467, c. 246W.]
At the other end of the A14, Government plans for the Catthorpe interchange with the M1 and the M6, which is used by 100,000 drivers every day, continue to be delayed. A £200 million improvement scheme was announced in December 2006, with works to start in 2009. However, plans are still being prepared and have yet to be presented to a public inquiry. Only £500,000 has been spent on interim improvements since the announcement of the scheme, and the interchange approach continues to be subject to frequent accidents.
The A14 is one of the most congested roads in the country. It is a killer road and it will block all the Government's plans for developing the local area. The Department for Transport needs to make an urgent announcement about how it intends to improve the road, and the improvements need to be delivered extremely quickly.
I congratulate Mr. Bone on securing the debate. Normally, I regard the debates in this Chamber as being slightly less partisan and political. On that note, I will try not to rise to the bait thrown by the hon. Gentleman—although I might not try particularly hard. He cleverly managed to get into a debate on the A14 and A45 a reference to the absence of a hospital in his area. I will not go down that path because I am sure that you would call me out of order, Mrs. Anderson, and rightly so. However, I hope that when he makes a press release of his comments in today's debate, he will make it clear that no party in the House of Commons has pledged to provide enough money to the health service to build a new hospital in his area. I will return to that theme, but you will be relieved to hear, Mrs. Anderson, that I will do so only in relation to the general roads issue.
Many hon. Members on both sides of the House have reservations and are disappointed that the regional transport boards in their areas have not prioritised schemes local to their constituencies. It is totally understandable that hon. Members in that situation feel disappointed. However, I return to the theme: no party in the House of Commons has suggested a change—well, perhaps the Liberals, but their economic policies are based largely on rainbows and pixie dust. No serious party has suggested any change at all in the level of funding that is allocated through the regional funding allocation.
That presents the hon. Members for Wellingborough and for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) with a challenge. They talk about schemes that would undoubtedly improve the A45 and the A14, and it is perfectly acceptable and totally understandable that they wish to see improvements in that area. However, if they are disappointed that the regional transport board in their area has not given priority to those schemes and they believe that the schemes should indeed be prioritised before 2016, I think it was—of course, I would never think that they would be anything other than honest—I hope that, given that the pot is limited and will not be added to, they will suggest which other schemes that have been prioritised by the regional transport board in that region should be dropped to allow the schemes relating to the A14 and A45 to proceed.
I understand the argument that the Minister is making, and it would be perfectly reasonable and fair if it was not for the huge expansion imposed on the area by the Government. The Government said that we would have the infrastructure improvement necessary for those new homes, but we have not seen it. That is the difference between our area and other areas.
That is a perfectly valid concern and I will come on to it. Nevertheless, even allowing for the very significant housing growth planned for the area, we are still left with an accounting sheet with a balance of money that will not be added to by the present Government or any hypothetical future Conservative Government. Therefore, priorities have to be decided on and if one scheme goes into a different column, another scheme has to come out of that column. I understand the campaign that the hon. Gentleman is pursuing and it is perfectly understandable that he should do so. I am simply reminding him that money is not limitless and that no party is suggesting that that money will be added to. Therefore, serious decisions have to be taken, if not by him, certainly by the regional transport board, which is responsible for drawing up the priorities.
I hope that I can get most of my comments out of the way before the end of the debate, but of course I am happy to write to the hon. Gentlemen if I do not deal with some issues. I am aware that the hon. Member for Wellingborough participated in the recent Adjournment debate secured by the hon. Member for Kettering about consultation on housing developments and that he emphasised the link between developments and infrastructure. He will not be surprised this afternoon to hear me echo the points made by the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend Mr. Wright, in closing that debate.
Housing growth is one of the Government's top three priorities, alongside education and health. We are building homes to meet the aspirations of this and future generations. We are proud of that; it is the right thing to do; and we make no apology for it. Housing supply has not kept pace with demand over decades, and affordability has worsened as a consequence.
Since 2001, housing growth numbers nationally have increased for new build by about 40 per cent. to about 185,000 homes every year. However, we need to do more, which is why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set a new target of delivering 240,000 homes a year by 2016. Of course, I recognise the provision of infrastructure as critical to the delivery of the Government targets for housing growth, not just to help to unlock the growth that we need, but to develop the sustainable communities that we all want. The importance of transport in accommodating growth is beyond doubt. I certainly do not dispute that.
Between 2001 and 2021, 101,000 new homes are planned to be built in Northamptonshire, with about 52,000 of those in north Northamptonshire; a rate of 2,600 completions a year on average. In addition to housing growth, the East Midlands regional spatial strategy sets a goal of 43,800 new jobs in north Northamptonshire by 2021. Clearly, those growth projections present significant challenges for transport, particularly the road network focused on the A14 and A45 trunk roads.
The two-lane dual carriageway A14 runs immediately south of Kettering and north of Wellingborough. It forms part of the trans-European network, linking the west midlands, M6, M1 and A1 with the container port of Felixstowe, and consequently it carries a large proportion of heavy goods vehicles. It also acts as a bypass for Kettering, which is one of its most congested sections, carrying 70,000 vehicles every day. The Kettering section has closely spaced junctions with other major road corridors, some of which share parts of the A14. Consequently, much of the congestion on the A14 round Kettering is caused by local traffic "junction hopping". That section also has an above average number of accidents, as the hon. Member for Wellingborough said. The A45 trunk road is an important and busy south-west to north-east link between the M1 at Northampton and the A14 at Thrapston. Between the M1 and Stanwick, the A45 is a two-lane dual carriageway. Between Stanwick and the A14, it reverts to a single carriageway.
Let me make it clear that the Government are committed to ensuring that housing growth is accompanied by the infrastructure needed to deliver sustainable development at local level. However, I must stress that 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, which is what we are doing. As the hon. Gentleman will know, north Northamptonshire has been the focus of considerable ministerial activity to that end. My hon. Friend Dr. Ladyman, when he was a Transport Minister, had a number of meetings with local partners to discuss the growth and infrastructure, and more recently my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for Transport, visited the area to discuss the position. Those meetings have proved extremely valuable in progressing matters.
Since 2003, the Government have invested substantially in growth areas and growth points. Northamptonshire has been allocated more than £150 million in growth area funding. The hon. Gentleman's portrayal of his constituency suggests that it is one of the poorest areas of the country and that it has been very hard done by when it comes to central Government spending. I suggest to him that that is not entirely accurate. My Department has provided £8 million of funding for the "Getting Northampton to Work" programme and is supporting the reinstatement of passenger rail services at Corby. We have invested £84 million in Northamptonshire through the local transport plan process over the past five years. In addition, we have approved schemes worth more than £21 million under round 1 of the community infrastructure fund. Those include the Corby northern orbital road and the Wilby Way roundabout improvement.
The A509 Isham bypass and the Corby link road are already included in our approved programme of major schemes, and the A509 Isham to Wellingborough improvement scheme is being considered for programme entry by the Department. There are also a number of schemes in the county that are the subject of expressions of interest for funding under round 2 of the community infrastructure fund.
Of course, investment alone will not provide sustainable communities. The emphasis must be on working with local and regional partners to ensure that policies and delivery plans are properly joined. To that end, we are working closely with the North Northants Development Company and its stakeholders to agree a package of interventions to deliver the planned growth in north Northamptonshire without compromising the trunk road and local road network.
However, I would not like to give the impression that we have only recently turned our attention to addressing the problems on the A14. Following the report of the London to south midlands multi-modal study in 2003, the then Secretary of State instructed the Highways Agency to work up a scheme to widen the Kettering bypass. A number of different options were assessed, but that work did not result in a viable solution being identified on either affordability or value for money grounds.
When that became apparent, the Department for Transport, the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Highways Agency, the Government office for the east midlands, Northamptonshire county council and other stakeholders formed a joint working steering group led by the North Northants Development Company. The group's brief was to develop and agree a package of interventions to deliver the planned growth in north Northants without compromising that growth or the A14 and the local road network.