It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies—I have not come under your gavel before now. It is also nice to see the Minister in his place after his kippers in the Tea Room this morning; I am sure that his little grey cells are all fired up.
I welcome all my colleagues who are here this morning. Between us, our constituencies span just about the whole A47. We have apologies from my hon. Friend Mr Jackson, who has an outside engagement and so cannot attend, but fully supports us, and from my hon. Friends the Members for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) and for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), who may yet appear in a silent role later on. We have pretty well a full team.
Apart from anything else, my reason for calling for the debate is that parts of the A47 run through my present constituency, although boundary changes robbed me of the western part, which is now in the constituency of my hon. Friend George Freeman. The stretch from the east of Norwich almost up to Great Yarmouth is important, but I have learned from harsh experience that we must address the upgrading of the A47 along its whole length. Given our hope of gaining money in the autumn statement—and we are in competition with five other worthy schemes—we should approach the issue from a strategic point of view, although we should of course recognise that we all have constituency-specific issues.
The A47 runs for some 115 miles, from Peterborough through Norfolk to Great Yarmouth. The extra consideration is now the A12 to Lowestoft; my hon. Friend Peter Aldous is here to represent those interests. Over my 17 years as a Member of Parliament, I have seen many schemes relating to the A47 drop off the list of priorities, either because other schemes have come further up the list or because Governments have run out of money. Usually, there has then been a patchwork approach to mending the A47, addressing narrow local problems. Worthy as that is, it is not the solution for the year 2014-15.
I welcome the Government’s investment in the UK’s national roads network and the decision to complete the dualling of the A11. That early decision by the coalition is one we applauded at the time and was at least helped along by the fact that Norfolk and Suffolk MPs hunted as a pack. We knew we had the chance of getting one big delivery, and the Government have delivered it. We hope that the last section will be opened and will make a considerable difference. If, as occasionally happens, there is ever a major accident on the east-west A47 in Norfolk and on the A11, Norfolk literally grinds to a halt. We need to bear that in mind.
The A47 Alliance has been crucial in putting forward a credible case for dualling the A47. The alliance is grateful for all positive announcements already made regarding the A47, including that it will be one of just six routes to benefit from the Highways Agency feasibility study programme. We are in the last six. In this debate, I will merely set the big picture, and colleagues will come in with specific points; I hope the debate as a whole will help move things forward and push the A47 further up the priorities list.
Typical of the work undertaken by the A47 Alliance is its study “A47 Strategic Route: Gateway to Growth”, which has contributions from all councils along the route and, most significantly, from the New Anglia local enterprise partnership. The study is not just the usual wish list that we frequently get from these kinds of organisations; as far as we can tell, it is a well argued business case and has been recognised as such by the Department for Transport. Indeed, the Minister’s predecessor, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend Stephen Hammond, said that he would suggest to other people making bids for routes that they should study how the A47 case has been produced. This is not simply a matter of sentiment, then—there is a strong business case.
As part of the campaign, we have held a number of debates in Parliament—I have had debates on the A47 in the past, as has my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk. Collectively, we have met my hon. Friend the Roads Minister and his predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon, to present our case. My hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon came to Norfolk last year, and I drove him along part of the A47 so that he could get a feel for the traffic and the problems we face in my area. He then progressed westwards towards Peterborough, to see the situation further along the road. The present Minister has also agreed to visit the area as well to see the challenges for himself, which I think may be happening next month.
I realise that the A47 is competing with other schemes for part of the Government’s long-term capital funding. Along with colleagues, I will again put forward positive arguments for the A47 being considered for top funding in this year’s autumn statement. That is the timeline and the opportunity that we have over the next few months.
The A47 is a national trunk road of strategic importance to Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, and should also be of importance to the east midlands and the whole UK. Colleagues will agree that lack of capacity has had a real drag on current business opportunities, with delays and missed opportunities, especially for new investment in the area.
Without a commitment to investment in the A47, other Government priorities for our part of East Anglia will not be met. The Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft enterprise zone will depend largely on the proper development of the A47. The planned growth of greater Norwich and projected housing growth will mean that what is already a difficult situation in the road structure around Norwich will become even worse, and the situation is similar for King’s Lynn, Wisbech and Peterborough. Poor, unreliable east-west transport links will deter investment. At a time when we are also trying to cope with unemployment by attracting new businesses, we have a very strong case indeed to make for the strategic importance of the A47.
Although perhaps not part of a strategic picture, we also have to take into account the problems that local communities along the route face in gaining access to and crossing the A47. I will give one example. East of Norwich, at Lingwood in my constituency, there is a nasty crossing. In the summer, the problems are exacerbated by tourists and in the sugar beet season, dozens of lorries attempt to come across—indeed, the lady in the white house on the corner used to store a full stretcher kit so that it could be put to immediate use before ambulances arrived. I am sure colleagues have other examples.
Such situations increase the chance of accidents. Since Christmas, sadly, there have been a number of serious accidents in Norfolk—I am sure the same is true in other areas—that literally blocked the A47. I have never claimed that the only problem is the lack of dualling. As the police will say, drivers frequently make errors or take chances, but that is partly due to the fact that the A47 is a stop-start road that is single then dualled, so people take risks at the last moment.
Investment will help stimulate economic growth, meet the transport access needs of new homes and possibly reduce accidents. A strategic link between the east midlands, Yarmouth and Lowestoft will also provide greater access to Europe. We in East Anglia look out towards Europe, and Europe has influenced our development. We have very close links indeed. I fear that if we are unable to develop the A47 in the next few years, some European countries that want economic links with our region will look elsewhere.
I assure the Minister that we intend to continue to lobby his Department and, most importantly, the Treasury as we develop our fact-based case. We will continue to feed any new information into the A47 feasibility study. I know that my colleagues will want to take up specific issues to support my case for the strategic importance of the A47.
I conclude by asking the Minister to outline the timetable for the key milestones put forward for the study. I remind him that they are as follows. Completion of stage 1 of the study—evidence gathering and problem prioritisation—was due at the end of March 2014 and I trust that that was met. Completion of stage 2—identifying the range of infrastructure proposals that could address the problems along the corridor—is due at the end of July 2014. Is that on track? Completion of stage 3—work to assess affordability, value for money and deliverability of prioritised infrastructure proposals—is due in autumn 2014. Will the study conclude in time for the autumn statement? Does the Minister have any idea of when we will know the six schemes that are up for the money and when we might have some indication of whether he has reached a conclusion, recognising the fact that the Chancellor will make the announcement in the autumn statement?
The Minister and his predecessor have listened carefully to what we have said and have taken our case seriously. I hope that the Minister will see, from the range of support from colleagues throughout the eastern counties, that we believe the strategic importance of the A47 merits putting us at the top and that we should receive the money in the autumn statement.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Simpson on securing this debate. I fully and wholeheartedly endorse his comments. I want to spend a few minutes outlining why Government support for the A47 would not only complement but enhance the coalition’s range of strategies for supporting growth, particularly in and around Norwich, and, crucially, why a whole-route approach should be taken.
Norwich is a key driver of economic growth and has the highest economic output in the region, but further growth has been held back by poor transport infrastructure across the eastern region. The A47, with the A11 and the great eastern mainline, has been subject to underinvestment for decades. The coalition’s investment in the A11 is extremely welcome, but unfortunately we in Norfolk are playing catch-up.
The section of the A47 immediately around Norwich is already fully dualled, and following today’s debate I hope we will all commit to exploring further the case for dualling the whole of the road. To release further growth in Norwich, we need improvements to a number of junctions, including the Thickthorn and Longwater junctions. I assure the Minister and the Treasury that improvements to the A47 will make an important contribution to unleashing the full economic growth potential of other coalition Government initiatives in and around Norwich.
Full dualling of the A11 will be complete by the end of this year. It will bring great benefits to businesses and the local economy, and improve reliability of journey times for all motorists. Securing funding for the dualling of the A11 was a key infrastructure objective agreed by the Norfolk nine MPs at the beginning of the coalition in 2010. We are grateful to the Government for granting our wishes after 30 years of campaigning in the county.
The A11 meets the A47 at the Thickthorn roundabout, which is also the gateway to Norwich from the A11. This is one of the county’s busiest junctions. It needs an overhaul to improve capacity and that will become increasingly apparent to drivers following the completion of the A11 dualling. Significant housing growth is planned for the area around Thickthorn, including at Hethersett and Cringleford, and a little further south-west at Wymondham, adding further pressure to this key junction, which is a rather unattractive welcome to Norwich.
Plans have been published for a possible solution that would provide the option for traffic on the A11 to bypass the Thickthorn roundabout through a new tunnel under the A11 and a new bridge over the A47. Norfolk county council has commissioned further work on this proposal, and I hope that the Highways Agency will prove supportive in establishing a long-term solution. Due to the housing growth planned in the area, that is needed sooner rather than later.
Norwich research park, which is located just south of Norwich, is accessed through two of the A47’s junctions —Thickthorn and the B1108 Earlham road. Some 11,000 people are employed at the park and it provides world-class research in health, life and environmental sciences through the expertise at the Norfolk and Norwich university hospital, the university of East Anglia and four independent research institutions. There is a need for improved road links and junction capacity to serve proposed growth at the park. The coalition’s 2011 Budget announced £26 million for the park to fund infrastructure and premises to pave the way for developing the campus. The 11,000 staff currently working there could be joined by a further 5,000 over the next 10 years, partly as a result of the coalition’s investment. Improving the A47, including the Thickthorn junction, will help to accelerate growth.
The Norwich research park is also a key element of the Greater Norwich city deal. I was pleased to welcome the Deputy Prime Minister to Norwich at the end of last year, when he signed the deal. I congratulate the local authorities and the New Anglia local enterprise partnership on securing it. The city deal may lead to 19,000 new jobs in key economic sectors, and its approval strengthens the case for improving the A47. Norwich has a great deal to gain from A47 improvements, and eventual full dualling of the A47 will promote new economic opportunities along the whole route, both to the midlands and across to continental Europe.
However, the case for change is not purely economic. Despite being a route of major importance to the region, away from the dualled sections, particularly of the A47, the road can be treacherous. Single carriageway stretches, including the Acle straight to the east of Norwich, are still the scene of far too many casualties. That must change.
As a young boy, I grew up not much more than a stone’s throw from the roadside of the A47 at North Tuddenham. I remember the difference in 1992 with the opening of the Dereham-North Tuddenham A47 improvements and with the Norwich southern bypass. It is hard to imagine how the A47 functioned without those improvements, yet more than 20 years later other key sections are left woefully inadequate.
We need to move away from a piecemeal approach to the A47 every few years, and instead work towards a whole-route plan by establishing the case for full dualling from Peterborough to Lowestoft. Many of us understand that the funding will not be made available in one go, but a whole-route strategy will at least avoid one-off patching work without a sense of how it fits into the big picture.
I hope the Minister has noted that, as with the A11, the A47 is a route that has the full support of all nine Norfolk MPs, plus a few honourable additions from over the border. The Norfolk nine, working with the A47 Alliance, are confident that significant economic and social benefits will be delivered through investment in the route. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Simpson on securing this important debate. Its timing is opportune, as the A47 corridor feasibility study being carried out by the Department for Transport is now at the stage of identifying the range of infrastructure proposals that are required to address the problems that occur along the corridor.
Although the A47 currently runs from Peterborough to Great Yarmouth, the study also includes the part of the A12 that runs from Great Yarmouth to the south side of Lake Lothing in Lowestoft in my constituency. I very much welcome that, as it presents the opportunity to provide a high-quality road to Lowestoft and the Waveney area, which can play a vital role in attracting business and jobs. In due course, I hope that the A47 will run right into the heart of Lowestoft, so as to put the town well and truly on the national road map.
At present, the poor quality and unreliability of the A47 means that it is not the gateway to growth that it should be. Its reliability is adversely affected by collisions and disruptions, often on the single carriageway sections. There are a number of pinch points that cause congestion, deterring business and costing it dear. Those include the Bascule bridge in Lowestoft, the Gapton Hall roundabout in Great Yarmouth and the Hardwick roundabout in King’s Lynn.
One of the most significant challenges that the nation faces today is rebalancing the economy. Investment in infrastructure such as roads has a key role to play in that task. Around the world, an increasing amount of trade and wealth is concentrated in a small number of major cities. In the United Kingdom, we have London, and although it is very good news that we do, that, in itself, presents a challenge—the need to ensure that economic activity is not concentrated in one small part of the country for the benefit of the few. A properly functioning strategic road network has an important role to play to ensure that the regions of the UK perform to their full economic potential. The A47 can do that for the economies of Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk.
As a region, East Anglia is the second largest contributor to the Treasury after London and the south-east. However, this is no time for resting on our laurels, as with the right investment, the region can contribute even more in such key industries as food, tourism and energy. East Anglia is set to play the leading role in supplying the country’s energy needs, not only keeping the lights on, but providing new and exciting jobs. The working life of Sizewell B has been extended, and there are new-build proposals at Sizewell C. The southern North sea gas basin is still in full production with 150 working platforms, and the world’s largest offshore wind farms will be built off the East Anglian coast. To make the most of those opportunities, we need not only good infrastructure, but a strategic approach towards its provision.
I turn to what is being done by national and local government. Last year, the Government published “Investing in Britain’s future”, and they have now followed that up with “Action for Roads”, which sets out a national investment strategy. As part of that strategy, six feasibility studies of major roads, including the A47, are now being carried out. Once those studies have been completed, the Government will publish their road investment strategy later this year.
That strategic approach is very much to be welcomed, as it is important that investment is pinpointed and targeted, and not scattergun. To be effective, individual improvements to the road network must take place in a strategic framework and not in a vacuum. That national work provides the framework in which Suffolk county council, Waveney district council and the New Anglia local enterprise partnership are working up their road improvement plans in the Lowestoft transport and infrastructure prospectus and the options appraisal for a new crossing of Lake Lothing, which is currently being carried out. Those much needed local projects are vital component parts of a regional and national strategy that will ensure that investment in our roads yields the best possible return, in terms of added value to the economy and the creation of new jobs.
Now that the upgrading of the A11 from Norwich to the M11 is almost complete, it is appropriate to turn attention to improving the A47; the road that links Waveney, Norfolk and northern Cambridgeshire to the midlands and the north. The upgrading of the A47 can bring similar economic benefits to the northern part of East Anglia that the A14 has brought to the south. It can provide a boost to ports on its route—Lowestoft, Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn—in much the same way as the haven ports of Felixstowe, Harwich and Ipswich have benefited over the past 35 years from the upgrading of the A14.
The A47 can be a strategic route, linking Europe through East Anglia to the midlands and the north. It is already part of the trans-European network and if it is upgraded, it will provide better connections both to Europe and around the world, not only through those three ports, but through Norwich international airport. It will help attract business from outside the UK, providing vital inward investment.
An improved road is vital if those ports are to flourish. It should be remembered that the poor quality of the A47 was one reason why Norfolkline and Maersk relocated from Great Yarmouth to Felixstowe two decades ago. As I mentioned, industries that will benefit from an upgraded A47 are energy, food and tourism, and it could also lead to an expansion of the distribution and logistics industry in the same way as the A14 has generated such activity along its corridor from Felixstowe to Kettering.
Why invest in the A47? There are three good reasons: the compelling business case; the absence of significant environmental obstacles; and a united front of business and political leaders in the three counties supporting the campaign, backed by the Eastern Daily Press newspaper.
That upgrading should include improving important links. There is the link between the ports of Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft, which is vital as so much of the business in the two towns is interconnected. There is the link to Norwich and its airport; the latter can perform the same role for our region as the airport at Aberdeen plays for north-east Scotland. There is the link to the recently upgraded A11, providing improved access to London and the south-east. There is also the link to the north and the midlands via the A1, providing better connections for East Anglia’s energy businesses to companies in their supply chains in those regions.
Good roads are vital if Lowestoft is to realise its full economic potential. The town needs not only good connections to the rest of the country, but a road network around the town that operates properly. The current congestion is an obstacle to growth.
If Lowestoft is to attract significant inward investment, it is vital that it is on the strategic national road network. Good roads to the town will complement the important initiatives that have been put in place in the past two to three years. Those include the enterprise zone, centre for offshore renewable engineering status for the ports of Lowestoft and Yarmouth, and most recently, the inclusion of parts of the two towns on the assisted areas map for 2014 to 2020. Without good road links, Lowestoft and Yarmouth risk being marooned at the end of the line, and those initiatives will not realise their full potential.
The poor transport infrastructure to the port of Lowestoft and Lake Lothing are holding back considerable potential for creating new jobs. Research recently carried out by Mott MacDonald concludes that a new crossing of Lake Lothing and the upgrading of Denmark road will result in sites being developed more quickly, the creation of a significant number of additional jobs and the generation of £103 million of gross value added per annum. Those assessments take no account of the significant spin-off benefits that will accrue to supply chain businesses.
It is vital important that a clear commitment is provided at the outset to dual the A47 across its entire length from Lowestoft to Peterborough. Full dualling will improve the road’s safety and reliability, reduce travel times and bring significant economic benefits to the area. A patchwork of improvements tackling specific bottlenecks, though welcome, may well bring its own problems, creating new congestion and safety blackspots. Those may well be where sections of dualling come to a seemingly abrupt end. Although I accept that the work will need to be done in phases, the announcement this autumn of a commitment to fully dual the A47 will bring a major boost to investment and regeneration.
I started my working life in Norwich in 1983. At that time, there was one small section of dual carriageway in Norfolk, at Cringleford on the A11 on the outskirts of the city. Just over 30 years later, the full dualling of the A11 from Norwich to the A14 is finally almost complete. I urge the Minister and the Government to do all they can to ensure that the A47 is dualled in a far shorter period.
The Government’s approach to rebalancing the economy and revitalising the regions is the right one. I am referring to the creation of LEPs, initiatives such as enterprise zones and investment in infrastructure: broadband, rail and roads. The Government are right to pursue a strategic approach towards upgrading the national road network. The case for the A47 is compelling. Now is the time to be bold and to set out an ambitious vision that will produce a huge dividend in terms of inward investment, increased prosperity and jobs for East Anglia.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Simpson on securing this vital debate. I will be brief; I will try to stick to the eight minutes.
The A47, as my hon. Friend pointed out, is of key strategic importance. It is the second most important road that links Norfolk to the rest of the region and the rest of the country. Now that, as colleagues have pointed out, the A11 is almost complete, it is essential that we turn our attention to the A47. As my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland pointed out, it is very patchy in terms of dualling. I think that less than one quarter is dualled. That makes it an inherently dangerous road. I shall touch on the overall situation on the A47 first and then consider a number of specific cases in my constituency.
My hon. Friend Simon Wright was right to flag up safety first of all, because we are talking about people’s lives. When we have sporadic sections of dual carriageway, all the safety experts agree that when people come off those dual carriageway sections, traffic is moving that much faster and there will be more accidents; drivers will take more risks. The situation can be exacerbated by slow-moving agricultural vehicles or bad weather. I will come on to a number of unfortunate incidents in my own constituency recently, but there cannot be a single junction along the entire length of the A47 from Lowestoft through to Leicester that has not seen an appalling crash or a fatality in the past 25 or 30 years.
Then we have, as my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland pointed out, blighted communities. We have villages that are cut in half by the A47. When my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich South was a schoolboy, there was less traffic on the roads in the villages that he knew very well, and in the villages that my hon. Friend Peter Aldous referred to, there was less traffic, but we now have a very busy trunk road and villages on which there has been a serious impact. I will come on to that in a moment.
One of the very important themes of the debate is the underlying benefit of this road to the local economy. If it is improved, that will have a huge impact on the economy not just of Norfolk, but of the wider region. Norfolk is growing. In fact, unemployment in all our constituencies has come down very sharply. The average now is under 3%. In my constituency, 500 new jobs have been created in the past year. Those jobs have gone to real people who now have a brighter future.
Let us consider some of the key sectors. My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney talked about the energy sector. I would add to that other sectors. Obviously, tourism has been mentioned. There is also advanced engineering, and I know that my hon. Friend George Freeman will talk about the IT, biotech and life sciences revolution that is benefiting Norwich. There can be a cascade impact from that revolution on other, smaller towns such as King’s Lynn, Wisbech and Dereham if we get the infrastructure that can support existing businesses and attract new businesses into the area.
I have looked at various forecasts of the additional economic benefit to Norfolk from a dualled A47. The figure goes up to more than £1 billion a year if we have an entirely dualled A47, because that will enhance existing businesses, bring in new investment, create new jobs and bring all the other benefits that come from infrastructure that can underpin what is already a fast-growing economy.
I want to talk about two specific villages in my constituency, but before doing so, I point out to the Minister that people’s hopes have been raised in the past. My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney talked about the time when there was only one small stretch of dual carriageway in Norfolk. I think that he mentioned 1984, but in 1978 the South Lynn bypass was built and it was dual carriageway. That raised people’s hopes that we would see a significant amount of dualling along the A47. Then in 1989 we had “Roads for Prosperity”, the Paul Channon White Paper, which promised that the entire length of the A47 would be dualled over the next 10 years but in any event by the turn of the century—by the year 2000. We know that that has not happened. We have had some small improvements; we have had some significant investments—don’t get me wrong. In the intervening time, we have had the Thorney bypass. We have had the section of dualling on the A47 between King’s Lynn and Wisbech, which is highly welcome and has benefited my constituency enormously. However, there has not been a whole-route strategy or any real determination by successive Governments to get a grip of the A47 and give it the priority that it needs.
As I said, I want to talk about two villages in my constituency. On
Unfortunately, that crash was followed a few days later by a very serious collision in Middleton, which is slightly to the west of East Winch. Mercifully, no one was killed, but it was a very serious accident on a stretch of road going through Middleton. The village is absolutely cut in half. There is the school and the village hall on one side of the road and most of the houses on the other. I am very grateful to the Department for Transport for installing a pelican crossing near Station road a couple of years ago. That has been of huge benefit to the village, but we do need to have the 40 mph limit reduced to 30 mph.
However, what we need above all else, as colleagues have said, is an overall, whole-route strategy. We want the Minister today to give us some more information about exactly where his feasibility study is going. I am certainly concerned about what we heard the other day, which was that the study is not currently planning to assess all sections of the road, so, for example, the section between Dereham and Swaffham has been omitted. We want from the Minister a firm commitment that he agrees with us that the entire length of the A47 must be dualled. We do not expect that to happen tomorrow, but we need a commitment from the Government that they will dual this road and, furthermore, that they will announce very soon a number of specific dualling schemes along the route and, in the meantime, a number of smaller schemes to enhance safety and to make the lives of our constituents that much more bearable.
I think that the case is overwhelming. The Minister will see that there is huge support, not just among MPs but among all the local authorities and other organisations. We have an incredibly strong case, and I hope that the Minister will accept it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and to follow my hon. Friends. It is a pleasure to be here today with colleagues from across the whole route—from Suffolk on the coast right across to Peterborough. The A47 is a key economic route of strategic national priority, spanning three counties—an economy artery into the heart of the eastern region. I hope that the strength of that case comes across this morning.
I want to acknowledge that this is the culmination of a very long campaign. I am something of a young whippersnapper joining it. It has been going on for many years. Senior colleagues have been on the case for a very long time. On behalf of colleagues, I want to express our thanks to the Minister and to his predecessor. We have had strong support in the past three years. Successive Roads Ministers have come to visit the area. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer have come and expressed support, and we want to support the work that the Department is doing on the strategic, whole-route basis of looking at roads and their strategic economic priority. It is something of a scandal that this route was never even highlighted by the old regional development agency as a key economic route. I hope that that case is clearly heard.
I want to highlight three key arguments. The region is an economic powerhouse in driving the rebalanced economy, but the A47 is a blocked artery to the region. I want to make a special case for the Cambridge-Norwich corridor and the A47-A11 junction, which my hon. Friend Simon Wright has talked about and which is a potential congestion hotspot that will hold back our region. I also want to touch on the safety aspects, not least in the Dereham to Swaffham section in my constituency.
The Government have rightly placed a lot of emphasis on rebalancing our economy to get us out of the appalling debt legacy that we have faced. As colleagues have mentioned, East Anglia is second only to the City of London as a net contributor to the Treasury. The truth is that we have been woefully ignored over successive decades when it comes to investment in infrastructure. We have been treated as a rural backwater for commuters, pensioners and farmers rather than as an economic powerhouse. In fact, however, if we look at offshore energy, biomedical, clean tech, engineering, food and agriculture, and tourism, we see that the region has so much more to give, but it is being held back.
The Government’s planned investment in rail, road and broadband has the potential to unlock something really significant: a rural renaissance and a new model of growth. No longer will millions of people be condemned to stand like cattle in over-filled trains, or to sit behind the steering wheels of cars on congested roads; they will be able to be productive closer to home in converted farm buildings, in villages to which life has returned and in thriving towns. Not only will the economy grow but people will enjoy a better quality of life. That is why I have talked about the region as a new California. With such investment and with the Minister’s support for the key route of the A47, I believe that we can do more than simply deliver growth; we can deliver sustainable growth for the good of future generations. The housing demand in the region is testament to that quality of life. In my constituency, Wymondham and Attleborough are both getting thousands of new homes, as is Norwich. There are tens of thousands of new homes coming into the area, which will increase pressure on the A47.
I want to touch on the unique case of our science and innovation economy. The Government have rightly put a new emphasis on the new economy and on laying the foundations for long-term economic growth. Norwich and Norfolk are seen as rural economies, but we have the Formula 1 cluster, which includes the Lotus research and development headquarters in the constituency of my hon. Friend Mr Bacon and the Hethel engineering centre, the home of Caterham Cars. As we have heard, 2,500 research scientists are based at the Norwich research park, which is Europe’s biggest integrated life science cluster. It is only 40 miles down the road from Cambridge, and the Cambridge-Norwich innovation corridor is becoming increasingly nationally recognised. Last year with Lord Sainsbury, the chancellor of Cambridge university and a major investor in science innovation in Norwich and Cambridge, I launched the Norwich-Cambridge research partnership. The Government last year launched an agritech strategy for 21st century agricultural technology, and investment is flowing into the NRP and down the Norwich-Cambridge corridor as a result.
We have plans for an international food hub on the A47 just outside Norwich, which will link our agricultural college, the city college and our agricultural community to science on the research park and to our food and tourism industries. Yesterday, I met the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, which has major investments going into an enterprise hub and a new food and medicine institute. One of the most exciting things happening in the life sciences is the merger of food and medicine to create a new generation of functional foods known as nutraceuticals. Norwich and the Norwich research park leads Cambridge in that field; in fact, it is a global centre of excellence. If we can plug it into the regional economy and to Cambridge, and if we can plug that innovation corridor into our wider economy, in the next 20 or 30 years we will be able to do for that sector what Cambridge has done for medicine. That is a national—nay, international—priority, and the A47 is holding it back. If we are not careful, the junction of the A11 and the A47 will become not a gateway to that nirvana of growth but a congestion blackspot that holds it back.
I know that time is short, and I want to conclude by talking about safety. As colleagues have mentioned, for many of our constituents, for whom tomorrow’s economy might seem a long way off, the real issue is those who are condemned to sit in traffic jams and witness near misses every day caused by intermittent dualling. In my rural constituency, there are people on horseback, on bicycles, in three-wheeled cars and on motorbikes. People cross the road to go from village to village. To get to a post office, a pub or a business meeting, they have to cross a national route. Intermittent dualling results in people driving fast to overtake in sections where they can do so, and then slowing down. The A47 is a very dangerous route. Last year, when we had our first Adjournment debate on the matter, there were nine fatal accidents in only a few months. There is a long history of high rates of accidents and fatalities on the road.
I particularly want to highlight the Dereham to Swaffham section, which, for reasons that I cannot understand, does not seem to have been properly recognised in the feasibility study. Will the Minister look specifically at that matter? I know that my hon. Friend Elizabeth Truss stands with me on that, even though she could not be here this morning. We are concerned about the omission of that section from the feasibility study.
We seek a national strategic commitment from the Government to full dualling of the A47, as one of the top six routes nationally. We are realistic, and we know that the bulldozers will not start tomorrow and the whole thing will not be done in one go. Such a commitment would, however, unlock the planning and investment blight that is holding back our area. There is serious doubt in the minds of potential investors that the work will be done, and if we can remove that doubt we will deliver growth.
We do not ask what the Government can do for us; we ask the Minister to give us the tools to enable us to demonstrate what we can do for our country. We do not want a handout. We want to get away from handouts. We want a way in and a way out to unlock the sustainable growth that will allow our region to do so much more for our country. I hope that the power of that message comes across not only from Norfolk but from the whole of our region. The A47 is a key economic national route and we urge the Government to recognise it as such.
I congratulate my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend Mr Simpson, on securing the debate, and I congratulate hon. Members who have contributed so wittily to it. I want to add a couple of points about Norwich to reassure the Minister that we are making not only a three-counties argument or a rural argument, but an urban argument. The improvements we seek are crucial to every point in those counties.
I begin with a reminder that the A47 is intended to connect to the proposed Norwich northern distributor road, a key project that stands to provide a serious economic opportunity for my constituency in two ways. First, it will open up further economic opportunities; indeed, several businesses to the east of my constituency are already opening new sites in a business park that is set to be near the start of the NDR. The other major piece of infrastructure that will be served by a better route linking to a fully dualled A47 is Norwich International airport, and I will come on to that in a moment. We are competing both nationally and internationally in some important areas, and the airport is crucial to those.
Secondly, the proposed NDR will be vital to my constituents for reasons that my hon. Friend George Freeman has touched on.
Today’s problem—this morning’s problem, from about 7.30 am until 9.30 am—is people trying to get out of their driveways in areas of my constituency where there is simply not enough road capacity, and where they cannot drive at more than 10 miles an hour once they have done so. That is a problem in places such as Barkers lane in Sprowston and plenty of others. What we do not have in Norwich at the moment is a northern ring road. The NDR would function as such and, crucially, would link to the A47 to relieve congestion. In addition to the economic opportunities that it would present, it would bring jobs and result in a better quality of life for my constituents.
I want to place a fully dualled A47, and the projects to which it would connect, in the context of the improvements in infrastructure that our whole region needs. Colleagues have amply covered the importance of the fully dualled A11, and today we are, of course, dwelling on the need to dual the A47 fully. I want to describe two further improvements that we need, although I am not setting out a menu of choices from which the Minister can pick; I emphasise that we want all these things. The two points that go alongside road projects are improvements to rail and improvements to broadband. Together, those infrastructure improvements will mean that Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire are open for business.
Let me return to the point touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk. The issue is primarily one of meeting a capacity need. East Anglia has one of the highest rail passenger growth rates—that alone would almost be reason enough for me to be leading the Norwich in 90 project, which I am and of which the Minister is aware. That is but one component of the full-scale upgrade required to bring our railway up to scratch. The same point stands regarding our road network capacity. East Anglia is one of the few parts of the country that is a net contributor to the Treasury. Passengers and drivers therefore deserve better than infrastructure that is creaking to an early grave.
If road, rail and broadband are improved, that could be said to put Norfolk in the fast lane. We could argue that we want Norfolk to be in the fast lane; indeed, we do make that argument. But before that, we need to be pulled out of the slow lane. We have to make both arguments at once. We need the Minister to recognise a two-step argument—we need to be rescued from disrepair and disinvestment, and then we need to rev up to compete nationally and internationally.
Let me turn to the ways in which we must compete and the exciting opportunities we have to do so and to have jobs come to Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire. I could make the point that my hon. Friends the Members for Waveney (Peter Aldous) and for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) would make: we need to compete with Belgium by having the ports and surrounding infrastructure required to supply the full chain that sits behind our offshore and energy industries. That supply chain often comes to Norwich. Some of the digital and creative industries we have in Norwich can compete in Hollywood. I can name one business that supplies companies in Hollywood with high-quality creative work, but its employees occasionally have to decamp to their own houses to use better and faster broadband than is available in their offices. That is another example of why we need an infrastructure package to come together.
To return to the example of Norwich International airport, we are competing with Australia and the middle east to provide high-quality, excellent aviation training. We can argue in so many ways that we can be the silicon valley of Britain, not only in life sciences and the digital and creative industries but in aviation training, which is a specific strength of Norwich International airport in my constituency. Inside Britain, we can compete every day for both private and public investment. The rail and road opportunities we are discussing today, packaged together with broadband, are what will make Norwich, Norfolk and the adjoining counties open for business and bring more jobs to our constituencies.
At a time when it appears loud and clear that Labour would like to take Britain back to the 1970s, I will finish by urging the Minister to listen to the people of Norwich and Norfolk, who in fact prefer the 21st century.
It is a great pleasure to take part in this debate and to follow many esteemed colleagues, including those from Cambridgeshire and Suffolk, who are most welcome. I hope that the Minister has heard enough to convince him that Norfolk is not a sleepy backwater, but a major centre of world-class innovation in a variety of different disciplines relating to agriculture, science and engineering.
Some years ago I was in the United States on a State Department exchange. I was shadowing a Congressman in Iowa and tried to explain where I was from. It rapidly became clear that they knew exactly where I was from—“Oh, you’re from where the Norwich research park and the John Innes centre are.” I do not know how well known those places are domestically compared with internationally —they should be better known domestically—but it is important for people to understand that we have the greatest concentration of plant and food scientists in Europe, and that it is world-renowned.
The John Innes centre is not alone: we have the Institute of Food Research, which is a world leader in harnessing food for health and preventing food-related diseases; the Genome Analysis Centre, a world-class centre for the study of genomics; and the Sainsbury Laboratory, which is independently ranked as first in the world, along with the John Innes centre and the impact of its research on plant and animal sciences.
There is so much more. In addition to plant science and biotechnology, we have pharmaceuticals and health care, and food, nutrition and health, as my hon. Friend George Freeman mentioned. We have not just things such as agritech and crop breeding, but medical technologies and diagnostics, clean tech, low-carbon energy and information and computing technologies. We could do even more.
I was delighted when some years ago the Chancellor announced a £26 million investment in the Centrum building, and I had the pleasure of performing the topping-out ceremony last November—I poured a bottle of locally-brewed beer over the completed superstructure. We are looking forward to the completion and opening of that building in July.
There is still more, and more that would benefit from a proper road infrastructure. I also have the Hethel engineering centre in my constituency. A few weeks ago,
I attended the opening of the second extension to the building, having attended the opening of the first a few years ago. It is a business centre dedicated to supporting the growth of high-performance engineering and manufacturing businesses in the region—something that the Government very much need.
I hesitate to mention any of the names of the tenants at Hethel, because it feels invidious—there are so many high-quality businesses—but I will give some examples: Syrinix is a signal processing, software and electronics integration company; Ansible Motion designs and manufactures motion platforms for high-end motorsport and road car driving simulators; Proeon Systems provides engineering design consultancy and software development for complex gas turbine control applications; NexxtDrive creates hybrid-capable transmission systems; and PhaD engages in research and development for innovation across a whole range of engineering and applied sciences, providing engineering, mathematical and technical expertise. There are many others.
The potential for what could happen at the Hethel engineering centre is considerably greater than what we currently have, because although it has made tremendous progress, the real prize is the 75 acres of land that sits behind it. Group Lotus is a major local car manufacturer and global engineering consultancy. I am pleased to say that it has recently been making big improvements after some difficult times. Only half of its business is car manufacture; the other half is global consultancy to a range of motor manufacturers around the world. The land between the Hethel engineering centre and Group Lotus has the potential to become a science and engineering park, based on the principles we have seen at the Norwich research park, that could rival Harwell in Oxford.
I have a photograph that I will show to the Minister afterwards, because I do not think that Hansard will be able to pick it up. If he looks at this aerial photograph of Harwell, he will see what is possible. Harwell has a whole range of different disciplines, focusing on medical devices, space-detector systems, computing, green enterprise and so on. We want more of that. By the way, the A34 near Harwell is already being improved because of what is going on there.
We will not get the investment required to turn around the 75 acres, and ensure that we get the high-end, high-value-added jobs that we need, unless we can persuade investors to come. We will not succeed in that unless we can show them that the Government are committed to the area’s infrastructure. I strongly sympathise with what my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk said about East Anglia having been in some ways left behind in the race for infrastructure, despite the fact that we contribute so much to the Exchequer and that our population contributes so much to other parts of the country through paying rail fares into the rail premiums.
We have been left behind. I know that the Government understand that and have started to do something about it. We are very grateful for the dualling of the A11—it is long overdue—but that is only the start; the job is not finished. The A47 is supposed to be part of a trans-European network. It is supposed to be one of the strategic routes for not just the east of England or the UK, but the whole of Europe. It is extraordinary that the old regional development agency did not even focus on it.
Nevertheless, we could do so much more. We have been held back by poor infrastructure, and it is time for that to change. The Minister will have noticed how colleagues from across Norfolk have collaborated to ensure that the message is hammered home. We have missed out for too long, and as Members of Parliament in Norfolk, we are determined to ensure that that changes.
I am not sure that my hon. Friend Mr Simpson has often been likened to Cinderella during his 17 distinguished years in the House, but I hope that in the autumn statement he will finally get to go to the ball, because he has campaigned on this issue throughout those 17 years. He is absolutely right to say that the matter has been dealt with on a piecemeal, patch-and-mend basis. As a result, issues have been stored up—nowhere more so than in Fenland, which I have the privilege to represent.
I am sure it will surprise the House to learn that in the whole of Fenland fewer than two miles are dualled, yet Fenland is one of the country’s leading areas for the haulage business, which is linked to the food production of the fens. Haulage is a significant player within the Fenland economy, and yet the transport infrastructure does not reflect that.
Adjacent to Fenland, Peterborough is one of our fastest growing cities. If one looks at the core strategy for Fenland, one sees that significant housing is planned for the area. At a time when some other parts of the country are resistant to delivering on the Government’s housing intentions, this is an area that can unlock the housing required, if the Government meet us halfway in delivering the necessary transport infrastructure.
On the holistic view across Government, another area where potential benefits can be leveraged from the A47—benefits often not captured in the Treasury rules currently measuring the scheme—is around the College of West Anglia, which has seen significant investment: a £5 million new teaching facility and a £7.5 million engineering faculty have recently been built. If we are to attract businesses to the area, we should take into account that they do not look only on a linear east-west or west-east route; they look on a north-south axis as well. Frustration is felt in areas such as north Cambridgeshire, although the Government have made real progress with the Cambridge city deal and new transport improvements. For example, Cambridge airport has this week launched two new services to Dublin and Amsterdam.
Such services are attractive to businesses considering north Cambridgeshire as an area, but they will be restricted if other parts of the transport network do not connect. That aspect is not always captured in the feasibility and benefits assessments under Treasury rules. For international businesses in the global race that are considering the Cambridgeshire fens as an attractive place to do business, the east-west transport nexus combines with the north-south improvements to deliver a much greater bang for the buck. As the Minister will know, the A47 scheme also connects with Wisbech rail, which I am sure he has had an opportunity to look at in recent weeks in relation to the discussions with the local enterprise partnership in terms of leveraging that.
My second point concerns the lack of alternatives to the A47. Last year, the four-mile stretch between Wisbech and Guyhirn was subject to routine road maintenance, and the highways authority diversion was 52 miles. That was the Highways Agency’s official diversion. There was a considerable cost to business and motorists and also a safety issue; it took the heavy haulage traffic off the route, which is a route of European significance, and on to minor roads where motorists are not familiar with such traffic.
So the road has strategic significance to the region. The economic benefits that we can leverage are not only from the route itself; they combine with the city deal in Cambridge and the innovation in the south of the county, and with the significant growth potential of areas such as Peterborough. My hon. Friend Mr Jackson fully supports my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland. He would be here, but he has an important constituency engagement.
I will not delay the House with the specific issues within Fenland where action is particularly required. Those points have been made to the Minister through the A47 Alliance. He will be familiar with the Broad End junction, the demand forecasts of around 34%, the significant congestion from Wisbech to Guyhirn, and some of the localised challenges.
I want to close with an issue that has not been raised and is unusual for a road scheme. I am talking about the significant benefits that an upgrade to the A47 would offer bus users. The X1 runs along the route of the A47; it is unusual because it runs for more than four hours along the whole route. I have spoken to the bus company, and one of the things that has to be factored in is the significant delays in the timetable, because of the unpredictability of the transport on that route. If someone is setting a timetable, they need to build in capacity for delays on the route.
The scheme does not benefit only the life sciences businesses to which my hon. Friend George Freeman alluded. It does not connect only with airports such as Norwich, which Simon Wright mentioned and which I highlighted in relation to Cambridge international airport. It also has a benefit to bus users in an area where public transport is particularly poor.
I am very interested to hear my hon. Friend make that point, because David Lawrence, the principal of Easton and Otley college—an agricultural training college in the west of my constituency—has told me that he has to arrange transport for his students, and pay for it from his college budget, to get people from as far west as the Norfolk-Cambridgeshire border. People not familiar with the area may not understand the distances that people have routinely to travel to engage in activity of any kind.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He has highlighted one final point that I want to make. He and I have sat through many Public Accounts Committee hearings in which transport schemes have been put forward that overestimated the benefits and underestimated the costs. We have a paradox here. We have a region that will deliver greater benefits than have traditionally been forecast, and the potential of the scheme has been undervalued throughout the 17 years that my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Broadland has been in this place. In today’s debate we have heard about the significant economic opportunities that the scheme offers and about the wider benefits: it links to airports and there are benefits for bus users and for road safety—an issue that has touched far too many families across our region and on which action is timely.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Davies. I add my congratulations to Mr Simpson on securing the debate. I understand that when he launched this phase of the A47 campaign—hon. Members have referred to a phase of the campaign; it was not started recently—he did so by driving a Union Jack Mini Cooper along the road from King’s Lynn to Great Yarmouth. It is a lovely car. It was an Oxford-built Mini, and, from a strictly parochial point of view, I remind him that it was the original Longbridge-built Mini that Autocar readers voted the best ever British car the other week. Both are great British cars. If he had been driving the old Mini, it would have said something about how long the campaign for the A47 had been going on.
Many hon. Members have spoken and they have made a powerful case. They have explained why upgrading the A47 is a regional priority not only to improve connectivity with the midlands and the north, but to boost economic growth and improve safety on the road, too—an important issue. The case has also been highlighted, as hon. Members have said, by the EasternDailyPress. I will not add to those points.
The case has been made powerfully by the A47 Alliance —an additional 9,600 jobs; an estimated £400 million gross value added a year; and enabling the area’s knowledge and research industries to grow, which hon. Members have also stressed today. This is a cross-party issue. The Labour-led Norfolk county council has also championed infrastructure improvements. Indeed, my office was talking just the other day to Labour’s Jessica Asato in Norwich.
I should like to focus on how this scheme could fit with the Government’s overall approach to infrastructure. Ministers will be trumpeting the proposed tripling of investment in the strategic road network, which is expected to be £3 billion by 2020-21, and perhaps the Minister will do so today. He has to recognise, of course, that when the Government entered office they pulled nearly £4 billion from the planned investment in our strategic roads and the Highways Agency budget for capital investment was cut from £1.6 billion in 2010-11 to just £877 million in 2013-14. Those are not my figures, but those of the National Audit Office.
Those cuts meant that a number of shovel-ready schemes were pulled, including major upgrades to the A1, A14, A19, A21 and, yes, a section of the A47 as well —not the whole scheme, admittedly, but the £26 million Blofield to Burlingham scheme, one of seven scrapped by this Government in the 2010 spending round, despite its having a cost-benefit ratio of 7:1.
Ministers now seem to have woken up to the importance of investing in infrastructure for the long term. I welcome that, but unfortunately it follows years of indecision and delay. As it stands, the Government’s national infrastructure plan is a long wish list of schemes. We may have heard about major progress being delivered in the autumn statement, but the truth is that a lot of those schemes were actually okayed by the previous Labour Government. Perhaps the Minister will tell us why just a third of the 646 projects in the most recent version of the plan will have been started by 2015—just 10% of the promised investment.
Hon. Members have talked not just about the A47 scheme’s being about unlocking the strategic road network, but about its importance in the local road network. Again, I ask the Minister to think about the fact that Norfolk county council’s integrated transport grant, which covers schemes for buses and cycling as well, has been cut by 80% since 2010-11.
Delivery of the A47 scheme is important, but I am not convinced that we are getting it. Other hon. Members made that point.
I should like to ask the Minister about the feasibility studies to tackle six of the worst road spots in the country. In April 2014, the six scope documents for these feasibility studies were finally published. Let us be clear and understand that, although these documents set out the aims and objectives for the feasibility studies and proposals regarding problems that need to be solved, they do not include plans of action. The scope documents prepare for studies that will then, presumably, be subject to further review and public consultation. As my right hon. Friend Mr Brown put it so eloquently last week in respect of the A1, which is in a similar position,
“What accounts for the delay between the tentative announcement of yet another study and the setting up of the study? What is left to be studied of this much-studied question?”—[Hansard, 8 May 2014; Vol. 580, c. 267.]
Perhaps the Minister will explain why it has taken 10 months to draw up these initial scope documents. Will he answer the point made by the hon. Member for Broadland about whether we can be confident about what will happen by the autumn?
The total cost for undertaking the feasibility studies is projected to be £2.5 million. Can the Minister tell us what is actually being studied as being feasible or not? Are costed and timetabled plans being assessed or is something else being assessed? If it is something else, what is it?
This matter is important, because the Government also recently announced that they wish to set up a wholly owned Government company to replace the Highways Agency. That has attracted a lot of attention. The Transport Committee published a report recently saying that it was unconvinced by a number of the Government’s arguments on that. I am interested in what the Government say in response to the Committee’s criticisms and should like to ask the Minister how that relates to the issue we are discussing.
How is the Minister’s feasibility study on the A47 meant to fit in with the proposed new arm’s-length highways agency? If the feasibility studies following the scope studies, which are then going to be studied themselves, do come out in the autumn, does the Minister then expect a decision to be made on the basis of the feasibility studies before or after the proposed creation of the new wholly owned Government company, whatever it will be called? Its working title is the new GoCo.
Will a decision on the issue then bind that new arm’s-length highways agency or does the Minister expect the matter to go to that agency to be considered, perhaps even—who knows?—for it to do its own feasibility study on this project? I should like the Minister to be just a little bit clearer on how the feasibility study fits in with the timetable and decision-making terms and with the creation of his new arm’s-length highways agency.
The whole story shows the importance of long-term thinking on infrastructure. All Governments have failed to do that in different ways over the years and that must be tackled. That is precisely why Labour has asked Sir John Armitt, chairman of the Olympic Delivery Authority, to consider what is needed and why it is producing plans for a national infrastructure commission to get over this and get the long-term thinking that we so desperately need into the system. Will the Minister back that proposal for a national infrastructure commission?
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Simpson on securing this important debate on the strategic importance of the A47. I know the subject is of great importance to him and a number of other hon. Friends, and I am aware that he has long campaigned for improvements to the route.
The A47 is an important trunk road that connects Norfolk with the midlands, and improving it has been considered by successive Governments. I recognise the strategic importance of the corridor and therefore of finding solutions to its problems. I plan to visit that stretch of road next month, although I am no stranger to it, having returned from my visit to the Norwich North by-election not so long ago, where my hon. Friend Chloe Smith had such a glorious victory. Indeed, I know the area well, having spent a season driving a combine harvester during my student days.
In terms of this Government’s commitment to infrastructure investment, we have already announced increased levels of Government funding to deliver improvements all around the strategic road network, targeted at supporting economic growth. Our commitment to deliver a step change in future investment in transport infrastructure was made clear by the Chancellor in his statement of
I will now comment on points that have been made during the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Broadland talked about a competition. I should like to make it clear that this is not a competition in which there can only be one winner. I hazard to suggest that there will be a degree of success in all six areas that we have identified. His campaign—he talks about hunting as a pack with his colleagues from that part of the world—has certainly highlighted the importance to the whole region of improving the A47. I pay tribute to the A47 Alliance for its work in that regard.
My hon. Friend asked about the timetable for announcements and mentioned the autumn statement. I suggest that he makes sure he gets a place for the autumn statement, to hear what the Chancellor says. As my hon. Friend said, we will complete stage 2 by the end of July, and we will be ready to make announcements by the time of the autumn statement.
My hon. Friend Simon Wright brought a coalition aspect to the debate, and he mentioned the importance of the A11 junction at the Thickthorn roundabout, the B1108 traffic signals and how the potential of the Norwich research park may be unlocked. He, like all Members, stressed the importance of looking at the whole route. It is good to see that hon. Members are not only campaigning for their bit of the route but understand the holistic approach that is needed.
My hon. Friend Peter Aldous talked about the A12 south from Great Yarmouth. He talked about how roads can rebalance the economy and how that could unlock the potential of Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft. My hon. Friend Mr Bellingham talked about safety issues. He drew my attention to the tragic accident in East Winch and how, in many places, the road cuts villages in half, which can make it difficult for people to access village halls or schools on the other side of the road.
My hon. Friend George Freeman described himself as a young whippersnapper, and I suggest that we all feel like young whippersnappers in the presence of my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk talked about the importance of science and innovation to the economy of East Anglia and how investment could fan the white heat of technology, to use Harold Wilson’s words. He also mentioned the importance of food, biotech and engineering to the area. We are considering the Dereham to Swaffham section, which I make clear is not omitted from the study.
My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North talked about the NDR and the importance of Norwich airport. As the Minister with responsibility for aviation, I understand the importance of our regional international airports. I know her constituency well for that reason. My hon. Friend Mr Bacon mentioned that Norfolk is now a serious high-tech county in many sectors, and he name-checked several successful businesses in his area.
My hon. Friend Stephen Barclay mentioned the importance of the road haulage industry. One of the problems on the single carriageway sections of the A47 is that there is a 20 mph difference between the 40 mph national speed limit for trucks and the 60 mph national speed limit for cars, which in some cases can lead to reckless overtaking manoeuvres by car drivers due to the frustration of following slow trucks.
I endorse the Minister’s point, which is that the difference in speed limits often causes accidents and road safety issues, as well as having a significant economic cost. For transparency, I draw the attention of Members to the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, as there was a donation to my association in 2010. Due to both road safety and economic impact concerns, there is considerable desire in my constituency, and I am sure in others, to consider increasing the speed limit for heavy goods vehicles to ease the discrepancy.
The Government are considering that measure. The Scottish Government are considering a trial on the A9 north of Perth, where there are particular problems, with a view to increasing the speed limit for trucks to improve safety on the road.
I know my hon. Friend Brandon Lewis would have liked to contribute to the debate, but his ministerial duties precluded him from doing so. I am sure he would have mentioned the importance of the Acle straight and Great Yarmouth to the energy industry.
Richard Burden talked about the stop-start investment in roads. I am proud that we are tripling investment in roads, and we must not forget that when the Blair Government came into power they announced a moratorium on new road building, even though they had the money to build roads. Later in that disastrous period of government, they had to cut road building because they ran out of money. When we took over, we had to make some tough decisions because of the dire financial position that we inherited. Fortunately, things are looking a lot better, which is why we are able to invest in infrastructure generally, not only in roads but in the conventional rail network and our new high-speed rail network.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the GoCo through which we will deliver many of the infrastructure projects. That is part of our long-term plan to deliver better value for money for the taxpayer. I am sure we will have opportunities to discuss that across the Dispatch Box.
On the timetable, assuming that this idea is approved in the autumn statement, will the GoCo have a further look at the proposal, or will it have been approved at that stage? What is the timetable?
The whole point of the GoCo is to get on with these jobs, not to delay them. I can allay the hon. Gentleman’s fears in that regard. Network Rail works in that way, and it does not tend to delay rail projects; it tends to deliver them efficiently.
I met a number of hon. Friends in February to discuss the updated proposals put together by the A47 Alliance in its “Gateway to Growth” prospectus. The updated prospectus is an excellent example of how a range of local and regional interests can work closely together to set out the case for future Government investment. The prospectus sets out a targeted programme of improvements to both the strategic and local road networks. It details some 19 specific schemes, with indicative costs and timings.
I will now set out how my Department will consider options for future investment. My hon. Friend the Member for Broadland highlighted the issues on the A47 and the potential for those problems to be exacerbated by planned developments and growth in the region. He will know that the Government recognise those issues and the importance of transport infrastructure to supporting the economy. He will also know that we are committed to identifying and funding early solutions to the long-standing problems on the A47 corridor, initially by undertaking a feasibility study. The A47 corridor feasibility study was announced by the Secretary of State for Transport on
It may be useful if I say a little more about the approach we are taking, as the feasibility study is the mechanism by which we will identify early solutions to the problems on the A47 corridor. The study’s aim is to identify opportunities and understand the case for future investment solutions on the A47 corridor that are deliverable, affordable and offer value for money. Although much of the work has been done previously, agreement has not been reached on the solutions. It is therefore important for us to carry out the study to ensure that we understand the priorities for the corridor and that proposals for investment demonstrate a strong and robust economic case for investment, demonstrate value for money and are deliverable. As part of the study, we have committed to engage with stakeholders to develop and agree the detailed scope of the work. My officials discussed the proposed scope of the work with stakeholders at a meeting in Norwich in late January, and they considered the views expressed before finalising and publishing the scope on
The study work will be conducted in stages, with the initial stage aiming to identify the current and future challenges along the corridor, taking account of local growth plans and priorities. We have built on existing evidence bases and previous study work, including the evidence collected as part of the Highways Agency’s route strategy process and evidence presented in the A47 Alliance’s “Gateway to Growth” prospectus. We are now concluding that stage of the work. We will continue to engage with stakeholders throughout the life of the study.
I again congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland on securing this debate. I have made it clear that the Government are committed to, and have set out plans for, large-scale improvements to our national strategic road network in the relative short term. The Government have also committed to developing a longer-term programme of investments through the route strategy process.
Through the A47 corridor feasibility study, we will work closely with local stakeholders to ensure that we consider current and future transport problems and the range of possible solutions that could address those problems. As I said, it is important that proposals for future investment are clearly supported by local stakeholders—which the presence of so many Members underlines—and that there is a clear consensus on what is required. Ultimately, any proposals for future investment need to demonstrate a strong business case and the delivery of both transport and wider economic benefits.