I beg to move,
That this House
has considered road infrastructure.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan. I am conscious that many right hon. and hon. Members are in the room; I shall try to give way as much as I can and leave time for other Members to make speeches.
It is somewhat fortuitous that this debate is taking place today. According to the front page of The Times—I am sure it can, as ever, be believed—today is the day when the transport investment strategy for the next decade is to be announced, which will include a £1 billion per year fund to allow local authorities to bid for bypass projects. Can I be the first hon. Member in this House to make an oral application to the Roads Minister—for bypasses for Little Common, off the A259, and for Hurst Green, off the A21? I am sure I will not be the last applicant today.
Both those roads are busy, single-lane A roads that cause congestion and danger through two villages in East Sussex. They have the misfortune to be managed by Highways England. If the Roads Minister came and visited both roads—he would be absolutely welcome—he might be surprised that they are part of the Highways England portfolio. The reason is that they are deemed to be trunk roads, off the A27 and M25 respectively. The villages badly need to be bypassed, but Highways England naturally focuses its resources on the motorway or dual carriageway network within its portfolio.
As my colleagues here today will be aware, there are only 11 km of dual carriageway in the entire county of East Sussex. My ask is that the new fund should be accessible for local authorities to deliver bypasses, even if that bypass would be off a Highways England road. It is a misfortune for the two roads that I mentioned that they are controlled by Highways England—it is illogical—but my concern is that the new, £1 billion fund is available only to local authority-managed roads. That would be an obstacle for those two roads. I ask the Roads Minister that the issue of qualification should be type of road, rather than the entity managing it.
The A21 is a trunk road that runs from the M25 through Kent, then through East Sussex and down to the coastal town of Hastings. Highways England is continuing the dualling from Tonbridge to Tunbridge Wells in Kent, but it thereafter turns to single file when it enters East Sussex—a bit of discrimination, I would say, that benefits Kent. Some miles further on, the road goes through the heart of the village of Hurst Green in my constituency. In 2014, the A21 was deemed by the Road Safety Foundation as the most dangerous road in the UK—so much so that one section of dual carriageway that we do have in East Sussex has been closed and coned off as a single carriageway due to the dangers of speeding.
A bypass for Hurst Green was in the pipeline and homes were purchased by Highways England, but it was postponed in the 2010 spending review. Now those homes are being resold. Last year, Highways England announced that it would introduce average speed limits on to the A21, from the end of the new works at Tunbridge Wells all the way down to Hastings. Although that would not improve or remove the congestion, or decrease travel times, it would perhaps do something about the appalling safety record.
The villagers and I were therefore dismayed to find out last year that Highways England had decided that that work would not be forthcoming and that better options are available. None of those options has been given to us. I am afraid it just compounds our issue in East Sussex: that Highways England does not appear interested in our road network.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned a dual carriageway where one lane is closed off because of speeding. Does he have any views on average speed cameras, which the Scottish Government have installed on some roads in Scotland? They meet a bit of resistance from drivers but have been proven to make roads safer and they control speeding on those roads.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point. The project put forward by Highways England was to have average speed cameras all the way down through the village—there is a primary school in the heart of the village. The A21 was modelled on a road in Scotland—it may be the one he referred to—which apparently reduced the traffic accident rate by 80%. We were very excited to copy that fine example from Scotland, so were dismayed when the scheme was cancelled. I very much take the point and I hope Highways England will do so as well.
My second example is the A259. Again, that road is managed by Highways England, unfortunately for us. It runs along the Sussex coast and takes over from the A27, which itself is in bad need of dualling, as championed by my hon. Friend Maria Caulfield, my right hon. Friend Nick Herbert and others. As the A259 approaches Bexhill at a village called Little Common, it acts as a dangerous bottleneck. Again, the village was due to be bypassed, as part of Highways England south coast trunk road, which was due to come from Devon all the way to Dover and give us a much better transport system. That was scrapped in 2001.
Fortunately, a new link road was built by East Sussex County Council and our local enterprise partnership, with Government funding, and has opened between Bexhill and Hastings. It opened last year and has delivered not just improved journey times, but 50,000 square feet of land for a business park and 2,000 new homes—it is as much a business road as a transport system.
East Sussex County Council and our local enterprise partnership are now building a second road off that new link road, so we are effectively now two-thirds through bypassing a town of 40,000 residents. The last remaining section is for a bypass around the remainder of Little Common, which would deliver a bypass for the entirety of Bexhill and make it easier for the Sussex coastal towns to join up.
I have asked my local authorities and the local enterprise partnership to consider whether the housing infrastructure fund—the £20 billion fund announced by the Chancellor last year—could be tapped for Hurst Green and Little Common. The issue is that, having delivered the link road with its room for 2,000 houses, the local authorities rightly feel that they have already delivered housing and do not need any further. I will certainly be asking them to apply for the new bypass fund, but we first need clarity from the Roads Minister that they will be allowed to apply, given that the road is managed by Highways England.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. On housing, would he agree that particular consideration needs to be given to key arterial routes that link major motorways, such as the A5 in my constituency, which connects the M69, M1 and M42? It is already under huge pressure, and will be even more so due to proposed housing and the development of High Speed 2.
I agree. Perhaps my hon. Friend will agree with me on some of the points that I will come on to talk about with respect to Highways England and some of the problems that many hon. Members may have had in facing that agency.
At the A21 reference group, which I sit on with my right hon. Friends the Members for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) and for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd), we asked Highways England representatives what we could do to dual the rest of the A21 all the way down to Hastings: how we could commission an economic study and what boxes that study would need to tick in order to meet Highways England’s programme. I am afraid to say that the Highways England reps before us displayed a lack of dynamism and a “no can do” attitude, which is caused, in my view, by the fact that it has no competition on its strategic road network programme for building.
The link road that I described was delivered by a small outfit called Sea Change, in conjunction with the county and our local enterprise partnership. They were able to deliver that road to time and cost. I ask the Roads Minister whether it is possible to let counties, LEPs and their agencies put tenders together to bid for Highways England- managed roads. I put that proposal to the chief executive of Highways England during a sitting of the Transport Committee, on which I sit, and he claimed he is confident that Highways England cannot be beaten on value for money. Let us put that to the test and allow others to tender for the work.
Time does not allow me to speak for much longer, because I want to let others in, but I want to open up the debate by talking about a few more points. This is about not just building more roads, but ensuring that the roads we currently have are moving for traffic. To that end, I would like traffic enforcement provisions to be moved from the police to the local authority for moving traffic offences. I would also like there to be some form of compulsion to ensure that local authorities that still rely on the police to enforce parking on the highways take responsibility for that. There are only 15 remaining, and two of those districts are in my authority. As a result, it is a free-for-all when it comes to parking and blocking up space.
For the visually impaired—I have some sympathy, having undertaken a guide dogs test in a blindfold—we have to ensure that it is an offence to park on the kerb outside London, as it is inside London. We have to change the situation. I would also like new roads and existing roads to encourage cycling. London does a great deal for cyclists, and I would like that practice to be adopted throughout the country. I will finish my speech now to allow others to make their own cases.
Order. Before I call the next speaker, I am minded to put a limit of five minutes on speeches. I am not going to do that at this stage; I am just going to ask people to exercise some self-denial, bearing in mind that 13 or 14 Members want to speak. I would be grateful if Members kept standing if they wish to contribute to the debate.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan. I congratulate Huw Merriman on securing this important debate. We heard about the need for improvements to the A21 and the A259. Given that the road investment is reaching a critical phase, this is a timely discussion.
Improving road infrastructure is a priority for many of our constituents. I was proud to be part of a cross-party campaign to secure the widening of the A453—the main trunk route between Nottingham and the west midlands. The project has improved the lives of thousands of my constituents.
I want to focus on two of the immediate issues confronting the Department for Transport: the delivery of the road investment strategy and the condition of local roads. The investment strategy was launched to significant fanfare. More than £15 billion was promised for investment in motorways and major A roads. Unfortunately, two years on, the progress report is decidedly mixed. Highways England is failing to meet its target for maintaining road conditions, as the Office of Rail and Road warned in February. The pledge to resurface 80% of the strategic road network, which was so widely trumpeted, is also set to be missed. I hope the Minister will update hon. Members on what the actual figure is likely to be.
Most seriously, the delivery of new capital investment schemes worth £11 billion is also in doubt. Many hon. Members might be familiar with Network Rail’s current problems. Major projects were committed to at an early stage in their development when there was a limited understanding of their costs and deliverability. I am concerned that a similar story looks to be playing out on our roads. In the ORR’s February update on capital planning, the regulator warned that there are significant differences between the initial cost forecasts and the latest estimates, and that the investment strategy
“is not fully demonstrated to be affordable”.
There is currently an £800 million gap in Highways England’s capital works budget, on top of the £140 million of extra funding that the Department granted last year. Those overruns are at least partly due to headline-grabbing claims taking precedence over realistic pledges. I therefore suggest that those who are dusting down their bids for a bypass do not start to celebrate just yet.
Internal Highways England minutes that I obtained through the Freedom of Information Act blamed the cost increased on a
“lack of focus on affordability in an environment where an emphasis has been placed on the imperative to deliver as quickly as possible”.
Given that 60 projects—more than half the total—are due to begin construction in the final year of the road investment period, there will be an exceptional strain on Highways England and external contractors. The regulator said that there is “limited evidence” that the construction timetable is “deliverable or efficient”. That could have a knock-on effect on investment in the roads investment strategy, too, so we need to look at which projects are priorities within the strategy.
Prioritisation is very important, but, moving away from Highways England, does the hon. Lady agree that local authorities find it difficult to allocate funds to produce feasibility studies and business cases to move projects forward? There has been a problem in my constituency with moving forward the York outer northern ring road, which is regularly congested—many constituents call it a car park. Does the hon. Lady agree that if the bypass fund is properly targeted, it might allow local authorities to move some of those long-term projects forward?
I will come on to the role of local authorities, but there needs to be certainty about costs and affordability.
To return to the national network, there was a clear case for ending spending on removing the hard shoulder from more than 500 motorway lane miles. Those proposals were taken forward despite an inadequate evidence base, safety fears, concerns from the emergency services, and drivers’ unwillingness to use the former hard shoulder lane, as evidenced by Atkins’ recent review, which the Department commissioned.
It was reported last week that the Transport Secretary has ordered changes to the roll-out of the scheme, including the fitting of more refuge areas. Will the Minister confirm that those reports are accurate? If so, will there be a formal statement to the House? What is the expected cost of those changes? The Transport Committee raised that issue and suggested that,
“the proposed schemes be replaced by schemes based on the M42 Active Traffic Management design.”
It may be slow, but we know it will be safer.
The priority for many drivers is the fixing of damaged local roads, not the strategic network. Potholes do not just impair the quality of driving, extend journey times and damage vehicles; they are a real safety risk for drivers and cyclists. Everyone is a road user, so tackling the poor condition of our local roads should be a national priority.
It is projected that by 2020 the spending on roads will be £86 per head, whereas the spending on cycling will be reduced to just 72p per head. Does my hon. Friend think that, when we are talking about road infrastructure, we should include cycling, which Huw Merriman mentioned?
My hon. Friend is a doughty advocate for cyclists. Of course, when planning investment in our roads, we should consider the needs of all road users, including pedestrians and cyclists.
According to the Department’s own data, spending on routine maintenance has fallen by 30% in real terms since 2010, and the situation is set to get even worse. We have to consider the amount of funding available, especially in the light of the emerging problems on some of Highways England’s projects. It is time for Ministers to look again at whether we have the right mix of national capital spending and local revenue allowances.
I am conscious of time, so I will just mention a couple of things. This is not just about spending more; it is about being smarter—that relates to the point made by Julian Sturdy. With annualised budgets, councils are forced to adopt a rather limited patch-and-mend approach, with the result that the busiest roads often receive temporary repairs over and over again. In the longer term, that is a highly inefficient approach to maintenance. The Department should look at the case for granting local authorities their highways budget up front for a period of five years, which would enable the entire resurfacing of the worst affected roads. It should not be in the business of writing blank cheques, but that mechanism could allow longer-term planning to take place.
Before I finish, I will say a quick word about suicide prevention, which has perhaps not received widespread attention but which should be prominent on the Department’s agenda. Obviously, every death is a private tragedy, and the recovery stage can be a traumatic process for staff. With about 1,000 suicide attempts on the strategic road network every year, we urgently need a national road suicide prevention strategy. We know from the railways that we can be effective and make a difference, but the best time to incorporate changes into new infrastructure is at the design stage. The Highways England health and safety five-year plan commits the organisation to establishing a suicide prevention group and developing an action plan by March 2018, but that is three years into the investment strategy. That is not good enough and I urge the Minister to prioritise the issue and to instruct Highways England to bring the work forward.
Many challenges confront road infrastructure in this Parliament, and on some important points the Department needs to change course. I appreciate that many hon. Members are waiting to speak, but I hope the Minister will address the points I have raised when he replies to the debate.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Huw Merriman on initiating this debate.
I will talk about the A27, which runs through my constituency. It was envisaged as a coastal highway although, as anyone who has travelled along it knows, it is too often a coastal car park. Stretches of dual carriageway give way to very congested spots that cause severe delays. Every single day, 25,000 traffic movements, most of them not local, pass through the historic town of Arundel, with severe delays every morning and afternoon. That exacts a price from the local economy in the relatively deprived areas of West Sussex—there are some, in fact—and places such as Littlehampton need better transport infrastructure. Sussex Enterprise estimates that the cost to the local economy of poor infrastructure links, including a poor rail service, is £2 billion a year, so there is certainly an economic case for upgrading the A27. There is also, however, an environmental case, and that is important.
The consequence of traffic queuing for long periods at Arundel is of course air pollution. Furthermore, people seek to avoid the congestion in Arundel either by rat-running through the historic town itself, which makes for high volumes of traffic there—so often the story up and down the country is that towns and villages suffer as a consequence of delays and of people seeking to avoid those delays—or by making the south downs suffer. In order to get from east to west, people will go above Arundel, driving up through the south downs.
The South Downs national park is therefore affected, and so are its villages and adjacent villages. Storrington, just above the national park, has some of the worst air quality in the whole of south-east England, caused by queuing traffic. It is important to weigh claims that the construction of a much needed bypass at Arundel might damage the environment against the environmental damage caused by queuing traffic and traffic passing through the national park.
On one route, an Arundel bypass would have to pass through a short section of the South Downs national park, but the A27 already passes through extensive parts of the national park, including at Arundel. The part of the park in question, right at the bottom of it, is not chalk downland but replanted woodland. My contention, which I hope will be borne out, is that there will be a net environmental gain from construction of the bypass, even though a small section of the national park would be passed through; that could be mitigated.
The environment could even be enhanced—I have made this case before, although my hon. Friend the Minister, whom I welcome to his place, may not have heard it—if we constructed a beautiful bridge across the river Arun. My hon. Friend is learned and erudite, and I am sure travels through France extensively, so he will know that the French are very good at constructing beautiful infrastructure. The Millau viaduct over the Tarn gorge was controversial when first proposed, but is now a sensation and a sight in its own right. Designed by a British architect, it is considered to enhance the environment and not to despoil it.
The former Roads Minister, my right hon. Friend Mr Hayes, who is still a Minister of State in the Department, has spoken about the importance of beauty in construction. If we ensure that schemes will be attractive, we could deal with much of the public opposition that can sometimes find its way into debates about such projects.
That said, it is important for the Minister to know that there is strong local support for an Arundel bypass—there always has been, since it was first planned more than three decades ago. On the preferred route, which is now the starting point for a consultation that I will come on to, there was near-universal agreement by all the local authorities. Those authorities remain committed to an Arundel bypass, and it is my judgment as the local Member of Parliament, as it is the judgment of local councillors, that there is overwhelming support for the bypass among the local population. Indeed, that support increases the further away from Arundel one is—but even in Arundel, my judgment is that there is strong public support for the bypass.
In December 2014, when the Government announced that they would invest in an Arundel bypass under the roads programme, we were delighted. That came after the previous Labour Government had shelved the scheme. In conclusion, I simply ask: will the Minister confirm that the public consultation that Highways England is due to hold on the Arundel bypass route will go ahead this summer, or later this year?
Highways England states not only that the scheme will still go ahead, that the cost will be between £100 million and £250 million and that the start date will be before the end of March 2020, but that the public consultation remains subject to agreement with the Secretary of State. I noticed that the list of schemes announced last week by the Department for Transport, although not exclusive, made no mention of the Arundel bypass. I therefore seek the Minister’s assurance that the bypass will still go ahead and that the consultation will be announced this year. I am convinced that this road scheme will benefit the local community, the economy and, crucially, the environment.
Order. Twelve colleagues have indicated that they would like to speak. That will be difficult so I am again appealing for contributions to be kept short, because I would like to get in as many as possible.
Thank you, Mrs Gillan, for calling me to speak in such a broad debate on road infrastructure. I will not make it too broad because in my constituency investment in road infrastructure is a matter for the Welsh Assembly and the Welsh Government. Montgomeryshire, however, has a very long border with England—Shropshire—and I want to speak specifically about the general principle of how we deal with cross-border road schemes, making reference to two schemes in particular.
Several schemes cross the border between England and Wales, but the two in my constituency are hugely important. The first one that I want to speak about is usually known as the Middletown bypass—you will know it well from your previous responsibilities, Mrs Gillan. It is an 8-mile road between Welshpool and the English border, and the gateway to central Wales. However, it is hopelessly inadequate and a real bottleneck.
The problem is that the cost-benefit analyses are different. The two Governments have to agree for a scheme to go ahead, and the cost-benefit analysis in each of the two countries is different. In Wales it is hugely important that we have access to the market in England, so the cost-benefit analysis in Wales is high and we are keen for the project to go ahead, but of course in England it is not. When I became a Member of the Assembly, then a Member of Parliament, my main interest was for devolution not to have a negative effect on the way in which Britain operates—but it does. In this specific instance, it certainly does.
Two schemes are good examples of this negative effect. The first is the Middletown bypass. It is 90% in Wales and 10% in England, but it cannot go ahead unless the UK Government commit their 10% to a scheme that any cost-benefit analysis would say was not worth while for England. But of course it is hugely worth while, and the scheme would go ahead if we had that agreement between the two Governments. That is absolutely crucial for the way Britain’s economy operates.
The second scheme is the Pant-Llanymynech bypass, for which 90% of the investment would be in north Shropshire and 10% would be in Wales. The case argued locally is often about the environment of the villages of Llanymynech—it is a village, not a town; I do not want to cause any offence—and Pant, and about traffic danger issues, but the key issue for me and for the economy of Wales has always been that the scheme concerns the A483 Manchester to Swansea road, which is a key piece of infrastructure into Wales. Again, the cost-benefit analysis is different on each side.
I conclude with a general point. When the British Government look at investing in roads in England—roads are devolved to Wales and to Scotland—they must look at the benefit to the United Kingdom as well as the benefit just to England. That is absolutely crucial if we are going to make certain that devolution does not have a negative impact, as it currently does, on the two road schemes that I mentioned and on other road schemes between England and Wales. We must look at how such schemes benefit the United Kingdom overall.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan. I congratulate my hon. Friend Huw Merriman on his incredible timing. How he knew that this debate would take place on the same day as the Government’s announcement, I honestly do not know.
Many people want to speak, so I will get straight to the point. There are two main schemes in my constituency about which we are particularly concerned. One concerns the A12, which is the main A road through East Anglia. We sit on the Essex border. The A12 will soon have three lanes from Chelmsford to Colchester. It then gets to our stretch, which is extremely bendy. Our main concern is safety. Roads from villages join the A12, where the speed limit is 70 mph, at extremely short junctions into bends. Those junctions are lethal. I can only presume that the casualty count is not higher because of the caution that local drivers take approaching the junctions, but there is massive anxiety in surrounding villages, and I will look to pursue that issue.
Since it is bypass day, the main scheme that I want to refer to is the Sudbury bypass. My right hon. Friend Nick Herbert talked about public support for a scheme that has been around for decades. The Sudbury bypass has been around for many decades. In fact, there has been an outline of the bypass in the local “A to Z” for a long time.
The essence of the issue will be familiar to many hon. Members. The A road goes right through the heart—right through the historic centre—of Sudbury, our main market town, which is full of heavy goods vehicles and all the pollution and impact that that implies. The historic town centre includes Gainsborough’s house, where Thomas Gainsborough was born—a museum that will shortly receive millions of pounds of lottery funding. We are desperate to regenerate our town, but the sheer pressure of HGVs is a problem.
I am pleased to say that Suffolk County Council has brought forward an initial business case for a Sudbury relief road, which it found could lead to a 60% reduction in HGVs and would have a 3:1 cost-benefit ratio in terms of economic gain, but the most important point is the environmental impact, which others have referred to. Our scheme was previously rejected on environmental grounds because, unfortunately, the only way to avoid the town—I am sure this is true of other rural areas—is to go into the countryside to some degree, but I think there is a trade-off. On the streets that the bypass would avoid, nitrogen oxide levels are very high—they are, in effect, illegal. The safe level is 40 micrograms per cubic metre of air; in Cross Street, the main road that we seek to bypass, the level is 59.4 micrograms. That is dangerous and unsafe. I therefore think the environmental argument is now in favour of the relief road, not least because the road would also protect the historic heritage environment of our town, where there are many fine wool town buildings going back hundreds of years.
Unfortunately, Sudbury’s biggest employer, Delphi Diesel Systems, which is a major exporter, has just announced a consultation on the entire closure of its plant, which would lead to the loss of 520 highly skilled jobs. We are obviously worried about that. While we are doing our best to prevent that from happening, we need to think positively about ways to revive the town. We have a strong industrial base that would benefit very much from a new bypass that would mean lorries could avoid the centre of town.
I hope that the Minister will be able to visit and give our schemes due consideration. I welcome this timely debate and the Government’s timely announcement. We all need greater support and, when it comes to relieving congestion in a historic market town, you can’t beat a good bypass.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend Huw Merriman on securing this debate on today of all days. Who would have thought it?
I shall not detain hon. Members for too long. No doubt they will show no surprise at all that I will spend three minutes unashamedly banging on about the North Devon link road. In the extraordinarily unlikely circumstance that anyone here does not understand the vital importance of the North Devon link road, let me give Members the 20-second lesson. It is the A361 between Tiverton and Barnstaple and onwards to the beautiful North Devon coastline. It links our part of the world with the M5 and the rest of the country. However, we do not see it as North Devon’s only link to the outside world; we see it as the outside world’s only opportunity to visit us.
We therefore need real investment in the North Devon link road. We must ensure that it is fit for purpose. At the moment, it is not. It is single carriageway for about 85% of the distance between Tiverton and Barnstaple—two towns some 30 miles apart. Where it is not single carriageway, it has short stretches of overtaking lanes that merge quickly into the main carriageway with little warning. That leads to risk taking, speeding, dangerous overtaking and, sadly, a high incidence of accidents in which people are killed or seriously injured. Sadly, two summers ago, three people were killed on the link road just a mile or so from my home in North Devon.
We need to change that, but not just because we need holidaymakers to be able to get to North Devon more quickly in August. We need real investment in the North Devon link road because it currently hampers economic investment in our area, which has so much to offer as far as a growing economy is concerned.
We have made real progress. Devon County Council is doing absolutely fantastic work, and we have secured £1.5 million from the Government to carry out detailed planning work, including putting together a comprehensive business case. We are currently in the third phase of a public consultation, with a series of exhibitions—I was at one in South Molton myself less than a fortnight ago—that show what could be done to improve the road. We have a plan. We are, to use the awful phrase, shovel ready. We now need the money. I am not the first and I am sure I will not be the last to say to this Minister—this excellent Minister, this wise Minister, this almost noble Minister, whom it is a pleasure to see here—“Please look at this scheme, because you will get so much bang for your buck if you invest in it.”
Normally, people would not find a cigarette paper—perhaps these days we should say an e-cigarette paper—between me and my good friend the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle, but it rather suits our purposes in North Devon that it seems that the new £1 billion roads fund announced today will be targeted at roads that were de-trunked and are purely the responsibility of local authorities. That is exactly the situation in which we find ourselves in North Devon. Why? Because a Labour Government chose to de-trunk the A361. That happened under a Labour Government’s watch and, I have to say, under the watch of a Liberal Democrat MP in North Devon. [Interruption.] Absolutely. That should not have happened, but it did happen, and it hampered investment in this road. I am however pleased to say that, if The Times is to believed—of course it is; it is The Times—we can see the way out of this and, through the new fund being announced today, we can get some real investment in the North Devon link road.
Let me look wider across the south-west, because it is no good people being able to get to North Devon if they cannot get beyond there to the rest of the south-west. Last week, I was delighted to see media reports of a new £6.1 billion programme to open up road access to the south-west. In particular and for so long, many colleagues in the south-west have been asking for a proper dual carriageway linking the M3 with the M5. Too many bits of the A303 and A358 are single carriageway and not fit for purpose. The Government have announced real investment, which will see a major change in that, and I warmly welcome it.
I say to the Roads Minister that we will be knocking on his door. The Government have invested £1.5 million in ensuring that we are shovel ready for this vital scheme to improve the North Devon link road. The message that needs to go out today is, “Come to North Devon. Come and do business in North Devon. Come and spend your tourist pound in North Devon, and come and live in North Devon and contribute to the local economy.” I want to be able to say, “You can do all those things and get there safely, sustainably and efficiently, thanks to investment by this Conservative Government.”
Thank you, Mrs Gillan. This is my first debate in Westminster Hall, and I am delighted to be here. I would be remiss not to mention the A34. Many hon. Members will know about the issues of Lodge Hill junction, and I will be speaking to the most wonderful Minister about that junction. It has been the subject of cross-party campaigning for 25 years and it is reaching the point where, if we do not secure it now, it will impede the unlocking of Abingdon’s future forever.
My point is actually about taking people off roads. Oxford is one of the UK’s great cycling cities, and we should be doing much better. There are many reasons why we should consider taking people off roads completely. We have many active groups in the area who are campaigning for, in particular, a path from Eynsham to Botley. I am delighted to see my fellow Oxfordshire MP, Robert Courts in his place and I hope we will work together on that issue. That community path, which will go along the B4044, has been well documented—there have been lots of warm words—but what we need now is investment to get it going. We also have many groups in Didcot who have lobbied for a cycle path from Oxford to Didcot—that is quite a long way, so it is not something I would do, but those groups are insistent that they would and I would love to be able to deliver it for them.
A parent in Abingdon contacted me within days of the election because her son had been mown down by a car. Luckily, he survived, although sadly in 2009 a child died on a cycle route approved by the school—a route that goes through 14 major junctions. We need to do much more to protect our children.
Finally, I want to talk about air quality. It is a danger to children’s health to be knocked down by a car, but also to breathe in the noxious fumes released by cars. It is estimated that a third of nitrous oxide emissions in the UK come from road use, and 14% of children’s asthma is estimated to be caused by air pollution. That, incidentally, is the same as passive smoking. While it is no longer acceptable to light up in front of children for fear that they will breathe in the fumes, we have yet to make the case for taking children out of dangerous air pollution areas, such as those around North Hinksey and Botley schools, for the sake of their health.
I ask the Minister to apply a lot of creativity to the way we look at local infrastructure. It is not just about roads. Let us also look at different ways we can take people off the roads, because in the end it is better for the environment and better for their safety—but, above all, for their wellbeing, too.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan. I congratulate my hon. Friend Huw Merriman on securing this debate. I will not go over the preamble of how pleased I am, but I hope that today’s announcement will help the bottlenecks in places such as Bury St Edmunds and alleviate problems in the historic town for the reasons my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend James Cartlidge, gave earlier.
I want to turn to the A14. I must declare an interest as chair of the “no more A14 delays” campaign. The route is vital for Suffolk, the region and the nation, with 70% of the cargo out of Felixstowe—our biggest container port—travelling down it, and 80% of Suffolk businesses relying on it. In my constituency, I have the headquarters of Greene King, Treatt and Muntons, large businesses and enterprise zones in Bury St Edmunds and Stowmarket. The economy of Norfolk and Suffolk is £28 billion-plus, but the A14 holds us back.
To build a vibrant, modern economy we need a functioning A14. The 20-mile stretch in my constituency gives people the chance to enter for business, tourism and leisure, but UK congestion costs us £2 billion per annum. We could generate £362 million in additional gross value added, saving each commuter 13 minutes a day. There is potential for some 45,000 more jobs in the next 10 to 15 years if we get on and do this work to the A14. The accompanying homes and growth in the economy must be worth something in that argument. However, as my hon. Friends the Members for Bexhill and Battle and for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) said, we need to think strategically about total values across the piece and not always look at what the value is for one singular constituency.
We have congestion around junctions in Bury, but we have dreadful problems around Nacton and Ipswich in freeing up the Felixstowe traffic, and we also have issues going up to Newmarket. We have poor lay-outs, short slip roads and lack of capacity, which causes frequent delays. That does not encourage getting business done, and we need to get on with the job of building the roads quickly.
There is a lack of adequate pull-offs, and there are frequent delays. A constituent told me it had taken her three and a half hours to do 28 miles between Bury and Cambridge. Under RIS 1, the Suffolk map was white: I really look forward to meeting the Minister and ensuring that we have some coloured dots for investment under RIS 2, that the consultation goes ahead in the next few months and that we are listened to. Remedial work is welcome, but that is all we are up for. Please invest in Suffolk.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Huw Merriman on securing this important debate. House building, not just in my constituency but in the area surrounding it, has been an issue of huge concern for many years. It has created huge pressure on the local roads, and that pressure is getting greater and greater with the current proposals and with yet more house building coming down the line soon. Junction 7 of the M61—I realise that is not in this narrow remit—should have been built many years ago. The fact that it has not been built means that the roads in Horwich are under far more pressure and strain than they ought to be, and the A roads and other roads suffer because of a lack of motorway investment.
If we look at Westhoughton, a bypass should have been built decades ago. We think about joined-up government. Equally, when we have house building we must also look at the infrastructure needed to support it, whether that is medical, educational or other infrastructure such as sporting facilities. Joined-up government really has not happened on a local level. Symbolically, locally, the boundary between the Wigan borough and Bolton borough highlights that lack of thought-through decision making.
People travel along the Wigan borough on the Atherleigh Way A5225, which is a pretty good road, so they can travel pretty fast, but when they get to the boundary with Bolton they come across huge concrete blocks where the road stops, because Wigan and Bolton did not work together to deliver the most obvious local road. So all the traffic that travels through Wigan gets to the concrete blocks and is diverted through Daisy Hill and Westhoughton, creating huge misery for residents. Bolton Council, or previous Governments, should have delivered on that road many years ago, but they have failed to do so.
One of the worries now is that given the huge amount of house building, without nearly enough useful infrastructure, that is planned for the Greater Manchester spatial framework, it is more than likely that building will begin on the options for the Westhoughton bypass. Houses will occupy the land where we need the bypass to be built; so we urgently need it to be built before Bolton Council builds there and prevents it from ever happening.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan. I congratulate my hon. Friend Huw Merriman on securing this important debate. I shall take hon. Members through the issues affecting my constituency, travelling through them quickly, as it were—which is more than anyone could do trying to travel on the roads themselves. I assure our excellent and generous Minister that, despite what may be heard from other hon. Members present, there is no project more worthy of investment than the A40 running through West Oxfordshire.
As anyone who has visited West Oxfordshire or spoken to a local MP will realise, the A40 is the pre-eminent issue there. Not only do my constituents spend hours stuck in traffic doing the short journey from Witney to the centre of Oxford, but the economic potential of an enormously successful area is being constricted. One need only look at Carterton, where world-beating industries such as Boeing and Airbus are present on the base, but where the slip road access to the A40 is restricted; or Eynsham, where Siemens, with its word-beating medical engineering, is restricted in relation to travel on the A40. There are many other businesses there, as is shown by the West Oxfordshire business awards, but I cannot mention them all because time is limited. They are restricted in the economic growth that they could deliver, because of the road.
The A40 is the central issue in West Oxfordshire, but not the only one. It has spin-off side effects. Traffic trying to avoid the A40 travels, for example, on the A4095 through Bladon, where I live. It is a world-famous village because it is where Winston Churchill is buried, and we have many coaches per day. Visitors are of course welcome, but through the narrow pinch point and the coach parks further on there is excessive congestion. There is also particular congestion in Burford, with its world-famous hill, with traffic backed up along it.
Hon. Members will realise that that high street is called the gateway to the Cotswolds; nearly every building is listed, and there are HGVs stacked up on it, because there is nowhere to go. A bypass for Burford would also be high on the list for residents in that part of the world. Horsefair in Chipping Norton and Bridge Street in Witney are two areas in West Oxfordshire that have high levels of pollution, and a bypass around Chipping Norton to remove the weight of traffic—figuratively and literally—is absolutely necessary.
There is also a great need for public transport. We have already heard from my hon. Friend Layla Moran about cycle paths, and I would like the B4044 cycle path to happen. I cycled from my home in Bladon to Oxford, when I worked there, along the A44. There is an excellent cycle path there, but we need more of them. I have now concluded my quick canter through issues of health and economics, in relation to road infrastructure, and I am grateful for the opportunity to speak.
My main aim in this short contribution will be to talk about the condition of the A180, but perhaps I may join other hon. Members in mentioning two quick asks. I feel somewhat guilty in doing so, because last Friday the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my right hon. Friend Mr Hayes, was in my constituency opening the upgrade to the A160, which improves access to the port of Immingham. That was a £100 million project. We were pushing for it during the entire 26 years when I was a councillor in the area, so things do not happen all that quickly; but I am pleased that the coalition Government gave the go-ahead, and that the Minister of State duly attended to open it. If we are to finish the jigsaw of routes that give us access to the south Humber port, the dualling of the A15 and/or the A46 are the next asks, and it would be helpful if I could bring a delegation to meet the Minister to discuss that, as I have done with his many predecessors.
My main aim this morning is to draw attention to the condition of the A180, parts of which, from junction 5 to the Grimsby boundary, have a concrete surface that causes no end of problems, particularly to residents. I have sat in the homes of constituents living as much as a mile from the road, and heard the constant rumble of HGVs over the surface. In 2000 the then Labour Government said in their transport plan that all concrete roads would be removed by 2010, on a priority basis. Surely the clinching factor in the need for the work was a report in the Cleethorpes Chronicle of
As we know, the Minister is a rising star, and he would not want to be compared unfavourably with one of his predecessors. In a 4 pm debate in Westminster Hall on
I want to draw the Minister’s attention to something that I hope is already front and centre of his desk: the well progressed application for a Middlewich eastern bypass. It has been a 30-year wait, and the support in Middlewich and beyond is strong. It would open up employment land for 2,000 jobs, which would help to transform the local and wider economy. It would reduce congestion, and not only through Middlewich. That congestion is chronic, and not only at peak times. The bypass would improve transport efficiency from the M6 across that part of Cheshire to the west. Middlewich is a severe bottleneck, which is holding back economic development in the area.
I am grateful that the Government granted business case funding last year under the fast-track scheme of the large local major transport schemes programme. The business case was produced this spring. As time prohibits my speaking about it in detail now, I hope that the Minister will allow me to hand him an executive summary of the business case after the debate. It was produced by Cheshire East Council with the support of the local enterprise partnership, and it was the only one proposed by that large unitary authority.
The council leader and I were due to discuss the matter in a meeting with the Minister’s predecessor—now the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, my hon. Friend Andrew Jones—before the election intervened. I hope that the Minister will look favourably on the idea of putting such an appointment in his diary soon.
Middlewich is a fine historic town with an aspiration to grow, including by taking in new housing, which the scheme would also support. That is not something that every town in Cheshire wants. The road would also bring benefits by facilitating HS2 construction and operation for the nearby link with Crewe, and the reopening, we hope, of Middlewich railway station for passengers.
I want finally to make a brief mention of Congleton. The Congleton Sports Trust’s vision for the future, following the successful Tour of Britain through Congleton, is a project spearheaded by the deputy mayor, Councillor Suzie Akers Smith, to improve circumnavigation of the town. Obtaining funding for that is proving challenging. The project would facilitate the improvement of infrastructure across the town, and make safe cycling possible—including for children going to school. My key message to the Minister is that for rural and semi-rural areas it is proving challenging to find cycling funding. Will Ministers look at that again?
Thank you for calling me, Mrs Gillan. I will briefly talk about the ideas brought forward by my hon. Friend Huw Merriman.
Something I have found in my constituency is a lack of joined-up thinking between the local enterprise partnership, the county council and Highways England. For example, Highways England and the county council would like to work together to create an air quality management site on Hamble Lane near junction 8 of the M27, but that has not happened; there are air quality management sites around the Eastleigh Borough Council offices and through Botley village in my constituency. Indeed, the bypass around Botley has been waiting to be built for 20 or 30 years, and we are progressing, but this kind of fund is exactly what we need to get it over the line.
The other road we have been waiting three decades for in Eastleigh is the Chickenhall link road. Not having that affects Tower Lane and the village of Bishopstoke, traffic coming from Southampton and up towards Winchester and, indeed, air quality. It also means that some people in my constituency do 12-mile journeys each day that can take up to an hour and a half. Several Roads Ministers have said, “I’ve been to lots of congested places; I am sure Eastleigh is nothing different”, and all of them have found it quite surprising. In fact, one was so delayed that he missed an appointment.
HGVs running through villages such as Botley really do affect the quality of people’s lives, including our children’s. As a Conservative majority Government, we can do better. During the coalition with the Liberal Democrats, my constituency got nowhere. I would like to prove that this Conservative majority Government can actually do things that affect people’s lives, because that is what politics does. It can deliver what really matters to people: getting home at night to see their children and making sure that they have a good, productive day at work—if they can get there.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan; I congratulate you on managing to fit in 12 additional speakers after the opening speech. I also congratulate Huw Merriman on securing the debate, and further congratulate him because the debate was originally due to be about Southern Rail; it was changed following the debate in the main Chamber yesterday. That saves me from having to speak in another debate on Southern Rail. We have seen how popular the hon. Gentleman’s debate is.
Given the comments from James Cartlidge, I had to keep checking the title of the debate in case it was called the “Bypass Bid” debate; it certainly felt like that is what it was. It shows just how passionate and understanding of the needs of their communities hon. Members are, and how much demand there is on the road infrastructure network. I look forward to the Minister’s replies to each individual bid as we go forward.
The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle highlighted a good mix of local issues and the strategic thinking that needs to accompany their resolution. He was correctly angry about having the UK’s most dangerous road in his constituency, and I wish him luck in his ambition for improving its safety with the speed camera solution and through other bypasses that were mentioned. That brought back memories for me: I remember doing a school project way back in 1988 about local bypasses. I had actually been able to access plans from 1947, when the bypasses were first planned, and we are still waiting on them. That story has come out time and again today.
I also agree with the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle about strategic issues around traffic enforcement moving from the police to local authorities. I think that has benefits, although it can also put pressure on local authorities. I also fully support the comments about pavement parking. I also did a blindfold tour of my local town centre, which certainly illustrated to me that vehicles on pavements are a further obstruction that does not need to be there.
We certainly had quite a run through of hon. Members. Lilian Greenwood focused on strategy, delivery and issues including further funding pressures. I look forward to the Minister’s response to that. I liked the good, interesting comments from Nick Herbert about beautiful infrastructure; I am actually a civil engineer by trade, so I appreciate infrastructure. Clearly, the issues of congestion, air pollution and national parks need to be addressed.
The hon. Members for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) and for South Suffolk also bid for bypasses, while Peter Heaton-Jones talked of a north Devon link road to allow holidaymakers quicker access to Devon during August. Perhaps if the road gets the upgrade he is looking for, more Scottish holiday makers will be able to access it before August, because our holiday period starts at the end of June. That might extend his area’s holiday season.
Layla Moran highlighted issues about major junctions, while Jo Churchill highlighted issues with the A14. Chris Green highlighted that housebuilding can cause issues, which again shows the need for strategic thinking. For me, that is also an issue for strategic local planning, in terms of the council looking ahead at where it will build houses and what infrastructure is needed to accompany that.
Robert Courts highlighted the A40. Listening to some hon. Member’s contributions, including his, took me back to listening to maiden speeches, which can give us a tour through constituencies and a reminder of the beautiful villages that exist. Fiona Bruce again highlighted a bypass, while the final contribution, from Mims Davies, again highlighted the lack of joined-up thinking between Highways England and local councils, which needs to be resolved.
I genuinely wish hon. Members all the best with their bids for funding. It seems to me that the £1 billion fund announced today will not go far enough, so I ask the Minister to look down the back of his couch to see if he can find more money. Certainly, investment in infrastructure leads to job creation, an economic return and, as we have heard, can increase safety and improve air quality. Any additional investment in roads in England and Wales will hopefully have Barnett consequentials and would lead to further investment in Scotland.
I remind the hon. Member for Eastleigh that this is not a majority Conservative Government but a minority one. Perhaps the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle, who put in the first bid, may have seen how successful the Democratic Unionist party was in securing money from the UK Government. Maybe Conservative Back Benchers need to get together and do a wee bit of backroom bidding with their Government colleagues.
Some people are for investment in road infrastructure and some are against, but nobody here today spoke out against. Earlier, I touched on my being a civil engineer by background; I also now have the role of spokesperson for transport and infrastructure for the Scottish National party, so I am certainly all in favour of strategic road upgrading. However, it needs to be strategic, and it also needs to link in with other transport upgrades. We have heard about safe cycling, which is important, and we also need to invest in rail and public transport so that we have better connectivity; that all goes hand in hand.
On Scottish Government investment and looking at trunk road maintenance, the Scottish Government look for three strategic outcomes: improved journey times, reduced emissions to tackle climate change, improve air quality and health, and improved accessibility and affordability. Those have to be the Government’s key objectives when they look at their £1 billion investment fund. All hon. Members here certainly have local issues, but the Government have to look a bit more strategically.
Under the previous UK settlement, Scotland suffered from a lack of investment in roads. It took devolution and the Scottish Parliament’s coming into being to actually increase road investment. The SNP Government have taken that to a new level, with the M74 and M80 motorways and the recently completed M8 motorway between Glasgow and Edinburgh; it is actually incredible that it has taken until 2017 to have a continuous motorway link between the two biggest cities in Scotland.
We have heard about single carriageway roads in the debate, but rural Scotland actually has single-lane roads, which only allow cars to travel in one direction, with pull-off passing bays. Again, that shows the lack of investment over the years. Also, the “Road to the Isles”, the A830, was the last single-lane trunk road in the UK and was only upgraded in 2009 with the aid of European funding.
That is another concern going forward: what will happen to that European funding? Will the UK Government backfill that lack of money? Scotland secured £1.3 billion of investment from EU structural funds, which has allowed those important road upgrades. I would appreciate it if the Minister could answer that. I wish the Minister luck in answering all the bids for bypasses. I certainly support any additional expenditure on infrastructure and would like to see further Barnett consequentials and expenditure in Scotland.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Gillan. I congratulate Huw Merriman on securing this important debate on a matter that has broad implications for all our constituents.
This debate is particularly timely, because by chance, the Government made an announcement overnight that they will be shifting £1 billion of vehicle excise duty away from investment in main roads and towards a bypass fund. I suspect that the announcement was made not just to give the Minister something positive to say in this debate, but as a result of constant pressure from the Opposition. On that point, I put on record my gratitude to my hon. Friend Lilian Greenwood for the work she did as shadow Secretary of State for Transport to push these important issues.
While Labour welcomes the news that local roads will be receiving some much-needed investment, we note that the money will not be seen by local authorities until 2020, as the Government conduct their consultation. The announcement therefore does not deal with the immediate backlog of billions of pounds’-worth of work to fix potholes—a backlog that will only increase over the next three years. Moreover, the announcement does not increase the overall spending on roads. In fact, it could be seen as the Government slashing £1 billion from investment in main roads.
Our road network needs proper investment across both main and local roads. In recent years, our road infrastructure has been severely neglected. The Asphalt Industry Alliance says that roads need to be resurfaced every 10 to 20 years. Only London comes close to that, with the capital’s roads repaired every 23 years on average. Across the rest of England, roads are resurfaced every 55 years on average. That is clearly not sustainable.
A report published by the Office of Rail and Road in February highlighted that Highways England—the company responsible for the management of motorways and main A roads in England—will have a funding shortfall of approximately £0.8 billion. It seems that the Government want to add a further £1 billion to that figure with their announcement this morning. Highways England has committed to delivering the Government’s road investment strategy, which includes investing more than £11 billion between April 2015 and March 2020, maintaining and renewing the network, delivering 112 major improvement schemes and carrying out targeted improvements through dedicated funds. In doing so, the company is also required to deliver £1.2 billion of efficiency improvements.
However, the Office of Rail and Road report showed that despite efficiency savings made by Highways England’s improvement plan that have reduced the funding shortfall from £1.7 billion to £0.8 billion, the company has plans to propose a range of changes to the road investment strategy, with schemes likely to be reduced in scope, delayed or even removed entirely. Labour has warned consistently that the Government have been over-promising and under-delivering on investment in England’s roads, and the report lays bare their entire failure on this. The road investment strategy is beginning to look like a wish list, and even more so with the decision today to take away £1 billion of funding.
The Office of Rail and Road report was published only months after Highways England reported a drop in its network condition key performance indicator that reports road surface condition, which fell to 92.3%—significantly below the road investment strategy target of 95%. We were promised the biggest upgrade to roads in a generation, but Highways England is now having to come up with plans to address a budget shortfall of nearly £1 billion, as well as to guarantee driver safety after allowing the condition of our roads to fall short of targets. Labour is very concerned about the fundamental mismatch between the Government’s expectations and the effectiveness and efficiency of Highways England, the Secretary of State having refused to rule out cancelling or delaying promised schemes. Will the Minister explain today which projects will be delayed and which will be cancelled, or if projects will be neither delayed nor cancelled, where the additional funds are coming from, especially now that the Government have announced a £1 billion cut to investment in main roads?
The situation is no better for local roads, which make up 97% of the UK transport network. As I said earlier, there is an estimated £12 billion backlog of road repairs. The funding that the Government have so far committed is a drop in the ocean, even with the extra £1 billion of funding, which will not be seen for three years. Local authorities are finding it impossible to catch up. The permanent pothole fund announced last year set aside additional funding of £250 million over the next five years to tackle potholes, on top of nearly £5 billion of funding for road maintenance announced previously. However, the additional £50 million a year until the funding announced today comes into effect, if spread over the same 148 highways authorities as last year, is clearly not enough to address the £12 billion backlog.
The recently published annual local authority road maintenance survey, produced by the Asphalt Industry Alliance, found that almost a fifth of roads were in poor condition, while local authorities have said that one in six roads across England and Wales are in such a bad state that they must be repaired within the next five years. The ALARM survey showed that last year, more than 16,000 potholes were filled per non-London local authority, costing £111 million, and more than 4,000 potholes were filled per London local authority, costing £11.4 million. In 2012, around 12,000 potholes were filled on average per non-London local authority, costing £80.6 million.
In England, excluding London, the average local authority budget for highway maintenance saw a decrease of 16% from £23.4 million last year to £19.8 million this year. That was unexpected, given the Government’s commitment to £6 billion of funding for local road maintenance over six years, which began this financial year but appears not to have yet been seen by local authority highways teams.
Every journey begins and ends on a local road, so the ALARM report’s warning that Britain’s roads are in “terminal decline” is deeply concerning. It is time the Government acted to give this vital part of our road network the attention and investment that it deserves. These findings lay bare the Government’s failure to maintain Britain’s local roads, which are blighted by potholes, causing real danger to road users. Indeed, three quarters of claims received by authorities for compensation for damage to persons or vehicles as a result of poor road condition relate specifically to pothole incidents. The Office of Rail and Road report on Highways England stated:
“While there is not a direct correlation between the road condition indicator and safety, a reduction may indicate an increase in safety risk which Highways England must manage. The company has given us assurances that the safety of the network is not compromised. We have required the company to evidence the actions it has taken to mitigate any safety risk and how it will improve road condition to meet the target.”
Will the Minister tell us today what action has been taken to mitigate the increased safety risks brought about as a consequence of the mishandling of the road investment strategy?
A total of 24,620 people were killed or seriously injured on our roads in the year ending June 2016, and hon. Members have talked about road deaths in their constituencies. Over the past two decades, the UK has earned a reputation for having among the safest roads in the world, but in the past seven years progress has stalled and begun to reverse. The Tories have scrapped road safety targets and caused a decline in the number of dedicated road traffic police officers in England and Wales. In contrast, Labour’s manifesto stated clearly that we would reset the UK’s road safety vision and ambitiously strive for a transport network with zero deaths, reintroducing road safety targets. In conclusion, will the Minister set out exactly where the £1 billion will be spent?
It is a delight to see you in the Chair, Mrs Gillan, and a privilege to be able to speak on these very important issues in the presence of so many hon. Members, and particularly Government Members, who have taken a great interest in them over the years.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Huw Merriman on securing this debate about road infrastructure. He is a kind of prognosticator of prognosticators; I do not know what goats were opened or other auguries consulted that allowed him to ensure that this debate coincided with the announcements this morning, but I congratulate him on his Delphic powers of prophecy. I also think he has done no little good in advertising his own claim to potential membership of the Select Committee on Transport. I place that on the record without, of course, expressing a view on any candidate for such a position.
Following the Air Travel Organisers’ Licensing Bill on Monday and a debate in this Chamber on road safety for horses and riders yesterday, this is my third debate in three days. I can only salute the courage and indefatigability of some of my colleagues, who may have sat through all three debates—and the strength of their stomachs. I hope colleagues feel that taxpayers are getting their money’s worth from this exercise.
I had originally planned to go through in some detail some of the many schemes that will be covered under the Government’s present plans, but such has been the level of interest in and importance of the debate that after some opening remarks, I would like to engage specifically with the points raised by colleagues throughout the Chamber.
In many ways, as has been rammed home many times today, our road network is the backbone of Britain.
I am glad that my hon. Friend has mentioned that; it is entirely appropriate for her, not having spoken in the debate so far, to do so. I am aware that there has been some very inaccurate reporting locally about the status of that road. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has told me that he is looking forward very much to setting the record straight himself. I would say that there is very strong recognition of the importance of that scheme in its relation to the new nuclear programme—I say that as a former Minister in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy—so my hon. Friend’s point has been well recognised.
If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I will crack on, because I have taken three minutes already and I have a lot to get through.
As I was saying, the road network is the backbone of Britain. Roads are vital lifelines for our economy. They matter whether people drive or cycle, or travel by bus or coach. They matter when people travel to work or to buy goods, and 95% of people use our road network every day. That is why the Government are in the midst of a £23 billion programme of investment in England’s roads; £15 billion of that is going on England’s motorways and major A roads—the long-distance roads that link regions together, connect us to our ports and airports and enable economic growth. That funding underpins the “Road Investment Strategy”, a five-year plan, launched by the previous Government in December 2014, that sets out the schemes and funding levels for the period 2015 to 2020. That covers more than 100 major schemes up and down the country. At the same time, there was the creation of Highways England and of a watchdog, the Office of Rail and Road, to ensure that motorists get what they are promised.
The investment plan is well under way. Since 2015, 16 major schemes have opened for traffic and 15 more have started construction. They include major investments such as the £1.5 billion A14 improvements between Cambridge and Huntingdon, and the £191 million upgrade of the M1, M6 and A14 Catthorpe junction near Rugby. However, that is only the start, and the pace is picking up.
As announced last Friday, over the coming six months, the Government will take the next steps on 55 road improvements across the country—opening eight schemes, consulting on 10 more and publishing final plans for another 29. In the course of that, we will be seeking to hear from local people, organisations and businesses to help to shape our plans and ensure that they benefit local communities.
This has been an extraordinarily interesting debate. I can only congratulate colleagues on the many schemes that they have brought not only to my attention, but that of officials and Highways England. I look forward to the debate’s being closely scrutinised in my Department and by Highways England for those points.
Several key themes have emerged from the debate. The first is the necessity of increased investment. The welcome nature of today’s news was, I think, recognised on both sides of the Chamber. The second theme is the importance of bypasses—the environmental case for them, and their heritage effects and economic effects. The third theme is the integrated nature of the road network. In other words, one does not want to beggar Peter to pay Paul; there has to be parallel investment in motorways and in A roads. Finally, there are the themes of the importance of safety and of cross-border funding and the like, on which I think all colleagues would agree.
Before I respond to some specific comments, let me turn briefly to the remarks of Lilian Greenwood and the shadow Minister, Karl Turner. I was surprised that, judging by their comments, there is so little recognition by Labour of what has actually happened. The new investment should be absolutely welcomed. I can tell the House that the investment by the last Labour Government, in the period 2005-06 to 2009-10, was a little over £6 billion, and the amount currently being planned is £11.4 billion. I think that is a difference—
The fact of the matter is that this is twice as much money as the last Labour Government put in, and that should be recognised. To fail to do so is, frankly, to insult our motorists—to insult the people who use these roads.
If one looks down the list, it is perfectly true that the National Audit Office has talked about a degree of over-programming. It has also praised the significant improvement in the road investment strategy, and I think rightly so. The NAO report should indeed acknowledge what is well known in transport circles, which is that there is always a bit of over-programming in these things; not all these schemes arise, in terms of public investment, at the same time. An over-programming of 7%, which is what it amounts to, is not substantial. Where there are bottlenecks, undoubtedly we as a Department will be looking at them.
Let me turn now to some of the specific points. I absolutely welcome the points made by my right hon. Friend Nick Herbert. I can confirm that construction will begin this year, as he has requested, on the A27.
Sorry, consultation; I cannot read my own handwriting. Consultation will begin on the schemes that my right hon. Friend mentions. He rightly highlights the importance of beautiful bridges and infrastructure—a point made by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State. His points have also been raised—
I will not. The points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs were also raised elsewhere by my hon. Friends the Members for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) and for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and I welcome those comments.
In the few seconds that I have left before handing back to my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle, let me say that the point about cycling was well made by Layla Moran—I am a very keen cyclist myself. The Government are investing £1.2 billion to support cycling schemes, and rightly so. The point about constraints on economic growth from lack of investment in roads was very well made by my hon. Friend Robert Courts. I am running out of time and I want to be sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle has the chance to close the debate if he wishes, so let me end here and thank colleagues on both sides of the Chamber very much indeed for their comments.
I thank you, Mrs Gillan, and all colleagues for making this such a fascinating debate. I also, as I should have done earlier, welcome the Minister responsible for roads to his place. If I continue as a member of the Transport Committee, I shall look forward to spending more time with him.
If I may, I will mention my hon. Friend Maria Caulfield, who did not have an opportunity to speak. She is my constituency neighbour and has worked tirelessly to get the A27 upgraded. She has fantastic ideas, which we were not able to hear today, but we are, and will continue to be, led by her to get the A27 upgraded, and it will be to her credit, on this particular side of the geography, if that occurs.
I absolutely welcome the extra investment from the Government announced today. I perhaps should have welcomed that a bit more strongly when I opened the debate. It is interesting that so many Government Members are in the Chamber today. That suggests that they are working hard on behalf of their constituents. There are fewer Opposition Members, which suggests either that all the money was spent in their constituencies or perhaps that they are not as interested in this issue as we are. However, I thank all hon. Members for their contributions, and I look forward to more bypasses being built across the UK.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered road infrastructure.