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Sir Trevor Skeet (Bedfordshire, North): I am grateful to the Minister for coming to listen to the debate, which is very important for my constituents in Bedford. Greater Bedford comprises 134,000 people and the figure is expected to grow to 150,000 by the end of the century. Bedford has traffic problems beyond belief and it is not surprising that the transport element affects employment prospects in the north of the county.

The town has had the problem for decades. Due to stupidity, disagreement over an acceptable route and lack of funds, completion of a satisfactory bypass has been prevented. Bedfordshire, Hastings, Wigan, Gateshead and Carlisle, have the distinction of accommodating populations of roughly the same size without bypass relief. There is now under construction the southern route from the A428 east of Bedford to a point near Elstow, where the traffic to and from eastern ports may link with the A421, which joins the M1 at junction 13. That is a welcome development and I congratulate the Government on contributing the money to it. It is, however, only part of the mosaic necessary to complete an effective bypass of the town. Currently, major routes such as the A428 and A6 pass through the centre of Bedford, causing maximum disruption.

Due to years of frustration caused by Government and local authority differences, a campaign has been initiated by local industrialists and public authorities, supported by the media, to persuade the Government to face reality and to give priority rating to the bypassing of the town. A substantial pamphlet, entitled "Get Bedford Moving", has already been produced and a petition supported by 15,000 constituents is ready for presentation. We have had the opportunity of having a word on the matters involved with the Minister, who has been most patient.

The reasons for the campaign are obvious. They are to improve employment by making it possible for existing firms to expand in the town and by attracting new investment into the local economy. Other reasons are to benefit the town centre environment by reducing the appalling traffic congestion which is a daily occurrence, to unfold the amenity of the riverside, to enhance road safety, especially for pedestrian shopping in the area, to strengthen the quality of life for those who live in Bedford and the adjoining areas, to lace together the several parts of the town which have been cut in two by the River Ouse, and thus balance the local road network, and to reduce the load on the three bridges across the river, which are already overstretched.

Current traffic conditions in Bedford are notoriously bad. Serious blockages occur on the A6 and in St. Johns street, south of the river, and also at Union street in the north. Other hazardous locations are in Goldington road and on the A428 at a variety of other spots. Nationally, the British chambers of commerce calculate that road congestion is costing small companies more than £6 billion per year. The traffic cauldron in Bedford is a reality which must be recognised. Some 150,000 vehicles travel into the town centre daily, one quarter of them passing through to other

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destinations. Of the lorries entering Bedford, at least 50 per cent. pass through. The problem has been exacerbated by the growth in the size of heavy goods vehicles, making it difficult for them to negotiate bends within the town. Traffic is expected to increase by between 90 per cent. and 150 per cent. by the year 2025. That is not surprising, as Bedford is located within reach of two major universities--Oxford and Cambridge--and is sited near the A14, which is the vital highway to eastern ports. With the growth of new developments in Milton Keynes and Northampton, the volume of vehicle traffic must remain on an upward curve. Birmingham lies 50 miles to the north and London a similar distance to the south.

With Bedford's key location, it is not surprising that car ownership in the town is above the national average and that commuting by Bedford residents to outside areas has increased substantially from 9,000 in 1971 to 14,000 in 1991. The rate of change is apparent from the statistics and it is up to local administrators and the Department of Transport to appreciate the extent and direction of growth so that complete paralysis of vehicle movement can be avoided before developments are overtaken by events. There is evidence that some firms have left Bedford because of the absence of transport infrastructure and that others are worried by the increased costs involved in dealing with local traffic congestion. Wincanton Distribution gave as a reason for its move to Huntingdon the fact that Huntingdon had a much better transport system and was proximate to the national distribution network. A 1994 Bedford college survey of 350 local firms found that 20 per cent. of the firms surveyed had considered moving as a result of traffic congestion, 17 per cent. were likely to relocate within three years for the same reason and 13 per cent. had cancelled expansion plans. They are rather surprising findings, but it is apparent to me--as it must be to the Minister--that Bedford is in a straitjacket. I sincerely hope that the Government will help to ease the problem relatively quickly.

Bedfordshire county council is experiencing difficulty recruiting new firms since mobility of operations is one of the leading criteria that they consider before reaching a decision. Bedford has to compete with industry in other counties. Both Milton Keynes and Northampton have new town status and are therefore able to mobilise funds more easily to provide grants to inveigle firms to locate in their areas. That option is not available to Bedford.

In 1994 I attended a lunch at the Hyde Park hotel arranged by the Automobile Association at which a Transport Minister was the guest speaker. He announced that the Government and the Treasury would look favourably on any application in which the private sector was minded to make a significant contribution to major road works. That was the key to a scheme being advanced to enhance priority ratings, thus allowing completion of proposals at a date earlier than had been envisaged.

To complete a major part of the link in the bypass chain around Bedford, three local enterprises have agreed to contribute a substantial part of the cost: Bovis, the construction company; Bedfordia, part of a local conglomerate farm and property developer; and Bedfordshire county council. In view of that, Bedford has subscribed to the conditions laid down by the Minister and I sincerely trust that the upgrading of the route will flow from that sequence of events. Can my hon. Friend

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the Minister give an assurance today that he will take into account what I have said and tell the relevant Minister and the Treasury that we have fulfilled our part and that we await a return?

It was recently argued in the report of the standing committee on trunk road assessment that the building of roads would spread the congestion of traffic. That proposition does not apply to Bedford, which aims to get rid of bottlenecks which have blighted the town for years and have been exacerbated by the increase in traffic from both within and outside the county.

Bedford requires completion of essential bypasses and improved links with the M1 and with the A1 and A14 routes to eastern ports. That Bedfordians earnestly desire that is evidenced partly by their persistence over the years and partly by the petition that will be presented to the House in due course. Bypassing is essential to solving Bedford's traffic problems, and that means completing the several parts of the bypass rather than deferring them.

Can my hon. Friend the Minister say what volume of traffic the Department expects to be carried on the A14 and A45 to and from eastern ports, and by how much the Department estimates that the number of vehicles using the A6 and A48 will be reduced as a consequence? To what extent has the Department assessed the difficulties created for Bedford by the increased flow of vehicles across too few bridges over the River Ouse and the lack of road infrastructure in the town itself? I have concentrated on the Bedford area's rational road system. The bypass system is also vital, but I shall be constructive and mention other matters for consideration by the Department.

The Bedford area urgently requires two additional stations: one to the south of the river and one to the north would help matters considerably. An improved bus service should also be considered, as increased use of public transport would be useful. I am aware, however, that people like to use their own vehicles, as has been the case for decades. Subsidiary issues such as park-and-ride schemes, improved car parking, highway development within the town, and cycle lanes, are all constructive, but I shall not dwell on them as I wish to concentrate on the major issues. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to make a contribution to the general debate. 10.16 pm

The Minister for Railways and Roads (Mr. John Watts): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bedfordshire, North (Sir T. Skeet) for drawing the attention of the House to the support that his constituents have expressed for the Government's proposals for the trunk road network around Bedford and to the Getting Bedford Moving campaign promoted by the Bedford Employers Forum. My hon. Friend brought members of the forum to meet me shortly before Christmas, when they explained in detail the importance of all the schemes to Bedford's economy and to the comfort of its residents. So assiduous is my hon. Friend in his efforts that if I am opened up at some time in the future the word "Bedford" may well be found emblazoned on my heart, along with the names of many towns represented by other hon. Friends who have pressed on me the urgent need for road schemes. My hon. Friend the Member for Bedfordshire, North mentioned the large petition that will shortly be presented to the House, which is further proof of Bedford's strong

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support for important road improvements. It is gratifying to find the people of an important town such as Bedford taking such a keen and active interest in the development of their community and in road planning in particular. It is encouraging to find a community in which residents, businesses and local government are fully behind proposals for improving the road network rather than ignoring the benefits that new roads can bring, as is all too often the case. The Attorney-General (Sir Nicholas Lyell) indicated assent .

Mr. Watts: My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Mid- Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell) gives silent but eloquent support to the needs of Bedfordshire for improved road infrastructure. I know that my hon. Friend is fully aware of our proposals for the Bedford area, but for the benefit of the House I will explain our plans in short detail.

The national roads programme includes a series of integrated schemes aimed at removing through traffic from the town. These proposals will improve the quality of life in the bypassed communities and provide a better climate for local business. Schemes have been included in the programme to provide a southern and a western bypass for Bedford, a link to the Norse road roundabout on the existing A428 St Neots road from the southern bypass, bypasses for the villages of Clapham and Great Barford, and improvements to the A421 between the M1 and Bedford. We also have proposals to widen the M1 through Bedfordshire and to upgrade the A1 to motorway status. I am firmly of the opinion that the inclusion of those schemes demonstrates a real commitment on our part which will make the trunk road network around Bedford suitable for the 21st century, although I appreciate that my hon. Friend would like it made a little more suitable for the 20th century.

As a first major step towards implementation of this package of schemes, work began in August last year on the construction of the Bedford southern bypass. The £39 million contract represents a significant public sector investment in the Bedford area. We expect the road to open to traffic in the summer of next year and I look forward to celebrating that event with my hon. Friend. Once complete, the bypass will make an appreciable difference to the levels of through traffic in Bedford and to journey times between the A1 and M1 through Bedfordshire, benefiting both local business and residents. To make the advantages of this route apparent, it will be renumbered A421 throughout, from junction 13 of the M1 motorway to the A1 junction at the Black Cat roundabout, when the Bedford southern bypass is completed.

One of the stated aims of the Getting Bedford Moving campaign is to secure priority 1 status for all the schemes that I have mentioned. In April last year my right hon. Friend the then Secretary of State for Transport announced the results of his review of the roads programme, which considered the relative merits of all road schemes on a national basis.

The review examined all proposals in terms of their benefits to the trunk road network and impact on the environment, so that they could be given appropriate

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priority. Most of the schemes around Bedford were placed in the priority 2 category following the review. This means that they are recognised as sufficiently important to be taken forward but that where there is competition for resources priority 1 schemes will have first call on them. However, that does not mean that no priority 2 scheme can be progressed before all priority 1 schemes have been completed: some priority 2 schemes may be in a state of readiness which allows them to go ahead, while some priority 1 schemes may not be ready to take the resources available.

Sir Trevor Skeet: As I said earlier, if funding were provided, would that not allow priority 2 schemes to become priority 1? The scheme would be ready for development. I do not suggest that all the bypasses be built immediately, but the one around Bedford, a major necessity, certainly should be.

Mr. Watts: I shall deal shortly with the proposal for private finance.

We are making good progress on the statutory procedures for many of our schemes around Bedford. I am pleased to say that the decision following the public inquiry into the Clapham bypass, which gives approval to the scheme, was issued just before Christmas. A start of works is now dependent on completion of the remaining procedures and the availability of funds for the works. The public inquiry into the Norse road link began on Tuesday 17 January to hear objections to that scheme. We are also consulting local people on an option to upgrade the A1 to motorway status through Bedfordshire, which for some journeys provides an alternative to passing through the town itself.

The section of the proposed Bedford western bypass between the A421, which leads south-west from Bedford to the M1 motorway and beyond, and the A428 Northampton road is the only scheme around the town to have been placed in the longer-term category following the review of the road programme. However, as my hon. Friend has made me aware, a consortium of local development interests has suggested that it could provide, at its own expense, a single carriageway link between the A421 and the A428 within the preferred route corridor for the bypass on land in its control, subject to approval of new development on the land on the Bedford side of the link. The initiative is most welcome and accords fully with the Government's desire to involve the private sector in infrastructure projects. Further progress is in the hands of the consortium and would, of course, be subject to completion of the usual local authority planning procedures. I understand that the consortium is currently preparing a detailed planning application for the development, which includes the road, for submission to Bedford borough council, the local planning authority.

The Highways Agency will continue to liaise with the consortium to ensure that its proposals are compatible with our preferred route for the Bedford western bypass and will allow for the possible future addition of a second carriageway in line with the longer-term proposals for the route. Subject to the proposals meeting those requirements, the Highways Agency would not object to any planning application and would welcome the early start of the scheme with private finance to fund it. Private sector involvement will undoubtedly enable a Bedford western bypass to be implemented far more quickly than if the project were to rely on the public sector alone.

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My hon. Friend referred to the problems of bridges and traffic flows over them. The Department recognises that traffic flows on the bridges in the town centre are high and that there is a need to provide additional crossings of the Great Ouse for strategic traffic around Bedford. To this end, our schemes will provide three additional bridges: the Bedford southern bypass includes a viaduct over the river at Castle Mill; another crossing in the same vicinity, to the east of the town, will be provided by the Norse road link; and the A421 to A428 section of the Bedford western bypass will provide a crossing at the western side of the town. More importantly, in recognition of the importance of bridges in Bedford, the Government helped to fund Bedfordshire county council's reconstruction of County bridge at a cost of £1.6 million. We shall also be further supporting the reconstruction of Longholme bridge at a cost of £3.5 million. Both are key crossing points of the River Ouse in Bedford. In addition to promoting trunk road schemes around Bedford, we have committed funding to several local road and public transport proposals during this year's spending round. The county council is promoting a package of proposals for Bedford as part of its integrated transport strategy for the town. This package approach accords with Government policy, and initially we have allocated £300, 000 in the next financial year for a number of measures designed to improve the town centre environment, reducing car use and easing congestion,

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including further pedestrianisation, bus priority schemes and parking controls, all of which my hon. Friend mentioned.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising the subject on behalf of his constituents and I hope that I have been able to demonstrate our commitment to improving the trunk road network around Bedford. In the past 10 years, £31 million has been spent on new trunk road schemes in northern Bedfordshire, and the work now in hand on construction of the important Bedford southern bypass means that the total will have more than doubled by the end of next year.

I welcome the strong groundswell of support for our proposals among the people and the business community of Bedford. I hope that they will continue to make their views known to the local councils and to any relevant local public inquiries. I know that my hon. Friend will continue to advocate strongly the need for these schemes until eventually we are able to deliver them. My job would clearly be much easier if I were able to say yes to rather more of the schemes that my hon. Friends and their constituents want, and if I were less often in the position of having to argue to try to gain their acceptance of schemes that they think that they do not want--but such is life. My hon. Friend raised a couple of questions on traffic flows. Unfortunately, I do not have accurate figures at my fingertips today, but I undertake to write to my hon. Friend with the information that he seeks shortly after the conclusion of the debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Ten o'clock.

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