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Business of the House

9.22 pm

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett): With permission, I should like to make a short business statement.

As the House is aware, we adjourn for the Christmas recess tomorrow. Following the exchanges at Prime Minister's questions today, and in the light of representations that have been made, the Government have decided that the business for tomorrow will now be a debate on Iraq, on a motion for the Adjournment of the House. The business previously announced for tomorrow will be taken at a later date.

I take this opportunity to confirm that the business for the week of 11 January will be as I announced last Thursday. It may help the House to know that we hope to take the Committee stage of the Greater London Authority Bill, or some part of it, in the following week.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): The Opposition welcome the Government's decision to change the business tomorrow so that the House has an opportunity to debate this grave matter. Who will be speaking for the Government?

Mrs. Beckett: Cabinet colleagues will be opening and winding up the debate. [Laughter.]

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife): When we may be about to ask British service men, and, increasingly, service women, to put their lives at risk, one would have thought that hilarity would form no part of our consideration.

On behalf of my colleagues, I welcome the right hon. Lady's announcement. It is an awesome responsibility to ask our armed forces to risk their lives on behalf of this country, and it is only right and proper that the House should have the opportunity to discuss the matter before the Christmas recess.

Mrs. Beckett: I am most grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman. In fairness to members of the Conservative Front Bench, I do not think that it was they who joined in the hilarity.

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon): The hilarity was in response to not knowing who would speak for the Government; it had nothing to do with our service men. They are the last people any of us would wish to laugh at. If our forces are to be deployed, will the Government have by tomorrow made up their mind whether the House will be recalled to deal with this very serious matter? I cannot expect the right hon. Lady to answer that today.

Mrs. Beckett: All these matters can be explored tomorrow. I conveyed the seriousness with which we take

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this matter by saying that Cabinet colleagues will both open and wind up the debate. The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that that is not normally the custom except for the most serious matters.


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin): With permission, I shall put together the motions relating to delegated legislation.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

Legal Aid and Advice (Scotland)


Question agreed to.


MMR Vaccine

9.25 pm

Caroline Flint (Don Valley): I bring before the House a petition of 4,800 signatures on behalf of members of the public and Patricia Revell and Kate Coull, who are mothers of autistic children. The petitioners are concerned about the safety of the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, and the link between it and autism and inflammatory bowel conditions. They feel that several measures should be taken for the good of the children of this country.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

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A14 (Cambridgeshire)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Jamieson.]

9.26 pm

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): I am most grateful for this opportunity to raise a matter of the greatest concern to my constituents and those of neighbouring constituencies. I am very pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) and the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) are in their places. I am grateful that the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Jackson) is to reply to the debate. I note that it is the second time today that she has had to do so. I suspect that, as we approach the end of 1998, she will receive the accolade of becoming the Minister who has responded to the most Adjournment debates this year. I thank her for staying with us for just one more time this year.

The debate is timely. The issues have often been raised with the Government by me, my predecessor and other Members. Circumstances surrounding the A14 have become of increasingly severe concern in my constituency, partly as a result of the rate at which accidents have occurred and the severity of such accidents, but principally as a result of the increase in traffic and congestion. Concern was reflected most recently by a dramatically large response in the region to a series of compelling articles in the Cambridge Evening News.

The A14 in Cambridgeshire is one of the most heavily used and congested trunk roads in the country. Seventy eight thousand vehicles a day travel on the three-lane section of the A14 between Cambridge and Huntingdon which passes through my constituency. The Highways Agency calculates that 66,000 vehicles a day travel on the two-lane section between Bar Hill and Huntingdon. The traffic has a very high heavy goods vehicle content: recent observations recorded 5,000 vehicles an hour at peak times, and, of those, one in four was a heavy goods vehicle.

The Minister has recently answered several questions on the issue. One such answer illustrated that the stretch of the A14 to which I have referred is among the 10 most heavily used sections of dual carriageway in the country. I am familiar with some of the others--for example, between the M25 and Southend, the A127 is a two-lane section with a high level of usage, but a considerable difference is the extent to which local traffic has been grade-separated on the A127 by the installation of new junctions and so on. Such safety measures have not been installed on all such roads.

The British Road Federation took the trouble to write to me when it became aware of this Adjournment debate. The BRF described the A14 as

The debate is of significance for a wider region than simply my constituency and the neighbouring ones.

At each end of the stretch of road between Huntingdon and Cambridge in particular, two heavily used two-lane roads feed in. On one side there is the A14 east-west route coming in as a two-lane section. Recently the A1(M)

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was opened, as the Minister knows, by her noble Friend Lord Whitty. That road from the north is a four-lane section coming down towards Huntingdon, so on that side there are six lanes feeding into the A14. At the other end, there is the A14 going on to the east coast ports and the M11 going down to the M25 and the Dartford bridge.

A classic bottleneck is thus created on a trans-European network. The road is in a unique category. I do not know of any other road anywhere in the country that occupies such a critical position for east-west traffic and also for north-south traffic. It so happens that its orientation from the north-west to the south-east makes it a convenient part of routes in both those significant directions. Once the A1-M1 link was completed, it was clear that high levels of traffic growth could occur in the future.

The road is not congested simply by trunk road traffic. It is also used for local purposes, which gives rise to a serious complication. Originally, in 1972, it was designed to be a three-lane all-purpose carriageway. The stretch in question was built only as a two-lane carriageway. I imagine that the policy of "predict and provide" did not exist then, but even at that early stage, expectations of a need for a three-lane section were rare. That is what should have been built.

In the past 10 years there has been a 68 per cent. growth in traffic. There has been a significant increase since the opening of the A1-M1 link. I suspect that the upgrading of the A1 to motorway standard up to Peterborough will in due course lead to a further increase in traffic, although in a reply to me a day or two ago, the Minister suggested that that would not be the case. We shall see.

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry referred to Cambridge today as a growth centre. In response to questions after his statement, the right hon. Gentleman made it clear that he would foster economic development in areas such as Cambridge. The White Paper states that

Not only is the road critical for existing transport purposes, but the pressures on the road make it impossible to contemplate economic development such as that envisaged by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, or development of the kind proposed at Alconbury, which is the subject of consideration by Huntingdon district council. It is extremely difficult to consider the proposals for a new settlement close to Cambridge. One of the principal suggestions for that is a site north of the A14, with considerable traffic on and off that road.

We must recognise that--in the absence of significant change in the area's transport infrastructure and, most particularly, the upgrading of the A14--those developments would be unsustainable. The Government may soon be contemplating economic development and its promotion in the Cambridge area, which will not be achieved without a Government U-turn in respect of transport infrastructure and the A14 in particular.

I am told that the Highways Agency estimates that the theoretical capacity on the two-lane section of the A14 is 68,000 vehicles a day, and that traffic flow would begin to break down at that point, with congestion occurring. On-site observations by Cambridgeshire county council have shown that breakdown occurs at about 50,000 vehicles a day and becomes increasingly severe.

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Unfortunately congestion occurs daily and the consequences are severe. The number of accidents is high, and a personal injury accident occurs every three days on that road. People in and around my constituency and the Minister will know that a serious accident on 18 November at Lolworth resulted in a fatality. Given the circumstances, it could easily have led to additional deaths.

Hon. Members will realise that when a road arrives at the point at which congestion is assumed to occur, people divert on to other roads. Measurement of congestion on the A14 cannot be achieved simply by looking at how many cars use it, because drivers are increasingly using other local roads and causing congestion. There is rat running through villages such as Hilton and along the A428, which is virtually at full capacity. On that road, at the new village settlement of Cambourne, 3,300 new homes are being built, and the first will be sold in the summer of next year. There is increasingly no way out on the road. When blockages occur on the A14, the consequences are congestion in all those neighbouring villages, and congestion and blockages on many neighbouring roads such as the A1198 and the A428. In some villages adjacent to the A14 there is gridlock. Two examples will suffice. Bar Hill is a substantial village of some 3,000 homes, which exits only on to the A14. There is no other way in and out, so when the A14 is congested--it is often congested in both directions at the same time--traffic backs up into the village and people cannot come and go.

The small village of Lolworth exits only on to the westbound carriageway of the A14. If one wants to go from Lolworth to Cambridge, one has to go west to the next junction and then come back on the eastbound carriageway. People have to enter and exit the carriageway twice, and they have two chances of meeting congestion. I once stood in the centre of the village when the A14 was blocked. Cars shot past me on Lolworth high street, going to the top of the village. Five minutes later they shot back again.

The Minister will appreciate that the road--which is part of a trans-European network, part of the trunk road system and an integral and vital part of the national road structure--is essentially a local road for certain purposes. That is one reason why we must deal with the road. Otherwise, life in the neighbouring area will become unbearable.

Comprehensive improvements to the A14 were in the Government's trunk road programme, but in July Ministers took them out of the self-styled targeted programme of improvements and substituted the proposal for a multi-modal study. In the past few days the Minister disclosed in a parliamentary answer that the start date for the study, in tranche 2, will be 2000-01. As the Minister has previously said that the study itself will take a year to complete, that means that it will be at least three years, and perhaps four, before we know whether the Government intend to upgrade the A14. No doubt Ministers will then say that design studies and public consultation have to be undertaken and programme finance sought. By that time, Cambridgeshire will have been strangled by gridlock.

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My purpose tonight is to urge Ministers to recognise the need for urgent action and to respond in four key ways. First, the Highways Agency should undertake immediate traffic flow management and safety measures. A study in December 1995 identified 14 potential improvements. Others could now be contemplated, including stronger safety barriers, and so on.

In response to recent questions, the Minister told me that a number of those improvements are to take place in the spring of next year. Among the measures identified three years ago, the most important, relating to slip roads and lay-bys, are not yet planned, and I urge the Minister that they should be.

Secondly, the Government have dropped the A14 improvement from the programme. That decision was flawed. Using the Government's own criteria for the assessment of environmental impact, safety, economic factors, accessibility and integration, and based on a study completed by Cambridgeshire county council, it is clear that the improvement of the A14 would bring large and quantifiable benefits.

For example, without giving an exhaustive account, in relation to environmental impact, the county council has identified an extensive reduction in noise pollution and a reduction in rat running, to which I have referred. In relation to safety, poor design of the junctions and the entry and exit points has given rise to high accident levels.

On the economy, I refer to the views of the British Road Federation and to the importance of Cambridge as a sub-region and the long journey times faced by companies which are having to engage in just-in-time deliveries and, as a matter of course, to build in the potential for considerable delays when using the road for deliveries.

On accessibility and public transport, many buses going into and out of Cambridge use the A14. Therefore, even public transport is significantly failing because of the character of the road. At certain points, the A14 is also a dangerous road for pedestrians. Last Sunday, there was a tragic death on the northern bypass, so there is a clear danger there.

On the potential for integration between different modes of transport, the A14 is not well optimised for multi-modal activity or for transfer between different transport modes. I suspect that it could not be without grade separation between the trunk road and local roads.

I look to the Minister this evening to concede that when the July announcements were made, and "A New Deal for Trunk Roads: Understanding the New Approach to Appraisal" was published, no full assessment of the A14 was made in those terms. Will she now agree to consider, perhaps jointly with the Highways Agency and Cambridgeshire county council, those five criteria in relation to the road and see whether the decision was flawed and can be reviewed?

As an alternative to improvements to the A14 in the programme, the Government seek a multi-modal study. I am sure that both sides of the House will agree that to maximise the use of public transport is clearly right, but my third point is to seek from the Minister a concession to reality--that there is, in truth, no prospect of meeting a significant part of the present traffic use, still less the whole of the future traffic growth, by public transport options. Therefore, whatever the outcome of the multi-modal study, significant improvement, upgrade and grade separation of the A14 is part of the solution.

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In parallel with the multi-modal study, there should be design studies. If they progress rapidly, public consultation should occur in parallel with the multi-modal study on preparing the A14 for an upgrade at some time.

If the study is not made relatively soon, there will be no chance of the road being upgraded within the next 10 years, and that would be wholly unacceptable. Therefore, whatever happens, I ask the Minister to assure the House, my constituents and the people of Cambridgeshire that three years would simply be too long. If such a study is to be made, it should be included in tranche 1. I shall certainly be pressing for that in the regional planning conference, although I hope that the Minister will pre-empt that undertaking, and herself undertake to consider including the study in tranche 1.

Does the Minister accept that, whatever happens, the A14 must be improved so that local traffic is separated from the trunk road? It really is untenable for the situation to continue--a situation that applies also on stretches of the A1, and that has provided part of the reasoning behind proposed improvements on that road--in which large amounts of local traffic enter and exit the A14, thereby making lane changes. The presence of such traffic is the reason why there are so many dangers on the A14. Does the Minister accept that we must find ways of keeping local traffic off the main road?

I am not interested simply in laying tarmac over South Cambridgeshire or driving a motorway through my constituency for the sake of it--far from it. We should not be in the business of building roads except when they are strictly necessary. However, I am determined--on the basis of observation, evidence and the views of my constituents--that we must accept a realistic approach to the road. There is no way forward for transport along the corridor except the improvement of the A14. Improvement of the A14 would meet the Government's own criteria--not of predicting and providing or of catering for future traffic growth, but of dealing with the congestion and bottlenecks currently in the system. Congestion and bottlenecks are occurring and have to be dealt with on the basis of current evidence.

Development is coming fast, and the infrastructure is not coping and will not cope with it. If action does not come soon, there will be further deaths and injuries, and congestion will worsen rapidly. Moreover, the local economy and, in some respects, the national economy, will become gridlocked. The Road Haulage Association and the British Road Federation have testified to the road's critical economic importance. The British Road Federation, in a letter to me, itself regretted the Government's apparent lack of urgency in finding a solution to the problem.

Thousands of my constituents know only too well that their lives will be made ever more miserable until the road is improved. I call on the Minister to show understanding, and to respond positively to this debate.

As I realise that the situation will not be changed before Christmas, I should like, through the medium of this debate, to suggest to my constituents that they should try over the Christmas period to stay at home and not drive on the road. If they do have to drive, I ask them to drive safely.

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I should like also to wish the Minister--when the time comes--a happy Christmas, especially if she is able in her reply to bring added Christmas cheer to my constituents by responding positively to some of the points that I have raised.

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