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Mr. Streeter: Before the Minister sits down, will he tell me--whether as a Minister, a parent or a human being--what advice he would have given to the parents, especially the Hele feeder school parents, at the time that they made their original selection, given that every child at a Hele primary school has always got into Hele school?

Mr. Clarke: I hope that I am a parent, a human being and a child--did I say child? I meant to say, "and a Minister". That was a Freudian slip for which, after a short period in office, the hon. Gentleman should excuse me.

Very hard and difficult choices are being made all the time by parents throughout the country. The advice that I give to everyone facing such decisions, and I offer it to the hon. Gentleman's constituents, is to examine carefully, on the basis of the total information available to them, the options available and the local situation. In the Plympton case, the LEA set out the information clearly, and I believe that parents will have made their choices in the light of the knowledge derived from that. It is necessary at all times to work on the basis of what the situation is, not on the basis of night following day or assumptions based on past experience. It is the duty of all hon. Members and all those who advise parents in that position to advise them to look carefully at the current situation in the round, and not to assume that the way in which matters have operated in the past will continue into the future.

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A500 (Stoke-on-Trent)

1 pm

Mr. George Stevenson (Stoke-on-Trent, South): I am grateful for this opportunity to debate the proposed A500 grade separation scheme on City road and the proposed flyover scheme on Liverpool road. The schemes are extremely important not only for Stoke-on-Trent but for the midlands region and for the nation as a whole.

I shall touch briefly on the history of the A500. When the section within the city was designed in the early 1970s, the two schemes were part of that road development. The section of the A500 to which I refer was a principal road scheme, not a trunk road scheme. As such, it was, of necessity, more concerned with local rather than regional and national traffic. As the schemes were part of the original proposal, they were obviously needed at that time. However, I am sorry to say that a Labour Transport Minister cut them out of the overall development in an effort to reduce costs.

What has happened since the early and middle 1970s when the scheme was designed and built? The main change is the construction of the new A50 road in Stoke-on-Trent. My hon. Friend the Minister will know that it is one of the last pieces in the jigsaw of the A50 improvement from the M1 south of Derby to the M6 in Stoke-on-Trent. That is a much-needed development, and the A50 in Stoke-on-Trent is one of the last components of the east-west link. Therefore, the A500 and the A50 form part of a strategic trunk road network that is important not only for the midlands but for the country as a whole--so much so, that the Government recently made the A500 a trunk road.

The A50, whose construction recently concluded, is being used as an alternative to the M6. As a result, there has been severe additional congestion at those junctions. It is not unusual to see--particularly at peak times--traffic backed up for a mile or so in each direction. Because of their geographical location and the fact that the two roads are now part of the trunk road network, the regional and national trunk road and motorway systems in the area are subject to double corking at two bottlenecks. The benefits of a much-improved local roads infrastructure have been seriously compromised, and the situation will continue to deteriorate.

I stress to my hon. Friend the importance of the two schemes to public transport. Public transport in Stoke- on-Trent is suffering serious problems. Stoke-on-Trent is damn near 13 miles long--it is a linear city with six town centres--so public transport problems are enormous. The two junctions on the A500 straddle the main arterial bus corridors in the area. Unless we tackle congestion by establishing the schemes as quickly as possible, there will be no prospect in the foreseeable future of achieving public transport improvements consistent with the Government's positive and forward-looking public transport policies. The city's far-reaching public transport plans will also be compromised if the schemes are not implemented.

There are even wider implications in the public transport sector. Because of the city's topography, the new A50 road is not being used to divert traffic from central areas to give a greater priority to public transport. Motorists are deterred from using the new road outside the town centres by congestion at the two junctions.

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The development of transport integration has also been affected, including road, rail, freight and canal networks--a central canal system is immediately adjacent to the two junctions. Integration of the west coast main line, freight facilities, canal systems and public transport will not be possible unless the two junctions are improved.

Perhaps the most serious concern is the effect on local economic development. The A50 and A500 corridor contains significant land development opportunities that must be seized for the benefit of the north Staffordshire area in general and Stoke-on-Trent in particular. The area depended traditionally on a pretty narrow manufacturing base, comprising the pottery and coal industries. I worked in both of those industries, but I would be hard pressed to get a job today. There is not a single coal mine remaining in Staffordshire or in Stoke-on-Trent. The last local colliery at Hem Heath was closed with the direct loss of 1,400 jobs--if we multiply that figure three times, we can ascertain the number of jobs lost indirectly--and at an estimated cost of about £60 million a year to the local economy. The pits have disappeared.

About 15 years ago, the pottery industry employed 56,000 people. Today, the figure is closer to 20,000. In 1998, the industry lost 2,500 jobs in the area, and the difficulties continue today. I am not making a special plea, as a constituency Member of Parliament, for a particular scheme here or there; these schemes are essential if we are to develop the A500 and A50 corridor using the development land available, if we are to attract the necessary investment to our area, and if we are to produce the integrated transport system that north Staffordshire needs. However, I fear that that essential development will continue to be blocked while the schemes at those two critical junctions remain uncompleted. The attitude of potential investors in the area will not improve while they know that access to the regional and national trunk and motorway network is effectively compromised because of increasing congestion.

The roads review gave top priority in the west midlands to those two schemes, but the Highways Agency, as it recently reported to the city council, placed the schemes 37th out of the 39 schemes on which it is working. That is simply not acceptable. I have met with officials from the Highways Agency and with my noble Friend Lord Whitty, as have my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) and for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley). The agency says that it needs statutory instruments to be enacted, which of course it does. I call on my hon. Friend the Minister to use her influence to ensure that that process is begun immediately.

Nobody can guarantee that there would be no objections to the schemes, but I argue strongly that there is little prospect of objections. First, on land take, I understand that one or two small pieces of land would need to be purchased for the schemes, and one of those is owned by what was British Rail and is now presumably Railtrack. I do not anticipate any problems with the purchase of that land. No houses or properties are involved, so there would be no objections.

Secondly, on objections from the wider community in the area, we have argued throughout the roads review about the importance of the schemes. We were delighted that they were given top priority in the west midlands and

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survived that scrutiny. Throughout that review there was massive publicity in the area, and as far I know there have been no objections from the wider community.

I suspect that the main reason that the Highways Agency is being somewhat dilatory is that the Department of Trade and Industry is urging the city council and the private sector to invest in the area to create jobs, but the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions objects to that development because there is insufficient road capacity in the area. If my information is correct, which I suspect it is, we are between a rock and a hard place, and we could do with a little of that joined-up thinking of which the Government are rightly proud.

In conclusion, the schemes are vital not only for the area, but for the region and the nation. The arguments in favour of the schemes are fully in line with Government policy on investment, jobs, public transport, the environment and the targeting of resources specifically on schemes, such as these, which give maximum overall benefit. I therefore say to my hon. Friend the Minister that the arguments are overwhelming. It would be reasonable for her to use her good offices to ensure that the procedures necessary for the schemes to go ahead are implemented immediately so that they can be completed without any further undue delay.

1.14 pm

Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central): I am grateful to my neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Stevenson) for his kindness in allowing me to make a short speech. I congratulate him on his success in securing the debate.

As my hon. Friend said, this issue has been a problem for the economy and our city's life ever since Lord Rodgers, then Secretary of State for Transport, secured the development of the A500. On the bridge that links Stoke city centre with the railway station, there is a large plaque to Lord Rodgers, not only giving thanks to him for what he achieved but serving as a reproach because, as my hon. Friend said, the work was never completed and the lack of the two grade separations has caused enormous problems.

As my hon. Friend also said, that is not just a local problem, but a regional and possibly even a national problem because east-west road communications on our island have always been poor. There is a 100-mile gap between the motorway that links Manchester and Leeds and the M6. The dual carriageway on the A50 that now links the M6 and the M1 completes an east-west link, but traffic comes to a grinding halt when it hits the A500. That affects not only our city but the wider economy, so the matter is of considerable importance.

We are close to resolving the problem, thanks to the efforts of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and its Ministers, but we are anxious that there should be no further delay. Tenders have gone out in European journals; substantial contractors are seriously interested; the finance exists, and as my hon. Friend said, the only inhibitions about land take relate to two small areas. Above all, the Highways Agency and, in particular, local authorities are enthusiastic about the schemes. All that we need are the statutory procedures to go ahead.

My hon. Friend the Members for Stoke-on-Trent, South and for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) and I ask the Minister to take an interest in that issue, to recognise its

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local and national significance and to give us all the assistance that she can. If she does so, there will be another plaque relating to the grade separations, and I hope that her name will be on it and that this time we shall have completed work that has long been needed in our city.

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