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1.17 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Glenda Jackson): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Stevenson) on obtaining this Adjournment debate and on his generosity in affording my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) the opportunity to contribute.

This issue is clearly of primary importance not only to a particular area, but to the wider conurbation of north Staffordshire. As my hon. Friends have made abundantly clear, progress on tackling the traffic problems on the A500 in Stoke-on-Trent is central to the debate.

The A500 is part of the national core motorway and trunk road network. The high percentage of heavy goods vehicles--over 20 per cent.--that use that route is proof of its economic importance. The A500 is equally important in the local context. Not only is it essential for the movement of traffic within the north Staffordshire conurbation, as I have already said, but it provides access to potentially important development sites.

We are aware of the congestion on the A500, particularly at the Stoke and City road junctions, which hinders the movement of goods and people and hampers regeneration. Congestion at those junctions creates difficulties for bus operators, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South pointed out, and dangers and inconvenience for cyclists and pedestrians.

I referred to the access that the A500 provides to potentially important economic development. Successful development has already taken place at Festival park, and major new proposals in Etruria valley and Trentham lakes have also succeeded in attracting a variety of public, European and private sector funding. However, to maximise the opportunities created by such developments, there must be an integrated transport system allowing easy access by all forms of transport for pedestrians and cyclists to development sites and within the urban area more generally, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South also pointed out.

When reviewing the roads programme last year, we assessed all 147 schemes from the previous roads programme against the five criteria of the new approach to appraisal: safety, economy, integration, accessibility and the environment. After much detailed scrutiny, 37 schemes were included in the targeted programme of improvements, announced in July 1998. The A500 City road/Stoke road scheme was one of the 37. I hope that that demonstrates to my hon. Friends the high priority that the Government attach to tackling the problems of north Staffordshire. Like them, we see the main benefit of the scheme as being economic regeneration, but it will also allow the more efficient operation of bus services, and safer movements for cyclists and pedestrians.

It is not the case, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South said, that the scheme is not being advanced. The list to which he referred, which was announced by our noble Friend Lord Whitty on

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10 December 1998, did indeed contain the programme for the next stages of schemes in the targeted programme of improvements, but the position of this particular scheme in that list is no indication of when it will be taken forward. It was not a list of prioritisation.

Mr. Stevenson: Lord Whitty followed up our meeting with a letter to north Staffordshire, saying that he could not envisage the schemes starting for up to seven years from now. Can my hon. Friend give us some reassurance about the time scale involved?

Ms Jackson: I was just about to come on to that point. Regrettably, I was not present at the meeting with our noble Friend Lord Whitty, to which my hon. Friend refers, but I am aware that the Government have given a clear commitment that the schemes that have been named will certainly be started within, I understand, seven years. Of course, the money for their completion is also clearly committed.

As I was about to say, the next statutory stage for the A500 scheme for order publication will be 2000-01. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central said, the Highways Agency published a notice in the Official Journal on 23 March seeking expressions of interest from consultants to design the scheme. The agency anticipates letting a contract for this consultancy in the summer.

My hon. Friends will also be pleased to hear that the Highways Agency is looking to introduce an innovative procurement process, which should speed up the processing of the scheme through to completion. The agency is still working on the details of this new approach, but the key feature is that the scheme will be progressed in partnership with the city council. The design consultants will be asked to carry out transportation studies that embrace both trunk road and local road issues. I am delighted that the city council has recently agreed a joint approach to such studies and a contribution of £25,000.

As I said, the Highways Agency is looking to introduce innovative procurement processes--namely, the Stoke pathfinder project. The key feature of this will be that the consultants will be involved in discussions with not only the Highways Agency but the local authority; the scheme will be developed in partnership with the city council; and design and construction will be taken forward by way of a joint venture. It is certainly my understanding that there is nothing inherent in the system that would accord

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anything other than priority status to the scheme, which is so important to the area that is represented so well by my hon. Friends.

Our transport White Paper "A New Deal for Transport" emphasised that we needed to take an integrated approach to transport, another point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South. Transport should not be, nor can it be, seen in isolation. We must integrate transport policy within and between modes, with the environment, with land use planning and with policies for education, health and wealth creation. In line with this emphasis on integration, the A500 project will embrace wider transportation and regeneration issues.

As I said, the Highways Agency, its consultants and the eventual successful contractor will work closely together to ensure that trunk road and local transport matters proceed in a complementary fashion. In developing the A500, it will be necessary to assess the impact on local traffic movements, as well as the effect on the trunk road network, and to identify opportunities to improve measures for cyclists, pedestrians and public transport.

We shall expect Stoke city council and, indeed, neighbouring authorities to reflect this approach in their local transport plans. As my hon. Friends know, local transport plans will require local authorities to set out their strategies for transport over a five-year period, together with long-term targets for improving air quality, road safety, public transport and the reduction of road traffic.

We will expect local transport plans to be well integrated with local development plans and other key strategies in the area. We will therefore be asking the local authorities to explain in their plans how their proposals complement the A500 scheme in ways that meet local transport plan objectives and contribute to safety, improved accessibility for all, environmental improvement and economic growth.

My hon. Friends will be aware that we have allocated £1.725 million to the north Staffordshire package for 1999-2000, an increase of more than 100 per cent. on the 1998-99 allocation. That brings to nearly £5 million the allocations for local transport in north Staffordshire since 1995. This allocation will allow the local authorities to progress measures that improve public transport--through, for example, a bus quality partnership, the provision of better information through the city council's exciting advanced transport telematics project, and improvements in safety.

The allocation, together with the commitment that we have shown to improvements to the A500, demonstrates the importance that we attach to tackling transport problems in north Staffordshire in an integrated fashion, given their importance for the regeneration that is so vital for this part of the country.

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Chelmsford Prison

1.26 pm

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford): I am very pleased to have this opportunity to debate a matter of grave concern to me and my constituents--namely, the prison in Chelmsford--relatively soon after the publication of the report of Her Majesty's inspectorate of prisons entitled, "Report of an Unannounced Short Inspection 20-22 October 1998".

The background to the on-going problems in the prison were highlighted in the report by the chief inspector of prisons after a full inspection carried out in September 1996. Two years later, the chief inspector carried out an unannounced further inspection, and the first paragraph of the preface to his subsequent report starkly explains the chronic situation at the prison. He states unequivocally:

I hope that the Minister agrees that that is a fairly damning indictment of what has been going on, but I believe that it is important to learn from the mistakes of the past, not simply to dwell on them. We must ensure that positive action is taken to improve the running of the prison and enhance the quality of life of the prisoners and the working environment of the staff.

The issues are far too serious to be treated in a partisan, party political way. I for one have no intention of seeking to turn the problem into a petty, political party squabble.

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