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Trunk Roads (Norfolk)

1.29 pm

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): I shall focus on west Norfolk's roads, but I also want to touch on various road schemes that cover Norfolk as a whole.

King's Lynn, which is at the heart of my constituency, is an important sub-regional centre. King's Lynn and its hinterland has a population of about 30,000 and a thriving industrial base that comprises several large firms, such as Campbell's, Bespak, Foster's and DOW Chemicals. The region's industrial base has traditionally been founded on food processing, but it is now more diverse, and there are also many smaller businesses. King's Lynn also has the Queen Elizabeth hospital, a busy general hospital that employs hundreds of people. The town is the headquarters of the local borough council for King's Lynn and west Norfolk, and many national agencies have local offices there. It is, therefore, a busy, thriving, provincial market town.

However, the Achilles' heel of King's Lynn and west Norfolk has always been the area's poor road and transport network. Firms want to come to King's Lynn, and, when they arrive, they want to stay and expand. They like west Norfolk; they appreciate its hard-working people and its beautiful environment. However, their First concern is the poor trunk road and main road links. To be fair, we now have an electrified railway system that connects King's Lynn, through Cambridge, to London. We have an excellent dual stretch of road west of King's Lynn, on the A47, between King's Lynn and Wisbech, which was opened under the previous Conservative Government, in 1994.

Perhaps the key scheme in west Norfolk, however, is the Hardwick flyover, and I want to refer to it in detail. The Hardwick roundabout is the junction of the A47, the A10 and the A149, and it consistently experiences heavy congestion—all that is required to create long tailbacks is a vehicle breaking down, or an accident—and in the summer, when holiday traffic heads up to the Norfolk coast and towns such as Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft, the delays become longer. The Hardwick flyover has acquired symbolic status in our campaign for better communications for west Norfolk. This morning, on Radio Norfolk, Peter Bridgham, the director general of our local chamber of commerce, said that King's Lynn is becoming better known for the Hardwick scheme than for anything else.

I will give a brief history of the Hardwick scheme, because it is important to be aware of its full context. The South Lynn bypass was built towards the end of the 1970s, and the embankments and the flyovers at the Hardwick and Saddlebow roundabouts were also constructed at that time. Therefore, we have had a constant and tantalising reminder of a missed opportunity to complete the project. In 1978, the Hardwick flyover could have been built for a fraction of the current cost, and Christopher Brocklebank-Fowler, then the Member of Parliament for the area, pushed the Labour Government hard to build it. I took over from him, and lobbied successive Ministers. A breakthrough was achieved in 1989 with Paul Channon, now Lord Channon. The "Trunk Roads to Prosperity" White Paper included the Hardwick flyover as part of the A10 West Winch bypass scheme. However, after a few years,

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it became clear that the scheme was going to be complicated and that it would take a long time to be realised, so I lobbied hard to have the Hardwick flyover detached from it.

The Transport Secretary in 1992, Malcolm Rifkind, now Sir Malcolm, detached the flyover from the West Winch bypass scheme, and announced it as a scheme in its own right—as a simple dual carriageway flyover scheme, costing £7 million. Matters proceeded, and the scheme had passed through all of its various planning processes by spring 1996. In February 1997, the then Minister of State, John Watts, gave it a firm starting date of spring 1999, and a costing of about £11.5 million.

However, an election intervened in May 1997. The Labour party won, and the right hon. Member for Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) took an axe to the trunk roads programme. There was local outrage, and an effective campaign was organised by the local media—particularly the Eastern Daily Press and the Lynn News—to put pressure on the Government. That was backed by my immediate predecessor as Member of Parliament for the area, Dr. George Turner. Eventually the Hardwick flyover was reinstated into the programme. That was announced in 1999, and in 2000 the then Minister for Roads and Road Safety, Lord Whitty, said that work would start in November 2001. The date was then put back a few months to February 2002. There is a snag, however. Unfortunately, the new flyover scheme is a scaled-down version of the 1996 scheme. A single-carriageway flyover will connect the existing A47 dual carriageway on the west side to a new roundabout that will connect to the A47 on the east side. The existing Hardwick roundabout will be converted into two linked roundabouts.

In many ways, the scheme is a bit of a pig's ear. In fact, Dick Broughton, a local councillor in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) and a prominent member of the National Farmers Union—he represents it in a local roads and transport partnership called "Shaping the Future"—described it as unsightly and resembling a disgusting wart. On the other hand, we must not be churlish. We must temper our disappointment at the new, scaled-down scheme with relief at the fact that something, at least, is going to happen. The general feeling was that if we pushed too hard to persuade the Minister and the Highways Agency to revert to the dual carriageway scheme planned by the previous Conservative Administration, there might be yet further delays.

Of course, we were not expecting the bombshell that was dropped on 6 November, when the Highways Agency announced a further delay of seven months. Unfortunately, it gave a very weak excuse for the delay. In a letter to Norfolk county council's portfolio holder for transport, Adrian Gunson, it said:

The Minister will not be surprised to hear that there is grave concern locally that Ministers and the Highways Agency are ignoring west Norfolk and giving up on us.

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Unsurprisingly, Norfolk county council is very angry indeed, not least because on 10 September it initiated work on a £1 million resurfacing scheme for the A10, through North Runcton and West Winch to the Hardwick roundabout. Last May, the A10 was de-trunked, and the county council decided to spend a substantial amount of money on resurfacing. To be fair, the work was carried out to a very high standard by Lafarge Aggregates, and I should also pay tribute to the county council's engineer, Chris Mitchell, and to Quentin Brogdale, the resident engineer.

However, to expedite the resurfacing contract the road was closed for eight weeks, and a great deal of inconvenience was thereby caused to local residents and businesses. The local garage in West Winch closed temporarily during that period. Two pubs, The Cock and The Sportsman, suffered a significant loss of passing trade, and the village post office also suffered. In Setchey, the local garage and numerous other businesses on the industrial estate lost passing trade. In Tottenhill, in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard), the Andel hotel suffered financially, as did Brundall's garage. Indeed, all those businesses suffered financially as a result of the A10's closure. Perhaps the Minister could say whether there is any chance of their receiving compensation.

The point is that, if Norfolk county council had known of the new start date for the Hardwick flyover scheme, it would almost certainly have decided not to close the A10. This is an example of incompetence and non-joined-up government. I am pleased that the Minister is here to reply to this debate, because I am looking for a firm guarantee from him that there will be no further delays. People in west Norfolk and King's Lynn are fed up with being pushed to the bottom of the pile. We are fed up with a Government who treat King's Lynn and west Norfolk as East Anglia's poor relations who can quietly be forgotten about. I want firm commitments from the Minister.

There are other priorities in Norfolk and as we are discussing road schemes in the county as a whole, I shall outline six of them. The A47 west of King's Lynn has one important stretch of dual carriageway between King's Lynn and Wisbech, but the rest of the road is single carriageway, although it is a very busy link from King's Lynn and the whole of Norfolk to Peterborough and the midlands. It is a vital stretch of road with a crucial need for a dual carriageway bypass round Thorney and other stretches of dual carriageway. I hope that the Minister will comment on that.

The A17 between King's Lynn and Newark particularly affects my constituency and is the main link from King's Lynn and the rest of Norfolk to the A1 and the north. The only stretch of dual carriageway on the A17 between King's Lynn and Newark is the Sleaford bypass. The rest of the road is single carriageway and is very busy.

Dual carriageway trunk and main roads are so much safer than single carriageways and journey times can be planned with some reliability. They improve people's perception of Norfolk's towns because they imply that

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the Government and the Highways Agency treat the town, region or sub-region seriously. That is why dualling is so important.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Bellingham : In a moment, but first I want to refer briefly to two important schemes that are a priority for us.

The A47 going east of King's Lynn has only two stretches of dual carriageway between King's Lynn and Norwich: the Swaffham bypass is dualled along its whole length and part of the Dereham bypass is dualled. We need more dual carriageway between King's Lynn and Norwich. We also badly need an entire length of the A47 between King's Lynn and Yarmouth to be dualled. The Acle straight has suffered too long as a single carriageway and badly needs to be dualled. As my hon. Friend knows only too well, Yarmouth and Lowestoft are peripheral and suffer high unemployment; they are the least accessible and most vulnerable of East Anglia's sub-regions. That stretch of road must be dualled.

Mr. Simpson : I happily rise in support of my hon. Friend. The two issues are road safety and, as I am sure the Minister will understand, the stop-go travelling between Great Yarmouth and King's Lynn, which is detrimental to economic investment. Large parts of my constituency are desperate for the A47 to be dualled.

Mr. Bellingham : I am grateful for my hon. Friend's intervention. He endorses the point that dual carriageway roads are safer. It is frustrating when travelling through his constituency from King's Lynn to Norwich because, although one hits dual carriageway around Swaffham, there is then a poor stretch of road until a short length of dual carriageway round Dereham. The road to Norwich is then all single carriageway.

Safety, reliability of journey times and perception are important. Norfolk has a number of world-class businesses and organisations such as the national construction college in my constituency—the construction industry training board is its governing body—the Norwich Union and so on. It is vital that those organisations are able to plan for the future with some certainty that our road communications will improve.

The A11 connects the M11 and the national motorway network through to Norwich. Quite a lot of the A11 is now dualled, thank goodness, which has made a huge difference when travelling to Norwich by car. I often go by train, but I sometimes drive and in the past it used to take at least three and a half hours from London to Norwich, allowing for various delays on the A11. One can now get to Norwich by car much more quickly because a great deal of the A11 has been dualled. However, there are still two stretches of the road that have not been dualled. There is a particularly bad stretch between Thetford and Roudham Heath, and it is vital that that is dualled as soon as possible. The A11 is the key artery linking Norwich to the motorway network. It is a long stretch of road, and even small parts that remain single carriageway will have a detrimental effect.

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I turn to a matter of which my hon. Friend is fully apprised because it has been a big controversy locally. There is no link road between the A47 Norwich southern bypass and the new £229 million Norfolk and Norwich hospital at Colney. That is a serious problem. The hospital has on several occasions been described by the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Health as a flagship. It was built under the previous Government's private finance initiative scheme. It is an excellent hospital, and everyone agrees that it is an important facility for the whole of Norfolk. It is crazy that there is no link road between the southern bypass and the hospital. Direct access is essential not only for road safety, but so that ambulances can get to the hospital more quickly. As things stand, there is a hotchpotch of plans, which do not stack up very well, for improving roads to the hospital.

Norwich is represented by two influential Labour MPs—the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), who is chairman of the Labour party, and the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), who is a distinguished professor. It is a pity that they, working alongside other MPs, have not yet been able to persuade the Government and the Highways Agency to take the link seriously. That is a missed opportunity. What sort of signal does it send to the professionals who work in the hospital? Doctors, nurses and other professionals go there day in, day out. Members of the public who want to use the hospital come along the southern bypass and can see, 200 yd away, the new hospital complex, yet they have to go miles around, possibly facing substantial delays. Even if the Minister cannot give a specific commitment owing to planning or costing problems, a firm steer from him would be welcome in Norfolk.

I want to give the Minister plenty of time to reply. I am grateful for his attendance, and await his reply with great interest.

1.48 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. David Jamieson) : I congratulate the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) on securing this important debate.

The hon. Gentleman explained how important transport is to his area. Although we hear that about every part of the country, it is true that traditionally transport links have not been good in Norfolk. However, I must chide him a little for saying that the Government are giving up on Norfolk as if it is a poor relation. I assure him that that is not so, and to suggest otherwise is somewhat insulting to the excellent lobbying on local road and rail systems that has been done by some of his colleagues, as well as by my right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), my hon. Friends the Members for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) and for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright) and many others.

Despite having a wide brief that covers not only roads but other aspects of transport, I visited the area to see for myself. It is unfortunate that the hon. Gentleman was unable to be there on that occasion. However, I had

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a long discussion with one of his hon. Friends about the value of the new bypasses that we were opening and some of the extra funding for Norfolk which will help with local solutions. If there is time, I shall return to that point.

I am particularly happy at the start of a new year to be given an opportunity to report on the progress that we are making in the planning, design and construction of Norfolk's trunk roads. Let me begin by setting out the background to what we are trying to achieve. In July 1998, the Government published "A New Deal for Trunk Roads in England". This set out several key objectives including the establishment of a core network of nationally important routes, comprising some 60 per cent. of the trunk road network, and our priorities for tackling some of the most serious and pressing problems through carefully targeted programmes of improvements, which are known colloquially as TPI. The other 40 per cent. of the network was earmarked for de-trunking roads.

In splitting the trunk road network, our aim was to place responsibility for routes with the authority best placed to make decisions about their future. We have been consulting the local authorities about transferring to them the non-core routes so that the management and improvement of those roads could be fully integrated with local transport and land use strategies.

In Norfolk, responsibility for the A10 and A134 was transferred to the county council on 1 May 2001, and responsibility for the A140 was transferred on 1 June 2001. We are currently in the process of transferring responsibility for the A17. I am sure that that will be good news to the hon. Gentleman who now knows that decisions over those particular roads will be made locally. The other good news for him, although he did not have time in his speech to mention it, was the Government's allocation in local transport plans for those roads, and other roads and schemes. They probably include the scheme that he mentioned concerning access to the hospital, and I accept that his point about that is important.

The quantity of funding that has been given to Norfolk is substantial. I was trawling through the figures, and I would be hard pressed to find a local authority that received a greater increase in its funding for local transport plans than Norfolk. In the financial year 2000-01, Norfolk received £4 million for integrated transport. In the same year, it received £5.2 million for maintenance and bridges. In the current financial year those figures are £10 million and £19.25 million respectively. The funding for maintenance and bridges is almost four times higher. I realise that the hon. Gentleman's speech was limited by time, and that he did not have time to mention those huge rises, but we can knock on the head the idea that the Government have given up on Norfolk because it is receiving substantial sums of money to carry out essential work.

The county's transport responsibilities were recognised in this year's local transport capital settlement. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will examine it closely and perhaps discuss with councillors and others on the local authority how they can best make use of it for the important matters that he raised.

I am sure that the county will make the most of its opportunities. It carried out major maintenance work on the A10 south of the Hardwick roundabout last

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autumn, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out. I understand that there was local concern about this because it required a long section of the A10 to be closed for some time. I sympathise with those affected by the disruption but I am advised that the road was too narrow to allow one-way traffic safely to pass while major maintenance works were being carried out.

Transferring responsibility for those roads does not mean that we are neglecting the county. Far from it, the TPI includes a number of schemes to improve access to Norfolk. We plan to improve the A11 trunk road, a major strategic route into Norfolk, by upgrading it fully to dual carriageway standard between the M11 at junction 9 and the Norwich bypass.

Construction began last May on a £42 million scheme to provide a dual carriageway and junction improvements between Roundham Heath and Attleborough and we expect that to be completed in Spring 2003. I was delighted recently to be in discussion with the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) in Attleborough town hall—she gave everyone a good reception with a fine plate of sandwiches. Had the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk been there, he would have seen the pleasure and delight on the faces of the people there at the amount that the Government are investing in that part of Norfolk. I heard praise from people of all political parties, and particularly from those of his party, for the extra funding that had been included in the Government's commitment. One councillor said that it was the first time since he had been in office that there had been a recognition by any Government of the finance and road improvements required.

Proposals for the A11 Fiveways to Thetford improvement and the A11 Attleborough bypass improvement were added to the TPI in March 2000, following appraisal and support given by the regional planning conference. Together, they will provide a dual carriageway for the A11 between the Fiveways roundabout at Barton Mills in Suffolk and the Thetford bypass and the existing single carriageway Attleborough bypass. The Fiveways to Thetford improvements are mainly on line except at the village of Elveden where a bypass will be provided to the north of the village. The sensitive nature of the Breckland sites near the existing road are fully recognised and will be taken into account in the development of the scheme. Those schemes were given overwhelming support at public consultations held in February and March 2001, and I recently announced the preferred routes in

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Attleborough town hall. Subject to the completion of the statutory procedures, work can start in 2005 with completion in 2007.

Following consideration by the regional planning conference, a scheme to bypass Thorney was added to the TPI in March 2000. Thorney, on the A47 to the east of Peterborough, suffers from a large volume of through traffic including a high proportion of heavy lorries. A bypass will bring safety and environmental benefits to the local community and remove a bottleneck. Strong local support exists for its early construction. As the hon. Gentleman will recall, I announced a preferred route for a 5 km northern bypass for Thorney last November. I assure him that that is also a dual carriageway and, had he been at that town hall meeting, he would have heard the warm applause in response to my remarks. Detailed proposals are being developed and we hope to start the necessary statutory process later this year. I have asked the Highways Agency to speed up delivery of this locally popular scheme without compromising the statutory process, so that work can start in 2004 and be completed in 2006. The construction of the scheme will enhance the trunk network and accessibility into Norfolk.

Improving the road network is not just about building bypasses. We want to make the best use of what already exists. An example of that, as already mentioned, is the Hardwick roundabout at the eastern end of the A47 King's Lynn southern bypass. That roundabout has an important confluence of local traffic and that from the tourist trade. The scheme to improve the roundabout is important to local people and we aim to seek tenders for construction of the scheme this March. That is a few months later than originally planned, and I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for the delay, but it was necessary to allow time for additional design work in many areas. I share his disappointment about that, and hope that people will recognise the importance of ensuring that the scheme is designed and constructed to the highest safety standards.

Sadly, I have had only 11 minutes to respond so I have not been able to cover all the hon. Gentleman's points. If he cares to drop me a short note I will happily respond in writing. He has raised important points, but I hope that he accepts that the Government have in no way neglected the needs of Norfolk; they have been recognised more strongly than ever before.

Question put and agreed to.

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