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12 Jan 2005 : Column 135WH—continued

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Strategic Transport (Norfolk)

3.54 pm

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): I welcome the opportunity to debate this subject, and I am grateful for the support of other Norfolk MPs. I notice in the Chamber my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) and the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson).

Given the geographical position of Norfolk, transport access is crucial to the local economy and tourism, and for attracting new business and addressing social deprivation. Of course, this is a broad subject that includes access by air through Norwich airport, and access by rail and sea. However, I intend in the short period available to me to concentrate on access by road. My motivation for putting in for this debate was the announcement in a Highways Agency press release on 1 December 2004 that three vital road schemes for Norfolk—the A47 Blofield to North Burlingham dualling; the A11 Attleborough bypass; the A11 Fiveways to Thetford dualling—were being downgraded from "national importance" to "regional schemes". All three schemes were programmed for completion by the end of 2008, and will now find themselves being

Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on obtaining this debate, which is of huge interest to everyone in Norfolk. Did he not find it extraordinary that he, as a constituency MP whose road scheme is affected by this summary withdrawal of Government approval, was not informed by the Government of their plan to withdraw their approval—as, indeed, I was not informed of the decision affecting the Attleborough bypass?

Mr. Simpson : My right hon. Friend makes a very good point, and I shall touch on this a little further in my speech.

This announcement from the Highways Agency caused both anger and dismay in Norfolk, as we felt that the Government had broken their promises about these schemes. Let me remind the Minister of just how important the A11 and A47, and these schemes, are to Norfolk.

Since 1997, I and other Norfolk MPs have initiated and spoken in debates in this House on why it is essential that the Government take a strategic view of these two main trunk roads, and how necessary it is that they should be dualled throughout. Is the Minister aware that Norwich is the only city in England and Wales that is not accessed by dual carriageway? In previous debates, I have taken the lead in stressing the importance of dualling the A47, part of which runs through my constituency of Mid-Norfolk. The A47 Blofield to North Burlingham section, one of the programmes that has been kicked into the long grass, is an example within my constituency. On 15 September 2003, I led a cross-party, cross-Norfolk delegation to lobby the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) on the need to dual the A47, and to press for a decision on the infamous single-lane Acle straight, between Acle in my constituency and Great Yarmouth.
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The Highways Agency's announcement on 1 December raises many serious questions about the integrity of the Government's road transport policy as it affects Norfolk and the eastern region. I have come here today to urge the Minister to reverse those decisions and explain the anomalies and contradictions behind them. It would, as my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk said, have been courteous and helpful if the Department had actually notified local MPs of this decision in December. We had to learn about it from the local media. None of us was informed, and that includes the Secretary of State for the Home Department, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke). I understand that he had something of a sense of humour failure over this.

Can the Minister explain why the A11 and A47 are not regarded as roads of national importance, but rather as regional roads? Even in the listing of regional schemes, the A11 and A47 are fourth in line after


At the bottom of the pile, our trunk roads come under

This means that the A11 and A47 would be thrown into a regional transport pot for reprioritisation, along with all other local major schemes, with the earliest possible start date at the end of this decade.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): My hon. Friend will be aware that the western part of his constituency, the whole of my constituency and the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) also rely to a significant extent not just on the A47 but on the A17 and the A10. If the situation is bad for the A11 and A47, it is going to be a great deal worse for those two other roads, which are important as strategic links to our constituencies.

Mr. Simpson : My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Anybody looking at a road map of the United Kingdom sees that Norfolk is one of the few parts of the country where there are virtually no significant roads shown: we appear to be almost without transport.

The badly thought out nature of the proposals is well illustrated by the fact that the A11 and A47 will be considered through regional transport boards. The problem is that, as far as I know, those boards have not yet been set up, and it is not clear how the local authority interest will be represented and safeguarded. What can the Minister tell us about the establishment and remit of the regional transport boards? Is the Minister aware that the East of England regional assembly originally approved extra housing? In Norfolk alone, approval was given for some 72,600 houses by 2021, as long as infrastructure, including transport, kept in step with growth. The chairman of the East of England regional
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assembly wrote to the Minister for Regeneration and the Regions on 22 December 2004 that the

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab): I want to reassure the hon. Gentleman that in this important debate he has the support of all parties, all MPs and organisations that have considered this problem in Norfolk over the years. Will he find time to talk about the accident rate, which is sometimes swollen by the holidaymakers who come to Great Yarmouth, for example, in the summer? Every week there seems to be a terrible story of some horrific crash, often resulting in deaths, which has become almost acceptable to the public. From our point of view, it is unacceptable.

Mr. Simpson : I thank the hon. Gentleman. I shall touch on that later, as it is an important point.

It is called the law of unintended consequences: given the failure of the Government's referendum on regional assemblies in the north-east, and Norfolk's experience of decisions by both the assembly and the East of England Development Agency, the Minister will not be surprised to learn that we in Norfolk have very little confidence that either the A11 or the A47 will receive any kind of priority under the proposals put forward by the Highways Agency.

In the strange world in which the Government operate, there is another glaring anomaly about those decisions. I understand that, just before Christmas, the Home Secretary intervened with the Secretary of State for Transport and persuaded him to reinstate the A11 Attleborough bypass scheme to the category of national importance. I do not know whether such an agreement is in writing, but can the Minister confirm whether the scheme has been reinstated? If it has been reinstated, without meaning to be churlish, I must question the basis of such a decision. Was it made because the Secretary of State for Transport believes, after all, that it genuinely meets the criterion of national importance? If so, why not the A11 Fiveways to Thetford or the A47 Blofield to North Burlingham scheme? Or is it because the Attleborough bypass is close to the constituency of the Home Secretary? I actively support all colleagues supporting that scheme, but it seems to be a strange anomaly.

Finally, we are waiting for a decision on the dualling of the notorious Acle straight on the A47, shared by me and the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright), who is in the Room. Will there be a decision soon, and if so, are we to assume that, like the other Norfolk schemes, it will come bottom of the list of regional priorities?

As the hon. Member for Norwich, North pointed out, the issue is not just about improving transport and economic development. Dualling saves lives. Every study done by the Government and local authorities shows that where dualling is introduced, the number of accidents, including fatal accidents, is reduced. In the early evening of Thursday 6 January, Mr. Glenn Fransham was killed on the Acle straight, near the Halvergate junction in my constituency, and the road
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was closed in both directions for four-and-a-half hours. As well as the tragedy for his family, Great Yarmouth was effectively cut off. That is totally and utterly unacceptable.

The Government have failed to consider the A11 and A47 strategic roads necessary for the development of Norfolk as well as the whole of eastern England.

Mr. Anthony D. Wright (Great Yarmouth) (Lab): I apologise for being late; I had a constituents' meeting. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, although the European Union has accepted that the A47 is part of the trans-European road network, the Government must show the same commitment with respect to the strategic route of the A47, which runs all the way through to King's Lynn and beyond?

Mr. Simpson : The hon. Gentleman has argued very strongly on this issue, along with all of us here. He is reinforcing my point that the A47 is not only crucial in Norfolk, but the main east-west road running all the way to the midlands. I know that it is an entirely separate issue, but the hon. Gentleman and all of us here are waiting with anticipation for a decision by the Secretary of State about the outer harbour at Great Yarmouth. That decision will be made on separate criteria, but if it goes ahead, as we all hope, the dualling of the A47 will become significantly important.

Mrs. Shephard : My hon. Friend is illustrating, as has also been shown by the interventions of fellow Norfolk MPs, that there is a complete lack of strategic understanding of the importance of road networks in Norfolk. It is not possible to think of developing any of our towns, including Great Yarmouth, without some thought about how people are going to get there. Equally, if the Government talk about growth in housing and general regeneration of Norfolk, they have to give strategic thought to how people are going to get in and out of the county safely, which was the point made by the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson). A quick look at the accident and emergency figures in our hospitals will show the impact of unsafe and undualled roads.

Mr. Simpson : My right hon. Friend's point reinforces the arguments about road safety and expansion. The Government want to put a lot of resources and effort into the expansion of the economy in East Anglia. I recognise and support that, but we will not get that expansion if the impression is that Norfolk is somehow cut off.

By every criteria that the Government hold dear, the dualling of the A47 and A11 must come high in their priorities, particularly in terms of dealing with social deprivation. Many people are under the impression that Norfolk is a wealthy county. There are undoubtedly parts of Norfolk where there is great wealth and the possibility of generating great wealth, but all hon. Members in this Room have in their constituency areas—in some cases, large areas—of direct social deprivation. Given that alleviating deprivation is a Government priority, that is a strong reason for examining the issue strategically.
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Limited schemes for dualling the A11 and A47 have been cut, and it seems to the people in Norfolk that there is no logic to the Government's road policy. I urge the Minister to reconsider this decision, because it is unacceptable to the people of Norfolk according to all the criteria that I have put forward. I hope that she will realise that the strength of feeling is represented here today by almost all Norfolk MPs—the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) would have been here but is in Committee.

Finally, I ask the Minister to remember that this year, Norfolk and Britain are celebrating the bicentenary of Admiral Horatio Nelson's victory at Trafalgar. Nelson was a Norfolk boy. He used to write about going into Norfolk and coming out of Norfolk as though Norfolk were almost a separate country, geographically, because of the poor communications. I leave her with a paraphrase of Nelson's famous signal at Trafalgar: "Norfolk expects the Minister to do her duty."

4.10 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Charlotte Atkins) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on securing the debate and providing us with an opportunity to discuss what we are doing about providing transport infrastructure in his area. He painted a picture of an apparently neglected part of the country, cut off from the rest of it. I reassure him that that is not so.

The east of England as a whole is a vital region at national and international level. We are working closely with regional partners to deliver the transport infrastructure that it deserves and requires. Norfolk, by virtue of its geographical location, is sometimes perceived, especially by those living there, as being on the sidelines. However, in recent years there have been some additions to the strategic transport infrastructure, and those have improved accessibility in relation to the rest of the country.

Norfolk is served by four major roads from the west and south: the A47, the A11, the A12—which are obviously all trunk roads—and the A140, which is the responsibility of Norfolk county council. In recent years there have been several improvements to those roads, such as the Hardwick flyover at King's Lynn, which removed a major congestion point on the A47 and reduced delays by up to 50 per cent. The dualling of the A11 between Roudham heath and Attleborough has also reduced journey time.

A number of local transport schemes in Norfolk have contributed to improving access to the wider strategic network and, therefore, to connections with the rest of the country. However, it is not just within Norfolk that we need to look for improvements, as even improvements outside the county can be of benefit in improving accessibility to it. We are constructing the Thorney bypass on the A47, which has been promised by successive Governments for more than 60 years. It is due to open in early 2006 and will mean a major saving on journey time.

We commissioned a multi-modal study of the A47 between Norwich and Peterborough, which examined the whole corridor strategically. Although it concluded that there was no immediate need to build a dual carriageway along the whole route, it recommended that
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certain sections should be investigated further. The Highways Agency is reviewing the case for the Middleton and East Winch bypasses and will review the case for upgrades to the further sections of the A47 between the A1 and Sutton and between North Tuddenham and Easton.

Of course, it is not just roads that service Norwich at a strategic level. The railways do as well. The successes of the Norwich to Cambridge direct rail service, on which patronage has increased as the result of rail passenger partnership funding supplied by the Strategic Rail Authority, are excellent news. Also, from 1 January, the new franchisee, One, has withdrawn 38-year-old locomotives between London and Norwich and replaced them with more modern and reliable ones.

The latest performance figures for One railway's London to Norwich service show that 88 per cent. of trains arrive on time. The latest timetable from One shows an increase in the number of trains each day between Norwich and London from 65 to 70, with later departures in the evening. That has been made possible by a decision that we took to amalgamate several separate franchises into one, covering the majority of the East Anglia region, which made possible more efficient operation on the Great Eastern main line.

The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk identified the recent announcement on transport schemes locally and nationally as an indication of our neglect of the area. I should say straight away that we have not removed any schemes from Government programmes at national or local level. He mentioned the decision not to include the A11 in the near future roads programme. However—and he raised this—we have reconsidered our decision about the A11 Attleborough bypass. We have announced that, in light of the scheme's value for money and the stage that it has reached, the Highways Agency will now take it forward.

The other two schemes in the region relate to the A11 from Five Ways to Thetford and the Blofield to North Burlingham section of the A47. We have asked the region to advise us on the relative priority of those schemes and other transport proposals in the region.

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): On the subject of the A11, we all welcome the notion of including the Attleborough bypass, but does the Minister understand that Norwich is the only major city in the UK not connected to the national road network by dual carriageways—a fact that I mentioned in my maiden speech three and a half years ago? One can get all the way from junction 9 on the M11 near Cambridge to Five Ways on a dual carriageway, and then suddenly it stops and one slows right down. Does the Minister agree that it is unacceptable that a city such as Norwich and a county such as Norfolk should be cut off in that way? Does she agree that getting the A11 dualled all the way, including the section from Five Ways to Thetford, should be a high priority?

Charlotte Atkins : That is why we asked the region to identify its priorities. If, as the hon. Gentleman suggests,
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that issue is so important, not just for Norwich but for the region, it will come very high on the list of regional priorities.

Mr. Simpson : The whole point of the debate and the arguments put forward is this: why does not the Secretary of State have a view on the matter? Strategy is decided at the national level, unless I wasted my many years spent teaching officers at the Army staff college. The Minister is talking about the tactical level. If the matter is to be decided by a region, which is, at the end of the day, a quango—I still do not know whether the regional transport board has been set up—we know from past experience that the schemes will be tail-end Charlies. We, and most observers, regard the schemes as crucial.

Charlotte Atkins : I do not know how the schemes can be tail-end Charlies if they are as important as Conservative Members suggest. "The Future of Transport" White Paper identified the value of involving regional bodies, local authorities and other key local stakeholders in shaping the programme of future transport investment in their areas. Local people on the ground know what the priorities are. Conservative Members, as leaders of local stakeholders and local political opinion, along with my hon. Friends the Members for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) and for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright), will ensure that such decisions are taken at regional level.

The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk raised the issue of regional transport boards. There is no prescription from on high—from the Department for Transport—on how regions should co-ordinate and prepare advice on priorities. It is up to the region to decide to do that. The important thing is that the region makes those decisions based on the views of local stakeholders. It is important that they have the flexibility to develop those arrangements, simply because we are often accused of trying to run everything from Whitehall. We are devolving these decisions to the region.

Clearly, Norwich is an important centre and that will be taken on board by the region. If the lack of a dual carriageway is of such significance, the scheme will certainly be adopted as a high priority by the region.

Mr. Simpson : I know that the Minister is genuinely trying to address the problem, but can she explain why the three schemes were initially dropped from being of national importance to being of regional importance? The people of Norfolk had assumed that the schemes would go ahead, and that they would be completed in the next two or three years. In fact, Ministers urged me to congratulate them in previous debates. Why have the schemes been moved into a regional bracket? We know from the Highways Agency's literature that that means that they have slipped further down the decade. Why has the A11 Attleborough bypass scheme been brought back in, but not the other two schemes, particularly the scheme in my constituency, where the road accident rate alone would justify its introduction—

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order.
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Charlotte Atkins : Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

There is clearly an issue of prioritisation and of deciding which are the most important. We have made it clear that regional local bodies should have a stronger voice in decision making. We reinstated one of those roads because we recognised that it had a significant effect on local transport needs. The others will have to be prioritised, taking account of available resources. If the region gives them a high priority, there is no reason why they should not go ahead in fairly short order.

Mrs. Shephard : I know that a great deal of the problem is not of the Minister's making, but she must realise that when her speech is reported locally it will have a hollow ring. The three schemes were withdrawn—I think on 15 December—with no notification given to local Members of Parliament, and one was reinstated on 21 December. If that scheme—it is true that it was near completion—was not perceived to have been near completion when it was withdrawn on 15 December, how did it escape the attention of the Department for Transport?

Charlotte Atkins : It was not withdrawn. It was decided that the regional priorities should be reconsidered. I have stated over and over again that those programmes have not been cut from the list of schemes. We have asked the region to prioritise the schemes within existing resources.

Mr. Wright : Does my hon. Friend understand the frustration of my constituents in Great Yarmouth? For the past 30 years of my involvement in politics, I have been campaigning for the dualling of the Acle straight, an 8-mile stretch of road between Yarmouth and Acle. The frustration is caused by the fact that a programme in the early 1990s to dual the road was withdrawn by the Conservative Government in November 1996. It is a case of give and take. Under Governments of all political persuasions, it seems that no one is handling the problem with the required urgency.

At least we now have a commitment that doing nothing is not an option. For the sake of safety, I urge the Government to get on with it. I would certainly have more confidence in the regional bodies committing their resources to the area than I have in the Department for Transport.

Charlotte Atkins : My hon. Friend has campaigned long and hard for that dualling. He rightly points out that a Conservative Government shelved the scheme. At least we now have a Government who are willing to invest in public transport and roads. He can be absolutely sure that that investment will be spent wisely and on a value-for-money basis. We are providing huge resources to be spent on the road system, but we believe that the region should have a key view in the decision-making process and that it has the power to help us come to the right decisions.

It is important that regions consider basing their decisions not only on transport priorities but on related housing and economic development programmes. Transport should be seen not in isolation, but as part of
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the regional strategic decision-making process. That is why we are consulting on proposals for   providing long-term regional funding guidelines covering transport and other policy areas. Subject to the outcome of consultation, we will publish later in the year indicative regional transport allocations for 2007–08, and longer-term planning assumptions going far beyond then.

Mr. Simpson : On that specific point, how is the Minister's Department reacting to the letter from the chairman of the East of England regional assembly saying that, as a consequence of the Highways Agency transport reallocation from national importance to regional, there is to be a vote by the elected members, putting into suspended animation the agreement for extra housing within the eastern region?

Charlotte Atkins : I am not fully aware of that communication, but I shall certainly write to the hon. Gentleman about it.

Funding guidelines will allow each region to take account of the impacts of individual decisions on wider objectives and enable them to base their strategies on more realistic assumptions of future funding. They will also   mean that regions are better able to align their planning, housing, transport and economic development strategies and come to a common, integrated view on priorities within their areas. No matter what the scale of the project, we must be absolutely assured that it meets our five criteria for transport set out in the 1998 White Paper "A New Deal for Transport".

Those criteria are accessibility, safety, economy, the environment and integration. No project will fully satisfy all those criteria, but we must ensure that there will be overall net benefit from the scheme. That often causes tensions between the various criteria, and one of the main difficulties is caused by trying to satisfy the environmental and economic criteria.

Norfolk, of course, has many areas of great natural beauty and the need to preserve them for the enjoyment of local people and for the benefits that are brought to the area by numerous visitors must be weighed against any economic benefits that the new infrastructure might bring. The hon. Gentleman highlighted the A47 Acle straight, where there may be economic benefits from widening or dualling the road.

As we have demonstrated elsewhere, our policy on new transport infrastructure also takes into account the full environmental cost as well as possible economic benefits. We are awaiting the results of work done by the Highways Agency on the environmental impact of widening or dualling the road. We are also aware of the work carried out by the county council on the economic impacts, and we shall make a decision in due course. In the shorter term, the Highways Agency is investigating measures that can be implemented to improve safety as part of its ongoing network management responsibility.

As for Eastport, to which the hon. Gentleman also referred, the project throws up a wide range of complex issues that must be considered carefully by the Government before a decision can be reached on public funding. We are considering such matters and are mindful that there are time limits on some elements
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of the potential funding. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport is considering the potential impacts of the project on the ports sector and will provide advice to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, whose approval is required for the funding decision.

It is not only major transport projects that will increase the strategic access. Often several smaller scale improvements can make a big difference to the operation of the road network. The Highways Agency has developed route management strategies for the A47, A12 and A11. They set out its plans for the development and management of the routes over the next 10 years, with priorities identified for action over the next three years. Key proposals for the A11 include the closure of central reserve gaps with the aim of improving safety,
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reducing accidents and reducing delays caused by those accidents. The agency is also investigating measures to reduce congestion at the Five Ways roundabout, which, although located in Suffolk, will improve journey time reliability to Norfolk. On the A47 and A12, key proposals include ways to reduce congestion and improve access to Great Yarmouth.

Progress is being made to improve access to Norfolk. We have not axed any schemes from our programmes, but have asked the region to align its planning, housing, transport and economic development strategies and come to a common, integrated view on priorities within its area and then to advise us of its priorities.

Question put and agreed to.

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