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Queen's recommendation having been signified—

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 52(1)(a) (Money resolutions and ways and means resolutions in connection with bills),

9 Feb 2005 : Column 1623

Question agreed to.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 52(1)(a) (Money resolutions and ways and means resolutions in connection with bills),

Question agreed to.

9 Feb 2005 : Column 1624


Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Gillian Merron.]

7.39 pm

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak about the A14 in Cambridgeshire and I am pleased that my hon. Friends the Members for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) and for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) are in their place this evening. I hope that they will be able to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, because the road runs through their constituencies as much—in some cases more—than mine and it affects all three of us.

Before dealing directly with the main issue, I want to express to the Minister in the strongest possible terms my anger at how I have been treated by the Highways Agency over the last few days. On Monday, I requested the latest information on traffic volumes to prepare for this debate. After several prevaricating and clarifying conversations, my office was informed at nearly 5 pm this afternoon that the Minister's office had refused to release the information—[Interruption.] The Minister seems to be suggesting that that is untrue, but if he listens, I will tell him exactly what happened. That fact was confirmed to me by his office as being in accordance with the Freedom of Information Act 2000. Subsequently, his office claimed that he had given permission for the information to be released, for which I am grateful, but I shall show that I have been given only partial answers to some of my questions. I have to question the basis of a freedom of information Act that apparently relies on a Minister to decide whether or not information should be released.

The critical issue to all three of us—it has been for many years—is the A14. Prior to 1997, most of the route from the Suffolk border almost as far as Huntingdon was in my constituency. Now, my patch includes only the section east of the Girton interchange. This debate is primarily about the sector from what is known as the Spittals interchange at Huntingdon to the A10 junction in my constituency.

The road is of local and national significance. It is the main commercial route between the west midlands and our biggest container port in Felixstowe. It is the main north-south route to east London, docklands and the channel crossing. Indeed, it is signposted as such on the A1. Within a few short miles, six lanes become four, then two—yet the traffic does not diminish. The stretch eastward from Girton is also the Cambridge bypass, but it is also a local road, which people have to use to get to and from Cambridge to work or study.

The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has decided that we must have 47,500 new homes in the Cambridge sub-region, including a new town at Northstowe, a few miles east of the A14. That development cannot go ahead without A14 improvements. That is not just my view; it is the considered view of Cambridgeshire Horizons, the organisation representing all the local authorities, businesses, the university and others who are taking the development forward.

On the matter of the road conditions, anyone using it will, anecdotally, testify to the problems, particularly daily traffic jams at peak times, often stretching for
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several miles. Local and national radio traffic flashes feature the A14 probably more than any other road in the country. One constituent wrote to me over the weekend:

Those anecdotes are supported by the few statistics that I do have. Traffic volumes between the Hinchingbrooke and Girton interchanges—not quite the whole length that we are discussing—have increased from 63,000 in 1997 to almost 72,000 in 2003. It worries me, Madam Deputy Speaker, that the Government and the Highways Agency are so anxious not to publish all the figures, presumably because the picture is so awful.

What I can tell the House, as the county council kindly provided me with the information, is that, sadly, there has been an increase in accidents over the last nine years—not a politically significant period. Particularly on the stretch to which I referred, the number of accidents has risen by almost 40 per cent. I understand that it was particularly bad for two years, in 2000 and 2001, and it improved a little after that. It is now worsening again. Last year, there were 106 accidents in which, sadly, four people lost their lives, 232 were seriously injured and 148 slightly injured. The accident figures show that the accident rate per million vehicle kilometres on this critical stretch of road has increased from 0.13 in 1997, to 0.15 in 2003. That means that the road has become 15 per cent. more dangerous over that period.

Behind those statistics lie some very personal matters. One of them is the huge cost and distress inflicted on people caught up in the aftermath of accidents. It is not unknown for the road to be closed for many hours; it was closed for a whole day on one occasion last year. I received an e-mail from a consultant working in the accident and emergency department at Addenbrooke's hospital. He said:

The consultant continues:

That consultant sees the real impact of what has not been achieved. However, there is also environmental damage. We all know that slow-moving traffic is a serious cause of pollution. There is also the impact on all villages in the area. The county council is spending thousands of pounds on traffic calming measures to deter the many drivers who use the villages as rat runs to avoid the A14. The county council itself is seriously affected in a direct way because it is prevented from making plans to improve various other roads locally because it does not know what is happening to the intersections on the A14.
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A former roads Minister said:

That was John Watts, in 1996.

The present Government inherited a scheme between junction 14 on the M11 and the A1-M1 link—that is, to Huntingdon—and £122.3 million was allocated to meet the standard cost. By 1998, the scheme had been downgraded from "scheme in preparation" to one that was

In 1998, my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire held an Adjournment debate on the A14. The then Minister, the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson), replied by previewing the multi-modal study that was finally completed in 2001. It recommended extra lanes for most of the existing dual carriageway, with a new southern bypass for Huntingdon. It also recommended a public transport system along the lines of the old St. Ives railway, to take some commuter traffic off the A14 and to serve Northstowe. The present Minister is aware that the county council has proposed a controversial guided bus system, and we await the outcome of the public inquiry.

The Secretary of State for Transport announced a project worth £490 million to build a three-lane carriageway and a southern bypass for Huntingdon. That was on April Fool's day, 2003—and perhaps that was no coincidence—but we all cheered, and there is no getting away from that. He said that the improved road was expected to open around 2010, and added that the Highways Agency would develop the scheme to the stage where the public could be consulted.

That was almost two years ago. Just before Christmas 2004, the present Minister said that the public consultation had been put back to allow more time for the Highways Agency to consider an alternative proposal—as if the multi-modal study had not had time and opportunity to consider all options.

Replying to questions from me and my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon, the Minister said that the consultation could start in spring 2005, and that he hoped that slippage would be slight. He told the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) that it was incumbent on the Government to "tackle the worst first", and that the greatest problem had to be dealt with first. But when the Cambridge Evening News, which is rightly campaigning for the improvements, phoned the Highways Agency, it was told that there was no priority list and that the agency could not name another A road in more need of upgrading than the A14. That statement was confirmed to me by the Minister's office today.

It is now February 2005 and, as far as my constituents are concerned, we are getting nowhere. In the view of the Cambridge Evening News, it is "Delay, delay, delay". I look not for pleasantries from the Minister tonight, but for real commitments. He may wish to dismiss my comments as electioneering and seek to reassure us that
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all is on track. Frankly, nobody will believe him. Every local authority involved in Cambridgeshire Horizons, the chamber of commerce, the local papers and all the businesses in the area are convinced that no progress has been made. As a constituent said to me in an email:

Will the Minister tell us when the public consultation will begin? He should by now be able to be absolutely specific—my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire has some detail of previous promises on that point. Will a public inquiry be necessary or can the Minister assure us that that can be avoided? If we must have one, when will it be and how much delay would it involve? Most importantly, when will we see some action? Can the Minister confirm that the announcement of £490 million in 2003 is still in the programme? When does he expect soil to be shifted and work to begin? When does he expect the new road to be open? Given the delays that have occurred and the increasing problems that I have described, I believe that the people of Cambridgeshire are entitled to the answers.

7.51 pm

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