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4 pm

Mr. Anthony Wright (Great Yarmouth) (Lab): May I first say that I am pleased to see the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) in his place? I suggested that he participate in this debate, as most of the Acle straight is in his constituency.

I am glad that we are finally having this Adjournment debate, after being denied that chance following the early Prorogation of the previous Parliament. I first raised the Acle straight in Parliament as long ago as 1998. The focus of today's debate should be simple, as it was then: do we allow environmental concerns and the general presumption against schemes affecting environmentally sensitive sites that are the habitat of important species to stop the implementation of safety measures to prevent any more needless deaths of those who travel on the road? Do we put environmental concerns above the lives of road users?

Having campaigned on the issue for many years, I strongly believe that the safety measures needed to stop the current spate of accidents on the road will have to be significant, involving the redesign of the road. Against that, I am keenly aware of the previous indifference of Governments to that stretch of road over the past 30 years. Polarised local opinion on its dualling and the recent politicisation of the issue has turned what should be a simple decision about safety into the complex situation that we now face.

In 1998 the Government launched a new deal for trunk roads in England that reversed Tory proposals to scrap the scheme and provided an open and accountable approach for considering all proposals about the road. The report emphasised the need for the completion of the dualling of the A11 to Norwich and proposed that the A47 Norwich to Great Yarmouth road-based study should consider solutions to congestion and safety on single carriageway sections of the route, including the Acle straight.

The A47 Norwich to Great Yarmouth road-based study was completed in October 2001. The report recommended minor safety improvements on the road in the short term, at Halvergate junction and at the westbound approach to Acle roundabout, which were completed in 2001. In the long term, the report said that the preferred approach was to widen the existing road, to provide a higher standard single carriageway. That was proposed instead of dualling, because of environmental concerns. Further, providing an offline route was rejected, as it would not have been good value for money. Doing nothing was also rejected, given the road's poor safety record.

Although the Government have accepted that doing nothing is not an option, it was decided that the outcome of the Highways Agency study was inconclusive. The Highways Agency was asked to undertake further work to help inform the decision-making process on the road. That work included a full stage 3 environmental assessment of widening or dualling, and investigations into the buildability of any proposal and, on the economics of the proposals, construction delays to traffic.

The final conclusion of the report came a year later than anticipated, in September 2004, leading to further local frustration. Although I share that frustration, we
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now have a real chance of a positive conclusion to the unhappy saga, with the submission being considered by the Minister and the further work of the Highways Agency on the Norwich to Great Yarmouth road-based study now complete.

I urge the Minister to come to a decision as soon as possible on a proper course of action for the road. What do I propose that that course of action should be? Following my own research, via the Highways Agency and in response to a letter that I sent to the office of David Jamieson, the then Under-Secretary of State for Transport, on 7 April, I found that if a decision to undertake work to dual the Acle straight were taken now, the earliest date that such work could be undertaken would be 2011. That would be more than five years on from the date when the agency would be commissioned to start the work, and would involve consultations, route announcements, draft orders, environmental statements, a public inquiry, approval and the possibility of legal challenge. Add to that the time that it would take to construct the road and we find that dualling, although the preferred long-term option on safety and economic grounds, is not a solution to the road's well-documented safety problems in the near term.

It is well known locally that combinations of slow-moving cars, lorries and farm traffic on this long, straight stretch of road, with limited ability to pass, present a large safety problem. The long stretches of the road make judgment of distance difficult and accidents and fatalities a horrific and regular occurrence.

Recent accidents include the deaths of a young father of two children, Glenn Fransham, who was just 38, and of Basil Jackson, who was 74, which occurred in shocking circumstances in November and January. Both deaths were due to accidents that were not the fault of the person who died. What makes them even more shocking is that both those drivers might have been alive today had it not been for the water-filled ditches running along the Acle straight. They died because as they left the road their cars wedged upside down in the ditches, leaving them trapped and drowning.

Those incidents are not isolated. In June a driver had a lucky escape from those ditches after his Peugeot overturned into the ditch; he was rescued. Similar accidents on the road have happened in the past, they happen now, and they will happen in the future, resulting in more people losing their lives.

Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab): I am sure that my hon. Friend will be aware that many of my constituents use the road regularly because Great Yarmouth, being one of the country's premier holiday resorts and having a great race track, is very popular with the people of South Yorkshire. Does my hon. Friend recall my telling him some months ago that I was involved in an accident on that stretch of road in which I and my brother-in-law had to rescue an elderly couple from their upturned car? It was quite a serious incident and we had to call an ambulance.

Mr. Wright : Indeed I do remember that story, which shows that accidents there are not new; they happen
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regularly. The ditches are within 3 ft of the roadside. The Acle straight is probably the narrowest of the UK's A roads; there is no room for manoeuvre. What my hon. Friend has told the House shows that such accidents have been happening for too long. However, what really brings the problem home to everyone is the fact that three accidents have happened in the past seven months in which cars were left upside down in the ditch with people trapped inside. Fortunately, everyone survived the accident that my hon. Friend was involved in; clearly his quick action had something to do with that.

The Government have stated targets to reduce the number of people killed or seriously injured by 50 per cent., compared with the average for 1994–98, by 2010. Indeed, at Question Time today the Prime Minister qualified that. With regard specifically to the Acle straight, the Minister has asked the Highways Agency to give serious consideration to lowering the speed limits from 60 mph to 50 mph and has also asked for the current study of safety on the road, prompted by the two recent fatalities, to include improved incident management and driver information. It is my experience that those measures will do little to prevent such tragedies in the future and to allow the Government to achieve their laudable goal.

It is painfully apparent to Glenn's relatives that something significant must be done immediately to deal with the danger from the dykes, which are filled with water and provide no escape routes. Indeed, all along the narrow verges, with no safety fence protection from the side slopes, the drainage dykes have been a constant danger.

I have also been approached by a constituent who is concerned about the kerbs that have recently been placed on sections of the road by the Highways Agency, and which were designed originally as safety measures. He raised concerns that if hit at speed those kerbs might on occasion lead to cars becoming airborne and flipping into the dykes.

The Highways Agency procedure is to complete safety studies on all fatalities on the trunk road network and it has completed a study on the recent fatalities. In response to my letter of 7 April the Department for Transport stated:

That really brings it home to me that the whole eight-mile stretch of the road, the majority of which is covered by dykes on each side, is a danger because of the dykes.

Although I recognise, as I have said, that some safety measures have been put in place during the last five or so years, especially near the Halvergate junction—I do not dismiss those currently being examined—I am deeply concerned that the Department for Transport has not taken on board the true danger posed by the dykes. The dykes need to be moved far enough from the road to allow for a possible barrier, or even far enough away for any cars involved in an accident to come to a halt on soil. The cost of doing that would make very little difference to the Department's budget, but would prevent further fatalities such as that of Glenn Fransham, whose parents told me when I met them a few weeks ago that they would not want anyone else to lose their loved ones to a fate similar to that of their son.
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However, the environmental lobby has strongly contended that the dykes and grassland habitats affected by dualling are protected by national and international designations, and that any attempt to remove or relocate the dykes, or to widen or dual the road, would come up against stiff opposition in the European courts, where the safety and economic case would have to be overridden. In my opinion, that case would certainly be won and would override other considerations.

That conclusion is also reached in a new report prepared for the Highways Agency by consultants Hyder. However, Hyder also recognises that there would be a significant improvement in preventing accidents, as well as economic benefits, if the road were dualled. There are serious questions to be asked about the environmental reports, as stated in the road-based study, as well as in a research paper by a mature student at the university of East Anglia, Karen Young, who is a constituent of mine, entitled, "Is the science of ecology being used as a tool of convenience?" It is the most detailed ecological report about the road that I have ever seen. Rather than go through the report, I forwarded a copy to the Minister's Department, and will be interested in her comments on it, if not today, then in correspondence.

However, I should like to raise in today's debate a section of Karen's report in which she responds to a statement in the A47 report on dualling. It says:

In her appraisal of that statement, Karen says:

May I at this stage put on record my appreciation and thanks to Karen Young for her important report, and for allowing me to quote from it? The Government have accepted that the Acle straight needs widening, and to do it, dykes will have to be moved anyway, but I would suggest that consideration be given to moving the dykes far enough back to take into account any possibility of future dualling. Widening the road itself will take up to 92 hectares of land, whereas dualling the road would take 140 hectares—just 50 hectares more. Such an increase is not substantial enough to delay the compulsory purchase of the necessary land, with a view to dualling in the long term, but allowing the necessary safety measures to be taken in the interim.

I also want to make it clear that although we must have safety now, we must also have prosperity for Great Yarmouth. Reports considering the socio-economic impact of dualling the Acle straight illustrate the fact that Great Yarmouth inherited a high unemployment rate in 1997, which was compounded by shifts in seasonal employment, a weak skills base, and low earning associated with severe deprivation. While the Government have sustained a campaign of investment
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into Great Yarmouth to combat that, leading to much lower unemployment levels, record investment in schools, police and the NHS, and the good news of the urban regeneration company for Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft, as well as approval for public funding for Great Yarmouth's outer harbour scheme, those regeneration efforts would be complemented through dualling.

I caution the Minister against any hesitation in tackling the issue once and for all. She has stark questions to answer. How many more people have to die to prove that the dykes are unsafe and should be moved? Steps can be taken to save lives now. We can still have a dualled Acle straight in the future, but we must act—and act now—if we are genuine in our desire to save lives.

4.15 pm

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright) on introducing the debate and thank him and the Minister for allowing me to make a short speech. As he said, 50 per cent. or more of the Acle straight lies in the eastern part of my constituency of Mid-Norfolk. Indeed, the town of Acle is situated there.

The hon. Member for Great Yarmouth and I entered the House together in 1997. I have always said that the A47 will probably be engraved on my heart, as Calais was on the heart of Mary Tudor, and that the Acle straight will probably be engraved on the hon. Gentleman's heart. I do not want to repeat what he said most powerfully, but I must make an important point. There are strong arguments for dualling other parts of the A47, but we have reached the stage with the Acle straight when doing nothing specifically about the accidents and deaths that he and the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) graphically described is no longer an option. It is bad enough having an accident in the area, but a person can come off the road and drown. I do not believe that many other countries in the world would allow such a state of affairs. If Great Yarmouth and Acle were situated on the outskirts of London, Manchester or Glasgow, the outcry about what was happening would be so great that something would be done about matters immediately.

I agree with the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth. If dualling is in the mid to far distance, something that we must keep aiming for, at the very least remedial work should be carried out to widen the single carriageway. Powerful arguments have certainly been voiced to move the ditches/dykes. Local environmentalists, farmers and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds—some members of which helped in Karen Young's excellent study—have told me that dykes and ditches in that area have been moved over many hundreds of years. Such matters now have to be a priority. Although we are aware of the wonderful environment in Norfolk in which we are privileged to live, I hope that I am quoting the hon. Gentleman correctly when I say that, at times, the habitats of a few species should not be more important than the lives of individuals.

When a major accident occurs on the A47, Yarmouth is cut off on one side. That has an immediate economic impact on Great Yarmouth and on the lives of many of my constituents. Doing nothing is no longer an option.
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4.18 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Ms Karen Buck) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright) on securing the debate and on the thoughtful and measured presentation of his case. I also appreciate the comments made by the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson). I was pleased to hear my hon. Friend say that the issue has a long history. It is important that that is recognised. In fact, the matter has been under consideration by various Governments for 30 years.

I welcome the opportunity, albeit belatedly as my hon. Friend said, to outline the Government's current thinking on the issue. I know that our words of condolence are not always welcome, but it is important to place on the record our deepest sympathy for the families and friends of those people who have been killed tragically in the incidents that my hon. Friend mentioned. I assure him that both I and the Highways Agency always take such incidents seriously and are committed to improving safety on our network. As my hon. Friend said, the Government have targets to reduce the number of people who are killed or seriously injured in road crashes in Great Britain by 40 per cent. and the number of children killed or seriously injured by 50 per cent. by 2010 compared with the average for 1994–98.

In fact, in 2003 there were 3,508 people killed in road crashes and 33,707 seriously injured. That is halfway to the 40 per cent. target set for 2010. Obviously, every single one of those crashes is a unique incident, and I am sure that for those involved recognition that we are on the way to the target is of very little comfort. None the less, it is important to set such incidents in a statistical context so that we can measure the progress made.

For the record, whenever a fatality occurs on the trunk network, a study is undertaken to see whether there are any quick actions that could be taken to avoid a similar occurrence. For the recent incident outlined by my hon. Friend, that was done. As he recognised, the key message to emerge was that there was little similarity between the events, which happened over 5.5 km apart, except—and it is an important exception—for the fact that the vehicles ended up in dykes adjacent to the road. The agency has embarked on a study to consider the potential for bringing forward measures that could reduce the incidence.

With respect to the particular cases raised by my hon. Friend, I should add that one of the crashes resulted in criminal prosecution. In another, the coroner declared a verdict of accidental death. The incident earlier this month is the result of suspected drink-driving.

As part of the safety study, I have asked the Highways Agency to give serious consideration to lowering the speed limit from 60 to 50 mph. The study should also look into the issues of improved incident management and driver information. That could include the introduction of automatic incident detection and variable message signs to assist with warning motorists and implementing temporary diversion of traffic.

Of course, as always, the agency will work closely with the police and local stakeholders such as the safety camera partnerships in taking forward any recommendations emerging from this study. Without being complacent, the latest published casualty figures for the Acle straight fall below the national rate for all-
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purpose single carriageway roads of A-road classification, but of course every single incident is one too many, and the casualty figures are only part of the story.

Due to the extensive marshes and broads in the area—my hon. Friends the Members for Great Yarmouth and for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) and the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk are far more aware than I of the exact geography—there are very few alternative routes to Great Yarmouth. Consequently, when incidents occur on the network, severe congestion builds up almost inevitably. Additionally, there are numerous field accesses directly on to the A47 along the whole of the straight, with few, if any, alternatives available. Use of those accesses contributes to the substandard nature of the route. Overall, the character and nature of the    route gives a perception of remoteness and peripherality. The service for road users is affected by occasional hold-ups at junctions and farm access points, and congestion at the A47/A12 Vauxhall roundabout, located to the east of the Acle straight.

Mr. Wright : My hon. Friend mentions the number of accesses on to farmland. As someone who used that road regularly, and who has lived all his life in the area, I can say that the problem is not road accesses on to the Acle straight; it is more the congestion at the Vauxhall roundabout end and, to a lesser extent, the Acle end. I consider it a red herring, but people suggest that the number of accesses on to the Acle straight are a particular problem. However, it is easy to overcome such problems.

Ms Buck : We should take due cognisance of the local knowledge of my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk in the appraisal of what exactly contributes to the problem.

In addition to the problems with the Vauxhall roundabout, there are difficulties in overtaking, as I think both hon. Members would acknowledge, due to the restricted carriageway width and poor perception of vehicle speeds and distances due to the straightness of the road.

Following the previous Government's decision of November 1996 to remove the trunk road programme by stopping a large number of schemes—including two designed to deal with the single carriageway sections between Norwich and Great Yarmouth—we undertook a strategic review of the roads programme. This work culminated in a number of multi-modal and road-based studies, including one to consider solutions to congestion and safety problems along the single sections of the A47 route. The study, known as the Norwich to Great Yarmouth road-based study, was completed in October 2001, and recommended a number of transport schemes, including two highway schemes, to address the problems of the single sections of road—those same sections that were to be covered by schemes that were removed from the programme by the previous Government.

The East of England Local Government Conference's review of the study findings highlighted the importance of the economic regeneration needs of Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft, as has been mentioned, and with one exception—the treatment of the Acle straight—
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supported those recommendations. The Government accepted the conference's view and endorsed the recommendations, particularly the dualling of the Blofield to North Burlingham section of the A47, which   was added to their targeted programme of improvements in July 2002.

With respect to the Acle straight, the conference considered that there was insufficient information on a range of environmental and economic factors on which to make a decision. The Government also endorsed that view and asked the Highways Agency to undertake further work into the environmental implications of widening or dualling the road, issues of buildability and the effects of construction delays on the economics of the proposals. That work has been completed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth acknowledges, and I have a copy of the findings.

I am aware—I hope that my hon. Friend appreciates this point—that there is a deep polarisation of views on this subject. Although there is always a risk of seeing it as a choice between the risk of accident and environmental considerations, it is none the less important to remember that it is not just a straight choice between the two, but those factors have to be borne in mind, considering the general background of accident risk on that stretch of road.

There is a strongly and widely held local view, which includes the majority of local authority representatives, the local MPs and the business community, that the economy of Great Yarmouth is stifled and unlikely to grow without improvements to the A47 Acle straight. In support of that view, Norfolk county council has presented to me a report on the wider economic benefits of improving that stretch of road.

I am also aware that the environmental groups are strongly opposed to any improvement of the Acle straight. They consider that the unique nature of the broads, and the high risk of potential damage to the ecology of the area resulting from a highway improvement, would outweigh any regeneration efforts that such a scheme might offer.

The hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) claimed before the general election that the improvements to the Acle straight could be constructed within the lifetime of the next Government, if a choice were made to go ahead on
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the basis of the time scale that was under consideration earlier this year. I stress that even if a decision to proceed were to be made in the next few months, the earliest possible date that works could be undertaken on the Acle straight is 2011, because any scheme would be subject to statutory procedures and regional prioritisation. We should also bear in mind the difficult environmental conditions and the implementation of any mitigation measures that might extend that date.

There is no doubt that this will be a hard decision and there are strong competing factors. We are alive to the significant environmental concerns and the general policy that there is a strong presumption against schemes that would significantly affect environmentally sensitive sites, or important species or habitats. That must be balanced against the economic benefits that the improvements appear to bring. Consequently, we are considering carefully the Highway Agency's work on this issue.

Mr. Wright : Will my hon. Friend give a commitment that when the Highways Agency reviews this matter she will ask it to consider my request to move the dykes far enough back from the road to create a safer environment and also to take into account the possibility of dualling the road at some time in future—whether in the medium or long term?

Ms Buck : I see no reason why I should not give that commitment, in the sense that it is advisable to consider a range of options, given the environmental concerns advanced against the road-widening option. The more options we can consider, the better it will be.

In summary, this is a difficult decision. Environmental considerations and economic and regeneration elements of the scheme must all be borne in mind—that case has been well put. Of course, it must be on the top of our minds that we must do everything that we can to ensure safety and prevent, wherever possible, any repetition of those sad accidents that have claimed lives. Considering those issues together on the basis of the information that has been put to me, including the contribution that my hon. Friend has made today, I expect to gather that information in the not-too-distant future and hope that we will be able to come forward with a decision.
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