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2 Nov 2005 : Column 283WH—continued

A47 (Road Accidents)

11 am

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): Thank you, Mr. Gale, for giving me the opportunity to talk about road accidents on the A47 in Norfolk. I am pleased to see the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright) and my hon. Friends the Members for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) and for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Fraser) in the Chamber. The hon. Members for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) and for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) sent their apologies; they could not be here, but they support the thrust of the debate. The Secretary of State for the Home Department, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), is also aware of the debate.

This is Westminster Hall, so this must be another debate urging Ministers to consider the A47. I have lost count of the number of debates on the A47 that I have secured or participated in since I was elected in 1997. There have also been at least two delegations with other hon. Members to see Ministers, hundreds of letters and dozens of meetings.

Since December 2004, work on dualling the A47 has actually regressed, with the Government deciding to downgrade the A47 from a strategic route to one of regional priority, for decision by a regional transport board. The Minister probably knows that that caused real anger and frustration in Norfolk across the political parties and in a wide range of communities. Almost a year later, we still have no date for the establishment of the regional transport board, and we do not know who its members will be or what its powers will be. Will the Minister enlighten us with those details when he sums up? Even when the regional transport board is established, Norfolk's A47 will have to fight for priority with dozens of probably equally worthy schemes in the eastern region. Will the Minister confirm that the regional funding allocation for the eastern region in the next three years is not sufficient even to meet existing commitments?

The Minister will know that particular schemes to dual certain priority sections of the A47, which were agreed before December 2004, have now slipped into the regional melting pot. We have consistently argued for the dualling of the A47 on the grounds of road safety, east-west communications, and meeting the criteria of alleviating social deprivation, particularly in areas such as Great Yarmouth, and encouraging economic development—ironically, criteria that were all established by the Government.

The A47 is inadequate to meet the existing traffic flows of Norfolk's population, even without the demand made by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister for Norfolk to provide 78,000 extra homes in the next decade. I shall use this short debate to deal with the specific issue of road accidents on the A47 in Norfolk, particularly on the stretch of the A47 west of Norwich from North Tuddenham to Easton. Many other stretches of the road affect hon. Members who are in the Chamber today, but I shall focus on that particular stretch of the road because of a fatal accident that has provoked widespread anger and dismay among my constituents and a demand for ministerial action. They want no more studies, no more promises, and no more evasions; they want action, not words, on this issue.
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On 3 October, a major accident occurred on the A47 where the C539 Mattishall road meets the A47 just east of Honingham. The crash involved a car, a fuel tanker, a low loader, another HGV and a van. David Jackson, a 19-year-old, was seriously injured, and, despite their best efforts, medical teams could not save his life. Quite understandably, his mother, Mrs. Andrea Jackson, is distraught, but she is equally determined to ensure that action is taken to prevent another parent from losing another child under such circumstances. That tragic death has galvanised local communities in villages such as Mattishall and Dereham, as well as in Norwich. A fortnight after that incident, I happened to visit the Neatherd high school in Dereham and was lobbied by the school children, many of whom had known the young man. That accident is but one that has resulted in previous deaths and injuries along the A47. The hon. Member for Great Yarmouth and I share a stretch of the A47 known as the Acle straight, where if one has the misfortune to come off the road and land in a ditch and one cannot be pulled out one drowns. That is totally unacceptable.

Another consequence of the accident on 3 October was that the A47 was shut for nearly 12 hours and diversions occurred through Fakenham in the north and Thetford in the south, miles and miles away. That has frequently happened on other stretches of the A47, including the Acle straight. When it happens in Great Yarmouth, a large sea port is cut off, something that did not happen even in the time of Horatio Nelson. Only yesterday there was another accident on the A47 along a similar stretch with yet more delays.

So what would I like from the Minister today? A commitment that the Highways Agency will use its small programme of works to alleviate the inherent dangers associated with the stretch that I have been talking about. The preferred solution by local residents is that they should consider a roundabout at the Wood lane-Honingham junction of the A47. That is to save lives in my constituency.

Mr. Anthony Wright (Great Yarmouth) (Lab): The main issue for which we have argued for a considerable time is safety. While we are arguing for the dualling of the A47, the most important thing we are after regarding the Acle straight and the safety measures mentioned by the hon. Gentleman is for the work to be carried out quickly to alleviate any further loss of life or severe accidents. That is a quick fix. The long-term issue is the dualling of the road. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?

Mr. Simpson : I would certainly agree. The hon. Gentleman and I are veterans of other debates on the A47. We are all committed to the dualling of the whole of the A47 but we realise that that is probably in the   long grass. We are looking now for remedial measures.

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): My hon. Friend makes the point that we recognise that the dualling may take longer. Does he recognise that a roundabout is something that cannot wait any longer? I speak with a personal interest in that my private secretary lives in Mattishall and was a friend of the
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family of David Jackson. She tells me that local people hate using that junction and turning right to head east into Norwich and will avoid it at almost any cost.

Mr. Simpson : My hon. Friend makes a strong point, for which I thank him: I know that road only too well and one takes one's life in one's hands there. I am sure the Minister is aware that the real danger is not the consequence of the accidents along the east-west thrust of the A47, but in all the small communities north and south having to try to get across it. East of Norwich we have a similar problem around the village of Lingwood and there is also a major problem for the lorries and cars trying to get to the sugar beet factory at Cantley. That is my first point to the Minister.

Secondly, will the Highways Agency bring forward its priority review of those sections of the A47 in view of the increasing congestion and the unacceptable record along the length of the route, and will that action will be initiated as soon as possible? The road accident figures relating to the section of the A47 to which I referred underline my case. There have been six fatal accidents in which nine people died, 18 serious injuries and 55 slight injury accidents on that length of the A47 in the past six years. Of that total, three accidents in which five people died and three serious injury accidents occurred at the junction known as Wood lane-Honingham. The accident severity ratio for the length of the route over the six-year period is more than 60 per cent. higher than the national average for similar types of road. That is not acceptable and my constituents are no longer prepared to accept it.

The average daily traffic flow is almost 22,000 vehicles per day; nearly 50 per cent.—about 14,000—above the threshold for dualling. By the Government's own criteria, many stretches of the A47 should be dualled. There is a morning peak-hour flow in the area of more than 2,000 vehicles per hour, making the road both difficult and, at some junctions, such as that with the C539, extremely hazardous.

Potential new housing allocations at Dereham from the local development plan could well result in an additional 2,000 dwellings, seeing a further increase in road traffic. Apart from the cost in human life and in injuries from such accidents, let me tell the Minister of a financial equation. I understand that the cost of fatal and serious accidents at the particular stretch of the A47 that we are debating was £3.25 million during the past three years. During the past six years, the cost was £5.1 million. The cost of a roundabout, which has been proposed by the county council and is the favoured option of local residents—I agree that it is one remedial option—is about £750,000. It makes financial as well as humane sense to undertake that work.

I have been supported by members of the A47 alliance, which meets regularly. I represent all the local MPs of all political parties, county councillors, district councillors, representatives of the local communities and local businesses. I am meeting Mrs. Andrea Jackson on Friday afternoon to discuss what further action needs to be taken. She has raised a petition from more than 2,000 people demanding action.

I have put forward what I hope are reasonable suggestions for remedial work to meet the immediate problem, not negating our long-term aim for dualling. I
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hope that the Minister can give us some positive words that I can take back to Mrs. Jackson and other constituents.

11.12 am

Mr. Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) for allowing me to make a specific point about an accident on the A47 in my constituency. I also thank the Minister.

I rise in support of all that my hon. Friend has said. The issues of the A47 have gone on for quite a long time, as I know the Minister is aware. I hope that we will see some imminent action on the problems raised. Specifically, I want to draw the Minister's attention to an accident on the A47 in my constituency that closed that part of the road for approximately 15 hours on Friday evening. The accident happened on a single carriageway stretch of the road and involved a car, a van and a bus. The bus's fuel tank ruptured and there was a huge diesel leak on the road, which needed to be resurfaced. That meant that lengthy diversions had to be put in place, which not only affected my constituents but members of the public across the county.

Our roads in Norfolk clearly cannot cope, not only with the accidents on the A47 but with the consequential problems on the minor roads around them. When something goes wrong on the A47, it takes a great deal of time to sort it out. The accident to which I referred was the third in four days involving a bus on the A47. I need not tell the Minister how important it is to make sure that our public transport works well and, in addition, that it also works safely and in an environment in which passengers feel comfortable.

The road is unsafe and unfit for traffic conditions in the 21st century. It must, as my hon. Friend says, be dualled and the Government must find the money to make that possible. Investment in the roads infrastructure in East Anglia is a disgrace. The A47 is a vital link for business in the area, for commuters and for private motorists. It is not acceptable for the Government to tell us that the A47 and the A11, which faces similar problems, should compete for funding from the East of England regional assembly because they are not significant enough to merit central funding. Would that be the answer if those roads were in the Government heartlands in the north of England? How many more people must die, how many more major accidents must happen, and how much more traffic chaos must there be before the Government understand the problems we face in Norfolk?

Finally, I want to add to my hon. Friend's points about the cost of upgrading the A47. There is another figure that we should bear in mind. The accidents are estimated to have cost Norfolk around £60 million, based on Government figures including ambulance, police and hospital costs, losses to employers and so on. Is it reasonable that people in Norfolk should bear such a financial burden as a result of the failure to develop a proper roads infrastructure in the county? I believe it is not. I hope that the Minister will take that into account in his response.
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11.15 am

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Dr. Stephen Ladyman) : I begin with an apology. I have done what you did, Mr. Gale, two or three years ago. I have come into Westminster Hall and discovered that my poppy has fallen out. That is a crime made even worse by the fact that it was the poppy that you bought me at the Festival of Remembrance in Margate on Friday night. I promise to replace it.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on securing the debate. This is a stretch of road that he has long taken an interest in, and I understand his concern about the accidents that are happening on this road. I also share the concerns of other hon. Members present today, including the hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Fraser).

Let me start by asking the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk to pass on my deepest sympathy to the family and friends of those who have been tragically killed on this stretch of road, particularly in the accident that he described. It always saddens me when, despite everything we are trying to do to improve safety on our roads, there are fatalities and accidents. I want to assure the House that the Highways Agency and the Government take road safety very seriously and are committed to improving safety on the road network. Our targets are challenging. We intend to reduce the number of adults killed on our roads 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 2004, 3,221 people were killed in road crashes and 31,130 were seriously injured. That is 28 per cent. below the baseline and more than two thirds of the way to our 40 per cent. target. In 2004, 166 children were killed in road crashes and 3,739 were seriously injured. This is 43 per cent. below the baseline and over three quarters of the way to the 50 per cent. target. So we are making progress.

The most recent figures for the A47 in Norfolk originate from the local authority rather than the Highways Agency and are for the period from January 2000 up to September 2005. They show a total of 40 fatal, 149 serious and 717 slight accidents, totalling 906 for the period. The cold statistics hide the personal tragedies of every single one of those fatalities. Nevertheless, the severity index rate, which is the number of fatal or serious injury collisions divided by the total collisions for the A47 in Norfolk is 21 per cent. That is the same level as other national rural trunk roads in Great Britain.

Such comparisons are always invidious, but if we compare the accident rates based on the period from 2000 to 2004, the approximate accident rate per 100 vehicle kilometres on the A47 in Norfolk is 16, compared with a national figure for road casualties on similar rural roads in Great Britain of 27. Although the incidents on this road are stark and serious and each one is a tragedy, the road is not grossly more dangerous than other similar roads.

Mr. Bacon : It is often said that if one tortures statistics for long enough one can make them confess to anything. Does the Minister agree that not only do the statistics hide the personal tragedies, but they do not take account
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of hot spots? The fact that Norfolk, with only 800,000 people, is England's second largest county of course means that statistics may look skewed in one direction. If one were to take a more accurate assessment of the land area occupied by people, rather than the fields of sugar beet, barley and wheat, one would get a very different result. We still need to deal with the question of hot spots.

Dr. Ladyman : I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. That was what I was trying to get over by saying that each of these statistics hides a personal tragedy. I realise that we can twist these statistics all day long. I can probably prove that this is a very safe road and hon. Members can prove that it is a very dangerous road. The fact is we must do something to deal with the tragedies that are happening on this road. I entirely take that point.

I was saddened to hear about the recent accident at Honingham. I do not want to discuss that accident in detail because we have yet to see the reports from the coroner's inquest, but I can tell the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk that in the event of a fatality on the roads network the Highways Agency always undertakes a study of the accident and if more detailed investigations are recommended as a result, independent safety engineers are asked to carry out a further investigation study which would try to identify possible improvements in safety measure on that stretch of road. The recommendations are targeted at preventing similar types of accidents occurring and the study into the accident that we are discussing is under way. I will ensure that the hon. Gentleman's constituents' idea of a roundabout is considered, and if that is the best way of making certain that such an accident does not happen again—

Mr. Anthony Wright : In June, I raised the matter of an accident on the Acle straight in my constituency involving Glenn Francham, who drowned in the dyke, a matter to which the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) referred. The Minister said at the time of the debate that she expected the information to be gathered in the not-too-distant future and hoped to come forward with a decision based on the safety aspects that were required to prevent a similar accident. It is now 10 months down the road from that accident. Can the Minister shed some light on when we can expect a decision on the safety measures to be implemented on that stretch of road?

Dr. Ladyman : I shall deal with the Acle straight in detail in a few moments, but first I shall share something that I have observed since I became Minister with responsibility for roads. I have frequently had to look at studies on stretches of roads that go back decades. They come across my desk and my immediate thought is to say, "Why on earth was this not sorted out years ago?" But when I look at the complexities of such stretches of road it becomes clear why decisions have not been taken quickly.

The Acle straight is a case in point. There are some extremely difficult environmental problems to be overcome if work is to be carried out on that road. I entirely understand the economic and safety arguments; I would be blind not to, but it is a nightmare to find a
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way of doing the sort of work for which my hon. Friend, and, no doubt, other hon. Members, have campaigned for many years without damaging the sensitive environment through which the road passes—the heritage landscape, the biodiversity, the flora and fauna—and getting agreement to do it from the Environment Agency and the other people who are trying to protect the countryside. However, I can give my hon. Friend a guarantee that I am absolutely determined to crack that problem one way or another and to come to a decision on how best to move forward on the matter. I will give him details of how that decision will be arrived at in a moment.

Mr. Anthony Wright rose—

Dr. Ladyman : If I may, I want first to make a little progress.

Some safety improvements on the A47 at Honingham have already been implemented in the past few years. I understand that early in 2003, safety improvements were implemented at the Taverham road-Blind lane and Mattishall road junctions, which involved changing road markings, including providing ladder hatching with red infill, the installation of high-friction surfacing on approaches to the junctions, improvements to signing and the provision of road studs and hazard marker posts. Those measures were designed to address accidents on the stretch of road that was identified in a 2002 safety study. The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk said no more studies, but studies lead to work eventually.

Mr. Keith Simpson : I understand what the Minister is saying. It sounds as if I am being churlish, but it is only in the sense that eight years have made me and my constituents very churlish. There has been some remedial work, but although I can understand the Minister's brief and the financial restraints, we are not prepared to accept that any longer. I understand the environmental problems, but tell that to the people who have been involved in accidents on the Acle straight. The life cycle of rare newts does not equate to human life, and we must get real about that. I welcome the Minister's comment that the Highways Agency might consider the option of a roundabout, but from what the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright) said, the study is likely to last 10 months or two years. My constituents are not prepared to put up with the situation any more. We want action now. We want money to be allocated; a short, sharp study; and lives to be saved.

Dr. Ladyman : Money has been spent on the road junction where the accident happened. There was another set of road improvements at the junction in 2004, involving changes to the give way sign and road markings and the addition of a new map-style, advanced direction sign to help people navigate their way through the area. Money is being spent. We must take the evidence of experts on the best way of dealing with these issues, and the study will identify those best ways forward. If it is clear that we can save lives by doing remedial work such as building a roundabout, I will look keenly at doing so.

As for the Acle straight, if—it is a big if—at the end of all the deliberations, in the next month or two, I decide that we should go ahead with some
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improvements to that road, I shall look to the hon. Gentleman, his constituents and my hon. Friend to be at my shoulder when I take the brickbats from the environmental people, who will not make jokes about newts and will not take these issues lightly. They will demand that the decision should be reversed and that the Government should be overthrown.

Mr. Anthony Wright : I assure my hon. Friend that he would have 110 per cent. support from both sides of the House, all the local authorities, and every part of my constituency if he were brave enough to take that on, because all that we have been arguing, in relation to the whole stretch of the A47, is whether to put environmental considerations above those of the lives of road users. I know where I stand on that, and I do not accept the environmental argument that the proposed changes would do untold damage to any stretch of that road, including the Acle straight.

Dr. Ladyman : I am delighted to receive that assurance, and am sure that the Official Report will record the Conservative Members applauding my hon. Friend's comments, so that when the time comes, if we decide to go ahead with those changes, we can all stand together to deal with the criticism that we will receive.

In the last minute or so left, I move quickly to the issue of making the decision. The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk is right to say that we have asked for regional prioritisation of the scheme. His constituents might find that disappointing, but I shall tweak him slightly by reminding him that it was the Conservative Government in 1996 who decided to reduce the roads programme by removing a large number of schemes from it. Many of the schemes in the tranche that they took out involved dualling the A47 in Norfolk. Since then, of course—

Mr. Fraser : Will the Minister give way?

Dr. Ladyman : Let me make some progress. Since then we have carried out some multi-modal studies in the area to identify how we can improve traffic on the A47. The decision to seek regional prioritisation for road schemes is perfectly sensible. Ministers do not know best about what is happening everywhere in the country. As has been said, we have a lot less money than we have ideas for how to spend it on the road system. It would be much better if local people were to help us to prioritise those decisions by telling us which ones are most important to them. All we want to do with regional prioritisation is to seek advice on which Ministers will ultimately take decisions. We expect that regional prioritisation to be with us in January, and we will make decisions early in the new year. Hopefully there will be some announcements that the hon. Gentleman likes then.

As I said earlier, the decision regarding the Acle straight is difficult. I intend to go there and see it for myself before making that decision, because I want to see what part of the environment so desperately needs protecting and what the safety issues are. I promise that that will happen soon.

11.30 am

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o'clock.

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