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Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): My constituency is strategically located at the centre of the far south-west on the border of Devon and Cornwall. Plymouth is the south-west region's second city, with a population of 240,000 people. In my previous debate on urban renaissance in Plymouth, I spoke of our plans to accommodateindeed, to welcomesubstantial population growth over the next 20 years, taking us to 300,000 or even 350,000 people. Such growth, matched by increased economic activity and housing provision, will allow Plymouth to achieve a level of performance and quality of life appropriate to its size. It will also play a key part in addressing local and regional disparities in our economy and standing of living. Disparities between the east and west ends of our region are the greatest of any region in England. Plymouth recognises the need for a rapid improvement in transport performance in this context.
The city council has submitted a bid for intervention funding from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to meet support from a partner authority for further acceleration of its performance improvement. Evidence of Plymouth's commitment to transport issues and its ability to deliver when investment is available includes the A386 major transport scheme, an impressive performance on road safetyPlymouth has already reached the national 2010 targets for accident reduction and recently published a child road safety audit to indicate how further improvements can be madeand the Morice Town home zone, which is in the constituency my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck) and is a national example for reducing crime, road accidents and through traffic.
Given good project management and the success of the partnering contract with the main contractor, the city council is meeting its targets for the delivery of the A386 major scheme within budget and on time. The council has recommended to the Department for Transport additional complementary elements to the major scheme to deliver stretched outcomes without increasing the funding contribution from the DFT of £11.25 million. Although the city council understands that the Department for Transport is not currently in a position to confirm whether savings from the capital programme can be released to fund additional elements, it hopes that the DFT will be able to make a positive response to its recommendation at the earliest opportunity.
Plymouth's second local transport plan focused on increasing bus patronage, which has been declining faster than national levels in recent years. A number of projects that are nearing completion should assist in building bus patronage. The investment to achieve that has been welcome, and I hope the Minister will agree that good use is being made of it. Nevertheless, I point out that Plymouth received lower transport allocations than other cities of similar size under the first local transport plan, when our aspirations were perhaps a little lower than they are now. Although our performance two years ago was poor, the council has
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now placed transport high on the city's agenda, and the annual performance score has risen from a low of 42 per cent. to 64 per cent. now.
Plymouth has not submitted a bid for this round of the transport innovation funding, as its strategy needs to be developed further in that respect, particularly to explore opportunities to work jointly with its neighbours in the sub-region, but the Government can expect a major scheme bid to be identified in the second LTP submission next March and further funding bids through both the transport innovation fund and other domestic and European funding streams, supported by increasing private sector involvement. It is vital that central Government are prepared to increase their investment in transport infrastructure for Plymouth to enable sustainable economic and housing growth in the far south-west and to send a clear message of confidence to the market.
I now to turn to the importance of transport links and connectivity to the rest of the UK. Research commissioned by SWERDAthe South West of England Regional Development Agencyfrom the university of the West of England and Bath university has shown that increased journey times and journey costs, coupled with the isolation from complementary businesses, causes productivity to reduce by as much as 4 per cent. per hour, compared with businesses located in the south-east, owing to added journey times from London. A normal road journey from Plymouth to London takes four hours 15 minutes, and the journey from further down in Cornwall in Penzance takes a good two hours more.
Following announcements made in 2001 on the combined ODPM and Department of Trade and Industry approach to regional policy, a consultation was launched at the time of the 2004 pre-Budget report called "Devolving Decision Making." It gave a commitment to a public service agreement target to
"make sustainable improvements in the economic performance of all English Regions and over the long term to reduce the persistent gap in growth rates between the regions, defining measures to improve performance and reporting progress against these measures by 2006".
I know that the regional assembly and the regional development agency are working on the regional spatial and economic strategies. They must achieve a challenging balancing act if they are to ensure that their priorities for investment tackle congestion on road and rail and resolve bottlenecks so that our economy performs in a way that reduces the economic disparities that I have mentioned.
I do not intend to try to put before the Minister the content of the advice on transport that is emerging from the process. My goal tonight is to give him and his colleagues a picture of the critical importance of recognising the needs of Plymouth, Devon and Cornwall and the scale of the challenge facing businesses, planners and public services. I also want to explain why such issues have beenand remainat the top of the agenda for business organisations such as the Devon and Cornwall business council and the Plymouth
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chamber of commerce for as long as I can remember. I shall consider each of the important land-based transport modes, some current challenges and the light that they cast on the importance of the decisions that lie ahead.
On roads, the Minister will know of the disappointment about the decision to prioritise investment on dualling the A303-A358 instead of the A303 west of Ilminster through to Exeter. Ensuring that there is resilience and reliability by developing two fully strategic arteries to address the challenges for the west of Devon, Plymouth and Cornwall could be properly achieved only by dualling the A303 to Exeter. I suspect that the Secretary of State was unwilling to back the overwhelming wishes of the Devon and Cornwall business community because only a slender majority of the assembly was in favour. There was a strategic failure to recognise the importance of reliable road travel when addressing regional disparities. I am sorry to criticise a body that I believe strives on most occasions to fulfil a strategic role well through what is an important and increasingly indispensable job. The decision enhances the position of Taunton and the surrounding areas, which already have comparatively good connectivity by rail and road outside the region, but does little to address the productivity deficit to which I referred earlier.
The past six to nine months have demonstrated clearly why the decision was bad. Roadworks on the M5, the A38 and the A303 at Marsh have caused delays and increased journey times, which has caused considerable frustration and concern to people and businesses in Devon and Cornwall. The quality of stakeholder consultation has been poor. The time scale of the four-mile works on the A38 around Buckfastleigh, for which no night-time work is planned, means that there will be a 26-week period during which the carriageway will be restricted, which has caused particular concern. I know that DCBC and Plymouth chamber of commerce have made robust representations about that. I hope that the Minister will consider whether night-time work could be allowed after the completion of a bridge sectionthat section is adjacent to a settlement, so we all understand that it deserves considerationand especially before the 2006 tourist season begins. I would welcome him taking an interest in ensuring that future consultation is of a better quality, especially in the light of what I am about to say about our rail services in the near term.
Road investment to remove bottlenecks is important and welcome, but there is worry that the overall pot of money proposed for the south-west will not be enough, especially if the enhancement of the A303 by tunnelling at Stonehenge, which will be an expensive project, must be paid for from that pot. I repeat a plea that I made earlier this year: we must ensure that that investment is taken from national resources because the work will enhance a site of national, and indeed international, importance. As I have said, the consultation on funding allocations is requested by the end of January 2006. If we cannot have a true second arterial route opened up to the west of Devon and Cornwall, issues relating to our rail and air services will become even more critical.
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