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Transport (Greater Reading)

4 pm

Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): I thank you, Mr. Cook, for the opportunity to hold this debate. I want to raise a matter of local, regional and national significance. The Thames valley makes a huge contribution to the UK's economic performance and success. Through its businesses and people, it generates a larger slice of revenue for the Government than anywhere outside central London.

At the heart of that success over the past 20 years has been Reading, which has been transformed from a modest industrial town into a vital regional centre. Reading's economic transformation began in the 1980s, but it is becoming harder to sustain the success story in Reading and the Thames valley. One of the biggest threats to our continued economic success is transport infrastructure, which will fail without significant investment—possibly within the next decade.

The implications of failure for the region and the UK's economic performance will be huge. The region is particularly susceptible to the forces of globalisation. Just as multinational companies make their homes in and around Reading, taking advantage of the area's strengths, our collapsing transport infrastructure could rapidly force them to relocate, probably overseas.

It is little wonder that transport infrastructure is failing. It sounds incredible, but my local authority assures me that there has been no Government transport infrastructure investment in our region or in Reading for the past 20 years. What investment there has been seems to have come from the private sector. I do not know whether the Minister knows this, but committed Government investment in the south-east is currently 40 per cent. for the Thames Gateway, 35 per cent. for the south coast and 25 per cent. for other areas, but there is 0 per cent. for anywhere in the Thames valley.

It is not that we do not put forward great ideas and excellent schemes. For example, there is the M4 junction 11 scheme, which is ready to go. When assessed against the Government's own criteria, it gives very high value for money.

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): I share my hon. Friend's concerns, particularly on his last point. In the Thames valley, the point has been reached where we shall not be able to cope with the additional pressure on our roads without more infrastructure investment. The M4 junction 11 scheme is a case in point, and it is vital not only for my hon. Friend's constituency, but for mine. At peak times, traffic can stretch all the way to the Hampshire county boundary, causing congestion on the A33 for constituents who use the route as a way to work or for business. The situation is set to get considerably worse, with proposals for 7,000 houses at Kennet meadow. Additional investment is vital.

Mr. Wilson : I thank my hon. Friend, who makes the point well.

As businesses in the Reading area—big and small—will tell the Minister, no more infrastructure capacity is available, and only new provision will ensure that Reading and the Thames valley maintain their role in the national economy.
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We have seven major schemes for greater Reading listed in the regional priorities and businesses are asking me why none has had any commitment to funding or any time scale for implementation. Perhaps the Minister could explain why that is the case. I invite her to come to Reading and listen to what businesses are saying for herself. They are saying to me that we need transport infrastructure investment and that we need it now. One needs only to read the latest report from the Thames Valley Economic Partnership to see that.

In Reading, we have a dual problem, involving both roads and rail. As I have said, roads are at pretty much maximum capacity in Reading. The problem is made worse by the fact that we have only two crossings over the River Thames. Reading needs a third bridge, which will make a north-south bypass for the town.

Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): I remind Members of my entry in the Register of Members' Interests. This year is the 10th anniversary of the opening of the Newbury bypass, which has made an enormous difference to the sustained economic viability of the community at the centre of my constituency. That has dealt with the north-south problem. We now have an east-west problem, which my hon. Friend has highlighted in relation to the M4. I firmly support what he says about the need to consider the difficulties faced by traffic on the M4 if we are to maintain the prosperity of the region.

Mr. Wilson : I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful intervention. He makes the point very well. As in Newbury, the north-south bypass in Reading is extremely important to the sustained viability and economic success of the town. The problem that we face is that the boundaries of four local authorities are involved. We cannot start planning for another Thames bridge unless those four authorities come to an agreement because access to the bridge will involve infrastructure in all four of those local authority areas.

Until recently the Government have not expressed a view on the need for the additional north-south Thames capacity, so some local authorities have pursued specific local, rather than regional or national, agendas and have tried to dismiss any third Thames bridge scheme through their own structure plan process. Fortunately, following a study in 2003, the Secretary of State for Transport agreed that the issue of the north-south routes over the Thames in Reading needed to be resolved. He required the authorities concerned to come together in quantifying the problem and identifying and delivering a solution, which all political parties in the town have welcomed. That has led to some progress in terms of some cross-boundary meetings of officers and lead councillors on a reasonably regular basis.

However, the process has been painfully slow and it appears that, for every two steps forwards, there are three steps backwards—mainly because of the view of South Oxfordshire district council, which is being incredibly parochial about this matter. Meanwhile, Reading borough council is adopting strategies that prioritise local traffic in Reading, obviously to the detriment of through traffic. We have now reached the point at which we desperately need direct Government intervention to break the logjam between those local authorities.
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Business is saying that it needs answers to these questions and it needs them urgently. It needs a time frame from Government for the preliminary work to be completed and for a scheme to progress. At the moment, it seems that we can settle the problems of a civil war in Ireland, but not the difference between two of our local authorities. It is preposterous.

My suspicions about Reading's roads having a negative impact on business were confirmed when I recently had a meeting with the managing director of Hewlett- Packard in the UK. His company has just announced that it is pulling out of Reading, taking more than 1,000 jobs with it. The Hewlett-Packard site lies to the south of Reading, which is just outside my constituency, by junction 11 of the M4. The managing director told me that one of the main reasons—admittedly not the only reason—for moving away from south Reading was the terrible traffic congestion at junction 11.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does he share my disappointment that much of today's traffic congestion is caused by poor estimates of future traffic growth by the Department for Transport and the Highways Agency? Does he share my concern that not enough money is being invested by the Highways Agency in vital road schemes throughout the country?

Mr. Wilson : I share my hon. Friend's disappointment. There seems to be a failure to get those numbers right in the planning process.

Huge queues have developed at junction 11. One of the main reasons that Hewlett-Packard finally decided to up sticks and move out was that its staff were sometimes sitting for hours in these queues, which is not sustainable for staff productivity in any company. Over the years, Hewlett-Packard says that millions of pounds were wasted by staff sitting in traffic. Not only that, staff were increasingly dissatisfied about their quality of life. No one likes to spend two hours plus sitting in their car trying to get to work in the morning.

The impact of the lack of investment in transport infrastructure is seen on the ground in Reading today. Junction 11 has long been identified as a problem—since 1999, anyway. It is a key gateway to Reading, and both Woking district council and Reading borough council have put in first-class bids to resolve the issue. Those bids passed all the Department for Transport's assessment criteria.

Great hopes were raised in 2004 when the Government accepted the junction 11 scheme and the Department allocated some funding. On that basis, Reading borough council spent £6 million on structural reviews, geotechnical surveys, contamination works, landscape architecture and so forth, which is equivalent to 12 per cent. of Reading's council tax: a huge investment for the local authority to undertake. The scheme was then delayed for a public inquiry on the basis of a complaint from one individual. We do not know the result of the inquiry, but funding for the scheme has been suspended in the meantime.

The business community in the Thames valley and Reading needs a message of reassurance from the Minister. We need a positive decision about the junction
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capacity improvement. The scheme is supported in the east by BAA and in the west by Vodaphone in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller). We would like to know when there will be a decision. Are the Government prepared for the adverse affects to actual and perceived business confidence if that decision is negative or is positive but not implemented particularly quickly? Perhaps the Minister will deal with that in her response.

There is also a significant problem with Reading railway station. As the Minister is probably aware, Reading is the second busiest station outside London, providing direct train services to more than 360 towns and cities throughout Britain. More than 20 million passengers use the station each year. Pressure on the station has already passed saturation point. Put simply, capacity constraints on Reading station cause one of the major bottlenecks in the national rail network. There are not enough platforms or track capacity to accommodate the frequency of services, especially at peak times. Currently, the north-to-south freight services coming from Southampton mean that passenger services are often held up.

The Great Western main line connects London to Wales and the west country. The problems at Reading station are considered by those region's governing bodies to be a paramount issue for them. As the Minister will know, they have made representations to the Government on the matter. We have a once-in-30-years opportunity to do something about it because re-signalling is required at Reading station by 2013. With that, comes the opportunity to resolve the capacity issues in a cost- effective way.

The cost in addition to the re-signalling—the latter is already budgeted for—is about £68 million, and it would offer a 5:1 return on the Government's assessment terms, whereas normal rail schemes achieve less than 3:1. To assist the Minister, I would add that because the Great Western mainline is a trans-European network, it could attract European funding. I would like to know whether that is a possible source of funding.

Reading has the status of a transport hub in the south-east plan, in which housing and business development opportunities will be created. Improving the station capacity will be an important part of that change. A good proposal has already emerged, funded through the resourcefulness of local authorities. However, it is time for the Government to step in, with ongoing funding for the detailed design of the scheme and a commitment to its being implemented at the same time as the re-signalling in about 2013.

When questioned, the largest companies in the area say that they have located in Reading because of its proximity to the airport. Visitors to Reading are therefore astonished to find that we have no direct rail link to Heathrow. We have direct links to Gatwick and Stansted airports, and Heathrow has three links from the west. If Crossrail comes about, there will be a fourth link.

We could easily have a link to Heathrow if we were to build what rail people call a collar at the point on the Great Western railway known as Heathrow junction. That would cost only £56 million. The benefits to
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Reading and the region would be huge. It would add to the region's selling points, and it would reduce car travel as well as improving access to the airport. Reading would then become a hub for international travellers from the west of the UK.

There has been no proper commercial rail study of the links to Heathrow via the Great Western line. The Government should undertake a realistic and practical assessment of direct rail access to Heathrow from the west. It could be done as part of Crossrail. I have said it before, and I shall say it again, but if Crossrail is to be of value to Reading and the west in general, it must be extended to Reading, connected to Heathrow airport and able to provide a fast and semi-fast commuter service into London. If it cannot do that, Crossrail might as well end at Paddington.

I have spoken at some length, and I want to give the Minister enough time to respond, but if I had three wishes this afternoon they would be these. First, the Minister would pledge that the Government will intervene to press for a timetable between local authorities on a third Thames bridge. Secondly, the stalled M4 junction 11 would be given the green light immediately, or as soon as possible. Thirdly, the Government would intervene to get the Reading station upgrade properly scheduled and supported. I thank the Minister and other hon. Members for their patience. I hope that the Minister will come to Reading for further dialogue about these important issues.

4.18 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Ms Karen Buck) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) on securing this debate. It gives us the opportunity to discuss transport in Reading itself and between Reading and the greater Reading area. As the hon. Gentleman said during the Christmas Adjournment debate, Reading has the good fortune to sit at the hub of road and rail links and to be within a short distance of one of the world's major airports. He was right to say that that is a major factor in business location and quality of life.

Reading also has the good fortune to have excellent staff working in the transport office of the borough council. I congratulate them on helping to make it one of only five local transport authorities to achieve the top rating in the annual performance report and the provisional second local transport plan document. As a result of that, the council will receive an additional 25 per cent. of funding on top of the original indicative baseline allocation for 2006–07. That will help Reading to build on the progress made during the first five years of the local transport plan period, during which time it received more than £36 million.

Reading has received the highest level of Government funding per head through the local transport settlement of any local transport plan area since 2000, at an average of £38 per head compared to a national average of £13 per head. Over the next five years its local transport settlement will be 27 per cent. higher than the national average. It could, of course, continue to receive even more if it produced an excellent local transport plan and continued to demonstrate strong delivery.
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The hon. Gentleman concentrated on three issues and I am grateful to him for giving me an idea of what they would be. I hope that I will be able to answer many of the matters that he has raised today, although I will probably not be able to deal with all of them.

We all recognise the importance of the case that has been made for the proposal to improve junction 11 on the M4. Indeed, I met Reading councillors and representatives last year to hear about that. They impressed on me the fact that, as the hon. Gentleman has reiterated, that is the most important transport infrastructure issue for greater Reading. I appreciate that the scheme has had a long and sometimes difficult history and I am also conscious that, following the decision in 2004 to refer the scheme for regional consideration, there are increasing calls from local partners for Government to provide some clarity about whether and when funding for the scheme will become available.

The Government have set out and consulted on proposals to establish regional transport funding allocations. We believe that that will give the regions a stronger base on which to plan and that it provides a better basis for informing resource decisions. Now that the principle has been established, any decision on the junction 11 proposal, as with any other scheme of the size, will be made when we have obtained advice from the region on its relative priority compared with other major schemes that are being put forward.

Once the region has advised us on the priorities I shall be able to consider the scheme in more detail, to provide as much certainty as I can, as quickly as possible. As part of the process we will also, of course, take into consideration the inspector's report on whether the compulsory purchase orders and side road orders that form an essential part of the scheme should be confirmed. Of course, if the south-east region recommends the scheme as a priority for funding, it will need to meet value for money criteria, to ensure that we are using public money effectively.

Mr. Wilson : Will the Minister give us some indication of how long the process might take? One problem that we have is the great uncertainty that is being caused. While it continues, companies such as Hewlett Packard will move out of the area. That company is not moving too far—to Bracknell—but the thinking in overseas businesses in the area might be that if things do not improve they should up sticks and go. A timetable would be enormously helpful.

Ms Buck : The certainty that I can give the hon. Gentleman is that we are expecting the advice on regional priorities to be received shortly—in early spring. It would be completely wrong—tempting, but wrong—to pre-judge the outcome of the regional prioritisation process, because it is part of a much broader and longer term strategy to encourage more local, regional ownership, because of the size of the schemes, of what will always be competing demands for a pot of resources that will never be unlimited. Therefore, it would undermine the process if I were to jump in with comments in advance. However, I assure the hon. Gentleman that time is very short for conclusion of the relevant process.
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The hon. Gentleman also mentioned congestion. I am very pleased that Reading has made progress in tackling the issue and appears to be willing to make some difficult decisions. The fact that Reading managed to increase bus patronage by nearly 450,000 journeys last year is to be celebrated. Obviously, encouraging modal shift, from cars to public transport, is one integral measure that helps us to tackle congestion.

Reading has not just sought to reduce congestion through more buses. It has also considered, and is developing, a wider range of interventions, which has led to an 87 per cent. increase in the number of park-and-ride journeys into town. I congratulate the council on that, because, almost inevitably, whenever an option arises that might involve encouraging or incentivising behaviour or, in some cases, introducing disincentives for drivers to use their vehicles, there is always a degree of controversy. The development of park-and-ride schemes is not without controversy, but I am afraid that if we are serious about tackling congestion across the country, we will have to consider requiring some courage from local authorities. Reading has certainly demonstrated that courage.

The hon. Gentleman talked about progress on the proposal for a third Thames crossing. I am aware that the issue of additional capacity for crossing the Thames in the Reading area has been subject to much debate. The hon. Gentleman is right that the Government have asked the local authorities to work together to address the issue and a group has been set up to take the work forward. The group has carried out study work that suggested a need for additional capacity and made suggestions on where any possible structure could be placed. I understand that some councils have expressed concerns about the study results, but further work is to be carried out that aims to address those.

I fully expect that all local authorities involved will make a joint statement on progress in their final local transport plan second-round documents, which are due to be submitted by the end of March. However, it is entirely appropriate that local authorities continue to work in partnership to come to a collective view on the appropriate way forward. Once they have developed a suitable scheme and a robust business case, we can then consider any request for funding and that will be dealt with in the normal way in light of advice from the region on its priorities.

The hon. Gentleman's third area of concern was the development of Reading station. He is right to say that Reading is a busy hub that acts as a major strategic point on the national rail network. Passenger numbers are increasing across the country, including at Reading, and in response to that the new Greater Western franchise will see a further increase of 20 per cent. in additional seats to Paddington in the morning peak and a 30 per cent. increase in seats back from London in the evening peak. That is in addition to similar increases introduced in December 2004.

I am pleased that local partners are working together to bring forward plans for the redevelopment of the station, which include the development of two new through platforms. It is a reflection of the "can do" mentality in the local partnership that it has been able to reduce the proposed cost of the core scheme, which builds on the re-signalling works, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, and have brought that cost down to
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£68 million. I appreciate that that meant that certain aspects of the wider proposals have been delayed but I think that it at least means that we will be able to take advantage of the opportunities that the proposed re-signalling works will provide.

When the re-signalling work takes place, we will want to take account of the views of the region and many of the surrounding regions on the relative importance of the proposed redevelopment scheme compared with other major schemes coming forward from the south-east. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Department for Transport has attended the Reading station partnership board and has been kept fully briefed on the proposals as they develop. As the business case becomes available, the Department will be happy to assist further in working through the proposals, although I have to tell him that no public funding has yet been identified for the enhancements.

On the issue of access to Heathrow, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that at present the connection from the west is not direct. However, there is a recently introduced stopping service to the airport, which means that passengers from Reading can interchange at Hayes and Harlington without having to travel all the way into Paddington and back out again. The hon. Gentleman may also be aware of Airtrack, an alternative proposal to serve Heathrow from the west that would provide two trains per hour from Reading and Guildford to the new terminal 5 at Heathrow and to London Waterloo. The Department is working on the specification for the new south-western franchise. We are considering the inclusion of Airtrack services as a priced option within the new franchise so that those services could be provided if third party funding can subsequently provide for the infrastructure changes required. We are also continuing to discuss the scheme with BAA in the context of improved surface access to the airport.

In conclusion, I reassure the hon. Gentleman that the Department has a good understanding of the transport issues that affect the greater Reading area. There has been considerable investment through the local transport plan and we are working with local partners to see how the major developments that he has identified can be addressed in the most cost-effective and efficient way.

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