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Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): The right hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned the regional assembly. May I remind my hon. Friend the Minister that the assembly has made it clear that the road is one of national significance with wider strategic importance? Councils of all political colours believe that it should be funded nationally because, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman said, if it is not, the budget allocated in the east midlands will be eaten up for three or four years. It is an unfortunate situation, and we need to make progress.

Mr. Clarke: I agree that this issue cuts across political parties. Labour-controlled Nottinghamshire county council agrees firmly with Conservative-controlled Rushcliffe borough council. Most local authorities in Leicestershire, Northamptonshire and Lincolnshire, regardless of party affiliation, think the present situation is wrong.

The road meets some of the national criteria that the Minister has sent to me, unless one takes a pedantic view. The cities of Nottingham and Leicester are linked to a large part of the outside world to the north and south by the route and more than 50 per cent. of the traffic consists of HGVs. It does not have the traffic flows that the Government specify for a national project, but its flows are grotesquely excessive, and it has a high proportion of HGV traffic. It therefore ought to be a national scheme. When he applies the criteria, the Minister should take a final sanity check not only to assess whether the project complies with the strict terms of the criteria for a national scheme but whether it makes sense overall to make it a regional project rather than a national one. A scheme that will cost at least
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£220 million cannot be handled as a regional priority by a region that has only £80 million a year to spend on everything. It is just too big to be regarded as anything other than a national project.

I hope to concede some time to my hon. Friend the Member for Newark, so I shall conclude. Apart from the transport needs that I have urged on the Minister, and apart from the innate policy absurdity of making significant progress with a road project only to cancel or postpone it indefinitely, there is the question of the money that has been wasted. The Minister answered a parliamentary question that I tabled on 26 January, and revealed that since the project was last included in the programme more than £10 million has been spent on design, preparation and consultation. Money is still being spent. If we are not careful, the consultants will be designing castles in the air, but earning good money while they do so.

If the project is postponed to 2012–13, the Minister must admit that we will have to start the whole process all over again. Someone will demand that we have a fresh consultation on a preferred route and fresh designs made, and the money already spent will be totally aborted. The Minister is struggling to fit his roads programme into a finite budget. He is no doubt trying to get value for money. Expenditure of £10 million will be aborted and wasted on useless plans, consultancy and local negotiation if the road is put off, so I urge him to try to rescue it, and to follow up the good work that he has been doing in recent years by moving on from all the consultation and getting the road constructed.

7.30 pm

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) for securing the debate, to the Minister for allowing me to speak and to the hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) for being present to lend the necessary cross-party support to a crucial scheme.

I hold the Minister in extremely high regard. The last time he visited my constituency—I should point out that he is the first and the only Labour Minister to visit the constituency since 1997—he came at my behest because of a problem at the hospital in Newark. His help was much appreciated. I still quote him for the sense and balance that he showed on that matter.

If I may, I invite the Minister now to join me in driving along the A46. The last time he came to my constituency, he modestly said he did not know that part of the world. If he would like to join me on the stretch of road that my right hon. and learned Friend so clearly described, we will be able to count the floral tributes by the side of the road, the near accidents that we will probably see as we drive along the 17 miles from Widmerpool to Newark, and we will be able to observe how difficult it is to turn out from one of the villages in my right hon. and learned Friend's constituency and latterly in part of my constituency as the road approaches Newark. It is a hideously dangerous road.

There have been 57 casualties in the past five months on that stretch of road. As my right hon. and learned Friend pointed out, that is particularly galling in view of the fact that last Saturday morning I was in Newark town hall looking at beautiful computer-generated
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videos, excellent aerial photographs, very clever designs, maps, pictures and so on—I see that the hon. Member for Sherwood has been through the same process—which show, as my right hon. and learned Friend said, a castle in the air. It is hard for me to go among my constituents, to move with them and to say, "Great plans. They look super, don't they? But it ain't going to happen."

Driving along that road in 1965 as a boy with my father, I remember him saying, "This road has got to be sorted out. It's dangerous." Those were not quite the words that he used, but the Minister can probably imagine what he said. As a theological student before the war, my father had found that road dangerous. At the time, we knew there was a scheme in place to get the road sorted out.

In the previous debate I heard the Minister, quite understandably, coming out with a long litany of failed road schemes under Conservative regimes and now, clearly, under Labour. I do not make that point to the hon. Gentleman. I am not interested in what has gone before. Mistakes have been made. However, I am deeply interested in the safety and welfare of my constituents in Newark.

There are those who say that if we dual the road, we will make it more dangerous because speeds will go up. I ask the Minister to look at the casualty levels at Brough on the Lincoln side of Newark, where the road has already been dualled. The fatalities, I am delighted to say, have fallen to nil, and the number of injuries has gone down considerably. Nothing like that has happened on the A46, except for the space that now has safety cameras installed on it up towards Farndon. Although I am delighted to have such schemes put in place, nothing, I fear, will substitute for a proper dual carriageway.

I would be awfully grateful if the Minister applied the same balance and reason to that stretch of road as he did to Newark hospital. I would be grateful if he were to remain untrammelled by the bureaucracy that accompanies any Government.

Will the Minister accept my invitation to look at the road? In due course, will he accept the petition that we have started in Newark? Will he apply his common sense and intelligence and understand that this scheme must not be dealt with at the regional level? The scheme is of national importance, and it is of extreme economic importance to Newark. Will he use his good offices to make sure that he makes the sensible decision? I know that I can rely on him.

7.35 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Dr. Stephen Ladyman): I congratulate the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) on securing the debate. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) and the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) on their contributions.

I have considerable sympathy with the points that have been put today. Having studied the issues in preparation for the debate, I understand the points that have been made. I will not make a commitment today, other than to take those points away and consider if and
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how we can proceed. There is no dispute as to whether the scheme needs to go ahead; the questions concern when it will go ahead and how we can pay for it.

Since reference has been made to the previous debate, I should point out that this scheme was not one of those pulled by the previous Conservative Government. It remained in the programme until 1997, although it involved building three roundabouts and imposing a 50 mph speed limit. That scheme was considerably cheaper than the current proposals, but it would not have dealt with the problems. Fixing those problems will make the scheme considerably more expensive; as the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe has said, it will probably cost about £220 million.

The A46 is part of the core trunk road network, providing a strategic link between the M1 and the A1 in the east midlands. It forms part of the Bath to Lincoln trunk road, and it is a key road corridor for long and medium-distance traffic travelling from Leicester. It is the missing link between Lincoln and Leicester, as it is the only section of that important strategic route that has not been improved to modern standards.

The section between Widmerpool and Newark carries between 16,200 and 25,300 vehicles a day, up to 15 per cent. of which are heavy goods vehicles. The mix and level of traffic, which includes significant agricultural movements, gives rise to frequent congestion and delay.

As the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe has said, the road is straight and undulating—it follows the old Roman road—which makes overtaking difficult. As the hon. Member for Newark has said, the road has a poor safety record; in the five years between 2000 and 2004, there were 14 fatal, 62 serious and 222 slight accidents.

Bridleways and footpaths join and cross this section of the A46, but walkers, cyclists and horse riders find the road difficult to cross because of the traffic. The Highways Agency has therefore proposed a new 28 km two-lane dual carriageway from the A606 two-level junction at Widmerpool to an improved roundabout at Farndon, just south of Newark. The improvement would reduce congestion, improve safety and provide a bypass for East Stoke and Farndon, helping to improve the overall quality of life for all the villagers. New two-level junctions would be provided at Roehoe, Owthorpe, Stragglethorpe, Saxondale, Margidunum, Red Lodge, Flintham and Lodge Lane.

Some sections of the existing A46 would be retained for use by local traffic, and some sections would be downgraded for use by cyclists, walkers and horse riders and for private means of access. The proposals would provide safe access across the A46 for those users through bridges and underpasses.

The proposed upgrade will improve safety and traffic flows and benefit the region's economy. It will complement the recently dualled stretch from Newark to Lincoln, which was opened in the summer of 2003. The journey time between Widmerpool and Newark will improve by 23 minutes in the morning peak, 27 minutes in the afternoon peak and 12 minutes in the inter-peak period. Over a 60-year evaluation period, 1,453 personal injury accidents will be saved, as will 52 fatal casualties, 327 serious injuries and 1,998 slight casualties. I hope
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that by putting that on the record hon. Members on both sides of the House will accept that I do not dispute the importance of getting on with the scheme.

The Highways Agency appointed an ECI—early contractor involvement—contractor, Balfour Beatty, in March 2004 to take the scheme through the statutory process and construction. Draft orders and an environmental statement for the scheme were published on 9 December. The Highways Agency held exhibitions in two venues in mid-January and the objection or comment period ends on 17 March. The visitors' books at the two exhibitions recorded some 844 signatures, and to date about 69 written responses have been received.

Now we come to the difficult bit. As part of the spending review in 2004, we announced that routes on the strategic road network will now fall into two categories: those of national importance, mainly the major motorways such as the M1 and M25; and those of predominantly regional importance. Under the criteria that we have adopted, the A46 has been classified as a route of regional importance. The criteria are these: to have average daily traffic flows along the length of the route of more than 60,000 vehicles; to link at least two of the top 20 English cities by population; to carry heavy goods vehicle traffic equal to or in excess of 15 per cent. as a percentage of all traffic; and to be represented on the European Union's trans-European transport network. There are other criteria involving Wales and Scotland and airports and seaports, which I am not sure would apply in this case. The A46 does not meet the strict interpretation of those criteria, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman said.

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