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10.12 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Dr. Stephen Ladyman): Before I respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis), I associate myself with the comments about our former colleague, Kevin Hughes. Kevin was a fine man, an excellent MP and a good friend. I enjoyed many meals and glasses with him in the Members’ Dining Room over the years. I shall miss him and I know that the whole House, as well as the people of Doncaster, will miss him.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on the passionate way in which he put his case. I am impressed by the bevy of talent that has arrayed itself around him on the Benches: my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane), the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton), the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North (Edward Miliband) and the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), all of whom have campaigned vigorously and hard for this scheme. They have all approached me in different guises and at different times to make sure that I was aware of their support for it. I am meeting many of them later this week to discuss the plans further.

Good local transport is fundamental to building thriving and prosperous communities. That is why, since 2000-01, we have more than doubled the funding to local authorities for transport in every region to more than £1.6 billion in 2006-07. Funding for local transport in the Yorkshire and Humber region has risen from £75 million to £160 million this year—a 90 per cent. increase in real terms. South Yorkshire alone will benefit from more than £37 million for small-scale schemes and highway maintenance this year.

We need to ensure that our funding for new transport infrastructure is focused on the schemes that will most effectively address the needs of each region.
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To achieve that, the Government have for the first time given regions a say in decision making about transport schemes that affect them at a regional and local level. In Yorkshire and Humber—and in other regions—the regional development agency, the regional assembly, local authority partners and other key interests have been able to consider together their transport programmes against the region’s high-level objectives and to develop a prioritised and affordable programme that offers the best overall contribution to meeting those objectives. They have worked together to identify which of the many proposals before them should go forward, and in what timescale. Without exception, they have done a good job of that.

The advice from the Yorkshire and Humber region, which included the Finningley and Rossington regeneration route scheme—as my hon. Friend says, that is known as FARRRS—was received at the end of January. We announced our decisions on 6 July. The region has confirmed that it regards FARRRS as an important priority and recommended that we provided £72 million from the indicative regional funding allocation starting in 2009-10.

In our response to the region, and following its advice, we included FARRRS on the indicative list of schemes that are expected to start construction in the period beginning in 2009, subject, of course, to securing all necessary statutory powers and compliance with the Department’s scheme approval requirements. That is consistent with Doncaster council’s timetable for starting work on FARRRS around 2009 or 2010.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough said, we have not at this stage approved FARRRS for entry to our programme of major transport schemes. That is because there are several aspects of Doncaster’s business case that the Department is still considering with Doncaster. However, I can confirm that we fully recognise the objectives that FARRRS aims to achieve: to support the growth of Robin Hood airport; to provide access to prospective regeneration sites, such as at Rossington and Finningley; and to improve accessibility to the strategic road network for the communities to the south-east of Doncaster. There are two key issues that the Department is discussing with Doncaster that need to be carefully considered before we reach a final decision on programme entry for FARRRS.

The first issue relates to the growth of Robin Hood airport itself. As my hon. Friend said, one of the principal objectives of FARRRS is to provide an improved route to Robin Hood airport to support its further growth. The airport already holds a planning permission that will allow its expansion so that it can handle 2.8 million passengers a year and 50,000 tonnes of freight. I note the progress that has already been made by the airport and congratulate the owners on achieving their millionth passenger in June this year. Clearly, however, air travel is a competitive market and Robin Hood airport will need to compete effectively with other airports to meet its long-term growth aspirations. That means that we need to examine carefully a range of airport traffic forecasts when assessing the need for surface access infrastructure to cope with increased demand. We need to be satisfied that the future growth of the airport will be sufficient to justify major investment in improved surface access
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infrastructure. We also need to be satisfied that the airport operator will be able to make an appropriate financial contribution to the cost of the FARRRS scheme, which is also dependent on the airport’s commercial success.

The second point is that we need to be satisfied that building FARRRS is not going to cause serious congestion and traffic problems on other sections of the road network that serves Doncaster and the surrounding area. It would be in no one’s interests to build a scheme that resulted in increased congestion on other key routes and made accessibility both to the airport and other areas more difficult. An important factor is the extent to which FARRRS would generate new traffic by facilitating new development at locations such as Rossington and Finningley. The effect on the wider road network of the traffic generated by FARRRS also needs to be considered alongside the traffic that might be generated by other planned and prospective developments in the Doncaster area.

I understand that the Highways Agency has indicated that the developments that could be opened up by FARRRS, together with other prospective developments that would feed traffic on to the M18, may well cause unacceptable traffic queuing and congestion on the motorway. The agency’s view is that, to accommodate that traffic, significant improvements may be needed to junction 3 of the M18 and to the M18 itself between junctions 2 and 3, as well as to White Rose way, which runs north from junction 3 of the M18 into Doncaster, and, perhaps, to the A1(M) in the longer term.

Doncaster council has plans to make some small-scale improvements to White Rose way in the shorter term, but it is possible that full dualling of that route would be needed if the full regeneration benefits of FARRRS are to be realised. That could cost in the order of £25 million and was not included in the region’s advice for funding in the period up to 2015. Similarly, the region has made no provision so far to fund improvements to either the M18 or the A1(M) in the period up to 2015.

We therefore need to look carefully at how far the construction of FARRRS would necessitate the construction of other transport infrastructure improvements. If such improvements are needed, we will also need to consider whether funding could be provided for them on an appropriate time scale within the region’s indicative funding allocation. The region itself flagged up that issue in its advice to us, and it is something on which we may need to seek its further advice.

Jeff Ennis: The Minister is making some excellent points of which, obviously, we as local MPs are aware. Does he agree that, if the local council is committed to dualling White Rose way and is willing to put its hand in its pocket to fund that, it is incumbent on the Government to show the council good faith and also to put their hand in their pocket for the future funding of FARRRS?

Dr. Ladyman: My hon. Friend is trying to tempt me, and I understand why, but those are the very discussions that we need to have with the council. We need to find out whether it is prepared to put its hand in its pocket to dual White Rose way. If it is, we can build that into our calculations about FARRRS, as
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White Rose way would not affect its development. The quicker we can have such discussions, the quicker we can come to the sorts of conclusions for which my hon. Friend is hoping.

The regeneration issues raised by FARRRS also need to be considered in the context of the spatial strategy for the region and the local area. The area to the south-east of Doncaster was designated as a strategic economic zone in the objective 1 European regeneration programme. Doncaster has made significant progress as a result of that investment and we all want that to continue in a sustainable way. Now that the objective 1 programme is drawing to a close, there needs to be a debate about how best to continue the regeneration effort. That is being taken forward in the Yorkshire and Humber region through the revisions to the regional spatial strategy and, in Doncaster, by the production of a local development framework to replace the unitary development plan. It is important that we take account of the outcome of the consultations relating to the location of future development in the approval of new infrastructure such as FARRRS.

My hon. Friend asked about the possibility of bringing forward funding for FARRRS if the scheme can be progressed more quickly than Doncaster is currently proposing. It would be for the region to consider whether that could be accommodated in the indicative regional funding allocation and whether any scheme should be rescheduled to facilitate the release of funding. However, I have to warn him that I doubt whether the scheme could complete all necessary statutory procedures and be ready to start construction before 2009 or 2010. The funding programme for the region that we have announced makes money available for FARRRS in the period 2009-10 to 2015-16. That comfortably aligns with Doncaster’s programme for a start on site around 2009 or 2010.

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In closing this debate, I emphasise that we are working to improve transport in South Yorkshire as a whole to ensure that people are better able to access jobs and essential services. I fully appreciate the importance that my hon. Friend and other Members who are with him tonight attach to the scheme in supporting the growth of Robin Hood airport and contributing to the regeneration of South Yorkshire. Although I cannot say today when we will be ready to announce a decision on programme entry for FARRRS, I can assure the House that we are working hard to resolve all the outstanding issues with Doncaster council as quickly as possible. I promise my hon. Friend that I personally will guarantee that no hold-ups are caused by the Department for Transport or the Highways Agency. We will make sure that decisions are made as expeditiously as possible to achieve the conclusion that he wants.

I emphasise, too, the fact that the local transport plan system has provided more certainty of funding for local authorities so that they can tackle local issues to improve road maintenance and traffic management, enhance road safety and make buses more accessible and integrated with other transport modes. While those are small-scale investments in relation to FARRRS, I hope that Doncaster council and the other South Yorkshire authorities can use that funding to help improve access to Robin Hood airport by sustainable means. That will help, too, to meet the region’s aim of improving public transport access to its region airports. In conclusion, I look forward to meeting my hon. Friends later this week and I promise to give them my full co-operation in trying to move this forward as expeditiously as the region wishes.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes past Ten o’clock.

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