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5 Dec 2006 : Column 252

I have raised with the Minister on many occasions the urgent need for the Government to address the roads infrastructure in Norfolk, particularly the A11, which is one of the most important links between the county and the rest of the United Kingdom. In particular, he knows that an eight-mile stretch of single carriageway remains between Thetford and the Fiveways corner roundabout, which leaves Norfolk as the only county, and Norwich as the largest settlement, not connected to the national, dual carriageway trunk road network. The road cannot cope with the existing weight of traffic, let alone that which the proposed 72,000 new homes in the county, and the welcome regeneration of Thetford, will bring.

Norfolk county council has provided me with a copy of the East of England Development Agency’s policy document for economic growth in the county. It is optimistically entitled, “Norfolk on the Move”. I tell the Minister that Norfolk’s drivers know that they are likely to grind to a halt through the sheer weight of traffic on the county’s roads. The problems of the A11 are stifling the economy of the area. The business community, utterly frustrated by unfulfilled promises and ever-growing delays on that stretch of road, has rolled in behind our local authorities. A compelling case was submitted to the regional assembly. The scheme is, at least for now, scheduled for the second regional funding allocation funding period starting in 2010.

The Minister has acknowledged, however, in an interview with the Eastern Daily Press, that the operation of the regional allocation arrangements is problematic, and leads to mistakes and skewed priorities. He identified the “whale in the pond” syndrome, which tends to de-prioritise very large schemes that eat up a substantial proportion of a region’s funding. He also acknowledged that areas on the geographical edge of a region could be overlooked in the decision-making process. To my constituents in South-West Norfolk, and to those in the surrounding area, it seems that they are constantly overlooked in the decision-making process. If evidence were needed, they cite the number of times that the dualling project has been promised and then delayed. Will the Minister accept that what he has called a “good and popular scheme” has suffered from both those factors? Will he seek to re-designate it as being of national importance, just as economic development in Norfolk should be of national importance?

Will the Minister take this opportunity to confirm that the Government will take responsibility for the scheme, and dispel the concern in Norfolk that it may yet be put on the back burner, leaving us isolated and frustrated by a roads infrastructure that is not fit for purpose? Will he also acknowledge his support for the dualling of the A11 and join me in calling on the Secretary of State for Transport to approve it, so that a timetable can be drawn up and work can start immediately?

At Attleborough in my constituency, there is yet another example of the Government washing their hands of the A11. Thankfully, that stretch of the road is about to be dualled. However, the Government have turned down a simple scheme to upgrade the nearest junction on the A11 at Besthorpe, which would route traffic away from an ever-congested Attleborough
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town. If carried out at the same time as dualling work, the project would have offered an economical and simple solution.

The Government have refused an application for funding under the demonstration scheme, passing the scheme back to the county council, which does not have the funds to finance it. It will have to be carried out as a separate and therefore more expensive project, offering poor value to the taxpayer and yet more years of misery for the local community. Yet again, the Government’s transport strategy fails to recognise the need for sensible investment in our roads, and best value for the taxpayer once again goes out the window.

In a debate last November, I raised concerns about the state of the A47 in Norfolk and called for it to be dualled as well. The road is, in many places, unsafe and unfit for the weight of traffic that it carries. Accidents are frequent and often serious, and can have a catastrophic impact on travel across the area. It is one of the most dangerous routes in the country, yet improvements on the A47 are also considered of regional, not national importance. I say again to the Minister that the responsibility lies with the Government.

The Minister has told me that his Department is not revisiting the method of defining road projects, but is reviewing how it works in practice. He has made time to visit Norfolk before, and I ask him to make time to come up again. Then he will see for himself how the regional allocation method works in practice and how Norfolk faces ever increasing difficulties while the method remains in place.

9.1 pm

Mrs. Siân C. James (Swansea, East) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate. We should highlight the Government’s commitment to rail transport. More rail journeys are being undertaken in Britain than at any time since the 1940s. Rail freight is up by 46 per cent. since 1997. More trains in England and Wales arrive on time compared with 2001, mainly as a result of the increased investment after many years of neglect under the Conservative Government. I have worked in the rail industry and know from first-hand experience about the challenges of clearing up the mess left by that Government. The need to push forward an integrated transport agenda has been key within the industry.

Unfortunately, the performance of First Great Western—the mainline operator to my constituency—has not been so effective or matched the Government’s commitment to improve rail transport. It has been named as one of the worst performing franchises in Britain, with a 79.4 per cent. reliability record. It has also recently announced changes to services to Swansea, which has caused great concern to my constituents. In particular, they are worried about the termination of the 15.15 London Paddington to Swansea service at Cardiff. The changes will have a serious effect on Swansea’s status as a mainline station on an important inter-city route. The proposals are a retrograde step and are being interpreted locally as downgrading the second city of Wales. Swansea is an important rail city and a key business and tourism destination; it is also the gateway to west Wales. The
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proposals appear to make passengers from Swansea and west Wales less important than those in other parts of the country.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): I support my hon. Friend’s remarks about First Great Western. If the service beyond Cardiff is going to stop, the service to Cardiff may soon stop as well. It shows a lack of interest in Wales on the part of First Great Western. Is she aware of the proposal to cut the buffet service between Cardiff and Paddington, about which I have received a complaint? Does she think that that is a strange way of improving the rail service?

Mrs. James: I certainly do. It highlights the factthat a company that was recently engaged in a refranchising process, when it made many promises, is now making cuts at will and making changes that suit it, not the people that it is supposed to be serving.

The passenger flows between Swansea and Cardiff are vital to a number of local communities and businesses, and for economic development. Not everyone needs or has to travel to London on a regular basis. The daily commuter journeys between Swansea, stations along the south Wales main line and Cardiff are equally important. The commitment of First Great Western to those services is essential. As I said, it actively pursued the franchise and I am disappointed that the fine words and promises contained in its bid now appear to be nothing more than window dressing. It has ignored all representations about the 15.15 service. I believe that that service is being killed off by First Great Western’s failure to consult properly. The consultation period has been little more than a sham. There has been a poor response from First Great Western, which has refused to publish any submissions and has not made its decisions public before the point of implementation, thus in effect allowing no appeal.

Following closely on the heels of the refranchise bid, there has been much confusion. It is understandable that the public, who believed that the franchise proposals submitted by First Great Western would be in place for a credible period, have been left feeling confused and let down by yet more inadequate consultation.

The company apparently has no interest in serving evening commuters. Between 5 am and 8.30 am, there is a half-hourly service between Swansea and London. Eight trains, each carrying up to 360 seated passengers, travel the Swansea-to-Paddington route. During that period Arriva Trains Wales runs two services which can carry a combined total of 300. Several thousand are carried by First Great Western; a few hundred are carried by Arriva Trains Wales. But how do those people make their return journey in the evening? First Great Western is happy to take their business in the morning, but feels no responsibility for getting them home at night. What kind of strategy and what kind of franchise commitment is that?

Poor Arriva Trains Wales will now be expected to fill the gap left by the removal of the 15.15 from the timetable. Commuters anxious to get home after a hard day’s work will have to try to obtain seats on an already popular service. It is the proverbial attempt to fit a pint into a half-pint pot, and can only mean more inconvenience and discomfort for the loyal passengers
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whom First Great Western are happily abandoning. I fear that many will switch to their cars and that we will see more congestion and pollution—problems that we should be working to decrease, not increase.

I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to do his utmost to ensure that the people of Swansea and west Wales continue to benefit from increased investment, reliable trains and improving services.

9.7 pm

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mrs. James). I know her area well. It seems that we share the problem of overcrowded trains, although our constituencies are many miles apart. I am pleased to see that the hon. Member for Burnley (Kitty Ussher) is still present. I was interested by her speech, in which she said that she did not recognise the situation described earlier by many of my hon. Friends. I hope that I shall be able to give her some more specific examples of problems that my constituents face daily.

In my constituency, as well as those of many other Members, a huge expansion in house building is taking place. About 800 houses a year are being built in Basingstoke, but—I fear—without the investment in infrastructure that would enable more people to settle in our part of Hampshire without any negative effect on the current population. Transport links are a particularly good example of the problems of investment in infrastructure, but there are many other examples, including essential utilities and services. Energy, water supply and other important elements of infrastructure are not being planned well enough, or receiving enough investment, to match the level of house building required by the Government.

Last week saw the publication of the Eddington report, to which many Members have referred today. It is the latest in a long line of transport documents published since 1997. Sir Rod Eddington made three important points. He called on the Government to “focus policy and sustained investment on improving the performance of existing transport networks in those places that are important to the UK’s economic success”.

He went on to say:

He emphasised that

Those are fine-sounding words, but this is the eighth major document on transport from the Government in nine years. There have been two White Papers, a 10-year plan, and now the Eddington report.

Mr. Charles Walker: Given that this is the eighth such document in nine years, is my hon. Friend confident that its recommendations will be carried through, or does she think that it is just more time-filling by a Government who are very short of ideas about what to do to ease current problems?

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Mrs. Miller: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, but he is, I think, being rather fair-minded to the Government by suggesting that that is their intention. My Basingstoke constituents might have a slightly different spin on that when they look at the amount of house building that is required in north Hampshire and then look at the dearth of funding that follows that centrally driven Government target. The amount of reports, White Papers and documentation that has been produced on the sector under discussion seems to mask a confusion, inconsistency and short-sightedness in transport planning; that is certainly the case in my area of the country.

My constituency of Basingstoke is just the sort of place that Eddington highlighted in his report as requiring a focused policy of investment in transport. It is home to 69,000 jobs. It has one of the largest concentrations of employment in the entire south-east of England, and it is therefore an integral part of the future of this country. The Government have called it one of their diamonds for growth; others have called it part of the string of pearls. They are fine words, but fine words cannot mask the disconnect between house building targets and the lack of investment in infrastructure. The Government need places like Basingstoke to generate the wealth to fund their spending plans, so they need to be prepared to invest in areas such as Basingstoke to ensure that its success is sustainable in the future.

We cannot have commuters spending hours in traffic jams on the M3 motorway. There has also recently been a significant increase in the number of accidents on our section of the motorway, some of which, tragically, have resulted in fatalities. We in north Hampshire have not had sufficient investment, particularly in our motorways and roads.

There are other local examples of lack of investment. There is a major business park in my constituency: the Chineham business park is a highly successful area of economic activity, and it is home to many blue-chip companies and major names that Members will be aware of. A part of the plans for that business park was to build a railway station—Ministers might be aware of that—but since those plans were put forward there has been a complete lack of funding, which means that it has not been possible to deliver that railway station. The result of that is being borne by my constituents, who are now having to deal with major problems to do with traffic cutting through residential areas, because people do not have the option of travelling to their place of work by train rather than car.

Local employers tell me that there are two reasons why they want to locate in Basingstoke. In some cases it is their first choice to locate, rather than Reading, because of the congestion problems in that town that the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) highlighted. They choose Basingstoke because they have access to well qualified and highly experienced staff, but also because of accessibility. I am concerned that the large-scale house building projects that are being foisted on the local council—with very little ability to resist them—combined with lack of investment in transport will simply be no good at all for residents or business.

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There are many estimates of how much money is required to fill the yawning infrastructure gap that there is not only in Basingstoke but throughout what is now designated by the South East England Development Agency as a western corridor area. Hampshire county council has told the South East England regional assembly that investment of some £4.5 billion is needed to improve transport infrastructure in the western corridor and Blackwater valley growth area, which, as the hon. Member for Reading, West said, is one of the most important areas of economic development in the country. In my bit of that area—Basingstoke—we need no less than a£250 million investment in transport alone to fill the gap created by the lack of investment in recent years.

I ran off a list of the projects that the western corridor and Blackwater valley area needs in terms of investment in infrastructure—the document has been submitted to the Government—and no fewer than 10 of the 34 projects on that list directly relate to my constituency. I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity when he responds to give me some thoughts on how he will help Hampshire county council and SEEDA to plug some of those gaps. The Government are happy to set targets, but they are not prepared to ensure that the plans are in place to enable such targets to be properly thought through. That is a million miles away from the integrated transport policy that they originally promised us; nearly 10 years on from their taking office, we are still waiting.

I want to consider a couple of other examples of how the transport infrastructure gap in my constituency is not just opening up but increasing in magnitude. We have already heard a great deal about the train networks in various parts of the country. I will not dwell on that issue, except to say that my constituents not only have to endure overcrowded trains, they often have to spend an hour travelling into London, unable to sit down for the entire journey—or for the journey back. The train operator promised increases in capacity, but that has yet to become a reality. I welcome the fact that my Front-Bench colleagues have given a commitment to regarding that as an urgent problem as we develop our policies.

There are other pressing issues in my constituency relating to the M3 motorway, which runs directly through its centre. It is an important access route and an important part of why Basingstoke is the success that it is, but a tremendous increase in traffic on that route has not been matched by investment in measures to alleviate the problems associated with congestion and noise. I have recently tabled a number of parliamentary questions on this issue because of an increase in the number of letters that I receive from constituents on it. Government calculations indicate that the level of traffic noise on the M3 between junctions 5 and 7 has increased by about 4.5 dB in the past 20 years. To many a lay person, that might not sound like an enormous increase, but I remind Members that the decibel is a logarithmic unit, and that a 3 dB increase, as the Minister doubtless knows, equates to a doubling in sound level. If Members were to stand by the side of the M3 in Mapledurwell, a beautiful village in my constituency that is completely unshielded from the motorway by any form of physical sound barrier, they would understand why many
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residents are deeply concerned at the fact that the increase in traffic has not been matched by the provision of sound-avoidance measures.

We thought that we had come some way on this issue under the careful guidance of my predecessor, who obtained an assurance that a noise-retardant surface would be used on the section of the M3 that passes through the centre of my constituency. Indeed, we were very pleased with the outcome of the negotiations with the Government. Only last week, however, I heard that a very firm promise might be overturned; despite a promise to resurface the M3 completely with noise-retardant material only one lane is to be treated. That is a great disappointment to residents of the villages of Mapledurwell, Up Nateley, Nateley Scures and Old Basing, for whom that measure represented their only hope that the Government would try to alleviate a growing problem.

The other result of increased traffic flow on the M3 that has not been coupled with a measure to try to alleviate the problem is congestion at junction 6, especially the Black Dam roundabout. All my constituents who use the M3 are very aware of that problem. The roundabout was built to accommodate a maximum peak flow of about 5,500 vehicles an hour, yet a survey last September found that it was already operating well above capacity, and the Government have no plans to try to improve the situation in the near future, despite significant amounts of house building.

There is a pressing need to upgrade that key section of the motorway, yet when I asked the Minister of State what assessment had been made of the need to increase capacity, he merely replied:

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