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3.50 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Jim Fitzpatrick): I congratulate the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds) on securing the debate. I thank him for not continuing until 6.30 pm, although whatever time we finish here or in our offices, I wager that as an east London MP, I will be home sooner than he will.

The hon. Gentleman graphically and passionately described the traffic problems experienced in Boston. I know from the petition that he presented to the House last December that it is an important issue for local residents. I share his, and their, desire to see accessibility improved. Good transport is essential for a successful economy and society. People travel daily and want a transport system that gets them from A to B safely, securely and without damaging the environment. Businesses rely on transport not only for their work force and customers to use, but to ensure that their goods can be transported quickly and cheaply. As he pointed out in relation to Boston town centre, customers also need to be able to reach retail businesses so that they can flourish.

The challenge for the Government is to frame a transport strategy that not only supports living within our environmental means, but sustains a strong economy. We believe that we cannot simply build our way out of the congestion problems that we face. It
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would be environmentally irresponsible and it would not work. We must therefore make our existing transport networks operate more efficiently and in a more environmentally friendly way. Our goal is a road network that provides a more reliable and freer flowing system for users, and where travellers can make informed choices about how and when they travel, and so minimise the adverse impact of road traffic on the environment.

We are investing in the road network through the regional funding allocation, the Highways Agency and the local transport plan process. We are also improving traffic management in our towns and cities, particularly through the powers set out in the draft traffic management Bill, and encouraging the adoption of “smarter choices”, through school and workplace travel planning, while also promoting and facilitating public transport, cycling and walking.

Buses are the main form of public transport and are a powerful tool in tackling problems caused by congestion. Increased investment in bus services and improved partnership working are beginning to reverse the decline in bus patronage, but to realise their full potential we need more bus networks that provide flexible and convenient services tailored to local needs and offering a reliable way to travel to and from jobs, schools, shops and other services. Yesterday’s successful Second Reading of the Local Transport Bill will help to achieve that. I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the new arrangements and the need to wait to see whether they will improve the situation in Boston.

Perceptions of our transport system are, of course, governed by our individual experiences and I fully acknowledge that getting around, into and through Boston is difficult, especially at peak times. As the hon. Gentleman said, responsibility for the roads in Boston rests with the local highway authority, Lincolnshire county council. As he described, it is working with Boston borough council to tackle the congestion problem, and an important consideration is that, as a traditional market town and port, Boston is itself a destination for a considerable amount of traffic. I fully acknowledge that.

I understand that studies by Lincolnshire county council indicate that a bypass would remove less than 20 per cent. of traffic from the town centre. Consequently, Lincolnshire has made no provision for a bypass scheme in its local transport plan, as the hon. Gentleman knows. However, the authorities worked in partnership with local residents to publish, in December 2006, the transport strategy for Boston. That document recognises the need for, among other things, investment in transport infrastructure. Following an analysis of Boston’s traffic problems, it proposes a number of transport improvements in the short term—up to 2010—and in the longer term.

In the short term, the focus is on improving public transport by introducing a new in-town service, with bus priority measures and real-time passenger information; improving the A16 and A52 main roads in the town to allow traffic to flow more freely, reducing journey times by up to 30 per cent.; introducing car parking improvements and traffic management measures to smooth the flow of through-traffic in Boston; and introducing measures to encourage walking and cycling. Clearly, none of that will happen without funding, and I am pleased to say that through the local transport plan process, the
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Department for Transport is playing a full part in supporting transport investment in Lincolnshire.

Not including major scheme and de-trunked roads maintenance expenditure, we have invested £113 million in the county in the past 5 years. Building on that, the county council was awarded £24.6 million for 2008-09 in the LTP settlement last November. That figure will rise to £28.4 million in 2010-11. Drawing on that investment, its own resources, and those of the borough council, the county council has allocated £10 million to fund the short-term works set out in the transport strategy for Boston.

In the longer term, the transport strategy recognises that there is a need for additional road infrastructure—a local distributor road, as the hon. Gentleman said, and not a fully fledged bypass—to provide traffic with an alternative to travelling through the town centre. A local distributor road, partly funded through developer contributions, would aim to ease access to the town centre and remove through-traffic. I understand the view that one way of delivering extra road infrastructure is with developer contributions, specifically for new housing in Boston, but I hear what he says about potential problems with such contributions because of conflicting policy advice. Boston has signalled its interest in housing growth in its response to the Government’s invitation for bids for new growth point status.

The borough council envisages that a local distributor road could be a key component of the economic development of the town, but as the hon. Gentleman will be aware, it is not quite as simple as that. As he says, in considering the case for new development in or around Boston, one critical factor that must not be overlooked is the risk of flooding, whether that be from rising sea levels or extreme weather resulting from global warming. I am pleased that, in recognition of the need to consider all the relevant implications of new development, interested parties are working together to devise a coastal strategy that will balance the benefits of regeneration through development with the risk of flooding. I applaud the input of the local authorities—East Lindsey and South Holland district councils, Lincolnshire county council and Boston borough council—which are working with the East Midlands Development Agency, the Environment Agency, the East Midlands regional assembly and the Government office for the east midlands.

The outcome of that work will be crucial in helping to guide future development in and around Boston, and on the entire Lincolnshire coastal strip. However, we must await the completion of the work before we make meaningful judgments on the amount or location of new development. Without prejudice to that work, I would like to spend a few moments explaining the funding process. As I said, responsibility for providing new road infrastructure rests with the local highway authority, which in this instance is Lincolnshire county council. It would be for the county council to take forward the preparation of any scheme and to negotiate with regional partners to secure its place among the investment priorities under the regional funding allocation for the region.

The RFA was introduced by the Government in 2005 to help to integrate spending on transport, housing and economic development, and to give regions a greater voice in investment decisions. Subject to any scheme finding a place in the RFA—I must stress that competition
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for funds is keen—it would fall to the county council to take the scheme through the Department for Transport’s appraisal stages, from programme entry to full approval. When those stages are completed, funding can be drawn down for construction.

I strongly encourage the county and borough councils to continue their effective partnership working to address Boston’s pressing traffic problems, and to continue to work with other partners to devise the coastal strategy that will clearly be of fundamental importance to Boston in the longer term. For my part, I can certainly offer the Department for Transport’s continued support for Lincolnshire’s local transport plan, and the assistance of officials in the Department and also of the Government office for the east midlands, as matters develop.

On my availability for a meeting with the hon. Gentleman and local representatives and residents, given that, as I described, Lincolnshire county council is the first port of call, such a meeting would be of limited benefit, especially as the Department is not the initial decision maker in the process. I am prepared to discuss that with him outside the Chamber, but as I say, the first port of call should be Lincolnshire county council.

Mark Simmonds rose—

Jim Fitzpatrick: Before I conclude, I am happy to give way to the hon. Gentleman who initiated the debate.

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Mark Simmonds: The Minister was prescient in guessing what I intended to ask. I am grateful for his offer of a private discussion, which I will take up, although I am disappointed by his initial reaction to my request for him to meet a small delegation. I envisage representatives of Lincolnshire county council being part of that delegation. There is the view that although Lincolnshire county council and Boston borough council are working well together, there needs to be central Government buy-in to create impetus. I very much hope that after our private conversation, the Minister will reconsider.

Jim Fitzpatrick: I take personal pride, and I know that ministerial colleagues in the Department have the same attitude, in acceding whenever possible to a request from an hon. Member for a meeting. I am prepared to have a discussion outside on the basis that if we can identify the potential of such a meeting—I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about Lincolnshire county council officials being part of the delegation—it may be appropriate to go forward, but I would not want to commit the Department to such a meeting without having an informal discussion with him in due course.

Notwithstanding that qualification, I hope that my response has been helpful to the hon. Gentleman and his constituents. I finish by congratulating him again on securing this important debate for himself and his constituents.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes past Four o’clock.

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