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Bill read a Second time .

Ordered,

Committee tomorrow.

COMMITTEE


Finance Bill

Ordered,


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Delegated Legislation

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Delegated Legislation Committees),


Land Registration

Question agreed to.

Petition

Nurseries Code of Practice

10.29 pm

Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): I beg leave to present a petition on behalf of 2,712 constituents, representing concerned professionals in the nursery sector, parents and members of the public from Enfield, Southgate. The basis of their concern is the new nurseries code of practice, its rigid one-size-fits-all criteria and a shortfall in funding likely to lead to the loss of choice of nursery care and free provision.

The petition states:

[P000139]


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A417 Traffic Improvement Scheme

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Liz Blackman.]

10.31 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): May I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and Mr. Speaker for allowing me to bring this matter before the House today? I also thank the Minister for being present to respond to my comments—I have given him good warning of what I will say—and my neighbour and good friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson), for being here to support me.

As I am sure the Minister is aware, this is not the first time that I have spoken in such a debate on this issue, which has unfortunately been going on since 1994, and progress on which is about as slow-moving as the traffic on the road. If the Cotswolds had not just been hit by 12 post office closures, I would describe this as the biggest constituency issue I have faced in my time as a Member of Parliament.

I would like briefly to describe the problem. The A417/419 leaves the M4 at junction 15, bypasses Swindon, Cirencester and Gloucester, and joins the M5 at junction 11A. In other words, it is the apex of the triangle that joins the M4 and M5 so that traffic travelling between Swindon and Gloucester does not have to go all the way round two sides of the triangle via Bristol, thus saving 40 miles. The so-called missing link is the three and half miles in the middle that is the single carriageway between the two junctions. Therefore, this problem clearly has national, regional and county-level significance.

In 1994, I stood with the then transport Minister, John Watts, at the opening of the Brockworth bypass on this stretch of road. With both the Swindon and Gloucester ends of the road having been built, and with £150 million having been spent—then a huge sum of money—it was confidently predicted that this missing link would be built. Unfortunately, however, matters have not progressed.

Wrangling has occurred ever since over various possible solutions, one of which was the suggestion of a tunnel, which I believe has now been rejected even by most of its ardent supporters, given the physical and financial logistics stacked against it. Instead, in 2004 the Highways Agency presented a £150-million surface project, the so-called brown route, about which my hon. Friend will be well aware as he and I have attended meetings with the Highways Agency to discuss it.

Following the 2004 publication by the Highways Agency, Gloucestershire county council consulted the community on the available options. At that time, 67 per cent. of the population and 90 per cent. of the business community were in favour of the brown route. Despite that, the scheme did not receive regional prioritisation. I believe that if a similar poll were carried out today there would be an even higher level of support from the local population, and certainly from the business community, because the Gloucester business park is expanding at one of the fastest rates in the country, and housing in both Swindon and Gloucester is expanding at a huge rate. Indeed, all the
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authorities now support the building of the missing link—the county, district and parish councils—as do five Gloucestershire Members of Parliament.

As the House may be aware, on 11 October 2006 I had an Adjournment debate on this subject, during which the then Minister with responsibility for transport, the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman), undertook to ask his Department to instruct the Highways Agency to search for and consider the best available surface option. It is on the back of its excellent and detailed report, published in March this year, that I have called today’s debate, in order to see how we can take this matter forward.

The Minister, whom I am grateful to see in his place today, will be aware that during the last Adjournment debate, I pointed out that the south-west region adjoins three other regions. In this respect, the situation is unique. In considering these very big regions, we should remember that this scheme is only 14.5 miles from the Welsh region border, 6.5 miles from the south-east region border and 11.2 miles from the west midlands region border. It is therefore very close to four regions in total, and it is this factor that causes a weakness in the regional transport prioritisation for delivering road schemes. This is a problem, given that the south-west region is so large. Chipping Campden and the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury are closer to the border of Scotland than they are to Land’s End, at the south-western tip of the south-west region. That demonstrates how big the south-west region is.

This scheme will benefit the south-west, as the current bottleneck at the top of the region affects the growth and prosperity of the whole region. However, the critical point of this whole debate is that, because the scheme benefits four regions, it becomes no one region’s priority. Under a system in which roads are delivered only if they can achieve regional priority, this scheme will never be delivered unless we have some form of national priority.

During my Adjournment debate in October 2006, the then Minister with responsibility for transport stated the following regarding the regional funding allocation process:

He went on to confirm that two schemes were put to him: the A417 and the M5. He gave the M5 national priority, while the A417 and the missing link were given regional priority. He conceded in the debate that he might have got that decision wrong, and that he would reflect on it.

Perhaps now is a suitable time to explain exactly why I have campaigned so long and hard for this improvement to be made. The missing link is the only section of single-lane road in a dual carriageway that runs from Palermo in Sicily up to Perth in Scotland. One need only scan briefly the 2008 review by the Highways Agency to understand the significance of this road economically and environmentally, but surely most importantly on the ground of safety.


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For those of my constituents and those of my hon. Friend who are forced to use the road regularly, I am afraid that the facts are frightening. More than 30 deaths or serious injuries have occurred in the past decade; tragically, the most recent death was just last month. Speaking following this fatality, Inspector Dave Collicott of the county’s road policing unit told the local media that

Accidents happen with unfailing regularity. The really significant point is that this section of road has an accident rate 30 per cent. higher than the national average. The Minister will note from the report that “107 personal injury accidents” were

Sadly, despite an awareness of those safety concerns, the road is the only viable option for most.

The Highways Agency goes on to say:

People certainly use the road; between 28,000 and 34,000 vehicles a day are forced to tackle this bottleneck. At the best of times, that can cause traffic jams as cars sit stationary with fumes pumping from their exhausts. Breakdowns can cause huge congestion problems, particularly as heavy goods vehicles often struggle up the steep incline at Crickley hill, in the constituency of my hon. Friend, break down and cause even more congestion as they do so.

Since the problem has been highlighted, minor improvements have been made to the road. However, the fundamental fact is that 10 years of inactivity on the matter has seen four deaths, 31 serious injuries and 211 minor injuries, alongside countless hours lost to traffic jams and the sheer volume of carbon monoxide emissions from stationary vehicles.

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on, yet again, introducing this matter for debate. He will doubtless have noticed that the road, as it comes towards my constituency, does not clog up just at rush hour, as perhaps it once did; even in mid-afternoon it is not unusual to see a very long tailback. The inadequacy of the rail travel between here and my constituency, and between Cheltenham and Gloucester, makes the matter even worse. We do not have a good transport system to our constituencies.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend makes a really good point. I believe that he made it in our previous debate in 2006. This really important road improvement is needed for the growth and prosperity not only of our region, but of the adjoining regions. As he says, it is not as if we have a really good rail system. Despite the size of Gloucester and Cheltenham, and their distance from London—less than 100 miles—we are talking about some of the worst rail transport in the country. This important piece of infrastructure needs to be completed.


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I have not been alone in my fight to get the necessary changes made; Gloucestershire county council has also been highly vocal on the matter. My hon. Friend will be aware that Peter Bungard, its chief executive, is sending an open letter to the Minister regarding this matter and the work done by the council as it has dragged on, and I hope the Minister will give that letter due attention.

I am aware that a number of challenges are presented by this stretch of road. First, the A417 runs through the Cotswolds area of outstanding natural beauty, so any proposals need to be highly sensitive to mitigate the effects. I welcome the view of the Highways Agency in its excellent report that

However, it must also be noted that the long tailbacks, to which my hon. Friend referred, do not contribute greatly to the beauty of the area.

Secondly, the topography of the area is a challenge to road builders and makes the section at Nettleton Bottom and the Air Balloon so dangerous. Even with those considerations in mind, the Highways Agency has produced a preferred solution—still described as the brown route—that is almost identical in nature to the one it found in 2004. The cost, with inflation taken into account, is inevitably much the same. The Highways Agency states that the proposal is

I hope that when those in the south-west region consider their road schemes, they will acknowledge the amount of work that has been done and the fact that the Highways Agency has examined the matter in huge depth, has taken into account all local alternatives and has still come back with its preferred brown route, which is identical to the one that it came up with in 2004.

In the Adjournment debate of 2006, I commented that the Highways Agency was uncomfortable with the road remaining a single lane. In response, the then Minister of State, the hon. Member for South Thanet, stated in respect of the status quo:

About the proposals that existed in 2004, he said:

That is surely of great importance, given the environmental concerns that were posited beforehand.

I shall conclude on the facts of the case for the Minister. The A417 has an accident rate 30 per cent. higher than the national level. It is bedevilled by congestion and traffic levels are growing. Support for the improvements is widespread across the county and in neighbouring regions. Failure to begin improvements has made the Government uncomfortable, as was said in the previous
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debate. Five key agencies—I have just listed them—support the scheme. The road is a vital economic gateway nationally, regionally and locally. The solution proposed this year in the comprehensive review is similar to the one proposed in 2004. To my mind that is a clear indication that the best solution is now on the table, as proposed by the Highways Agency.

I would like to leave this debate having received an assurance from the Minister that essential improvements to the missing link will begin in earnest. Perhaps the Minister can confirm that due consideration will be given to making it a national priority. For even beginning work tomorrow will be too late, because the scheme will take many years to complete. If correct prioritisation had been given, we could be well on the way to a solution. Too many people have died or been seriously injured, and the economic fortunes of the nation and the Gloucestershire region are being restricted by that 3.5 mile stretch of single road. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us some good news this evening.


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