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10.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): I congratulate the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) on securing this second Adjournment debate in 18 months on what he refers to as the missing link on the A417 near Gloucester. I thank him for his constructive engagement with and his commitment to this campaign, which is important to his constituents and to the wider region. I will return to the issue of national importance later in my speech.

Since the last Adjournment debate on this issue 18 months ago, the Highways Agency has undertaken a wide-ranging and thorough review of possible improvement options to address the existing conditions on the Cowley to Brockworth section of the A417. The report that I sent to the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues the hon. Members for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) and for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) on 12 March details the work undertaken and conclusions reached during this review. The hon. Member for Cotswold alluded to that report.

The review carried out by the Highways Agency has left no stone unturned in an effort to identify whether a more affordable option can be found to improve the existing conditions on this section of the A417. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the views of key stakeholders have been an important part of the information gathering during the review. Indeed, I know that he gave his own helpful and supportive views personally to the Highways Agency as part of the value management stakeholder workshop in March 2007.

The value management exercise was very useful. It enabled the agency to identify various options put forward by stakeholders that might contribute to a more affordable scheme and then rank them to establish which elements would be worth considering further. Each of the worthy options was then assessed to identify the impact that they would have on safety and journey time reliability, and then compared with the improvement achieved by the major scheme. This review has confirmed that the major scheme already developed by the Highways Agency would capture virtually all the available benefits, provide optimum
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value for money and be a long-term solution. As the hon. Gentleman rightly points out, following an extensive review we have returned to the original proposal.

The hon. Gentleman pointed out the increase in costs of the major scheme. I know that he is acutely aware of the issue. It is why the region requested in 2005 that the Highways Agency carry out a review to examine the possibility of a lower cost solution. Since that last debate the costs have increased from £150 million to £250 million, and that rise is of such an order that it would be entirely appropriate to offer some explanation of why the figures have changed so much.

There are three reasons. First, construction inflation has been far higher than was previously predicted. Secondly, a later date has been assumed for a possible start date. Thirdly, estimates include the historic costs spent on the scheme. As it turned out, construction inflation between 2001 and 2006 was higher than predicted and added some £50 million to the cost. In addition, delaying the scheme to beyond 2013 takes it through the construction period for the Olympics, when inflation is expected to be even higher. In fact, inflation for the period adds about £45 million to the cost. I understand that if a major construction scheme takes place at the same time as construction on the Olympics, resources and materials will be available only at a premium.

The increases led us to look at other ways to reduce the cost of the major scheme. One would be to build the scheme in a number of phases, spreading the cost over a number of years. However, that would increase the costs by at least a further £30 million—13 per cent. of the total. It would also extend the period of construction, which would inevitably cause additional congestion during the construction phase. On balance, there is no doubt that it would be better to build the whole scheme under one contract.

In a world of finite resources, we must ensure that our transport investment is focused on the most important schemes. That is why in July 2005 we invited the south-west region to give us advice on transport priorities with an indicative funding allocation for major schemes in the south-west. The regional funding allocation, or RFA, process has, for the first time, given regions a say in making decisions about transport schemes that affect them. The RFA process is an opportunity for people in the region to work together to develop a realistic, prioritised and affordable transport investment programme to support the region’s high-level objectives for jobs, the economy, housing and the environment. It is central to our thinking that the regions are better placed than the men and women of Whitehall to advise decision makers on how transport can help to make the regions even better places.

We backed the RFA process with massively increased investment funding. We have increased our annual spending on such schemes by 50 per cent. since 2001-02. For example, the Highways Agency has invested £16 million improving the Commonhead junction on the A419 in Swindon. The agency is also spending £65 million to provide a much-needed bypass for Blunsdon on the same route.

We intend to provide almost £865 million over the next 10 years for regionally significant transport
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schemes in the south-west. However, the hon. Gentleman and others have suggested that we are not making enough money available in the south-west.

I shall interrupt my flow at this point to reassure the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Tewkesbury that I understand absolutely that when a constituency MP is dealing with the horrific aftermath and tragedy of people being killed on a local road it makes little difference, particularly to the families, for a Government Minister to talk about the record amounts of money being invested in road schemes elsewhere in that region. I am aware of the importance of providing safe roads in the region represented by the hon. Member for Cotswold and in other parts of the country. That does not detract from the fact that we are spending record amounts of money. I fully understand the hon. Gentleman’s personal concerns about the accident record on that stretch of road, which are in no way obviated by the levels of investment.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The Minister has alluded to the critical point in the debate. The regional priority system will not deliver the road because it is on the edge of three other regions. I have given the figures. It is very close to the edge: some 16 or 8 miles from the three other regions. The problem is that it benefits all four regions, but because of that fact the south-west region will not deliver it as a priority. Unless we get some national input from the Minister, the scheme will never be delivered. It is even more important to deliver it now that the two schemes to which he referred at Blunsdon and Commonhead have been delivered, as the whole road is now a dual carriageway except for the little bit in the middle—the 3.5 miles of single track. That makes it even more dangerous, because motorists get into the frame of mind of driving faster, having been on a dual carriageway section.

Mr. Harris: I will come on to the issue of whether a road is identified as a road of national or regional importance in a few moments. It is sometimes implied—I know that this is not what the hon. Gentleman is suggesting—that if a road scheme is on the edge of a region and is close to other regions, and therefore evades the attention of the regional transport board, that is reason enough for it to become a road of national importance. As I am sure he will accept, the fact that a road is on the edge of a region is not enough in itself to make it a road of national importance, however important the road is to one or more regions.

If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that the Government should show leadership and give advice to regional transport boards on prioritisation, that is something that the Government can and will do. If he is suggesting that the Government should make available significantly more money than is already available through regional funding allocation, I will have to disappoint him. That was certainly the suggestion made when the prioritisation took place; some people claimed that there was no way that prioritisation could be given to the improvement of the Cowley to Brockworth section of the A417, given current spending commitments. I hear similar arguments from every region in relation to many other schemes, and that makes me think that we have been reasonably fair in dividing the pot among the regions.

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It could be argued that the regional pot should be bigger, but it would have to be made clear where the money would come from, whether from tax increases or from cutting investment somewhere else. Politicians in this place often go round in circles arguing about which scheme we should cut in order to promote another scheme. Unfortunately that is the truth of the argument, and the issue is not just one of party politics. When it comes to funding, there is a circle to be squared, and we have to be realistic. The Government do not have unlimited funds and sometimes tough choices have to be made. The RFA process helps us to make those choices in the best and most sensible way.

Following the RFA’s advice, the south-west region assigned funding to a total of 31 schemes in the period up to 2016, including three schemes in Gloucestershire —the Elmbridge integrated transport package, the Gloucester and Cheltenham park and ride and the Gloucester A40 improvements and widening. The region advised us that the Cowley to Brockworth improvement on the A417 may well prove to be a long-term priority, but will probably not come forward before 2016. I understand why the hon. Members for Cotswold and for Tewkesbury will be disappointed with the outcome, but we nevertheless accepted the region’s advice. We will ask regions later this year to consider their priorities and tell us whether they have changed. The Highways Agency has already made its report available to the region so that it can take into account the benefits and value for money offered by options, including the lower cost options.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Let me try just one more time. This is not an issue of funding, but of process. If a scheme is on the edge of four regions, and will benefit all four, no one region will give it priority. The scheme will never be delivered unless the Minister, working on a national basis, advises the four regions that all of them want the scheme. There must be a system of second preferences, as it were, otherwise the south-west region will never regard the road as a priority.

Mr. Harris: The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly valid point. However, I foresee a problem. If the
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south-west regional transport board does not see this particular road as a priority, what are the chances of other regions, through which this particular section of the A417 does not pass, giving a significant amount of their allocations to the upgrade of the road? If the south-west region will not prioritise it, I suggest to the hon. Gentleman, who knows the local political layout better than I, that it will be very difficult for the other three regions to which he has referred to put their hands in their pockets and surrender some of their own schemes for one that effectively lies outside their borders. However, I might be able to offer something positive to the hon. Gentleman in the one minute that I have left.

If the hon. Gentleman, as a supporter of the scheme, does not like the priorities already drawn up by the regional transport board, he has the opportunity in the next few months to try to convince it of the evidence that the improvement should be higher on the region’s list of priorities and that other schemes that currently have higher priority should be lower on that list. If the region wishes to change its priorities and include the improvement scheme or any of the lower-cost options in the RFA programme, we will be delighted to accept that advice, subject to the scheme meeting the Department for Transport’s value for money criteria.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the edge factor, mentioned by my predecessor, and made the point that the geographical position of the scheme may not have helped it within the RFA process. He is right; my predecessor did acknowledge the existence of the edge factor, which may have been an issue in some of the advice that we received from the regions. I do not consider that the edge factor is relevant in this case; if it had been, we would have expected other schemes in Gloucestershire not to have been prioritised. Clearly, that has not happened, as schemes in Gloucestershire have been prioritised.

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Madam Deputy Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at one minute past Eleven o'clock.

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