The reason why the private sector developer is prepared to put in such significant private funding is that the road will enable 5,150 dwellings, which are essential to
meet local affordable housing need, to be built. The A5 to M1 link will also enable other new housing developments to be built, thus greatly addressing housing need.
Concern has been expressed locally about the decision to suspend the public inquiry, at which I was due to give evidence this Friday in strong support of this much needed road. I understand why the Government have had to suspend public inquiries to ensure that the funding is available for those inquiries that do proceed. I am greatly heartened, however, by the fact that there is the offer of very substantial funding to pay for junction 11A and the Woodside industrial estate connection road from a local private sector developer. That offer is an example of exactly the type of public-private sector partnership for which both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer have called. The offer will make the economic benefits I have described even greater as the cost to the public purse is significantly cut. I know that Department for Transport officials will tomorrow meet officers from Central Bedfordshire council and representatives of the private sector developer to discuss how this vital road can be taken forward.
I look forward to hearing what my hon. Friend the Minister has to say in reply. My constituents are reasonable people and understand that this Government have to be responsible with our public finances. My constituents have been patient and long-suffering over many years as the infrastructure that they have needed for their towns and villages to flourish has been denied them. They understand the need for the Government's current spending review, but they also need to know that things will get better for them and that this road, which the previous Government agreed to build on 9 July 2003, will be built, and will be built soon. I will listen with hope and expectation to what my hon. Friend, who I know to be a conscientious and hard-working Minister, has to say.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mike Penning): It is a great privilege to be responding as the roads Minister this evening in my first Adjournment debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), who is my constituency neighbour, on securing the debate, and on the double whammy of having also presented a petition on the same subject tonight. I have been a Member of Parliament for five years, but I have not witnessed that before, and I suspect many colleagues might see it as a way forward. May I also congratulate other Members who have been campaigning hard on this issue, especially the two Members who are present this evening: my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries) and the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins)?
This scheme is currently under formal statutory process, so it would not be appropriate for me to discuss it in greater detail than I have done in correspondence with my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire. I will do my best within the restrictions, but I must not risk prejudicing the public inquiry process, if and when it starts.
As my hon. Friend said, the A5-M1 link road scheme has been part of the roads programme since 2003. It has been promoted to address traffic congestion on the A505 and the A5 in the centre of Dunstable, an area
that I know well myself-I have been stuck in the traffic there. This is also part of the core trunk road network linking London and the south midlands, and it is a key road corridor for long and medium-distance traffic travelling south from Milton Keynes through Dunstable to the M1, forming part of the historic London to Holyhead trunk road. The A505 to the A5 and the A416 are also affected by this scheme.
As a result of being part of these key transport links, which facilitate the movement of large volumes of traffic, parts of the A5 have become heavily congested, particularly Dunstable high street. I am also conscious that Luton has been affected as well. Interestingly, and probably unsurprisingly, the A5 has a high accident rate. That might be a result of the congestion and of drivers speeding away from that. This morning the accident rates were produced by constituency for the first time, so Members can see the figures for roads in their area. I look forward to hearing their ideas as to how we might overcome traffic problems and improve road safety throughout the road network.
The Highways Agency proposes a new 2.79 mile-long two-lane dual carriageway from the A5 to a new junction 11A on the M1 north of Luton. By offering an alternative link to the motorway, the proposed A5-M1 link road would act as a northern bypass for Dunstable.
In September 2005, the Highways Agency appointed a contractor under the early contractor involvement initiative to take the A5-M1 link through the statutory process and construction phases. Also during 2005, the Highways Agency held a public consultation, and the preferred northern route was announced on 23 February 2007. The scheme was subsequently developed, leading to the publication of draft orders on 9 December 2009. That is where my restriction lies; I must not prejudice the public inquiry because of those draft orders. Under the previous allocation criteria for Highways Agency road schemes, the A5-M1 link was classified as a route of regional importance. Funding decisions on all schemes remain within the remit of the Secretary of State for Transport, irrespective of whether private funding is coming in. If public funding is involved, the decisions are part and parcel of his remit.
I am very personally aware, and not just because of the excellent lobbying that has been done by hon. Members representing constituencies in this part of the world, that the A5-M1 road link is considered a priority. If I were the MP for South West Bedfordshire or for Mid Bedfordshire, I would be sitting on those seats and I would be having this debate tonight, because that is exactly what a constituency MP should be doing. I was also very conscious of the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire was aware of the problems and restrictions that I face at the moment.
The scheme proposes to construct a new junction 11A, which would allow a connection with the proposed northern bypass and a connection that joins the A5-M1 link at the eastern end. I wish to deal with some of my hon. Friend's concerns at this point. I pay tribute to the enthusiasm of not only my hon. Friend and his colleagues on both sides of the House, but the local authorities in Bedfordshire, and to the importance that they attach to the scheme. I recognise that my hon. Friend has been a long-standing and vocal supporter of the scheme; I believe that this is the fourth Adjournment debate that he has had-
My hon. Friend has recently asked a number of questions of the Secretary of State, and I have tried to answer them in as much detail and with as much explanation as possible. I am sure that more will follow in the next few weeks, as is right and proper.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to respond to concerns following the Government's announcement on 10 June. I am sure that all hon. Members will feel that it was personal to them when the roads programme was suspended and all public inquiries stopped. The rationale behind the move was nothing personal in respect of any particular scheme. The decision had to be made on the basis of whether I could guarantee, and the Secretary of State could guarantee, the funding for a programme, subject to the spending review that will not be with us until October. I could not put forward public money for public inquiries without knowing whether the funding would be in place in the future for a road programme. Where we are using taxpayers' money, it is important that we are diligent as to how it should be spent.
I know that that decision was a great disappointment, not only to my hon. Friend, but to the many people around the country who are involved in the many schemes and are lobbying me extensively every time that they bump into me. That is right and proper, but the supporters of schemes must understand how hard it is in this difficult financial situation that the previous Government have left us in. We have to be very diligent in determining how money is spent and we must not spend money in advance of its being allocated.
The reasons for postponing the public inquiry and not reinstating it even when there was an offer of partial funding from the private sector for this is that the programme would still have also contained much public funding. As I said, it would not be proper for us to go ahead with the public inquiry, irrespective of whether funding was coming from sources other than central funding, without knowing that we had the money to go forward. This part of the programme is only part of the project on the M1, and it is important that we have this scheme together when it goes before the public inquiry, should that happen.
As a general policy, we have therefore decided that forthcoming public inquiries throughout the country will be postponed for the time being. Our aim is to provide an indication of the way forward for all schemes once the spending review has been completed. Postponing the public inquiry into the A5-M1 link is entirely consistent with that programme around the country and we have taken a similar position with all other schemes.
The consequences of the delay are significant. I am conscious of that fact and I know that there is disappointment about this scheme and other schemes. Should the Secretary of State decide that the scheme should go ahead, it will not be possible to construct the A5-M1 link scheme in accordance with the timetable originally planned. In particular, it will be no longer possible to optimise construction with the works currently under way on the M1 between junctions 10 and 13, as previously intended.
The delay in the A5-M1 link will mean that there will be an increase in the cost of the scheme. We know that. It is not something that we wanted to happen, but it had to be that way otherwise we might have gone ahead with a programme for which we did not necessarily have the funding. I fully recognise how unfortunate and difficult it is for people who have been waiting so long for the scheme to go ahead, but with the funding uncertainties, it remains difficult-impossible, really-for us to go ahead with the public inquiry.
The Highways Agency will review the programme with the aim of minimising the time and cost consequences should the Secretary of State go ahead with the programme. Central Bedfordshire's offer of funding, as I said earlier, was very welcome. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire has touched on something here that we can take forward with other programmes as regards how we engage the local community much more and how programmes can be seen to bring better bang for our buck, as it were, when so much public money is being spent.
I am also pleased that, as my hon. Friend knows, tomorrow there will be a meeting of my officials with the developers and others so that we can see what is on the table and what programmes are available. I keep having to put in the word "should", because that is the way that it has to be, but should the programme go forward we will know better very early on how it can be taken forward.
The funding proposals described in the letter from my hon. Friend to the Secretary of State are of interest and I have asked my officials not only to have the initial discussions in the meeting tomorrow but to try to flesh out how they could be taken forward. But-I have to come back to this-it does not provide a sufficient basis to reinstate the public inquiry ahead of the spending review. I hope that my hon. Friend understands that.
The overall project would cost in excess of £150 million, approximately half of which would be for the new junction 11A on the M1. Therefore, even if developer funding were available to fund the cost of junction 11A in full, it would still be necessary for the Secretary of State to commit significant balances to the remainder of the scheme in order for the scheme to go forward. That is something that the Secretary of State is not prepared to do. I know that that has caused a lot of disappointment, but it is consistent with the way in which we have looked at all the projects around the country.
I should also add that if we were to reinstate the public inquiry now, it would not be able to start until the autumn due to the statutory time scales required. The delays would be back in place. That would mean that the construction programme would still be delayed beyond the previously planned start date. Nevertheless, there is scope for developer funding to improve the affordability of the scheme and to develop projects around the scheme and therefore its prospects within the spending review. I therefore consider it to be of the utmost importance that the scope of any funding support, with the whole programme available, should be developed as early as possible.
The way forward is for the benefits provided by the scheme to be considered carefully as part of the spending review. If the scheme remains a priority after the spending review and it can be delivered within the funding available
to the Department along with, possibly, funding from local authorities and the developer, the Highways Agency will develop a revised programme to take the statutory process forward-particularly the public inquiry-in liaison with regional stakeholders.
In conclusion, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising these issues here today as well as in correspondence with me, privately, behind the Speaker's Chair and at any other opportunity. I think that is right and proper and, as I said earlier, I would have done exactly the same if I were in his position because that is what a constituency MP does. He is not alone in his campaign: my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire and the hon. Member for Luton North, who are present, have also made their points. We have tried to be as fair as possible throughout the process. Having come to the Department only seven weeks ago, I have been very conscious of the need to make decisions early on, and the Secretary of State has been very conscious that we
should be as consistent, open and public as possible throughout our decision making.
I hope that I have reassured my hon. Friend that the Department is aware of the importance of the A5-M1 link road scheme, and I hope also that he will appreciate the necessity of the Government not committing funds ahead of the comprehensive spending review. I look forward to having further discussions about this with him and other colleagues and officials-indeed, I will speak to officials tomorrow. I hope that by having this debate on the Floor of the House we have aired this issue, which is very important to his constituents and others, and I hope also that we will have an opportunity to look at the scheme properly when the spending review is finished.