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Volume 406: debated on Wednesday 4 June 2003

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3.30 pm

I am grateful for the opportunity to have a short debate on route management strategy and the A47. I appreciate the presence and support of my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) and the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson).

The debate has strong cross-party support from all the Members in Norfolk. Our primary objective is to consider a strategic plan for the whole of the A47 and to ensure that it is fully dualled from the A1 west of Peterborough through to Great Yarmouth. That is vital for the economic growth of Norfolk and for road safety. Since 1994, the A47 alliance—a coalition of local councils, businesses and other interested parties—has consistently lobbied for that strategic objective.

The catalyst for my debate was the recommendations from the study undertaken for the Government Office for the east of England, entitled, "Norwich to Peterborough Multi-Modal Study: Final Report"—a title that easily runs off the lips—which was published on 11 March. Without exception, all the interested parties in Norfolk—the parish, town, district and county councils and businesses—were bitterly disappointed with its piecemeal and inadequate recommendations. Indeed, some of its proposals have been deleted from the final strategy agreed yesterday by the regional planning panel. That has caused even more disillusion in Norfolk.

Sadly, the Department for Transport has no strategic vision for the whole of the A47 in Norfolk. Rather, we have seen a series of independent, piecemeal studies that deal with some local concerns through stretches of dual carriageway and some remedial work, but those do not deal with the overall economic arid road safety issues throughout the length of the A47. The failure to achieve a strategic plan has led to much disillusion and cynicism among all our constituents, who think that Norfolk is low down the list of priorities and can safely be offered some worthy short-term improvements and some long-term aspirations.

I shall move on to a critique of the Norwich to Peterborough multi-modal study and ask the Minister some questions. I realise that he may not be able to answer all my questions at the end of the debate, but I would be grateful if he would write to me.

The study began with a clear aim that was consistent with Government policy: to realise the potential of the Norwich to Peterborough corridor, including the economic regeneration of northern East Anglia, which is essentially Norfolk. That aim was supported by an objective—one of eight—to identify the contribution that improvements to the transport corridor could make to the economic regeneration and future prosperity of northern East Anglia. That clearly recognised that Norfolk's perceived remoteness and poor transport accessibility to the midlands and the north could be harming its economy, leading to pockets of deprivation, especially in Great Yarmouth, Norwich, King's Lynn and some remote rural areas.

The Norfolk community strategy has recognised that, and its delivery will partly depend on improved strategic accessibility. If anything, that assessment has been reinforced by a recent forecast from the business analysts Experian, which revealed that Norfolk will soon lag behind neighbours such as Cambridgeshire and Suffolk. The economic factor is therefore crucial to Norfolk in terms of growth.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that tourism in Norfolk has tremendous possibilities and potential? Hundreds of people penetrate into places such as Hunstanton, King's Lynn, Cromer and so on, round to Yarmouth, every year, but it is forgotten sometimes that those people have to travel on awful roads such as the one to which the hon. Gentleman is referring—the A47—and that the accident rate goes up significantly during that period. For that reason alone, there is a huge case to be made for improving that highway.

The hon. Gentleman makes a strong point. Hundreds of thousands of tourists come to Norfolk, and many are unfamiliar with our patchwork road system.

I shall briefly take up the study recommendations. Many of the proposed measures gain our support, including those for public transport improvements. No one in Norfolk believes that merely dualling the A47 will resolve all the transport and road safety problems or, indeed, immediately bring about economic improvement. Although we accept that various considerations have to be balanced and that there are many demands on the nation's purse strings, we have to reject the fundamental proposal not to bring the A47 fully up to dual carriageway standard. That was recommended despite full dualling being the option with the best economic efficiency—by that, I mean a function of travel time and a measure of whether it is a good public investment.

The main proposals in the study were: dualling between Dereham and Norwich by 2016; single carriageway bypasses for Middleton, East Winch and Bilney by 2026—those have now been dropped—and dualling from the A1 to King's Lynn by 2031, except for a Wisbech bypass, which I think will also be dropped. Many of the people involved in the study may well be in retirement homes by that date. Although these proposals are welcome in themselves, even the limited ones, they do not go far enough and would not be implemented soon enough. Even these basic proposals mean that, by 2031, there would be still be 60 km of single carriageway east of the A1.

I shall put a series of questions to the Minister.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on obtaining this debate on such an important issue. Before he comes to questions for the Minister, I believe that he said that even limited improvements to the A47 had yesterday been rejected by something describing itself as a regional planning panel. I wonder whether he or the Minister could give us some information on the status of that panel, such as whether it is composed of elected representatives, to whom they are accountable and on what information they are drawing, because it is self-evident from what my hon. Friend has said that they are not drawing on information about traffic flows on the A47 or, indeed, on any public opinion in Norfolk regarding the future of the A47.

My right hon. Friend reflects the amazement that was engendered in Norfolk by that regional planning body, and she raises a very good point about political accountability. That body is certainly not accountable to the electors of any of the Members here today.

I shall return to my questions. The process itself needs to be questioned. The A47 was studied by breaking it down into 22 discrete sections, so it was not seen as a strategic whole route. In a strategic study, why was the main highway route not treated from a strategic perspective? That is the fundamental question.

The economic regeneration focus, as caught by the aim and objective quoted earlier, was lost during the study. It became a traditional predict-and-provide transport study that predicted where congestion was likely to happen and recommended providing improvements at those discrete locations. Although addressing congestion is important, it should not be the only factor to consider when deciding where transport improvements are needed. Many parts of Norfolk are not congested by national standards, but they are deprived. Improvements to the A47 are needed to enhance their accessibility and economic performance, not to address congestion, which is usually a result of strong economic activity.

Will the Minister explain how continuing to improve transport infrastructure in areas of the United Kingdom that are already enjoying the benefits of strong economic activity and are congested, rather than improving it in deprived areas for accessibility reasons, is consistent with Government policy to reduce the economic imbalance? Furthermore, how are remote rural areas such as my constituency expected to diversify successfully if the root problem of poor accessibility remains?

The wider economic aspect was considered only at the end of the study, just to consider whether the recommended strategy would produce any wider economic benefits. The conclusion was that King's Lynn would enjoy regeneration benefits. Only one section of dualling is proposed east of King's Lynn between Norwich and Dereham, which lies mainly in my constituency. Although regeneration in King's Lynn is welcome, is it a coincidence that where the majority of the A47 dualling stops, the wider economic benefit also stops?

Social inclusion is a Government priority, and I fully endorse it. The main cause of social exclusion is unemployment, so does the Minister agree that the best way of delivering social inclusion is to regenerate deprived areas and promote job opportunities? We have an example of that, as it looks likely that the outer harbour will be developed at Great Yarmouth, but once it is developed, it will not have an east-west transport system that is capable of dealing with the economic activity. Surely common sense says that we should get the transport system up and running either before or in conjunction with the development of the outer harbour.

The study concluded that the wider economic benefits of full dualling are not fully understood. Fortunately, a Government study is currently investigating the relationship between transport infrastructure improvements and wider economic benefits. That will report in the summer, so why is this study being rushed through with such undue haste? Would it not be more sensible to delay the process and await the outcome of the Government's report? Once better understood, the economic and environmental considerations related to full dualling can be given a clear and transparent examination that is open to public scrutiny.

Although the final report accepted that full dualling was the best option for economic efficiency—a measure of whether it is a good public investment—it stated that that was outweighed by environmental concerns. I accept that the protection of the environment is an important factor, but no real analysis of the environmental costs compared with the economic benefits was shown in the report. Can that be provided or explained?

Furthermore, the latest road traffic accident data were not used, despite the upward trend in recent years on the A47. For example, between 1997 and 2001, there were 812 personal injury accidents between the A1 and Easton, which is on the western outskirts of Norwich. Those accidents resulted in an estimated 1,200 casualties. Worryingly, the trend is upward, with 149 accidents in 1997 and 190 in 2001. Given that rising trend, it is surprising that the accident data for 2002 was not used. How can the Highways Agency maximise its important contribution to the targets when studies ignore the most recent data?

The A47 is part of the trans-European network, and links to Europe are vital for our economy. Why are roads comprising the trans-European network not given priority when deciding where infrastructure improvements should be made? Finally, medium traffic growth forecasts were used and we are not convinced that that was justified, especially considering the emerging regional planning guidance and the proposed growth of Norwich and other places served by the A47. No explanation was given for that choice. Why was that assumption made?

This is a crucial issue for Norfolk. This short debate merely flags up our major concern that there is no overall strategic plan for the A47 to deal with important issues of economic growth and road safety. The consensus at every level of government in Norfolk, which is cross party and includes the business community and the police, is that dualling of the A47 is the priority and that the other options are unacceptable. Norfolk county council hopes to meet the Secretary of State for Transport to press these matters further. We will continue to raise the issue so that dualling of the A47 moves up the list of priorities within the Department for Transport. Without that dualling we will not see the economic growth required in Norfolk to meet the Government's targets. Sadly, we will see a continuing rise in road traffic accidents.

3.46 pm

I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on securing this debate and on the way in which he has prosecuted his case. I am pleased that the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) is present. When I visited her constituency to look at a road scheme she treated me famously with sandwiches, even giving me a doggy bag. I am pleased also to see my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson). My hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright) also takes a great deal of interest in these matters, but he is unable to be here today.

As we have heard, the A47 is a major artery through Norfolk, and in particular through the Mid-Norfolk constituency. The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk has dealt in some depth with the problems that are a common concern for him and his fellow Members in the region. As he implied, the A47 is a major strategic route into Norfolk and is an important trans-European route across the north of the region, serving Wisbech, King's Lynn and Norwich as well as Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft. It is also an important link to the more isolated areas and key market towns along the corridor.

Several major routes converge along the A47. West of King's Lynn, the Al7 from the north meets it and to the east of the town, at the Hardwick roundabout, the A149 to Hunstanton and the A10 to Cambridge and London join. At Norwich, the A47 bypasses the city and is joined by the A11, the most important route into the area from the south, and also the A140 from the Ipswich direction.

What have we already done on the A47? Considerable progress has been made in improving the road over a number of years by different Governments. To give the impression that nothing has happened would be quite wrong. The schemes have cost more than £150 million. In addition, we have also started work on the improvements to the Hardwick roundabout and have added the Thorney bypass and the Blofield to North Burlingham dualling to the targeted programme of improvements. This is a considerable investment by my Department that indicates the importance that is attached to the route.

It should be noted that we are also continuing to improve the A11, which is the major trunk road access to Norwich from the south and west. We opened the latest dual carriageway section in March, and two more schemes are currently being taken forward by the Highways Agency. The A11 is expected to be fully dualled by 2010, which will emphasise its key strategic role in the network and in relation to the A47.

The recent addition to the targeted programme of improvements—the TPI schemes—of the A14 Cambridge to Huntingdon trunk road improvement scheme, as recommended by the Cambridge to Huntingdon multi-modal study, reinforces the key strategic role of the A11–A14 corridor in providing links between Norfolk and the west.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we have not neglected the A47. We have commissioned two studies to examine how the rest of the route could be improved and if a parallel railway line could serve as an alternative to the A47. I note the hon. Gentleman's comments about the importance of public transport.

The Norwich to Great Yarmouth road-based study recommended the Blofield and North Burlingham improvement, which, as I said, was mentioned in the TPI. We have commissioned further work from the Highways Agency to re-examine the Acle straight between Acle and Great Yarmouth. It is investigating whether a dual carriageway, a simple widening or, indeed, doing nothing at all would be the best option from an environmental point of view. It is also investigating the economic impacts of potential delays to traffic during the construction of either of the first two options. In addition, it is undertaking some investigative geo-technical work.

I will jot a line to my hon. Friend rather than shoot from the hip. I will ensure that he and other hon. Members taking part in the debate know.

I am aware that there is a local perception that the road needs to be dualled for the economic regeneration of Great Yarmouth, but we are not yet satisfied that the evidence for such a conclusion is available. The Highways Agency is implementing other recommendations from the study, which will improve safety along the A47 and improve the traffic flow at the Vauxhall junction in Great Yarmouth. That should significantly reduce journey times along the Acle straight.

I thank the Under-Secretary for his generosity in giving way and for his tribute about sandwiches, which remain unforgotten in his mind.

In the unavoidable absence of the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright), I must ask him what is the point of putting money into regenerating Great Yarmouth if it cannot be reached by road.

I will come to that. I noted what the right hon. Lady said in an intervention on her hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk.

The Norwich to Peterborough multi-modal study was commissioned to make recommendations that would address the transport problems and realise the potential of the Norwich to Peterborough corridor, including the possible economic regeneration of East Anglia and the entire route to Great Yarmouth. The study incorporated the A47 and the parallel railway line via Thetford and Ely. It reported in March 2003 and was passed to the regional assembly for its consideration. I believe that the assembly met yesterday to confirm its recommendations, and I note from the hon. Gentleman's remarks that neither he nor other local interests approve of them. However, the Department has not yet received its official response, and so I cannot comment on it in detail.

The right hon. Lady asked who the people on the regional panel were. The panel is made up of elected local councillors from the region. I understand that most of them are from her own party. If she wants a route of communication and contact with them, she may want to beat a path to their door, because they were the ones who recommended that dualling the whole of the A47 was unnecessary. That recommendation did not come from my Department, but was made locally to my Department.

The study concluded that a combination of measures would be needed to address its objectives. The preferred strategy, which the regional assembly was invited to consider, therefore includes targeted measures to increase capacity on the A47, new bus and coach services and some localised improvements to rail facilities. It also supports increases in the take-up of travel plans and the promotion of walking and cycling strategies in the towns along the corridor. It would be premature of us to give our views on the recommendations now. However, the study has raised a number of important issues and it may be helpful if I briefly run through them.

The study concluded that the major rail schemes are not feasible and that other public transport measures alone would not deliver a strategy to meet the study objectives. The study therefore proposed, in addition, staged programme improvements to the A47, to be constructed as and when the traffic conditions warranted them.

The study has also concluded that the A47 is not congested over the whole of its length and that improvements need to be targeted on those sections that are currently at or near capacity, rather than on those that are expected to be able to carry the forecast traffic growth in their current form for many years to come. The sections identified as the first two priorities are in the west between the A1 and Sutton, west of Peterborough, and in the east between North Tuddenham and Easton, west of Norwich. The study also suggested the introduction of improved traffic management measures on the A47 at Peterborough parkway, with the aim of preventing queues on slip roads from tailing back on to the main carriageway. It is recommended that all these schemes be implemented before 2016.

In addition, the study proposes that further improvements to the A47 be undertaken after 2016. If all of these were to be built—clearly I can give no commitment today—we would achieve the hon. Gentleman's aim of improving the entire length of the A47 from the Al to Norwich. Although I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman and others would prefer such schemes to be implemented sooner rather than later, the multi-modal study suggests that the justification for them, in terms of traffic flows and consequent delays, will exist not in the near future but in 15 to 20 years' time. I stress that such matters are being dealt with locally. The relevant studies have not been undertaken by the Government; they have been generated by those in the local area who can best understand the issues involved.

The conclusions of the study suggest that it would be imprudent of us to bring forward major road schemes that do not make best use of our limited resources and that do not provide good value for money. When we consider the findings of the study and the other views that we have received, we shall be mindful also of the need to ensure that large areas of the countryside are not blighted through proposals for road schemes that have no prospect whatever of being built in the next 20 years. That would not help the regeneration of the area. It is also important for constituents that their properties should not be blighted.

The hon. Gentleman said that a predict-and-provide model was used, and he mentioned the need for new roads to help the economic regeneration of his constituency. It is always difficult to quantify with confidence how many jobs a transport scheme will generate—each area will react differently, and there is always a danger that jobs could be lost from an area if transport links are improved.

As required by the brief, the Norwich to Peterborough multi-modal study considered the wider economic benefits that the preferred strategy, including all the A47 improvements which have been proposed, would bring to the area. The study concluded that in the long term the strategy would improve accessibility to areas outside the sub-region, provide greater opportunity for development, reduce actual and perceived peripherality and expand markets and labour market catchments for businesses in the area. Further analysis suggested that the overall additional benefit of dualling all the A47, as compared with the preferred strategy, would be small when considered against the additional cost. It was also suggested that some of the further schemes that would be required to achieve full dualling would have potentially serious effects.

I began and ended by asking the Minister a question. He represents the Department for Transport, so can he say whether the Department, in its strategic vision, accepts that to dual the whole of the A47 for economic and road safety reasons is, in principle, logical and correct? I realise that there is a cost factor and do not hold the Minister on that. It is all well and good to refer to individual studies, but the crucial point is the principle.

The principle is that not even the regional planning body has come up with that solution. His party and his councils have not come to that conclusion. We should be making improvements for the throughput of traffic while taking into consideration the important environmental issues on the route.

Time is against me, and if there are issues that I have not been able to cover at the end of the debate, I shall be pleased to correspond with hon. Members.

Order. I ask hon. Members who are not staying for the next debate to leave quickly and quietly. I assure hon. Members that I have driven on the A47.