I thank you, Mr. Weir, and Mr. Speaker for allocating time for this debate. I also thank the Minister for being here this morning to respond to this debate.
The A419/417—which I shall rechristen the last missing link—and its road surfacing problems have been among the longest running and most contentious issues that I have encountered during my 14 years as Member of Parliament for Cotswold. I was present when John Watts, the then Transport Minister, opened the Brockworth bypass in 1994. At the time, I am sure that, as the Department had spent £150 million on dualling the rest of the road, there was every intention of completing that last missing link from Swindon to Gloucester. I secured this debate this morning to urge the Minister to rectify the situation and to finish the project that was started so many years ago.
I should add that part of the road is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson), and I am delighted to see him and my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) here today.
Let me explain why this road link is vital not only to my constituents but to Gloucestershire and the nation as a whole. It is vital on safety grounds because of environmental concerns in an area of outstanding natural beauty and because it is the main link from the M4 to the M5. It is also vital because businesses in Wiltshire and Gloucestershire rely on this connection to ensure our economic success, and Gloucestershire is the gateway to and from the south-west and the rest of the country.
My hon. Friend’s intervention—I had no idea what he would raise, although I knew that he would intervene—is prescient because, as I shall explain, a largely sea-locked region of the south-west depends vitally on its transport links, which include rail and road. That is why the A417/419 link is so important. With the completion of the dual carriageway at Stratton St. Margaret, this is now the last stretch of single carriageway along the route. One can drive from Palermo in southern Italy to Perth in the middle of Scotland along unbroken dual carriageway with the exception of this three-mile stretch.
My parliamentary colleagues, Gloucestershire county council, and local communities, businesses and individuals have been vociferous in the search for a solution, and I believe that the A417/419 should be a national and not a regional priority. The issue highlights a deficiency of regional government and how a project such as this, based in a county on the periphery of three adjoining regions, can suffer disproportionately.
It is particularly important to my constituents because we are not only in Gloucestershire, which is on the edge of our region, but on the edge of Gloucestershire on the other side of the river. Completing this road link is extremely important for the economic prospects of my constituency. I wish my hon. Friend good luck and look forward to the Minister’s reply.
A section of my speech will enhance what my hon. Friend said about this being the bottleneck to the south-west region, and he will hear how I make that case.
This section of the A4l7 has a poor safety record and suffers from severe congestion. Traffic volumes are approximately 28,000 to 31,000 vehicles a day, of which approximately 12 to 14 per cent. are heavy goods vehicles. It is not true to say that nothing has been done about the road. Three small local improvement schemes have been completed recently to improve safety at the Golden Hart public house, the Air Balloon roundabout and Birdlip junction. A number of additional small improvements are planned in the next few years. However, it must be recognised that a longer-term solution is required.
I know from both personal experience and my constituency mailbag that queues occur regularly at peak periods. Traffic on the steep hills at Nettleton and Crickley, which are partly in the Forest of Dean constituency, is slow moving, and heavy goods vehicles compound the queuing problems, particularly in inclement weather when HGVs break down on the hill, causing severe congestion. In some places the road standard is generally quite poor, with tight bends and narrow lanes. Vehicle shunts occur regularly at the Air Balloon roundabout and there are accident clusters at Nettleton Bottom, Birdlip, the Air Balloon roundabout and on Crickley hill. One HGV ploughed into the end wall of a rather nice pub, the Golden Hart at Nettleton Bottom. It demolished the wall and killed the driver. That is the sort of thing that occurs.
I contend that this is a nationally important scheme. Other road projects throughout the south-west—I am coming to the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean—have gained priority over the A417 and A419, but the great majority of those under construction are deeply embedded in the south-west region: for example, the A30 at Merrymeet in Devon, the A30 Bodmin to Indian Queens dual carriageway in Cornwall, the Chiverton roundabout in Cornwall, major road resurfacing works on the A38 at Peartree in Devon or Cartuther to Liskeard in Cornwall.
The list continues. Those are deeply embedded schemes in the south-west and while I am sure they all have tremendous merit, the crucial point is that Gloucestershire and the A417 act as the gateway to the south-west. However, the Minister, the Department, the south-west regional bodies and the Highways Agency must consider how crucial are major projects at the very bottleneck of the region. If the bottleneck is not clear, however much infrastructure regeneration there is further down the line, there will always be constraint at the top of the bottle.
The road has an environmental impact. For example, the standard of living is affected by traffic congestion, daily queues and road closures as a result of accidents. A particular problem in our area is that rat-running is common through Cotswold villages and communities and includes heavy goods vehicles on small, single-track roads. When there is an accident or road closure, massive, 44-tonne HGVs are routed along single-track roads through little Cotswold villages, and a serious accident is waiting to happen if that continues.
My hon. Friend has touched on an important point. When roads are closed, many of the turns on and off are more than dangerous. When two HGVs have met on those single-track roads there has been absolute chaos. People may be walking along a single-track road and drivers who come off the dual carriageway may not realise that they are on a single-track road and be driving far too fast. A serious accident is waiting to happen.
My hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean referred to economic prospects. The last missing link is also a bar to our continuing growth and the economic prosperity of businesses throughout Gloucestershire and Wiltshire. The Gloucester business park is one of the fastest expanding business parks in the country, and I urge the Minister, if he ever has time, to have a look at it, because it is a prime example of really good planning close to a motorway and shows how successful a business park can be. However, with today’s modern economic environment and just-in-time deliveries, it is being hampered by the missing link, as are businesses between Swindon and Gloucester, and all economic activity in the southern half of my constituency. It is not just a matter of building infrastructure; economic growth is being hampered.
There have been various schemes over the past five years, as the Minister knows only too well. A tunnel and various surface schemes along the way have been investigated. Three years ago, the Minister’s Department discarded the tunnel option, which would have incurred very large capital and running costs. Since then, it has developed a surface scheme for a dual carriageway which largely follows the layout of the existing road. The Department’s consultants, WSP, have been working closely with statutory environmental bodies to minimise any negative impact of the scheme on the environment, particularly the area of outstanding natural beauty and the aquifer. I am encouraged by the positive feedback about that process, because as the Minister knows, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury certainly knows, it is a technically difficult problem. Traffic needs to be turned 275° going up Brockworth hill in my hon. Friend’s constituency and approaching Cirencester and Swindon in mine. The steep gradients also add to the difficulty.
A further dimension to consider is traffic entering the Air Balloon roundabout via the A436 from Oxford. It is not easy to find an engineering solution. Although the latest designs by the Highways Agency’s consultants are not perfect, they at least show some progress and that, crucially, the issue is still live. However, studies, reviews and investigations do not deliver an improved road, better safety, decreased congestion or economic growth.
In February, I joined my parliamentary colleagues, the county and district councils and Gloucestershire First in sending the Minister a letter of support for the scheme. It was our intention to have the project included in the national trunk road programme, and more specifically in the targeted programme for improvements. Our aim was hampered, because all transport investment is subject to regional prioritisation. The A417 needed support from others in our region. The vast south-west region has produced its initial transport spending list, and the implementation plan for transport is part of the regional spatial strategy, as the Minister knows. The spending list includes our scheme, but only under its third most important priorities—projects after 2016. Most schemes that are not in the programme will see no further work, even in terms of planning, for the next five years. Even the Highways Agency would be uncomfortable with that decision.
The Government office for the south-west and the Highways Agency appear to acknowledge that the plans may not have recognised important road schemes on the periphery of the region, and also on the periphery of three other regions. I am sure that the Minister appreciates the area’s vast geography, but it is worth noting that Chipping Campden, a pretty market town in the north of my constituency, is closer to the Scottish border than it is to Land’s End at the end of the south-west region. That is the difficulty with making decisions in such a large region.
On the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean, in a largely sea-locked region, road links are crucial to regeneration and economic prosperity. Although the Highways Agency is sympathetic to our plight, the prioritisation process is new, and many admit that it needs further development and refinement. The South West regional assembly has not recognised the vital link that the road provides for my constituents, the rest of Gloucestershire, the south-west region, and the regions of the south-east, west midlands and Wales, which adjoin my constituency and those of my hon. Friends the Members for Tewkesbury and for Forest of Dean. I am concerned that the road’s poor safety record and the fatalities along it will grow as car numbers rise inexorably and the road quality deteriorates.
How else might we proceed? If the project is not accorded the national prominence that it deserves, I hope that it will be considered under the new study pool scheme. The Highways Agency is working on a review of the A417, which it aims to deliver to the South West regional assembly by about the end of the financial year. If we fail to press the regional assembly and fail to secure a place for the last missing link within that study pool, the project may be dead for at least 10 years. In order to improve and protect lives and build prosperity for Gloucestershire and the rest of the south-west, I urge everyone present to help me to add pressure to secure a better road.
Those parts of the A417/419 with concrete road surfaces are incredibly noisy, and they blight villages along the route. Following an earlier Government pledge to resurface 13 major road surfaces in that category, a letter dated 9 April 2003 from the then chief executive of the Highways Agency, Mr. Tim Matthews, stated:
“The results of the noise survey showed the current noise levels on the A417/19 are 5 decibels greater than predicted at the time of the Public Inquiry and”—
“this stretch of the concrete road has therefore been included in the first phase of the concrete stretches to be resurfaced between 2004-2005 and 2006-07.”
Despite that assurance, however, in answer to my parliamentary question of 28 November 2005, the Minister said:
“Following detailed scrutiny of departmental and the Highways Agency’s budgets”—
we all know what is coming—
“Ministers agreed that the resurfacing of roads ahead of a maintenance need, for noise alleviation reasons, would not be allocated funding...While the Highways Agency will continue to consider remedial measures, these will have to take their turn in the regional priorities for trunk road improvement schemes. The A417/A419 will be re-surfaced when maintenance need dictates and, if this is during the life of the DBFO contract, then the DBFO company will carry out the work and be responsible for the costs.”—[Official Report, 28 November 2005; Vol. 440, c. 133-134W.]
Why that monumental change of heart? The Government’s decision is particularly severe, because the road was the first PFI road to be built in the country. One might expect 20 years of life for the concrete surface before it requires routine maintenance. Meanwhile, the lives of my constituents in those villages continue to be blighted.
I have taken up more than enough of the Minister’s time. I am delighted to see him here, and I hope that he will have some good news for my constituents.
I thank the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) for raising this important issue, and for his diligent and unflagging campaigning for the scheme. I thank also his colleagues, the hon. Members for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) and for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper), for their interest.
The Government and I recognise the importance of improving this key strategic route. Indeed, that is why bypasses have been provided for Latton, Cirencester and Brockworth; there has been an online improvement between Stratton and Nettleton; the Brockworth bypass, at the northern end of the route, has provided a new junction with the M5; and further major improvements are under way at the southern end of the route.
The hon. Member for Cotswold specifically referred to the Blunsdon improvement scheme in an intervention in an Adjournment debate about the missing link six years ago, and I am pleased to say that work to construct that long-awaited bypass north of Swindon started last month. I do not know whether it is any consolation to him that such projects start six years after he makes an intervention, but at least he knows that his words were taken seriously.
Taken together with the Commonhead junction improvement, which is due to open to traffic next year, this will leave only the missing link—the hon. Gentleman’s phrase, which I am happy to use—on the A417 near Gloucester requiring improvement to complete the upgrade of the entire route.
The reasons why the last section remains to be comprehensively improved after so many years are clear. Traffic from Gloucester has to negotiate a rise of more than 600 ft from the Vale of Gloucester to the top of the Cotswold escarpment. Topography is not the only challenge for road builders there, however. The missing link is located within the Cotswold area of outstanding national beauty, close to sites of special scientific interest, scheduled monuments of national importance and land owned by the National Trust.
The Highways Agency has reviewed opportunities over the years to carry out localised improvements wherever possible to address safety and congestion along that length of road, as the hon. Gentleman acknowledged. The work at Nettleton Bottom, carried out in 2000, provided a right-turn lane for the Golden Hart public house. Combined with a 40 mph speed restriction throughout the steep gradients in and out of Nettleton Bottom, it has reduced accidents by about 50 per cent.
The Birdlip junction has been progressively improved over the past decade to make it safer, and at the Air Balloon roundabout, two lanes have been added uphill near the junction to improve traffic circulation and increase capacity. The Highways Agency is considering how to improve journey time reliability by way of further, smaller-scale improvements at the Cowley roundabout, Birdlip bypass, Birdlip hill and Crickley hill, alongside the possibility of further work at Nettleton Bottom and the Air Balloon roundabout. However, the difficulty is that substantial environmental constraints and the steepness of the topography, in combination with high traffic flow, conspire to make typical localised improvements that would be achievable elsewhere either environmentally unacceptable, uneconomical or capable of providing only short-term relief.
I know that the hon. Gentleman is a staunch supporter of a major scheme that would comprehensively address the shortcomings of the missing link, and that he has followed every twist and turn in recent years as possible solutions have been considered. He has made a strong case today on congestion, the strategic importance of the scheme and safety, and I acknowledge it entirely. He suggested that the Highways Agency is uncomfortable with the existing situation, and I have no hesitation in confirming that both it and the Government are uncomfortable. We would like very much to see major improvements, but in recognition of the exceptional environmental sensitivity of the scheme, we instructed the Highways Agency in 2001 to commission a study examining the environmental aspects of plans to improve the missing link. As the hon. Gentleman said, two surface options and one tunnel option were identified. Although there was considerable support for a tunnel, including initially from him, we had to reject the idea because of its high cost and poor value for money. It would have been effectively undeliverable, and I believe that he now accepts that it was not a realistic option.
The favoured surface option was further refined, in an iterative process of development, impact assessment and extensive consultation, to the present scheme, in 2004. For the first time, importantly, the Highways Agency had a major scheme design, and the Countryside Agency, the Environment Agency, English Nature and English Heritage were all content to see it proceed to the next stage: entry into the targeted programme of improvements.
In my experience, it was probably the first time in national history that anyone had managed to get those four agencies to agree on such a sensitive matter, so that boded well, but that was before the Government asked the south-west region for its advice on transport priorities in 2005. It is important for us to ask regions for their advice, as Ministers in Westminster are often not the best judges of which are the most important schemes to go ahead.
The advice that we received in January was that the Cowley to Brockworth bypass improvement should be included in the longer-term category, outside the 10-year programme to 2016. On the positive side, the region recognised the need for an improvement of the missing link and requested that the Highways Agency examine whether there was any possibility of a lower-cost solution than the present scheme with its high-cost estimate of £150 million. We announced our response to the south-west region in July, accepting its advice on the prioritisation of the scheme. We wanted, wherever possible, to stick as closely as possible to advice from the regions.
The challenge is now to identify an improvement solution that is affordable to the region, environmentally acceptable and deliverable. It will be difficult; were it not, the missing link would have been delivered a long time ago. The next step is for the Highways Agency to commission a thorough review of the major scheme design and the possible smaller-scale improvements to which I referred. That work will not be constrained by what has already been considered, and the agency will adopt a holistic approach to ensure that all options are thoroughly explored. We will, of course, wish to engage our stakeholders in the work once the review has been completed. The agency will then extend invitations to key stakeholders to attend a structured value management workshop, which will be arranged for early next year. The results of the work will be made available to the South West regional assembly and it will then be for the region to consider recommending that we reprioritise any more affordable scheme that may have been identified when it is next asked for advice on its transport priorities.
One of the most important factors in the debate is that it is difficult for a region to consider problems at its periphery. I have come across that difficulty in the regional spatial strategy and in planning issues. It applies particularly when a certain programme will benefit that region only partly and another more. The roads in question are part of the national jigsaw, covering four regions. The scheme therefore needs national input. I hope that, through his Department, the Minister will be able to bring a national perspective to the problem.
I shall be honest with the hon. Gentleman: he makes a good point. The regional funding allocation process, which we have gone through this year for the first time, was an important stepping stone towards devolving decision making to local people and getting their advice. However, it was the first time that we had tried it, and it was difficult to get it right first time. Although by and large the regions did an exceedingly good job, I acknowledge that there were problems, some of which related to schemes on the edge of regions that might not seem of such central importance to the region. Sometimes a scheme might be located in one region but its importance might be to another, so it is not given priority.
We have made it clear that, considering that this was the first time we had undertaken the regional funding allocation process, we shall ask the regions to re-examine their priorities some time within the next two years. In that time, we in the Department will examine the process, including such issues as the edge factor to which the hon. Gentleman referred, to see whether we can improve it and make decision making easier.
I have a bit of a deal to offer the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Members for Tewkesbury and for Forest of Dean. I have acknowledged the importance of the scheme in question, and I can see why the hon. Gentleman believes it has national as well as regional importance. The problem might have been my fault, because we divided schemes into the regional and the national before starting the process. Some schemes were in a grey area, and somebody had to decide whether they were national or regional. Two schemes in the west country were put to me as possibilities for being put in the national pot: the M5, which was originally a regional scheme, and the missing link. The M5 was clearly a national scheme, so I put it in the national pot, but I took the view that the missing link was a regional scheme. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman is right that I got that wrong, and it is something on which I must reflect.
The deal that I wish to offer is as follows: I shall press the Highways Agency to come up with alternatives, try to lower the costs and find the best value-for-money scheme to deal with the problem. I shall also examine the regional funding allocation process for such schemes and whether we can make it better. In two years’ time I shall ask the regions to reprioritise. That is my part of the deal. I ask the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Members for Tewkesbury and for Forest of Dean, irrespective of their views on regional prioritisation and the importance of regional government, to work in the region to make the case for the scheme so that we can push from both ends: winning the case locally by convincing the region that it should make the scheme a higher priority, while I work from my end to find ways to facilitate it. If we do that together, perhaps we can find some way to carry it out before 2016. I hope that that gives the hon. Gentlemen some comfort.
I wish briefly to address the matter of concrete road surfaces, which the hon. Member for Cotswold raised. I understand his concern entirely. It must have been a great disappointment to people throughout the country when we had to overturn our original decision to replace concrete road surfaces quickly, but it is simply a matter of money. If I were to spend money on replacing concrete road surfaces ahead of maintenance need, I could not carry out schemes such as the one that he is asking for. That is a conflict for him to consider: if money is going into taking up concrete roads, I cannot do the vital bypass and road improvement schemes that I am being pressed for. We have decided to replace concrete roads with low-noise surfaces when they require maintenance. In the meantime we might be able to consider other noise mitigation measures for the stretch of road in question. I am happy to have the Highways Agency review the situation and examine whether measures can be taken.
I hope that, with those reassurances, the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for not promising that we shall go ahead with his new road.
Sitting suspended until half-past Two o’clock.