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A417 Traffic Improvement Scheme

Volume 474: debated on Monday 21 April 2008

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

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 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:

“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.”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 11 October 2006; Vol. 450, c. 102WH.]

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.

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

“the likelihood of this collision would have been reduced had this section been to the same standard as those on either side of it”.

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

“recorded over the 5 year period to October 2007, a 6 per cent. rise compared with 3 years ago”.

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

The Highways Agency goes on to say:

“The route is also vitally important to the regional economy in providing direct links to and between Swindon, Gloucester and Cheltenham, where there is significant development. It is therefore the most appropriate route for all traffic between these two centres”.

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.

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.

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.

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

“this constraint must be fully considered in any proposed scheme”.

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

“highly developed and has captured virtually all the available savings for a major improvement giving long term service, reliability and resilience.”

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:

“I have no hesitation in confirming that both it and the Government are uncomfortable.”

About the proposals that existed in 2004, he said:

“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”.—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 11 October 2006; Vol. 450, c. 100-01WH.]

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 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.

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 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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly valid point. However, I foresee a problem. If the 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.