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Volume 481: debated on Tuesday 21 October 2008

Plans for substantial highway improvements on the A46 between Newark and Widmerpool are well developed and being reviewed by the east midlands region in its assessment of funding priorities. The Department for Transport expects to receive the region’s advice early in 2009.

Let me welcome my hon. Friend to his new position, and immediately ask for his help in resolving a problem that applies to the whole of the east midlands. He recognises the problem; it is simply one of funding. The road scheme costs £370 million, and it is simply unreasonable to ask the regional pot to fund it. It is like keeping a whale in a bucket. Will he look again at this matter?

I thank my hon. Friend for his words of welcome. I am well aware that this has been a long saga. He will be well aware that the costs for the scheme have increased tremendously. He mentions £370 million, but he will find that the figure is between £370 million and £500 million, at some £437 million. We are looking at the possibilities. The Highways Agency is working closely with the region and the local authorities in the east midlands to see whether there is a possibility of phasing, and we are expecting that work to be completed shortly.

May I too welcome the Minister to his new responsibilities, and also ask for his help? Is he aware that the decision of one of his recent predecessors to make this a regional rather than a national priority has had the inevitable effect of causing indefinite delay to an important scheme on a dangerous road that is very important to the regional economy? If the Government are now serious in their stated intention of giving greater priority to capital expenditure in the course of reviving the economy, surely this is an obvious scheme to consider. It has already gone through years of preparation, has practically completed the planning process, and is ready to be started in a comparatively short time—in the next year or two, if the Government were to make the funds available.

I hear exactly what the right hon. and learned Gentleman is saying and I thank him for welcoming me to my post. There are many schemes that right hon. and hon. Members would describe as absolutely critical, for a whole host of very sound reasons. We took the decision, rightly, to bring together the decision-making processes on roads, economic development and housing at regional level so that there could be a better understanding and meshing of those requirements at regional level, where, as I am sure the right hon. and learned Gentleman will accept, the importance of schemes is best known. In terms of regional priorities and whether this scheme can proceed, let me add that the Highways Agency is working closely with the east midlands region to see what phasing of this scheme there could be, to make the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s dream—and the dream of my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping)—come true.

May I welcome the Minister to his post—and may I expose my dream to him as well? No wonder prices for this scheme are increasing disproportionately, because we have been talking about it since 1958, and nothing has been done. The fact remains that Newark is being strangled economically by this one piece of road that has not been dualled. We have good pieces of road running up to Lincoln and in the other direction down to Leicester. Unless something is done about this quickly and effectively, which it can be, Newark will continue not to fulfil its full economic promise. May I invite the Minister and/or the Secretary of State to come and visit, and to see exactly what are the effects on my constituency of this dangerous road, which is long overdue for improvement?

I am interested in the fact that this road scheme has been waiting since 1958—and I wonder why progress was not made under other Administrations. [Interruption.] Yes, the former Chancellor, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), may have had something to do with that. The safety issues are rightly recognised locally, by the region, by the Highways Agency and by us, but there must be an order of priority for schemes. It is necessary for that to be built into the whole programme for the allocation of funding, which over this period is tremendously higher both regionally and in terms of the strategic network of roads. We always take into account invitations to visit, although whether there can be a visit soon is another matter.