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House of Commons Hansard
Norwich Northern Distributor Road
19 November 2009
Volume 501

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Steve McCabe.)

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Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to speak in this end-of-day Adjournment debate in this week of all weeks in the calendar, when we continue to debate the Gracious Speech, which has set out Government plans for the remainder of the Parliament. I am a new MP, although as of yesterday, I am pleased to note, no longer the newest in the House, on which title I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow, North-East (Mr. Bain). I am delighted to have succeeded in securing a debate on a subject that is close to my heart and exceedingly important to my constituents in Norwich, North.

I said in my maiden speech to the House that I am proud of Norwich, North, with its one foot in an historic city and its other in beautiful Broadland. The subject of this debate is a defining characteristic of my constituency: the particular transport needs of those who live on the boundary between a vibrant urban economy and a rural region. I am calling for the Norwich northern distributor road because it will benefit my constituents. It holds the key to a wider transport strategy that has the potential to transform travel choices in Norwich and Norfolk. In my constituency, both local residents and firms need this critical piece of infrastructure to get around and conduct their business. It is vital for those of us who live there, but it would also have a wide-ranging and significant strategic impact on the region.

I shall cover the economic case for the scheme, the people’s case for it and the transport choice benefits that it will bring, and the local, regional and national significance of the proposed road. I will finish by noting how straightforward it could be for the Minister to respond in the positive. I note that in his capacity as MP for Ipswich, he might find it hard to give us in his rival city anything that I am asking for, but perhaps he might like to think of all the Ipswich Town fans who could get in and out of Carrow Road even quicker were the road to be built.

I wrote to the Minister’s boss in late October on the subject of this debate, stating that the road was fundamental to Norwich’s economic prosperity. Local and regional businesses, including the chamber of commerce, the Federation of Small Businesses and the Institute of Directors, believe that

“the road is vital for jobs and prosperity in the north and east of Norwich, and a large part of north Norfolk... including Norwich International Airport.”

As part of the comprehensive work done on the proposal by Norfolk county council and others, a survey of businesses has shown that 78 per cent. of respondents believe that the road will have a positive impact on their business. Anecdotally, a business said in the same survey:

“Transport is a problem. It is almost easier to get to London than north Norwich.”

Another said:

“People from outside Norfolk view us as being in a backwater that they can’t get to without spending hours in traffic jams.”

I do not know whether that is true in the Minister’s view from Ipswich. Perhaps those colleagues who visited Norwich in July, who have sadly left their places, can bear it out from personal experience.

I jest on that point, but the serious impact of not having the road could be, as a strong selection of companies said in the survey, that a lack of adequate transport infrastructure causes them to consider relocation. Considering that 35,000 additional jobs are forecast in the wider Norwich area, that testimony from businesses on how they intend to grow and bring us out of recession is not to be ignored.

I spoke in my maiden speech about the fascinating economy of Norwich, Norfolk and the region. Norwich has the largest cluster of financial services businesses in the eastern region and is a major centre for creative industries, research, engineering and other start-ups. The northern distributor road will potentially provide vital infrastructure to key locations for such growth, including Norwich International airport and the surrounding industrial estates in my constituency, where many people are employed in engineering; Thorpe St. Andrew and the cluster of business parks in the area, including the Broadland business park, which backs on to the Postwick hub, the eastern starting point for the road; and the Norwich research park and Norfolk and Norwich university hospital, on the south side of the city. I particularly regret that the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) is not present to hear the debate, because the road has the same significance for his half of our fine city, including on local employment.

Without doubt, Norwich is a hub for growth in the eastern region. The Greater Norwich area provides one third of the county’s jobs and is the largest employment economy in the region. Norwich is home to more than 50 national and regional business headquarters, and there is more than £1 billion of investment in our city. It needs better transport infrastructure, befitting its economic achievements and its bright future.

Norwich is not just a place to work, however, but a great place to live: it is one of the top 10 shopping locations in the UK, and has a jewel of a historic centre with beautiful countryside just outside and plenty of pleasant places to bring up a family in between. The nature of the county of Norfolk makes Norwich a hub for living and working, but people are being held back by the transport available. We need better transport for a reasonable quality of life. I break it to the House that living and working in Norwich or Norfolk requires access to a car, and motorists need relief from crawling out of their own driveways at l0 mph because of jam-packed traffic throughout northern Norwich.

There are more cars in Norwich, North than the roads can take. I am grateful to the Minister’s Department for telling me that the number of vehicles registered for personal and business use in my constituency has risen by 25 per cent.—nearly 12,000 cars—in the past 10 years. Furthermore, patterns of driving are changing. There are no longer just morning and evening peaks, but potentially a picture of congestion throughout the day as people’s working and living patterns change in the 21st century.

My speech, however, is not an argument for giving gas-guzzlers what they want. By giving the go-ahead to the plan, the Minister can improve transport choices in many ways. The plan proposed is for a distributor road, not a bypass, and an estimated 11,000 vehicles a day could be guided out from inside the inner ring road by 2012—the year when work on the road could and should start. Removing cars would open up the city centre and much of my constituency, including the many employment sites to which I have already referred, for pedestrians and cyclists. I count myself as a motorist, a cyclist, a pedestrian and a user of public transport, and I would welcome such choices for myself and my constituents, as I am sure the Minister would.

The scheme has the potential to improve public transport. For many people in Norwich and Norfolk buses are necessary, but do not yet serve the areas needed or at an affordable price, especially for families. The road would create more space in the city centre and the outskirts and, I believe, stands to improve transport choices both private and public. This kind of integrated package—private, public and green—should represent the future of road-building, and is wanted and needed by people in Norwich. I challenge the Minister to accept the plan today.

I should also issue a caution to the Minister. If the Government want to put 33,000 additional dwellings in the area, including some in an eco-town in nearby Rackheath, he needs to give the road serious consideration. People do need new houses. Average house prices in my constituency have risen by 186 per cent. in 10 years and now cost more than 10 times the average salary. Many young families in my constituency talk about being unable to find a suitable property in which to live, and I want to see those people able to carry on living in Norwich. The idea, however, of 33,000 new homes dumped on us from on high without enough infrastructure to support them is not visionary but nightmarish.

The road scheme stands up in its own right: it is vital for jobs, prosperity and people’s everyday lives. It would be crucial in opening up a range of transport choices—public, private and green—and it also has strategic significance and wide support. Locally, it has cross-party, multi-council support through the Greater Norwich development partnership, composed of Norwich city council, Broadland district council, South Norfolk district council and Norfolk county council.

Regionally, the plan has wide support and is already a regional priority through inclusion in the eastern region funding allocation, as a priority 1A scheme for construction in 2011-12 to 2015-16, which means that £79.7 million of the required funding is already allocated, subject only to programme entry. Furthermore, the county council has committed to funding any remaining shortfall. Locally and regionally, therefore, we are ready to go, if the Minister will give us a firm decision today on programme entry.

Nationally, the scheme would improve access to Norfolk from the national trunk road network, via the A47 and the A11. Of course, it would be even better if I could come away today with a decision on the A11 to boot, but I suspect that I, and my Norfolk colleagues, might come back for that another time. The road scheme should be a straightforward decision for the Government. The business case has been in for over a year and the funding has been earmarked regionally. The plan represents good value for money in accordance with the guidelines from the Minister’s Department. The scheme meets the criteria laid down by the Minister’s Department for programme entry, and local councils have done the further work required by the Department.

To sum up, failing to give a clear decision on the project jeopardises the value of the extensive cross-party and multi-council work done to date. It ignores the local, regional and national need for the road to be built, and refuses to acknowledge the imperative for infrastructure to support growth—growth that the Government demand for our region from on high. Failing to give a clear decision also turns a blind eye to the many public, private and green transport choices that could be opened up, and kicks people in the teeth for wanting to get around their own city and county. Perhaps worst of all, in this, the deepest and longest recession since records began, dithering further on the project drags down those businesses and job creators who stand ready to pull us out. Will the Minister give us a firm decision today on programme entry for the Norwich northern distributor road?

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I congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Chloe Smith) on securing this debate on the proposed Norwich northern distributor route. She is one of the newer Members of the House and, if I am not mistaken, this is the first Adjournment debate that she has secured since entering Parliament in July. However, I might caution her not to mix politics and football, which can be unwise. I might also be tempted to observe that her offer of faster transit for Ipswich Town fans to Carrow Road will be useful only when both teams are in the same division again.

Good transport is fundamental to building thriving and prosperous communities. The step change in local transport funding that we have made over the past 10 years emphasises the Government’s commitment to delivering sustained improvements to this country’s transport infrastructure and thereby providing real improvements to people’s daily lives. Since 2000-01, we have more than doubled the funding to local authorities for transport in every region, excluding London, to more than £1.345 billion this financial year. Funding for local transport in the eastern region, in which we too have an interest, Mr. Deputy Speaker, has risen from £57 million in 2000-01 to £163 million in 2009-10, an increase of 186 per cent. Norfolk alone is benefiting from more than £30 million for small-scale integrated transport block-funded schemes and highways maintenance this financial year.

Norfolk is served by six major roads from the west and south: the A47, A11 and A12, for which the Highways Agency is mainly responsible, and the A10, A17 and A140, which are the responsibility of Norfolk county council. In recent years, there have been several improvements to the roads in Norfolk, such as the dualling of the Attleborough bypass, which removed a major congestion point on the A11 and significantly reduced delays along the route. A number of local transport schemes in Norfolk have also contributed to improved access to the wider strategic network. I am also aware that a public inquiry into the statutory orders for the A11 Fiveways-to-Thetford scheme is due to commence later this month. Subject to completion of the necessary statutory requirements, the scheme, which is being progressed by the Highways Agency, would mean the last remaining section of single carriageway on the strategic M11/A11 route to Norwich being upgraded.

It is important that we ensure that our funding for new transport infrastructure is focused on schemes that will most effectively address the needs and objectives of each region. That is why, since 2005, we have given regions in England a say in decision making about transport schemes that affect them regionally and locally, through the regional funding allocation process. In the east of England, as in other regions, the regional transport board, its local authority partners and other key interests have been able to consider their transport programmes together, against the region’s high-level objectives, and develop a funding programme that offers the best overall contribution to meeting those objectives. Those bodies have worked together to identify which of the many proposals before them should go forward and in what time scales.

The first round of the regional funding allocation advice, which was received from the eastern region in 2006, advised that the proposed Norwich northern distributor road—known to many as the NNDR—was a priority for funding. Following a refresh of the regional funding allocation earlier this year, the region reaffirmed that the scheme remained a priority for funding. We responded to the advice in July this year.

Before I explain the issues surrounding our assessment to date of the NNDR scheme, it might be worth highlighting the current situation regarding the related community infrastructure fund scheme for Postwick hub, which is situated on the outskirts of Norwich. After Norfolk county council submitted a business case for CIF funding to the Government in October 2008, we and the Department for Communities and Local Government jointly announced in March this year that we were minded to accept funding for a number of community infrastructure schemes, including the Postwick hub interchange scheme. Community infrastructure funding is a dual-key capital fund between my Department and DCLG that provides the necessary financial support for small and medium-scale transport schemes to unlock housing sites and housing growth potential in growth areas, including that part of Norfolk.

Our March announcement explained that although the Government were minded to provide funding of £21 million towards the Postwick hub interchange scheme, we would not be able to release the funds until our assessment of the proposed Norwich northern distributor road was completed. The Postwick scheme consists of improvements to the junction at Postwick that would enable an increase in the capacity of the associated park and ride site and unlock the potential for 600 home sites and a possible 1,000 more at a later date.

The hon. Lady will recognise that Norfolk county council designed the Postwick hub scheme around the NNDR, and that the junction upgrade would therefore provide a key junction linking the proposed NNDR with the A47 trunk road. I assure her that if the outcome of our assessment of NNDR is positive, subject to the successful completion of the necessary statutory orders required, funding for the Postwick scheme could be released early next year, allowing Norfolk to commence works.

As for where we are with our assessment of the Norwich northern distributor route, Norfolk submitted a major scheme business case to my Department in July 2008. The proposed scheme consists predominantly of a dual carriageway road approximately 20 km long that would form a new road around the north and east of Norwich. The scheme, including Postwick, is currently estimated at a cost of just over £127 million, and Norfolk is requesting a funding contribution from my Department of £79.7 million.

Although I am aware that key stakeholders in the Norfolk area, including the chamber of commerce, see the proposed scheme as part of a wider strategy for the Norwich area, including delivery of housing growth and facilitation of the broader economic aspirations for the Norwich area proposed by the Greater Norwich Development Partnership, we have not yet been in a position to approve the proposed scheme for entry to our programme of local major transport schemes.

Although I recognise that there are concerns that our assessment has taken longer than Norfolk envisaged, my officials have made good progress on a number of matters relating to the assessment of the business case, including understanding the interaction between the Postwick junction and the proposed NNDR scheme. However, before we can decide whether to grant the scheme programme entry, the Department must be completely satisfied that it meets our value for money and scheme appraisal criteria, considering the full range of scheme benefits and costs, including potential adverse environmental impacts. I note the hon. Lady’s point about the relief that the scheme could bring to the inner ring road by 2012. Wider redistribution of traffic is one of many issues that the Department’s assessment will need to consider carefully to enable us to understand the scheme’s wider impacts.

Our assessment of Norfolk’s bid for the scheme has focused very much on the traffic modelling, which has raised a number of queries requiring further work. One query was whether we could continue to assess the scheme using the existing traffic demand model that Norfolk used in support of the scheme bid, which unfortunately did not fully meet our current departmental requirements, or whether the council would be required to switch to a different and more up-to-date traffic model, delaying the assessment by an additional six months or more.

Conscious of the facts, we decided to undertake in the summer an urgent review of the modelling data and we informed Norfolk in September that we would accept the use of the existing modelling subject to a number of sensitivity tests to be undertaken to enable the Department better to understand the uncertainties associated with our current analysis and better to align this analysis with the Department’s guidance. This is a good example of how we have tried to minimise the additional work required. My officials have worked closely with Norfolk throughout this process in order for the tests to be completed as quickly as possible. We received the results from the tests earlier this week and are now considering them.

I fully understand the importance that the hon. Lady attaches to this scheme in supporting Norfolk county council’s wider strategy for the area, which includes proposed improvements to bus and cycle provision across Norwich. I also recognise the arguments that these proposals can be achieved only with the road capacity released by the NNDR. While I am unable to announce today a decision on programme entry for NNDR, I can assure you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that we are working hard to resolve all the outstanding issues and to complete our assessment. Depending on whether any further work is required, I hope to be able to come to a conclusion and make a decision by Christmas on whether or not to grant initial funding for the scheme.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.