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Proposed Poole Bridge

Volume 506: debated on Wednesday 3 March 2010

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

It is my privilege to introduce this debate. I have the privilege of representing the borough of Poole—or, at least, two thirds of it, as a third is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke). Poole is a successful and vibrant place, but it does not always have the infrastructure that it deserves on the basis of its growth over the last decade.

I have always been aware of certain problems with infrastructure in the borough. My constituency is divided, in that Hamworthy is virtually an island, linked to the hon. Lady’s constituency in Upton, and the rest of the borough is separated by water, linked by a lifting bridge that was built in 1926 which does a reasonable job for most of the year. As the port of Poole is in Hamworthy—the port is the second or third in the south-west—an awful lot of traffic has to go over that small bridge through the borough or, indeed, up the Blandford road through Upton in the adjoining constituency.

Through a number of schemes over the years, the local authority—a good one, with good officers and good members—has tried to improve the borough’s infrastructure, improve communication with the port and take advantage of the fact that it a beautiful place. A great deal of land is under-used, next to water, and it could become an area for development.

When I was first elected, there was a proposal in the national road scheme for a bridge over the A350. It was to be quite an expensive project, and it did not survive the first cull of projects by the new Government. That left Poole with the problem of what to do. Two or three years after that, the council produced a new proposal for a second lifting bridge, called the twin sails project, which would link Hamworthy with West Quay road and allow a large redevelopment of parts of the south of Hamworthy, where there was an old power station site, providing a tremendous opportunity for waterside development.

The proposal would not be a complete answer to the transport problems, but it would certainly help my constituents in Hamworthy, because the 1926 lifting bridge takes substantial maintenance. It is sometimes closed in the summer months for two or three weeks and my constituents in Hamworthy spend a considerable time driving through the constituency of the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole in order to get to the main part of the borough. A journey that should be five minutes can sometimes be a journey of half an hour, which is greatly to the disadvantage of my constituents.

The borough produced a lifting bridge scheme and the Government’s initial reaction was that they were not going to pay for it, as it should be a private finance initiative. The project was delayed while the council, under the leadership of Brian Clements and Jim Brooks, the then chief executive, looked into the PFI prospects, but decided that it would not be possible.

There was a prospect of quite substantial private sector funding for the development, so we put in a bid to the Department for Transport for a grant. That was progressed, and in one of the bid procedures the Government said that they were willing to put £14.14 million into the scheme. The entire project will cost about £37 million and the balance of the funds will come from the development of housing, businesses and other sites in lower Hamworthy. The design is exciting. It is to be a twin sails lifting bridge, and we have now gone through all the permissions and agreements. Twelve months ago, when early delivery of the scheme was looking a little difficult in the prevailing economic circumstances, the council took the brave decision to secure a £10 million loan from the regional infrastructure fund for that priority project.

By the end of November 2009, the council put itself in the position of advising the Department for Transport that the scheme had been tendered and that procurement could commence immediately, subject to the approval of the grant. All the signs from the Department for Transport were positive. All the way through the project, the signs from the Government office for the south-west were also positive, and the council arranged a special meeting in the first week of January in order to proceed with the project and the approvals.

We all know that the country’s economic situation has changed somewhat, and that there will be pressures on whoever is in government after the next general election. Nevertheless, we were a little disappointed that we did not get our permissions. The Department for Transport was considering its overall capital programme, and as I understand it, referred our project to the Treasury. That is where we have been stuck for a couple of months. Because tenders have come in, because all the permissions are in place and because works have already been scheduled, every bit of delay adds extra cost. Moreover, there comes a point at which, if the delay is too long, the viability of the project, the permissions and so forth starts to run out. It is therefore important for us to secure a decision as soon as possible.

There is no doubt that this is an exciting project which will create many new homes and jobs. The intention is to use the bridge as a focus for regeneration. It is expected to deliver more than 2,000 homes—including affordable housing—and 5,000 jobs, and to generate an estimated value of more than £600 million for the local economy. The £14 million grant—I should emphasise that that is the amount for which we bid originally, and that it is therefore well within the envelope—will generate a fair amount of VAT and other tax for the Treasury, as well as stamp duty. I can assure anyone from the Treasury who may be watching this debate that this project would constitute a big positive if permission were given and we could get on with it. The council has already invested some £8 million in local resources, and that, along with the funding plans, agreements and permissions, may be put at risk unless we can proceed with the project.

Poole is an ambitious town, whether under the Liberal Democrat administration of Brian Clements or the present Conservative administration of Brian Leverett. All our leaders are called Brian, incidentally. Everyone in local government really wants to get the town moving. They all want development, and the bridge would involve the redevelopment and regeneration of Lower Hamworthy. It presents a real opportunity for the borough, and would set it in the right direction for the next 10 years.

The local authority participated in the multi-area agreement, and was the first to submit a local investment plan to the Homes and Communities Agency. The plan refers specifically to the regeneration area. The local authority officers, being keen followers of Government policy, noted the speech made the other day by the Minister of State, Department for Transport, the right hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) on the Government’s policy on the future of urban transport, which is contained in a consultation paper. A meeting took place at 1 Whitehall Place, at which the Minister of State spoke. The Government’s strategy proposes the redirection of existing innovation funding and sustainable funding, as well as the top-slicing of existing regional funds. The Government’s overall message is “More value for your money, but probably less money.”

The twin sails project that we are promoting in Poole conforms with much of what the Minister spoke about the other day. The bridge will support the redevelopment of brownfield and under-utilised sites; it will help Poole to secure the new industries and jobs that are being promoted; it will join an isolated community with the town, creating new social, health, employment and education opportunities; homes and jobs created through the regeneration will have better access to public transport; and 50 per cent. fewer car-based journeys will be required. The bridge has been designed specifically to promote cycling and walking. There will be level access from the quayside and dedicated road space for cyclists, and an “art strip” to enhance the walking experience. The regeneration will open up new waterfront, and will include high-quality public realm including areas designed for walking. Everything that the authority is doing is consistent with what the Government have been pushing for over the years.

This project is exciting and vital for my constituents, but we find it a little frustrating that permission has not yet been given. I have talked to various Ministers in the Tea Room, in the corridors and behind the Speaker’s Chair whenever I have had the opportunity to do so, and have tried to impress on them the urgent need for a decision. I hope that the Minister will tell us that one is imminent. I cannot stress too strongly that the decision must be made soon, so that we can get on with this important project.

We know that there are still difficulties ahead for the British economy, and this project accords very well with an agenda for its recovery. A relatively small amount of public money is needed, supplemented by private money, in order to secure an investment of £600 million and transform part of my constituency, providing homes and jobs that we need and generating tax that the country needs. I hope that the Minister will be able at least to reassure us that the Department for Transport loves our scheme, and will do all that he can to persuade the Treasury to make a decision as a matter of urgency so that we can deliver for Poole a first-rate scheme for a first-rate borough and a first-rate local authority.

Let me begin by—according to tradition, but none the less genuinely—congratulating the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) on securing such a timely debate.

I was a Poole borough councillor between 1986 and 2003, so a large part of my political life has been spent discussing the need for a new Poole bridge. We are very proud in our town that Poole is a beautiful place, and we find that people tell us that again and again; but it is not so beautiful when the whole town comes to a standstill. Obviously, that is very harmful to the local economy, to people wanting to use our port and to the tourist trade. It is therefore important that we bring this long-standing debate to a conclusion.

My attention has been drawn to an article in our local paper, the Daily Echo, on 7 January 1998. I was mayor of Poole at the time, and the article says:

“Cllr Brooke, as First Citizen of Poole, was today (7 Jan 1998) the first person to sign a petition to the Government stressing the need for the new Harbour crossing.

Cllr Brooke added: ‘It is important for us to keep momentum going on the bridge campaign.’”

The idea for that petition came from a Conservative councillor, and it was presented to Parliament by the hon. Member for Poole. I mention that as it is important to stress the cross-party nature of this project. The reason for that broad support is that it is a very important project.

I cannot describe how excited I was when I visited the Department for Transport shortly after I was first elected as an MP in 2001 or 2002 and heard the announcement that we had obtained a grant of £14.14 million. After such a long period of trying to find a way forward—and of trying, basically, to unite our town—I was over the moon. There is widespread concern at present, however, because there is a fear that this could all come to a halt. The uncertainty itself is damaging, and we need a positive answer as soon as possible.

Over the years, the need for the bridge has been clearly demonstrated, so that cannot be in doubt. However, the project has changed direction from being primarily about transport to being a very important contribution to economic regeneration. That change was proposed, in part at least, by this Labour Government, which makes the project even more of a cross-party objective, and serves to highlight again that we are all working together on the same agenda. I should also stress once more that the reason for this cross-party support is that it is such an important project.

The Government’s agenda is to provide many more homes in the next 20 years, and it is important to appreciate that the regeneration area would provide 40 per cent. of Poole’s homes over the next 20 years as specified in the regional spatial strategy. If the project were not proceeded with, therefore, the pressure on the green belt in my constituency would be incredibly great. Furthermore, this location is where the homes should be; they should be within walking distance of the town centre. This is an excellent project, therefore, and we should also consider the business that will be created, and the water activities. This will be a major project for the whole of the south-west; it will be important not only for Poole’s economy, but for the economy of the entire south-west.

I agree with everything the hon. Lady says, and she has, of course, been a major campaigner for this project both as a councillor and a Member of Parliament. She made a very important point just now. There is a shortage of development land in Poole. We have green belt on one side, and the only way we will meet some of our housing targets is by building on existing homes, which is very unpopular—it is very unpopular when we tear down homes and build again. It is vital that we use this brownfield site for development, therefore, rather than build on the green belt or on existing homes.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and I would add one more point to it: we are also surrounded by heathland, so the constraints on building are very tight indeed. We have some of the finest dry heathland in the country—most of it is in my constituency. There is also the 400-metre rule, of course. In terms of both housing and regeneration, this site is absolutely vital, and the fact that it is brownfield—that it needs attention—adds to its importance. I wish to stress that the regeneration aspect is probably the most important in ensuring that we secure this grant. It is important to realise that this project has the wholehearted support of the entire business community and of 99.9999 per cent. of the residents—there are always some who might not like the design and other such things. The project has a very high level of support; all the council’s key partners are working together on it—everybody is pulling together.

The hon. Gentleman alluded to the fact that the transport aspect is important to me, and that is because of the situation in Blandford road. When the bridge is closed or when there is a lot of congestion in town because of the lifting of the bridge, the traffic turns left through a very narrow road that, for the most part, has Victorian-type houses along it—in other words, they are close to the road. The traffic goes along Blandford road, which runs up from the port, through Hamworthy and into Upton. I have yet another meeting with the county council on Friday, when I shall discuss with councillors and officers what we can do to try to improve the quality of life for people who live in Blandford road. Some of the houses are so close to the road that as the lorries thunder along the windows literally shake, and life becomes almost intolerable for people when any potholes appear. So this project is important for the quality of life of residents and for the future of the town.

In today’s economic climate, when my party very much agrees with the Government’s view on the importance of not closing investment down at this critical point, this important project should go ahead because it will sustain the economy in Poole and the south-west, and it will have even wider implications. It should be just the sort of project that we are looking for—one that will create jobs. We talk about the construction industry in our area, which is suffering greatly. The project would provide an immediate stimulus, and traditionally the construction industry has always led the way out of depression. This project, which would serve a large part of the country, would qualify in those terms alone. I hope that the Minister will take on board the urgent need to get this decision. I have seen so many delays over the years and I need to be able to go back to Poole feeling that we have got the project, that it is going to happen and that the next time we say it is going to be completed in such and such a year it will be completed.

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) on securing this debate on the Poole bridge major transport scheme, which is sometimes known as the Twin Sails bridge scheme. It is an inspiring and iconic scheme, and both he and the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) covered its progress. I recognise the assiduous campaigners that they have been on this issue and the hard work that they have done.

I recognise the need for there to be a crossing of this nature and for it to be iconic. I found it interesting to look through the history of Poole and to discover that there was a human settlement in the area well before the iron age. The area has been of critical importance as it has developed. Of course, the town’s name became very important, particularly in the 12th century, as Poole developed as a major port, prospering on the wool trade. Indeed, by the 18th century it had become one of the busiest ports in the world.

Things have changed, of course, as they do. I recognise exactly the description given of the beauty of the area—it is, of course, a major tourist site—and I can well remember going to visit as a schoolboy on holiday with my parents. I have been back since, which I shall mention shortly. Poole is the home of that highly respected and well-regarded institution, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, to which we owe so much for the work that it undertakes.

I am the first to recognise that the scheme’s journey has not been easy. It was given provisional approval by the Government back in December 2001 with a funding cap of £14.14 million from the Department for Transport. The approval was reaffirmed in February 2007 through the conditional approval process and now Poole, the promoting authority, is seeking the final full funding approval from the DFT with a capital contribution, still, of £14.14 million.

Poole has certainly seen a massive transformation in recent years, leading it to become one of the most desirable places to live. When people hear of Poole, they often think, for example, of the sand dunes at Sandbanks, which is supposedly the fourth most expensive place in the world to live. However, I am equally the first to recognise that that snapshot view disguises the fact that Poole also has pockets of deprivation and areas that are ready for regeneration.

The hon. Member for Poole mentioned a list of attributes of the scheme—using brownfield sites, bringing together isolated communities, and providing homes, jobs and better access to public transport, as well as walking and cycling opportunities—and I recognise many of those important considerations, which fall within our sustainable transport programme. The Poole bridge regeneration initiative core scheme seeks to boost regeneration opportunities by providing a new bridge over the Back Water channel. That bridge, along with associated roads, cycling and pedestrian links, will improve the access between Poole and the community of Hamworthy.

Interestingly, Hamworthy has been critical in the development of what we now know as Poole. It was one of the first areas to be settled in the iron age, and the first railway station was opened there in 1847. It has clearly been important for transport purposes. It is not only the two hon. Members who have been at the forefront of the campaign; the schoolchildren of Hamworthy, too, were wading through the Transport and Works Act documents when I was looking through the various records.

I had a very pleasant visit to Poole harbour last year to look at some of the issues. I met many of the hospitable and friendly staff. I also saw some of the things that have been identified today, such as the limitations of the existing crossing—the lifting bridge. I know and recognise some of the issues that arise from such a provision and, indeed, from the narrow roads that lead up it.

The new bridge would undoubtedly help to improve the links, opening up 32 hectares of land for a mix of housing and employment uses. I commend the vision of Poole and its determination to ensure that the opportunity is secured. With such an opportunity, it is not unreasonable for hon. Members to question why the Department for Transport has not given the final funding approval. I shall explain why shortly, but before I do I want to set out the funding arrangements and how the Department has actively encouraged investment decisions in support of schemes such as that in Poole.

As part of the 2006 regional funding allocation advice, the south-west region approached the Department for Transport and sought approval to set up a regional infrastructure fund. That fund is intended to support the delivery of key infrastructure that would release land for housing and employment opportunities—indeed, some 32 hectares have been identified in this case. The region asked for and received £30 million from the Department for that fund. Since 2009, the Department has increased that figure to £50 million for the regional development agency to determine where priorities would best be served. Hon. Members will recognise that that whole mechanism allows priorities to be identified, against many competing claims, for schemes throughout a region. I have always strongly believed that those who are closer to the areas to which demands relate are better placed to prioritise the requirements of a particular area.

As a result of the innovative approach of the region and the Department, Poole will be the first recipient in the south-west of a sizeable regional infrastructure fund loan from the Government of £9.95 million, which the hon. Member for Poole has mentioned. That loan will bridge the funding gap from the current shortfall in section 106 developer contributions, thereby recognising the situation regarding progress in the current economic situation. As a result, housing and employment opportunities can be created that might otherwise have been temporarily or permanently stalled. The proposed direct grant of more than £14 million, in addition to the loan of nearly £10 million, conveys a clear message of support from the Department for Transport for the aspirations of Poole and its people, businesses and local leaders.

I am conscious that Poole wants to move ahead with its regeneration plans as soon as possible and that it wants to secure an announcement about full funding approval. If Poole had submitted its business case in September 2009, as stated in the original advice to the Department for Transport in March 2009, we would not be having this debate. The Department has been enormously successful in encouraging local authorities and funding major transport schemes. All that has translated into on-the-ground delivery that is making a real difference to people’s lives. With that success comes the need for close financial management to ensure that the overall transport programme remains affordable and well prioritised. I am sure that hon. Members would not disagree with that requirement. Therefore, we, along with Treasury colleagues, are examining expenditure for 2010-11. The Poole bridge scheme will be covered by that financial and programme management process, and we hope to make an announcement about it soon after those discussions have concluded.

As I said, the hon. Gentleman has been an assiduous campaigner on the Poole scheme, and he has taken every opportunity to be in constant contact with officials and to meet and lobby Ministers on the scheme.

I thank the Minister for his comments, and I appreciate that he has indicated that everything is under consideration, but can he give any indication as to the time scale? That would be more helpful than if we were simply to go away saying, “It is still being considered.”

It will be very soon. The hon. Lady will appreciate that we must carefully manage the transport programme and establish the current situation in relation to demands in this difficult economic cycle. However, hon. Members made it clear that we should not cut capital investment now, because that would undermine economic recovery. I am delighted by that cross-party agreement.

I understand that the Minister is being as helpful as possible, given the need for Treasury approval for the scheme. In 2001, we asked for £14.14 million, and even eight or nine years later we are still within that budget. However, if a decision is not made soon, it will become much more difficult to stay within the costs that we set out then, because of tender prices and rescheduling works. We in Poole can stay within our budgets if we get the money on time, but problems will arise if we do not.

The hon. Gentleman raises a valid point, and it is a problem that I recognise. A cap is usually put in place once an agreement is reached, and in December 2001 it was set at £14.14 million. That remains the position, and although I would not rule out discussing the matter with officials, the outcome would depend on the talks that we have. However, I also recognise the determination of the Poole authority to expect only the £14.14 million from the Department, even though there have been changes in the total cost of the scheme.

Departmental officials have been in regular contact with representatives from Poole. Frequent updates have been provided, and the people involved should be aware of the current position. Just last week, Poole’s chief executive received a written update on the current position of the scheme, and numerous calls have been made and e-mails sent over the past two months. That demonstrates again that the Department has been consistently open on this issue, and that it has shared with Poole all the information in its possession. We recognise the importance of the matter, to the extent that I believe that some of my officials might as well have Poole council on speed dial.

I represent the constituency immediately to the north of the one represented by the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke). I welcome what appears to be the Government nudging closer to a decision on Poole harbour bridge, but I am concerned about what will happen to other local infrastructure, especially given the regeneration that is likely to take place.

Some 25 miles of the A350 runs through my constituency, and I am told by Dorset county council that the road has been due for upgrading since 1934. That is on the council’s list of priorities. If the Minister were to approve the Poole bridge scheme, would he then be minded to approve the improvements to the A350?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his skill in introducing to the debate a scheme that is clearly important to his constituents, and perhaps further afield. I cannot be held responsible for everything that has happened since 1934, or even during the lifetime of this Government, but I spoke about the regional funding allocations. I believe—

Order. I hesitate to interrupt the Minister, but this Adjournment debate has been called by the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms). It is very specifically about a bridge—although I appreciate the comments made by the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter), and the importance of the contribution that the Minister is making.

Thank you for your guidance, Madam Deputy Speaker.

It is important that major, significant infrastructure projects such as the Poole bridge are considered by local people and leaders as part of the process on regional funding allocations. I have no doubt that that is the way in which the hon. Member for North Dorset should press his case.

Let me conclude by reassuring hon. Members that the Department is clearly committed to the scheme in Poole. We will progress the scheme as quickly as we can. It is important that the funding arrangements are in place and that we can deliver the scheme as soon as possible but, as I am sure all hon. Members recognise, we must proceed in conjunction with our Treasury colleagues. The work continues, and I hope that we will be able to write to the Poole authorities shortly.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.