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A5 to M1 Link

Volume 512: debated on Wednesday 30 June 2010

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

I am grateful to Mr Speaker for giving me the chance to raise with the Minister responsible for roads the vital need for the A5 to M1 link. When I made my maiden speech, on 2 July 2001, I stressed the urgent need for a bypass for Dunstable, Houghton Regis and the surrounding villages. I also stressed its importance to Leighton Buzzard as a business location. The need for a bypass in Dunstable is not new; indeed, the first mention of congestion in the town that I have been told about is in a 1924 newspaper article that talked about the traffic bottleneck in Dunstable. My predecessor, Sir David Madel, who was the Member for South West Bedfordshire for 31 years, from 1970 to 2001, also campaigned for a bypass for Dunstable throughout his time in Parliament.

Not long after my election, I presented another petition to the House, signed by 25,000 of my constituents—more than elected me in 2001—calling for the urgent need for a bypass to be addressed. I was therefore delighted when, in July 2003, the then Secretary of State for Transport—now the shadow Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling)—announced to the House that he was

“endorsing recommendations for improvements to some trunk roads of regional importance,”

one of which was

“a northern bypass for Dunstable”.—[Official Report, 9 July 2003; Vol. 408, c. 1177.]

I asked him when the Dunstable northern bypass would be built. In reply, he said:

“In the past five years, there have been long and detailed studies, but the time has now come when we need to get on and implement them, precisely to remove some of the inconvenience and congestion and to deliver the improved safety about which he is concerned.”—[Official Report, 9 July 2003; Vol. 408, c. 1195.]

I was therefore hugely disappointed when, at the end of the Parliament after which the then Secretary of State announced that the Dunstable northern bypass would be built, not a shovel had hit the ground.

It is a huge source of concern to me how long it takes for a new road to be built in this country. I understand that other European countries are able to build roads much more quickly. I understand that there is a much shorter delay between the announcement of a road being built and its completion in many of our competing neighbouring countries. One consequence of delay is that the cost escalates hugely, making even more demands on the public purse. The cost of the A5 to M1 link has virtually tripled since the first estimates back in 2003. I have spoken in the past of the near-Zimbabwean levels of inflation on major roads contracts. I understand that the Department insists on open book accounting, yet I cannot help believing that there must be cheaper ways for such roads to be built. I suggest that we need to take an urgent look at how genuine the competition is between road builders, to ensure that the Department and the taxpayer get real value for money in building new roads.

Sometimes I am tempted to think that the area that I represent has become, if not the land that time forgot, then the land that successive Governments have forgotten to build the necessary infrastructure in. In the north of Bedfordshire, the county town of Bedford seems to have all the bypasses that it needs. I had not even heard of the village of Ridgmont, to the north of my constituency, until I was told that it was to receive its own much- needed bypass. As I will demonstrate shortly, the need for a bypass to the north of Dunstable is overwhelming for the residents of Dunstable, Houghton Regis and the surrounding villages, but a bypass is also essential for Leighton Buzzard.

My hon. Friend mentioned the village of Ridgmont. The bypass there has been gratefully received. Ridgmont is a village, and there are other villages in my constituency that will benefit hugely from the A5 to M1 link. Those villages will suffer from a lack of connectivity if the road to which he has referred is not built. Does he agree that it is imperative that the road should be built, not just for his constituency, but for the whole of Bedfordshire?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s support. The road will also benefit major towns such as Aylesbury, in providing fast direct access to the national motorway network.

I do not want Ministers or officials at the Department for Transport to think for one moment that the Luton-Dunstable busway will provide the answers to the problems of congestion, retail decline and lack of business growth in Dunstable and Houghton Regis. It will not. The only hope to secure economic regeneration to provide much needed jobs for my constituents and to provide much needed local housing is for the A5 to M1 link to be built urgently.

The need for the A5 to M1 link can be demonstrated by many examples of life in Dunstable. Dunstable high street has 56 empty shops in it because of the length of time it takes for shoppers to get into and out of the town centre. Some reductions in business rates have been granted as a result, which obviously means a loss of revenue to the Exchequer. During recent times of economic growth, every other area of Bedfordshire increased its level of employment between 2001 and 2008, but in South Bedfordshire there was a loss of 1,850 jobs—overwhelmingly due to congestion. Those figures are taken from the annual business inquiry data provided by the Central Bedfordshire council.

Major employers have closed down and left the area over the years and have not been replaced by sufficient numbers of new employers to provide the jobs that my constituents need today. Many of my constituents are forced to travel out of the area to find work, thus making congestion even worse.

Congestion is bad both for travellers going north-south on the A5 through Dunstable as well as for travellers heading east-west on the A505 through Dunstable. One story from a local shopkeeper illustrates this well. A customer was travelling east on the A505 along West street, trying to get to a shop in the Quadrant shopping centre in the middle of Dunstable. He was stuck in traffic as so often happens; he rang the shop keeper who left his shop, crossed the middle of Dunstable, gave him the goods as he was stuck in traffic in his car. That customer then turned round in the road, and drove out of Dunstable never to come and shop in the town again. How can the shopkeepers of the town I am proud to represent make a living when they are faced with an infrastructure deficit as bad as that?

The economic benefits of building this road have been estimated by both the Highways Agency and the East of England to be very significant. Central Bedfordshire council, with its private sector developers, also intends to build the Woodside industrial estate connection road from the new junction 11A, which will not require Department for Transport funds.

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and I support everything he says. Does he accept that what he is suggesting will also bring enormous benefits to the town of Luton, especially when the bypass right across north Luton is built?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and I am grateful for the support from him and from Luton borough council on this matter.

This road will greatly ease congestion in Dunstable and lead to much lower pollution levels and a better quality of life for those who live and work in the town centre. Dunstable and Houghton Regis will once again become towns that people can easily get in and out of to do business, shop, see their friends and socialise. This will greatly help all the shops in the town, as well as attracting many new employers to the area and persuading existing employers to expand their operations locally.

The improvement in air quality in the town centre should be significant and GPs from my own practice in central Dunstable tell me that levels of asthma among children living near the heavily congested A5, which runs through the centre of Dunstable as the town’s high street, are much higher than for children who live further away.

It has been estimated by the Highways Agency that the total economic benefits are in the region of £684 million, against the cost of £135 million. The Highways Agency says that there will be £263 million-worth of economic benefits for business users and £302 million-worth of benefits for consumers, while a study commissioned by the East of England and carried out by the consultants W. S. Atkins said there would also be a further £190 million of wider economic benefit. All those figures are at 2002 prices, following the Department for Transport’s guidance to enable common comparisons to be made. It is also estimated that the road will bring 5,750 extra jobs to be created through the release of new employment land, and I understand that a proposed rail freight depot at Sundon, creating a further 1,100 to 1,800 jobs, is also not likely to happen unless the A5 to M1 link is built.

I am very conscious that a string of figures can seem very dry and technical, but the fact is that this new road has the potential to change the lives of my constituents for the better. Let us think of the mother in Dunstable who told me recently that her 18-year-old son had knocked on the door of every employer in the town to be told there was no job for him locally. I believe that this road will make a difference for that young man, as well as for very many others.

The reason why the private sector developer is prepared to put in such significant private funding is that the road will enable 5,150 dwellings, which are essential to meet local affordable housing need, to be built. The A5 to M1 link will also enable other new housing developments to be built, thus greatly addressing housing need.

Concern has been expressed locally about the decision to suspend the public inquiry, at which I was due to give evidence this Friday in strong support of this much needed road. I understand why the Government have had to suspend public inquiries to ensure that the funding is available for those inquiries that do proceed. I am greatly heartened, however, by the fact that there is the offer of very substantial funding to pay for junction 11A and the Woodside industrial estate connection road from a local private sector developer. That offer is an example of exactly the type of public-private sector partnership for which both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer have called. The offer will make the economic benefits I have described even greater as the cost to the public purse is significantly cut. I know that Department for Transport officials will tomorrow meet officers from Central Bedfordshire council and representatives of the private sector developer to discuss how this vital road can be taken forward.

I look forward to hearing what my hon. Friend the Minister has to say in reply. My constituents are reasonable people and understand that this Government have to be responsible with our public finances. My constituents have been patient and long-suffering over many years as the infrastructure that they have needed for their towns and villages to flourish has been denied them. They understand the need for the Government’s current spending review, but they also need to know that things will get better for them and that this road, which the previous Government agreed to build on 9 July 2003, will be built, and will be built soon. I will listen with hope and expectation to what my hon. Friend, who I know to be a conscientious and hard-working Minister, has to say.

It is a great privilege to be responding as the roads Minister this evening in my first Adjournment debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), who is my constituency neighbour, on securing the debate, and on the double whammy of having also presented a petition on the same subject tonight. I have been a Member of Parliament for five years, but I have not witnessed that before, and I suspect many colleagues might see it as a way forward. May I also congratulate other Members who have been campaigning hard on this issue, especially the two Members who are present this evening: my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries) and the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins)?

This scheme is currently under formal statutory process, so it would not be appropriate for me to discuss it in greater detail than I have done in correspondence with my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire. I will do my best within the restrictions, but I must not risk prejudicing the public inquiry process, if and when it starts.

As my hon. Friend said, the A5-M1 link road scheme has been part of the roads programme since 2003. It has been promoted to address traffic congestion on the A505 and the A5 in the centre of Dunstable, an area that I know well myself—I have been stuck in the traffic there. This is also part of the core trunk road network linking London and the south midlands, and it is a key road corridor for long and medium-distance traffic travelling south from Milton Keynes through Dunstable to the M1, forming part of the historic London to Holyhead trunk road. The A505 to the A5 and the A416 are also affected by this scheme.

As a result of being part of these key transport links, which facilitate the movement of large volumes of traffic, parts of the A5 have become heavily congested, particularly Dunstable high street. I am also conscious that Luton has been affected as well. Interestingly, and probably unsurprisingly, the A5 has a high accident rate. That might be a result of the congestion and of drivers speeding away from that. This morning the accident rates were produced by constituency for the first time, so Members can see the figures for roads in their area. I look forward to hearing their ideas as to how we might overcome traffic problems and improve road safety throughout the road network.

The Highways Agency proposes a new 2.79 mile-long two-lane dual carriageway from the A5 to a new junction 11A on the M1 north of Luton. By offering an alternative link to the motorway, the proposed A5-M1 link road would act as a northern bypass for Dunstable.

In September 2005, the Highways Agency appointed a contractor under the early contractor involvement initiative to take the A5-M1 link through the statutory process and construction phases. Also during 2005, the Highways Agency held a public consultation, and the preferred northern route was announced on 23 February 2007. The scheme was subsequently developed, leading to the publication of draft orders on 9 December 2009. That is where my restriction lies; I must not prejudice the public inquiry because of those draft orders. Under the previous allocation criteria for Highways Agency road schemes, the A5-M1 link was classified as a route of regional importance. Funding decisions on all schemes remain within the remit of the Secretary of State for Transport, irrespective of whether private funding is coming in. If public funding is involved, the decisions are part and parcel of his remit.

I am very personally aware, and not just because of the excellent lobbying that has been done by hon. Members representing constituencies in this part of the world, that the A5-M1 road link is considered a priority. If I were the MP for South West Bedfordshire or for Mid Bedfordshire, I would be sitting on those seats and I would be having this debate tonight, because that is exactly what a constituency MP should be doing. I was also very conscious of the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire was aware of the problems and restrictions that I face at the moment.

The scheme proposes to construct a new junction 11A, which would allow a connection with the proposed northern bypass and a connection that joins the A5-M1 link at the eastern end. I wish to deal with some of my hon. Friend’s concerns at this point. I pay tribute to the enthusiasm of not only my hon. Friend and his colleagues on both sides of the House, but the local authorities in Bedfordshire, and to the importance that they attach to the scheme. I recognise that my hon. Friend has been a long-standing and vocal supporter of the scheme; I believe that this is the fourth Adjournment debate that he has had—

It may well be the last.

My hon. Friend has recently asked a number of questions of the Secretary of State, and I have tried to answer them in as much detail and with as much explanation as possible. I am sure that more will follow in the next few weeks, as is right and proper.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to respond to concerns following the Government’s announcement on 10 June. I am sure that all hon. Members will feel that it was personal to them when the roads programme was suspended and all public inquiries stopped. The rationale behind the move was nothing personal in respect of any particular scheme. The decision had to be made on the basis of whether I could guarantee, and the Secretary of State could guarantee, the funding for a programme, subject to the spending review that will not be with us until October. I could not put forward public money for public inquiries without knowing whether the funding would be in place in the future for a road programme. Where we are using taxpayers’ money, it is important that we are diligent as to how it should be spent.

I know that that decision was a great disappointment, not only to my hon. Friend, but to the many people around the country who are involved in the many schemes and are lobbying me extensively every time that they bump into me. That is right and proper, but the supporters of schemes must understand how hard it is in this difficult financial situation that the previous Government have left us in. We have to be very diligent in determining how money is spent and we must not spend money in advance of its being allocated.

The reasons for postponing the public inquiry and not reinstating it even when there was an offer of partial funding from the private sector for this is that the programme would still have also contained much public funding. As I said, it would not be proper for us to go ahead with the public inquiry, irrespective of whether funding was coming from sources other than central funding, without knowing that we had the money to go forward. This part of the programme is only part of the project on the M1, and it is important that we have this scheme together when it goes before the public inquiry, should that happen.

As a general policy, we have therefore decided that forthcoming public inquiries throughout the country will be postponed for the time being. Our aim is to provide an indication of the way forward for all schemes once the spending review has been completed. Postponing the public inquiry into the A5-M1 link is entirely consistent with that programme around the country and we have taken a similar position with all other schemes.

The consequences of the delay are significant. I am conscious of that fact and I know that there is disappointment about this scheme and other schemes. Should the Secretary of State decide that the scheme should go ahead, it will not be possible to construct the A5-M1 link scheme in accordance with the timetable originally planned. In particular, it will be no longer possible to optimise construction with the works currently under way on the M1 between junctions 10 and 13, as previously intended.

The delay in the A5-M1 link will mean that there will be an increase in the cost of the scheme. We know that. It is not something that we wanted to happen, but it had to be that way otherwise we might have gone ahead with a programme for which we did not necessarily have the funding. I fully recognise how unfortunate and difficult it is for people who have been waiting so long for the scheme to go ahead, but with the funding uncertainties, it remains difficult—impossible, really—for us to go ahead with the public inquiry.

The Highways Agency will review the programme with the aim of minimising the time and cost consequences should the Secretary of State go ahead with the programme. Central Bedfordshire’s offer of funding, as I said earlier, was very welcome. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire has touched on something here that we can take forward with other programmes as regards how we engage the local community much more and how programmes can be seen to bring better bang for our buck, as it were, when so much public money is being spent.

I am also pleased that, as my hon. Friend knows, tomorrow there will be a meeting of my officials with the developers and others so that we can see what is on the table and what programmes are available. I keep having to put in the word “should”, because that is the way that it has to be, but should the programme go forward we will know better very early on how it can be taken forward.

The funding proposals described in the letter from my hon. Friend to the Secretary of State are of interest and I have asked my officials not only to have the initial discussions in the meeting tomorrow but to try to flesh out how they could be taken forward. But—I have to come back to this—it does not provide a sufficient basis to reinstate the public inquiry ahead of the spending review. I hope that my hon. Friend understands that.

The overall project would cost in excess of £150 million, approximately half of which would be for the new junction 11A on the M1. Therefore, even if developer funding were available to fund the cost of junction 11A in full, it would still be necessary for the Secretary of State to commit significant balances to the remainder of the scheme in order for the scheme to go forward. That is something that the Secretary of State is not prepared to do. I know that that has caused a lot of disappointment, but it is consistent with the way in which we have looked at all the projects around the country.

I should also add that if we were to reinstate the public inquiry now, it would not be able to start until the autumn due to the statutory time scales required. The delays would be back in place. That would mean that the construction programme would still be delayed beyond the previously planned start date. Nevertheless, there is scope for developer funding to improve the affordability of the scheme and to develop projects around the scheme and therefore its prospects within the spending review. I therefore consider it to be of the utmost importance that the scope of any funding support, with the whole programme available, should be developed as early as possible.

The way forward is for the benefits provided by the scheme to be considered carefully as part of the spending review. If the scheme remains a priority after the spending review and it can be delivered within the funding available to the Department along with, possibly, funding from local authorities and the developer, the Highways Agency will develop a revised programme to take the statutory process forward—particularly the public inquiry—in liaison with regional stakeholders.

In conclusion, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising these issues here today as well as in correspondence with me, privately, behind the Speaker’s Chair and at any other opportunity. I think that is right and proper and, as I said earlier, I would have done exactly the same if I were in his position because that is what a constituency MP does. He is not alone in his campaign: my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire and the hon. Member for Luton North, who are present, have also made their points. We have tried to be as fair as possible throughout the process. Having come to the Department only seven weeks ago, I have been very conscious of the need to make decisions early on, and the Secretary of State has been very conscious that we should be as consistent, open and public as possible throughout our decision making.

I hope that I have reassured my hon. Friend that the Department is aware of the importance of the A5-M1 link road scheme, and I hope also that he will appreciate the necessity of the Government not committing funds ahead of the comprehensive spending review. I look forward to having further discussions about this with him and other colleagues and officials—indeed, I will speak to officials tomorrow. I hope that by having this debate on the Floor of the House we have aired this issue, which is very important to his constituents and others, and I hope also that we will have an opportunity to look at the scheme properly when the spending review is finished.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.