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Road Networks (Harlow)

Volume 513: debated on Wednesday 7 July 2010

On “The Andrew Marr Show” on Sunday 4 July, the Secretary of State for Transport was straight and honest about the state of British finances. He quite rightly said:

“We will have to prioritise aggressively, and do the things that most promote economic growth.”

We know that there will be fewer major road projects and that our money must be targeted more effectively, which is why I strongly support his drive to obtain value for money. He said in the same interview that improvements to the strategic road network must focus “very specifically on bottlenecks”.

First and foremost, the case for an extra junction on the M11 is about eliminating the bottleneck leading in and out of Harlow. Yes, it would bring much-needed regeneration to one of the most deprived towns in the east of England, and yes, it would transform the lives of tens of thousands of miserable commuters and businesses, but fundamentally it is about economic growth, higher tax receipts and more jobs.

There are five key arguments in favour of an additional junction on the M11. Harlow is uniquely disadvantaged compared with other towns. As I mentioned in Transport questions on 17 June:

“Harlow has just one entrance to a motorway, whereas similar towns, such as Welwyn Garden City, have two or three and Basildon has four”.—[Official Report, 17 June 2010; Vol. 511, c. 1008.]

That has been a regional problem for 30 years. I noted in my maiden speech:

“Inexplicably, Harlow was built with just one entrance, with most of the industrial quarter being at the opposite end. As a result, traffic in Harlow has reached gridlock, with large lorries trundling along from one end of the town to another. If Harlow is to have a viable future, a bypass is not a luxury but a necessity.”—[Official Report, 2 June 2010; Vol. 510, c. 488.]

Recent improvements have not solved the fundamental problem. Harlow is set to benefit from several small transport improvements, including a repaired train station, the dualling of the A414 and the introduction of bus lanes and cycle paths. However, a town of 80,000 people is like the human body; it needs circulation to live, and when its arteries become blocked, something must relieve the pressure.

The fundamental problem has been, and will always be, access to the motorways for businesses and commuters. Everyone agrees with that analysis, which is why every public sector body and major private business from the region have come together to make the case for an extra junction on the M11. The recently formed Harlow-Stansted Gateway Transportation Board includes Essex county council, Hertfordshire county council, Harlow district council, East Hertfordshire district council, Epping Forest district council, the Highways Agency, the Department for Transport, the East of England Development Agency, Harlow Renaissance, and private sector interests such as BAA and National Express. All those public sector bodies and private businesses agreed jointly in the board’s annual report that over the next few years Harlow will become

“a major economic hub, close to London and at a key strategic location in the M11 growth corridor.”

The recent improvements to Harlow’s roads are welcome, but they are just that: improvements. They are a sticking plaster and, sadly, will not transform Harlow’s road network.

Congestion has a huge economic cost. Pollution and noise aside, economic growth in the M11 corridor is clogged by congestion. The Harlow-Stansted Gateway Transportation Board’s report states:

“EEDA’s recent Transport Economic Evidence Study identified that the area of the London Arc containing Harlow was the most congested in the region, but also the area which could see the highest level of economic return from transport investment.”

The proposed extra junction would be situated in a key growth area in Harlow, with the potential for about 5,000 additional homes. If the proper infrastructure is not built and access to the motorway is not provided, congestion will become significantly worse. The latest survey on traffic from the Essex Federation of Small Businesses showed that its members lose on average seven hours per week per driver to congestion. A back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that, with an average hourly cost of £15, that equates to £105 per driver per week, or £5,460 per driver per year. When one considers that there are 40,000 jobs in Harlow, one starts to realise that that means a loss in economic output of about £218 million a year. Hours spent in traffic jams and congestion are wasted; they are a drag on the economy.

For people who work overtime there is also a direct financial cost, as well as the indirect cost of potential output that is not achieved. The Essex Federation of Small Businesses has stated that its members

“strongly support the need for a new junction linking Harlow to the M11 as the current junction cannot cope with the traffic. A new junction which enabled traffic to flow easily into Harlow would soon cover its cost just in time saved by business people currently caught in traffic queues.”

An extra junction would massively boost jobs and private sector investment. I am glad to join my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Mr Scott) and several other hon. Friends in reminding the House that the M11 corridor is a dynamic growth economy. All the evidence suggests that when the Government invest in the M11 corridor, the benefits hugely outweigh the costs. Harlow district council’s 2009 business survey showed that three quarters of companies regard Harlow’s location as the strongest reason to invest, which is a solid foundation on which to build. One in two respondents cited Harlow’s traffic congestion as a major barrier to business growth—in fact, it was the second highest barrier to growth overall, after the recession. Finally, the survey showed that four out of five Harlow companies felt that a new motorway junction would be

“the single most effective mechanism to improve congestion.”

Therefore, the private sector is highly confident that with the right road investment in Harlow, substantial economic and social benefits will accrue to both the town and the wider M11 region. The Harlow area provides a strong case for investment and has many clear advantages. It has an unrivalled location, which is why the Health Protection Agency is seeking to move to the town. It is close to London, Stansted Airport, Cambridge and the ports at Harwich and Felixstowe, all regarded by businesses as strong attributes.

There is spare employment land in Harlow, so there is both the capacity and opportunity to deliver economic growth. The town already provides significant sub-regional employment—40,000 jobs—and can increase that significantly. The town has a brave and ambitious vision for its future, with an upgraded town centre now being developed. A better road network will help to retain existing businesses and attract new ones. In a region with considerable growth pressures, Harlow can not only accommodate economic growth, but welcome it. The town is a true centre of excellence for the haulage and distribution industry, which needs quick access to the M11 to thrive.

The cost of an extra junction would be very modest, given the investment available from local housing developers. Essex county council has already committed more than £500,000 for a detailed study of an extra junction. That will be spent in two stages: £130,000 in phase 1, to build an outline business case; and £435,000 in phase 2, to look at more specific issues, such as where pressures would accrue on the road network. It is right that local people should shoulder some of the up-front costs to reduce the burden on the British taxpayer. Councillor Norman Hume, cabinet member for highways at Essex county council, is clear on just how important the scheme is locally:

“A new junction on the M11 North of Harlow is now the number one transport priority for the business community of Harlow, and Essex County Council. A new junction will relieve existing congestion and promote the growth and much needed regeneration of Harlow. In order to promote and justify the case for investment, we are developing a business case through Growth Area Funding.”

Phase 1 of the study will report in autumn 2010 and phase 2 in early 2011. Councillor Hume and the highways officers at Essex county council are absolutely pioneering in their approach to the road network in Harlow, as are the officers at Harlow district council. Their plans are in harmony with the new Government, with value for money and economic growth at the heart of what they hope to achieve. Harlow district council is equally supportive. Its leader, Councillor Andrew Johnson, said in a statement that a new junction is

“vital to achieving the town’s regeneration and creating a prime location for business. It is fundamental to unlocking the economic potential of the town.”

Essex county council estimates that the total cost of the new junction on the M11 could be as little as £25 million. It would be located in a key Harlow growth area of up to 5,000 homes. Much of the £25 million cost could be funded through section 106 agreements, making this an opportunity for the taxpayer to get the full economic benefits but pay only part of the already modest costs. The Essex Federation of Small Businesses has studied the cost of congestion and believes that congestion in Harlow is reducing economic output in the region of £218 million a year. When that is set against a cost of less than £25 million, the figures speak for themselves.

I am a realist, and I accept that Ministers’ first priority must be to reduce the public debt, which early this year ballooned to £900 billion. I also accept that a project of this scale would normally take 10 years to deliver. The people of Harlow do not expect miracles overnight—they have been waiting 20 years already—but I believe that the case is very strong. Harlow has only one motorway entrance, unlike other major towns of its size. Recent road improvements have not solved the fundamental problems. Congestion results in a huge economic cost to Harlow and to the M11 corridor. An extra junction on the M11 would boost jobs and private sector investment massively, and the cost would be very modest, given the available investment from local housing developers and sector 106 agreements.

I close with the point made on Sunday by the Secretary of State:

“We will have to prioritise aggressively, and do the things that most promote economic growth.”

An extra junction on the M11 would most promote economic growth. Yes, of course, this is about transforming the lives of tens of thousands of commuters and businesses in Harlow. Yes, it would bring much-needed regeneration to my constituency, which is one of the most deprived towns in the east of England. Fundamentally, however, my argument for an extra junction on the M11 is about economic growth, higher tax receipts and more jobs.

Order. Has the hon. Gentleman cleared it with the Member introducing the debate and the Minister that he wants to speak?

I must admit that I have not cleared it with the Minister, but I spoke earlier to my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon). I am at your mercy, Mr Betts.

Thank you, Mr Betts, I appreciate that. I will ensure that in future I speak to the Minister as well.

I simply want to support my hon. Friend’s statement. I represent Great Yarmouth, and although the M11 is not there, or in Norfolk, it is the closest motorway to my constituency. It is a vital part of the artery joining the A11 and the A47 that runs through to our outer harbour and to Norwich airport, so it is hugely important to the economic development and growth of Great Yarmouth, which has pockets of high deprivation. Anything that we can do to alleviate the traffic problems along that artery, which this junction could—and clearly will—do, is of benefit to Great Yarmouth. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is important for Harlow, but also for the wider business community throughout East Anglia and the eastern region?

In terms of procedure, normally the hon. Member initiating the debate would speak, then the Minister would respond. The hon. Member would not come back. It would have helped if the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) had intervened beforehand, but I will allow a brief response.

Thank you, Mr Betts, for allowing me to respond. Having a close association with the area—a constituency in the east of England—and travelling on the M11, my hon. Friend knows better than most the traffic problems that we have in Harlow. I am very grateful for his support, which will be noted by the people of Harlow and all the businesses and commuters who use the M11 on a daily basis.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) on securing this debate on traffic and the road network in Harlow, and on the strong presentation of his case this morning. Although only recently elected to the House, he has already asked questions about traffic and road issues in Harlow, and I am pleased to respond to his first Adjournment debate on a subject that is clearly of great importance to him and his constituents.

It might be helpful if I explain that within the Department for Transport the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), has responsibilities for the motorway network and I have responsibilities for other roads and for general traffic issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Harlow has concentrated solely on the M11, which is a matter that would normally fall to my colleague, but I will do my best to respond to the issues he has raised. However, given the title of the debate, I will also refer to other issues that relate to traffic and transport in the Harlow area.

Before I turn specifically to Harlow issues, I need to make some general points. My hon. Friend will not be surprised if I make them on behalf of the Department—the point he made himself. In particular, I must make it clear at the outset that the overriding need the coalition Government have identified is to tackle the national deficit. That means that the decisions we take and the speed with which we are able to implement transport improvements will need to be determined in the context of the comprehensive spending review. The Department for Transport is playing a full part in that spending review, which will report in the autumn.

We have already announced a range of measures aimed at delivering reductions in spending. On 24 May the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury gave details of £6.2 billion of savings in Government spending in 2010-11, and the Department for Transport is contributing by finding savings of £683 million this year. That has meant taking difficult decisions on funding, and deferring decisions on some transport schemes until after the outcome of the spending review. On 10 June, the Department for Communities and Local Government published further details of local government savings, including £309 million in local transport funding.

The Department and I understand that those reductions and deferrals are difficult for many places. Through reductions in ring-fencing, we have maximised the flexibility for local authorities to reshape their budgets according to local priorities, and to identify where efficiencies can be found. There is also an opportunity to rethink transport plans and priorities, to ensure that proposals are environmentally as well as financially sustainable. However, given the current financial constraints, it is essential to ensure that any new infrastructure is affordable and offers value for money.

Turning to Harlow-specific matters, it is first worth reflecting on the history of Harlow’s development, as therein lies some of the answers as to why Harlow, a new town, suffers the level of congestion experienced by my hon. Friend’s constituents. When Sir Frederick Gibberd drew up the original master plan for Harlow, he did so with the expectation that a new motorway would be built to the west and north of the urban area. He therefore positioned the town’s industrial areas and town centre where they would have easy access to the new motorway, probably with multiple access points. However, the M11 was subsequently built to the east, giving rise to some of the problems that are now being experienced. Access to the town was via junction 7 and the A414 from the south. As a result, as my hon. Friend knows only too well, traffic in and out of Harlow has to traverse a series of mainly single-lane carriageways to reach key destinations such as the town centre and areas of employment. Frequent congestion is the result, and the Department acknowledges that. I fully understand that congestion is seen as a barrier to achieving the town’s regeneration and economic growth ambitions.

My hon. Friend will be aware that, for some time, many people have seen the solution as the provision of a new junction—7A—on the M11 to the north of Harlow, along with realigning and extending the A414 to provide a northern bypass to Harlow. I am advised by officials that the cost of the full scheme is estimated as in excess of £250 million. However, the feasibility of such a proposal has yet to be established.

I am aware that, on behalf of the Harlow-Stansted Gateway Transportation Board, Essex county council is undertaking a feasibility study—to which my hon. Friend referred—of the options for a reduced scheme to include a new motorway junction and connection to the existing local road network to the north-east of the town. The study will give an indication of whether that is a potential solution. There may of course be effective, lower-cost solutions that emerge from that or other work that the county council or others undertake locally, and I will follow developments closely, as will my colleague the Under-Secretary.

I thank the Minister for what he has said so far. I want to make it clear that, as he acknowledged, I am just asking for the extra junction on the M11, because I recognise the huge cost of something that would happen in the distant future. I am asking just for that, because it is much better value for money for the taxpayer.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. As we will undoubtedly have less money in the future, we have to be much more careful about how we spend it, and to ensure that rigorous cost-benefit is applied to any scheme. I suggest that the cheaper a scheme comes in, the more likely it is to proceed.

It is also worth pointing out that the context has changed, given that some of the justification for the northern bypass came from the significant northern expansion of Harlow that would have been needed to meet the regional spatial strategy—RSS—housing targets. With the revocation of the RSS—I am sure my hon. Friend will welcome the increased move towards devolution—there will no longer be a regional policy basis for that level of development. Obviously, we have devolution coming forward in the decentralisation and localism Bill that the Department for Communities and Local Government will introduce and in the enterprise boards it proposes. We will see what comes from those local economic partnerships.

The M11 junction feasibility study will consider the transport needs of future development within Harlow’s boundaries but, ultimately, it will be for Harlow, together with partner authorities, to agree on how best to develop beyond that. Such discussions will be based on what local communities want, and my Department will try to respond as positively as it can.

I acknowledge that congestion in Harlow is of particular importance locally. I am pleased that rapid progress is being made by Essex county council to dual the A414 carriageway between junction 7 of the M11 and the Southern Way junction. When that work is completed in early 2011, the scheme will significantly alleviate the bottleneck.

However, I make it clear on behalf of the Department that extra road capacity is not the only answer to tackling congestion. Nor, indeed, depending on the circumstances, is it necessarily the best answer. In March, Essex county council successfully completed the First Avenue multi-modal corridor, which provides fast bus access from the New Hall development to the town centre. It includes a shared cycleway and provision of real-time information, and is an example of the kind of sustainable transport solution that the Government are keen to bring forward. Obviously, if people can be persuaded to transfer from cars to other modes of transport, that will free up existing road capacity for motorists who are still on the network.

I understand that the feasibility of other ideas for congestion-relieving projects has been investigated locally, including the potential reopening of the Central line from Epping to Ongar and an extension to Harlow. I shall be interested to see whether that washes its face economically.

We made clear in the coalition agreement our commitment to a modern, low-carbon transport infrastructure as an essential element of a dynamic and entrepreneurial economy. An effective and efficient low-carbon transport infrastructure can help to support economic development and, at the same time, help to tackle climate change and, indeed, congestion on the road network. Securing that objective in our current economic climate is, of course, a challenge, but I am confident that we can rise to it and foster a transport system that works for the economy, the environment and local communities.

The Government are committed to making the best use of the rail network as part of their commitment to creating a low-carbon economy and improving the travelling experience for passengers. I am pleased to note that National Express East Anglia’s refurbishment of Harlow Town station is near completion. That work was funded by £200,000 from my Department, matched by £200,000 from Essex county council. In addition, the delivery of new rolling stock will allow longer and more frequent trains to run on services for Harlow Town and Harlow Mill.

My hon. Friend will be aware that £8 million was earmarked for the Harlow public transport scheme in the regional funding allocation submission made to the Government in February 2009. Essex county council began developing proposals, but the matter is now on hold while the comprehensive spending review takes place. I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that the review provides communities and the Government with an opportunity for wider reflection on possible alternative options for tackling congestion and addressing other transport issues, and on how we assess the feasibility of transport schemes big and small.

The coalition agreement includes a commitment to make the transport sector greener and more sustainable, including reforming how decisions are made on prioritising transport projects so that the benefits of low-carbon proposals are fully recognised. That work is ongoing in parallel with the spending review, and it is clear that the decisions taken after the spending review is completed will be influenced by work on the appraisal of transport schemes.

The coalition agreement refers to making the transport sector greener. Building on that policy framework and on the success of the first round of the green bus fund, on Monday I announced a second round of the fund worth £15 million, which will support the procurement of another 150 low-carbon buses in England. All transport authorities, including Essex county council, are encouraged to submit a bid. Perhaps my hon. Friend will take that point back to the council, which may be able to get some money for green buses for the area.

The first round of the fund will support the 24 successful winners in purchasing about 350 new low-carbon buses, the first of which will be in operation from this summer. Low-carbon buses use at least 30% less fuel than standard diesel buses with the same passenger capacity and emit around one third less greenhouse gas emissions, yet they account for only 0.2% of the buses on the road in England.

In identifying their needs and priorities, Harlow council and Essex county council should consider the full range of options available and the potential for attracting funding from other than public sector sources. My hon. Friend was right to refer to section 106 agreements, which could indeed provide sources of funding for transport infrastructure improvements. Frankly, at this stage, it is clear that more money secured from the private sector will not only improve the appraisal outcome for individual schemes, but make it less likely that they are lost in the mix. In the current financial climate, I cannot offer assurance about the future time scale for schemes that have been identified, but reviewing the feasibility of options should mean that Harlow is well placed to benefit from available investment when the financial position eases.

In conclusion, it is clear that we face a challenging situation. Tough decisions have already been necessary to tackle the UK’s budget deficit, which the Government have identified as their most urgent priority, and transport must play a full part in the process, as my hon. Friend recognises. Only when the Government’s spending review has been concluded will the Department be in a position to identify what investment can be made. In a period when we face tight financial restraints, it is essential that we take a step back to consider what options are available, and which schemes should be prioritised. By doing that, we will place ourselves in a strong position to make best use of the funds available, and to establish a sound base for the future development of a transport system that can contribute to a low-carbon economy.

As I said, additional road capacity may not be the only answer to congestion. There are real opportunities for communities to reassess whether they can deal with congestion in their locality in ways that contribute to other ambitions such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions, improving the environment and encouraging healthier lifestyles. My hon. Friend has put on the record his strong support for junction improvements to the M11. His Adjournment debate is timely, in that this is a period of reflection and reconsideration for the Department for Transport as to how it wants to proceed. I will ensure that his remarks are drawn to the attention of the Secretary of State and my colleague the Under-Secretary, who has responsibility for motorway issues.

Sitting suspended.