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A11 (Dualling)

Volume 514: debated on Tuesday 27 July 2010

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Miss Chloe Smith.)

It is a great pleasure to speak under your chairmanship for the first time, in my first speech in a Westminster Hall debate, Mr Williams. I am delighted to have been granted this debate on the economic impact of dualling the A11, and am grateful to the Minister for giving his time. I am also grateful for the cross-party attendance by the many colleagues from all over Norfolk and Suffolk who have come to the debate.

It is poignant that this is the last day of the parliamentary term, for today Members will return to their constituencies—many of them along the A11. Those hon. Members will follow a now familiar path: steady progress past the M25 and an unencumbered glide past Stansted, before turning right-handed, and making steady progress up to Mildenhall. Then they, like 25,000 others every day, will come to a shuddering halt at Barton Mills. As they grind past the service station, and take their life in their hands getting on to the Fiveways roundabout, they fear they will never go faster than 30 mph again. Is that because it is a built-up area? No. Is it because of the number of pedestrians? Hardly. It is because they have reached the Barton Mills bottleneck. Why does that feature endure? Do the people of Norfolk not need a decent road to the capital? The journey from London to Norwich is 115 miles long. Yet for an inexplicable reason, nine miles in the middle of it have been left as a single carriageway.

The Minister will today hear many accounts of the extremely high economic returns that would result from finishing that bit of road. He may wonder how a road-widening project can have such high economic returns, but I urge him to think of it not as a road-widening project between Barton Mills and Thetford—although it is that—but more as the long-overdue completion of the road to Norfolk. The first layout of the motorway network, drafted in 1936, included a motorway from London to Norfolk. Proposals for completion of the dualling of the final nine miles of the A11, known as the Barton Mills bottleneck, were first put forward in 1989. After an assiduous campaign by my predecessor, Richard Spring, and my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Mr Ruffley)—I pay tribute to them both—it became a Government priority in 1999. Public meetings on the plans were held two years ago this week. My constituents, and people all over East Anglia, hope that the new Government will finally give the scheme the go-ahead when the spending review is completed.

Today’s debate focuses on the economic impacts of the road, so I will not dwell on the fact that the reasons for improving that stretch of the A11 are not solely financial. Local people are very focused on the tragic human cost of delaying the scheme. There are serious safety concerns, which were brought into sharp focus by a Road Safety Foundation report in June, which found that single-lane roads were twice as dangerous as dual carriageways. To the real economic cost we must add a cost measured not in pounds, but in lives. Having set out the context, I want to explain, first, the overwhelming local support for the scheme, and, secondly, its clear economic justification. Finally, I shall address head-on the central fact facing the Government: the vast, unprecedented budget deficit that the coalition is addressing.

First, unlike some transport projects, the scheme commands wide support. The number of fellow MPs here today from all over East Anglia is testament to that fact. Indeed, I am yet to come across an objector. Indicative of that was a petition of some 16,000 local residents presented to the Department for Transport in November 2008 by Daniel Cox, leader of Norfolk county council. Environmental concerns that were raised have been addressed. The project is supported by both Natural England and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which says that

“the road will not harm wildlife in the Brecks”

and that it is

“confident that this is the right deal for nature”.

Local businesses are also behind the scheme. The local branch of the Federation of Small Businesses backs the plans, arguing that an efficient road system is “essential”. Giles de Lotbinière, the managing director of local business Lignacite, says A11 delays are a “hindrance to businesses”. Indeed, international businessman and local landowner Lord Iveagh reflected the general tone adopted by the businesses that I have spoken to when he said:

“the more we can do for the road the better”.

The project of relieving the Barton Mills bottleneck is supported not just by local people, safety campaigners, environmental groups and businesses, but by all three political parties. During the election campaign, Lord Adonis, on a last gasp visit to his friend Charles Clarke in Norwich South, said:

“Labour is committed to completing the dualling of the A11 with construction beginning this year.”

On 23 April, the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister spoke out in support of the widening. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister said that the project was “totally justified”, while my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said that

“everyone knows it needs to be done”.

So from top to bottom, support is widespread.

What of the economic case? Having done the research, reviewed the evidence, and spoken to the officials at the Department, for whose time I am grateful, I can say that the economic case for finishing the road is compelling. The cost estimate for the scheme is £134 million. Consultants for the Highways Agency estimate that, for that cost, the project will generate £19 million in indirect taxes, and economic benefits of £550 million for consumers and £1.1 billion for businesses; so on the Government’s own figures, the benefits are more than 20 times the cost. That is an astonishing figure, which I shall put into context. A return of more than twice the cost is regarded by the Department for Transport as

“providing high value for money”.

Hon. Members will not be surprised to find that the Highways Agency reports that

“benefits exceed expenditure costs substantially, demonstrating the economic viability of the scheme”.

The report found that there would be productivity benefits in Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, and that they would be concentrated on Thetford, Norwich and Great Yarmouth. It is good to see that MPs representing all those towns are present for the debate. The financial case for completing the road is clearly strong, but the impact would be felt far beyond the balance sheets of the businesses of East Anglia. Completing the road would boost confidence among businesses across Norfolk, generate interest from investors and help to create conditions for new employment. Until 18 months ago, businesses around Thetford routed their lorries away from the bottleneck on a Friday because it was impossible to negotiate. Now they are forced to reroute them every working day. That is the real business cost.

The Highways Agency report that I mentioned discusses the risks of not proceeding with the work and states that

“future growth aspirations could be jeopardised by the failure to improve the trunk road. Traffic delays would become sufficiently severe that new development would fail to materialise”.

I said that the benefits are 20 times the cost; let me put that figure further into context by comparing it with the figures for other schemes on the Department’s list. The A13/A130 link at Sadlers Farm has an economic benefit four times the cost; for the A13 passenger transport corridor, the ratio is 2; for the A421 improvements at Milton Keynes, the figure is 1.9; and for the Luton busway it is 1.6. I am told that some schemes in north-east England have an economic return of less than one; I should be grateful if the Minister would confirm whether that is true.

The reason for that astonishingly high rate of return is clear. We are not talking about a new road project, or even the improvement of a whole road, but the final piece of an otherwise complete jigsaw. The question is why the work has not already been done. I shall not try to answer that question today, although the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Bain) might try to do so. In truth, I find many of the actions of the previous Administration unfathomable, and that is but one of them. Instead, I shall address head-on the hard question that we all face.

There is no ducking the fact that our nation’s finances are in a mess. We have the biggest peacetime deficit on record, and we are borrowing £1 for every £4 that the Government spend. The central task for the new Government in turning our economy around is to deal with the deficit. I campaigned on that platform, and I support it wholeheartedly. We all know that money is tight. The question is how we should deal with the mess.

The economic evidence shows that fiscal retrenchments are most successful when they are done mostly by reducing current spending. I was therefore delighted when the Chancellor forsook the easy option of further cutting capital spending in the Budget. He said:

“Well-judged capital spending by Government can help provide the new infrastructure our economy needs to compete in the modern world. It supports the transport links we need to trade our goods...There will be no further reductions in capital spending totals in this Budget, but we will make careful choices about how that capital is spent. The absolute priority will be projects with a significant economic return to the country.”—[Official Report, 22 June 2010; Vol. 512, c. 170.]

That policy is right, and the proposed scheme would help make it a reality. I believe that the A11 improvement scheme clearly fits into the class of capital spending that the Chancellor is keen to continue.

Last week, the Secretary of State for Transport told the Eastern Daily Press that the scheme had achieved “a very high score” under the Whitehall cost-benefit analysis, and spoke of the “very powerful” economic benefits of removing such bottlenecks. Will the Minister repeat those words today? Will he confirm that the evidence shows a compelling case for the road to be completed? Does he accept that there is virtually no local opposition? Will he now tell us that, even in these difficult economic times, removing the Barton Mills bottleneck is at the top of his list of priorities?

Lastly, will he accept my invitation to join me, one day soon, in opening the final section of this long overdue road, completing the dream of a highway to Norwich? If he does so, the warm and generous people of East Anglia will give him the hero’s welcome that he deserved. [Applause.]

I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock) has secured today’s debate. This issue more than any other is a priority for the people of South West Norfolk; for too long, they have struggled with a difficult situation, given that the road is one of the main thoroughfares into my constituency. The matter should be given serious consideration by Ministers in advance of this autumn’s comprehensive spending review. The scheme is long overdue, and it is particularly pressing given the need to generate growth in our economy and to ensure that Britain races ahead.

I wish to talk about three things: first, Norfolk’s infrastructure deficit; secondly, specific effects of the problem on the town of Thetford; and, thirdly, the wider benefits that the scheme would deliver to our economy.

Although the United Kingdom is the world’s sixth richest country, it is 34th in the world infrastructure league table. However, Norfolk would rate far behind that. It is the largest county in England not to have a dual carriageway linking to the national trunk road network. We are the only county not to have been included in BT’s plans for super-fast broadband. We do not have the train speeds or railway connections that a county with the economic potential of Norfolk truly deserves.

Of the missed opportunities to improve infrastructure over the past 13 years, the grossest error was the failure to dual the final stretch of the A11, which I put down to mis-prioritisation by the now defunct regional authorities. They decided that the A11 had a lower priority than other schemes that had a far lower economic benefit.

The scheme is readily supported by local businesses. For instance, Jo Pearson of Pearsons (Thetford) Ltd said:

“Thetford, Norwich and the whole of Norfolk, for too long now has been the poor relation; the difference this upgrade will make in economic prosperity and jobs is immeasurable. We have heard all the talk time and again; this project must be not at the top of the ‘to do’ list but a distant memory in the completed pile!!”

People in Thetford and elsewhere in Norfolk are fed up with being told that the project will happen only to find that the digging has not started. I and my colleagues want to see a definite plan for action.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk mentioned the wide support give to the scheme by the local community. I would also mention the Gateway A11 East action group, which is represented here in the Public Gallery and has come to London to show how important the scheme is to them. The Eastern Daily Press, too, is here and listening to today’s debate; the paper has featured the problem heavily in its columns over the years. The scheme has extremely widespread support.

The problem, as has been pointed out, is that we are now in much more difficult economic times. However, Norfolk is not asking for handouts. We did not receive the national insurance tax holiday for new businesses; and we did not receive the millions of public sector jobs that other parts of the country did. Indeed, 72% of the Norfolk economy is in the private sector. To continue growing and making a net contribution to the tax pot—that is what we do in Norfolk—those businesses need their employees to be able to get into work and their supplies to be delivered to their customers. That is all that we ask.

The Norfolk infrastructure crunch is particularly acute in Thetford. Thetford was the ancient capital of East Anglia. It has an amazing number of energetic businesses—[Interruption.] I think I heard an objection; I am happy to take an intervention.

Thetford is a natural hub. We should bear in mind that it is well connected—at least, it would be if the A11 was sorted—to Cambridge, another growing economic area. There is a bottleneck where there should be potential economic expansion. However, although the town may be struggling with the lack of decent road connections, there are plans to build 6,000 more houses over the next few years and many more jobs and businesses will be located there. As a result, what is now difficult may become impossible. There are also plans for a new academy. We have the potential to be a major area of economic growth.

I fear that the people of Thetford are in danger of being all dressed up with nowhere to go. Despite the fact that the town is surrounded by some rather nice bits of dual carriageway, further out it peters out into a single-lane highway, which makes it difficult to transit further. Boudicca was thought to have based her operations in Thetford in ancient times. If she was to try leading her insurgency against the Roman army today, she would not get as far as Cambridge, given the state of the roads.

The road is important not only to the people of Thetford and South West Norfolk; it is economically vital to the nation. As my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk pointed out, the Department for Transport says that schemes with a benefit-cost ratio of more than 2 should be considered highly favourable. The guidance also says that in most, if not all, cases, such schemes should go ahead. The fact that the scheme would return £19 for every £1 invested suggests that it would be of huge economic benefit.

The figures suggest that a total investment cost of £100 million would yield tax revenue of £42 million and journey-time benefits of £1.2 billion, and that is before we take into account the extra businesses that might locate in the area when the A11 is dualled. Many companies are currently put off by the poor transport connections, and they are put off not just in Thetford, but in Norwich and all along the A11 corridor. The current Norfolk economy is valued at £16 billion. Between 2001 and 2007, growth in the Norfolk economy outstripped the rest of England by 10%. We could achieve even higher relative growth in our county because the entrepreneurs and the business acumen are there, but we need the infrastructure to support them.

Let us consider why the benefit of such a road scheme is so large. The answer is that this piece of road is effectively a ransom strip. It is the final part that has not been dualled. Recent research from the OECD suggests that connecting up networks so that they work is most important and achieves the most value for money in infrastructure investment. It is not about having individual high-value projects; it is about ensuring that we have a network that works, and that is the missing link in the chain. Those who might question the projected high returns—there are not many of them here today—should look at the projections for the A11 Attleborough bypass, which has just been completed. One year after the project, the Department for Transport commissioned a study to consider the return and how it had compared with the projections. The return on that project was a 5.2 benefit-cost ratio, which was only 0.2 adrift from the projections. I commend the Department for Transport for the accuracy of its economic analysis. Given that such a projection is being made on a similar road, I suggest that the high benefit that we would expect from the A11 Fiveways-to-Thetford scheme will be realised.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk, I have viewed the other projects in the pipeline. As far as I can tell, the A11 project came out with by far the highest benefit-cost ratio. Most other projects were in the low units and very few projects hurdled into the tens. At a meeting between the nine Norfolk MPs and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, it was agreed that economic return would be the key criterion, and that it would apply not only within Departments but across Departments. I urge the Minister to ensure that these high-value projects are considered not only within the Department for Transport’s budget but in comparison with all capital budgets across Departments. We do not want to see a high-value project stopped just because it falls under the Department for Transport, and Government capital used on a lesser-value project in another Department. In our meeting with the Chief Secretary, we established the important principle that projects with the highest economic returns should go ahead regardless of which Department they are part of.

The passion with which my hon. Friend makes her case is commendable. The only budget for roads within Government is in the Department for Transport. It is our budget and we are responsible for it. I will not shirk that responsibility; the buck stops here.

I thank the Minister for his answer. I take from it that the project would be ring-fenced by the Department rather than considered across Departments. The Minister might consider the road budget, but would other budgets be freed up if capital was not being properly utilised in other Departments?

Of course, other aspects and other money from different parts of other Departments form the package, but the package for roads specifically falls under the Department for Transport. When we consider projects around the country as funding is freed up, we will examine that package, but the actual budget for roads specifically comes from the Department for Transport.

I shall continue to press my case. Infrastructure in this country has lost out in current spending, and we have all paid the price for that in economic growth held back. I will certainly put the case that infrastructure projects, as part of the capital budget, should be prioritised if they deliver such economic benefit. Clearly, the best option would be for the scheme to be approved under the road budget, and we look to the Minister to consider that as part of the comprehensive spending review.

As my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk said, the A11 dualling from Thetford to Fiveways is not just another road project. It is a very important project that will free up a huge amount of business resource, energy and entrepreneurship across East Anglia and help drive growth across the region. We are not asking for handouts in Norfolk. We are a county that delivers jobs, 72% of which are in the private sector, and we are a net contributor to the overall tax pot. What we want is our fair share of infrastructure spending to ensure that we can carry on delivering those economic benefits into the future.

Order. As a number of new Members are in the Chamber, may I remind them of three points? First, they need not touch the microphones; they will come on automatically. Secondly, no reference should be made to members of the public or members of the press being present. Thirdly, irrespective of the obvious infectious enthusiasm for the A11, there should be no applause.

I apologise that I have to leave shortly before the end of this debate to attend a Select Committee meeting. I wanted to speak briefly today to show how important the A11 is beyond the corridor of constituencies that it directly runs through. I represent Great Yarmouth and, as was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock), whom I commend for securing this debate, the A11 dualling is hugely important to us. Great Yarmouth has the opportunity to unlock economic growth that could transmute Norfolk, Suffolk and potentially Cambridge with renewable energy and offshore wind farms. They could benefit, too, from our new deep-water outer harbour.

When I talk to businesses, whether they are in the chambers of commerce, the Federation of Small Businesses or any other commercial interest, the common comment is about infrastructure. We need high-speed broadband, but, more importantly, we need access by rail and road. The important part of that jigsaw is the dualling of the A11. It would release the opportunity for business to come through.

We do not have a motorway in Norfolk. As my predecessors often joked—unfortunately, it is true—the nearest motorway to Great Yarmouth is in Holland. We need the A11 dualled because it releases massive potential for Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire. I wanted to be here today to show that there is an understanding across our county that that road is a vital artery that unlocks so much economic potential. I wanted to ensure that the Minister and the Department know that we all share the belief that this is a massively important piece of investment.

Again, I fully commend my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk for securing the debate. From Great Yarmouth’s point of view, we should like to see the scheme go ahead. It is an important part of the jigsaw. In years to come, I and my other hon. Friends, including my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson), will no doubt argue that the scheme needs to link up with the dualling of the A47 and other roads, but, for now, the A11 is the key to the jigsaw.

I am grateful to you, Mr Williams, for giving me the opportunity to speak in this debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock) for securing a debate on a matter that is of such importance to the future prosperity of Norfolk and Suffolk. He has already spoken eloquently and passionately and I want to say a few words in support of the case that he has put forward. I speak not only as a fellow Suffolk MP but as someone who has lived in the county his whole life and who, until 12 weeks ago, spent his whole working life of 27 years in Suffolk and Norfolk.

When I started work as a trainee surveyor in Norwich in 1983, only two parts of the A11 from Cambridge to Norwich were dualled. They were the Cringleford bypass on the southern outskirts of Norwich, which at that time was the only dual carriageway in Norfolk, and the section of the A11 around Newmarket where it combined with the A14.

In the past 27 years, the A11 has gradually been improved and today the only section that remains to be dualled is that between the Fiveways roundabout, which is at Barton Mills, and Elvedon, which is in my hon. Friend’s constituency. It is vital that that dualling work is carried out as soon as possible. That section of the A11 is a dangerous stretch of road. In rush hour, there are long tailbacks and it is a bottleneck that is holding back the creation of jobs. Those jobs may be in the logistics sector in the Thetford area, in the research and development sector around Norwich, or in the green energy sector in my own constituency, which is further east in the Lowestoft area.

In East Anglia, we have particularly poor infrastructure. We only have motorways along the western edge of the region; we have a rail network that is creaking at the seams; we have poor broadband connections, and we have an electricity network that is in need of a major upgrade if we are to realise the full potential offered by the offshore renewable sector.

Nevertheless, our economy is performing remarkably well. My hon. Friend recently hosted a reception at which various East Anglian businesses launched their “blueprint for growth”. That highlighted the fact that the eastern counties are an economic powerhouse. Indeed, the eastern counties are one of only three parts of the UK that make a net contribution to the UK Exchequer.

That success is in spite of our poor infrastructure. If proper investment is made, we can be at the forefront of the country’s drive out of the recession. We can play a crucial role in helping the coalition to secure its goal of rebalancing the economy across the regions and across a wide range of new industries. Dualling this stretch of road across the Brecks will help to achieve that goal and it will also help East Anglia to become a more attractive location that new companies can move to and where existing businesses can grow. As I have said, that growth will be in such sectors as scientific research and development around Norwich and renewable energy in Lowestoft and Yarmouth.

I wholeheartedly support my hon. Friend in his efforts to secure funding for the dualling scheme. However, there is a wider issue to address. It is important that Britain moves away from the piecemeal approach to the provision of infrastructure. We have pursued that approach for far too long and it is putting the brake on economic activity and holding back the creation of jobs.

I recognise that we are in challenging times, with money in short supply. However, if we are to secure long-term economic growth in Britain, including in East Anglia, local businesses and local government need to work together to set out a blueprint of the infrastructure that they need and we then need to consider new ways to secure the investment for that infrastructure. By adopting such an approach, East Anglia can realise its full economic potential and play its full part in delivering the more balanced and diverse economy that Britain needs.

Mr Williams, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock) and my other hon. Friends who are here in Westminster Hall today. We “old lags” from pre-2010—the “Alten Kämpfer”, as our German cousins would call us—stand in awe of their enthusiasm and the fact that they really want to hunt as a pack on behalf of East Anglia.

Norfolk has two main trunk roads, the A11 and the A47, neither of which is completely dualled. I have fought long and hard for the A47 to be dualled because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) has said, it goes through part of my constituency. In terms of priorities, however, I think that everybody in Norfolk—whether they are business people, local councillors or Members of Parliament—has recognised that the No. 1 priority is the completion of the dualling of this nine-mile stretch of the A11. That is the message that I would give to our hon. Friend the Minister—that this dualling work is the key to unlocking a lot of the economic development that we require in the northern part of East Anglia.

I hope that I can compare and contrast the reaction of the coalition Government with the briefing that I went to in 1997 with the newly elected MPs at that time. It was a briefing from Baroness Hayman, the Speaker in the House of Lords, who was then a junior Transport Minister. We were told then that roads were really not on the agenda; nobody was really interested in roads at that time. However, the great outcry and bellowing from the then Members for Norwich, North and Norwich, South—Dr Ian Gibson and Charles Clarke respectively—and others proved that even then we recognised that roads were absolutely crucial.

If the Barton Mills stretch of the A11 is blocked, perhaps by roadworks or an accident, and if the A47 is blocked at the same time—I think that it happened once that both roads were blocked at the same time—there is no doubt that Norfolk will be totally gridlocked. As I say, that gridlock has actually happened. It is ludicrous that that should happen to one of the largest counties in the country and it obviously has a knock-on effect for our friends and colleagues in Suffolk.

In addition, the A11 is criss-crossed by a number of secondary roads. At times, it is almost impossible for people to get across those secondary roads and I believe that that also has a knock-on effect on the local economy.

It seems that Norfolk and Suffolk suffer from a double negative. First, we have an inadequate road link between Norwich and London. At this point, I must gently tease my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) and say that Boadicea was, of course, heading towards Colchester and not towards Cambridge; I think that Boadicea’s old satellite navigation equipment might have been slightly out when she was heading south to our friends in Colchester for a quiet word in their ear and burning down their capital. While I am at it, I also gently point out to my hon. Friend that in Roman times it was Venta Icenorum, which was outside Norwich, that was the capital of East Anglia. Having Thetford as the capital was a later, rather vulgar occurrence under the Anglo-Saxons. [Laughter.] However, Mr Williams, I will pass that by.

As I was saying, the crucial point is that we not only have that inadequate road link but, as my hon. Friends have already pointed out, we have for years had a very inadequate rail link, first run by Anglia and now by National Express. We have all been working to improve that link and I hope that the Minister will pass on to his colleagues who are responsible for the rail network the fact that, when the franchise comes up for renewal, we intend gripping in no uncertain terms, and we will want to interview the various companies that might be thinking of putting in a bid for that franchise.

My hon. Friends have outlined the impact on business and economic development of dualling this stretch of road. My experience of 13 years as a Member of Parliament, in a constituency that is north of Norwich, is that there is no doubt that one of the factors—I emphasise that it is only one of the factors, although I think that it is an absolutely crucial one—in getting investment into Norfolk, either from the rest of the United Kingdom or from overseas, is the perception that our infrastructure, including the important road and rail network, is of poor quality. Even in the age of being able to order goods through the internet, when it comes to companies that ultimately rely on shifting quite heavy duty goods by road and rail, I think that Norfolk and Suffolk frequently lose out if those companies are looking for new places to go to. Therefore, it is absolutely crucial that we re-establish that infrastructure.

The northern part of our region has always been a poor relation. Parts of Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire are poor as measured by every index of social deprivation that one can think of. My own constituency only has small pockets of social deprivation, but in particular I am thinking of friends and colleagues in Lowestoft, Great Yarmouth, King’s Lynn and Norwich, where there are major areas of social deprivation. Therefore, getting in new business is crucial.

We should also bear it in mind that we have about 2 million to 3 million tourists coming to Norfolk and Suffolk each year to visit our beautiful counties and one of the horror stories that they invariably leave with is that of being stuck on the A11. We want to encourage tourism, so roads are crucial.

We should also bear in mind, as hon. Members have pointed out, the importance of the right kind of capital expenditure. I know that the Minister is aware of it; my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk has flagged it up. I also pray in aid the support of a colleague who is unable to speak in this debate, although her fragrant presence is before me; I refer to my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Miss Smith), who, as a Whip, may be seen but, sadly, never heard, or at least heard only in private. My hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) also sends his apologies, as he is on duty at the Public Accounts Committee. Both my hon. Friends have said that there are two types of capital expenditure. The first, once made, may cost more and more. Such expenditure is important, as it includes schools, prisons, hospitals and so on. The second, apart from the occasional need to repair potholes, produces economic growth after the initial capital investment is made. Roads are one of the most important elements of such growth. I commend my hon. Friends for making that point.

Does my hon. Friend agree with the Minister’s boss, the Secretary of State for Transport, that there are powerful economic benefits to removing the bottleneck?

Yes, absolutely. I am sure that colleagues from other parts of the country will make similar points, but I believe that our point about the A11, which is backed up by the quote from the Secretary of State, is a powerful one.

On the politics of the issue, I have every sympathy for the Minister. His civil servants will have produced a good brief saying, “I commend all the people who have spoken, sympathise with them and feel their pain, but I point out that we are in the middle of a comprehensive spending review and I can therefore make no commitments whatever; kisses to all.” I am not being patronising; he is in a difficult position, as are all Ministers in all Departments.

Our most important message to the Minister is that the MPs of Norfolk and Suffolk are absolutely united in the opinion that the A11 should be given priority. We have been to see the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and some colleagues have met the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport to discuss broadband, so we understand the economic constraints, but when the Minister considers priorities during the next few months, we urge him to look carefully at what we have argued for. We believe that, in two to three years, the investment required will produce more tax revenue for the Government and will benefit all our constituents.

Thank you, Mr Williams, for the chance to contribute to this important debate, and for chairing it. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock) on securing it. I hope that the presence of so many of us from across East Anglia will make the point that the case has huge cross-party and cross-county support, and that the Minister will recognise that the issue has a head of steam.

I am conscious of time restrictions, so I will focus on some specific economic benefits. I speak as someone who came to politics after a 14-year career in technology venturing, and who has spent most of his childhood and adult life on the A11 in one way or another. I have some experience of the frustrations involved when travelling within or out of Norfolk.

I shall concentrate on three types of economic benefit: local, regional and national. On the local level, as I said in my maiden speech, my constituency is the jewel in the crown that is Norfolk. It is in the landlocked heart of Norfolk and centres on Dereham. My constituency suffers from all the problems relating to marginalisation and detachment from the mainstream economy. Average incomes in Mid Norfolk are less than £20,000, and we have pockets of extreme, often hidden, rural deprivation and of pensioner poverty. Frustratingly, there are many fast-growing small businesses in the constituency that are desperate to grow and spread prosperity, but they are unable to do so because they are cut off and lie in the heart of a county that is also cut off, as Norfolk is the only county not connected to the national dual carriageway system. That serves only to strengthen the perception in Mid Norfolk that we are destined to be either a quaint rural backwater—perhaps not quaint to those struggling to pay their bills, but quaint to those passing through—or, as under the last Government, a giant housing estate, zoned for growth, and described with ugly terms such as “growth point status”.

Neither of those models is what my constituents want. They want a richer and more organic way—dare I say, a Norfolk way, an idea that hon. Members have heard me discuss. It involves a vision of a vibrant rural economy based on jobs in villages, smaller pockets of housing, and entrepreneurship in the countryside. All of that can happen; the only thing holding it back is a lack of infrastructure and a lack of ability to get in and out of the area, whether by broadband, road or rail.

My constituency sits between Norwich and Cambridge, two world centres for innovation in technology and enterprise. It is ironic that it languishes in rural poverty and marginalisation, given that to the west and east are growth hot spots struggling to provide capacity when it comes to housing and transport infrastructure. We do not want a handout; we want a way in and out, so that our local businesses can thrive.

Turning to the regional argument, anybody looking at East Anglia will find it striking that although over the past 15 to 20 years it has had high growth rates, particularly in and around Cambridge and Norwich, it also contains pockets of extreme deprivation. How can Cambridge, an inflationary hot spot of new technologies, be so close to centres of deprivation in Peterborough, King’s Lynn, Cromer, parts of Norwich, Yarmouth, Lowestoft and parts of the Suffolk coast? Anybody coming to the area would think that it must be prosperous. It is as though California had around its perimeter pockets of the extreme deprivation recognisable in bits of the Bronx in New York. The reason is that it is so difficult to get around. Despite having worked in Cambridge for 10 years, I know nobody there who does business with companies in Yarmouth. Companies in Yarmouth should be doing business with companies in Cambridge, but if it reliably takes more than three hours to get there, that will not happen. That key piece of dualling would unlock the regional economy.

Additionally, on the east coast of our county there are national assets in the form of container ports, where huge amounts of national trade arrive before setting off on a journey through East Anglia to the rest of the UK economy over a non-dualled section of road—the A47, to which another hon. Member referred. It is ridiculous, from the point of view of national infrastructure and the national economy, that at the heart of the county is a bottleneck holding back so much growth.

On the national economic picture, the Government have proposed a clear and important programme for getting the public sector deficit under control and promoting private sector growth through the “open for business” programme. East Anglia can lead in such growth and in rebalancing our economy geographically, as well rebalancing it away from an over-dependence on the City, housing and consumer spending. We can lead in three of the world’s biggest growth sectors: biomedicine, clean technology and food science.

In the Norwich research park, more than 2,500 scientists work in what is recognised as a global centre of excellence. A team there under Professor Jonathan Jones has just pioneered the world’s first blight-resistant potato, an enormous innovation with the potential to transform food growing not just in this country but around the world. How ridiculous is it that when companies come here to inspect that technology and discuss licensing it, they may fly to Stansted and then face an impossible journey to a world-class centre of excellence over a single carriageway? That reality is holding back our potential. All we ask is for the Minister to acknowledge the potential that our economy would have if we had that section of dualling.

The section of the A11 that is in my constituency is dualled. However, although that makes it convenient to get around Attleborough, it is not much good if our business people hit a traffic jam when they head south to interact with the national and world economy. We have all made a compelling case on this matter. I thank hon. Members for listening and very much look forward to the Minister’s reply.

Last Friday, I was at Ipswich station for the naming of a new train, the Evening Star, which is, of course, the name for Venus in the night sky. Coincidentally, it is also the name of a local newspaper in Ipswich. At that event, I was able to relate the sad story of how the people of Norwich stood in the way of the introduction of a train line from Ipswich to Norwich in the 1840s. It was only through the enterprising intervention of the then Member of Parliament for Ipswich that the train was able to go via Ipswich, and Norwich was released from the isolation that it had hitherto suffered. It is good to see that my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock) is carrying on that fine tradition of progressive Suffolk MPs fighting for better transport links to Norfolk and Norwich. I know that some hon. Members could not attend this debate; my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) is pained not to be here, and we are pained by his absence.

We were given a Betjeman-like description of the trouble of driving along the A11 by my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk. It is a journey that I have made many times. As Betjeman would have understood, when one travels on the railways in the west of our country, the train often goes from field to field, as the railway dodges what were the objections of local landowners. That is why it is so refreshing to have not only a progressive Member of Parliament in West Suffolk, but a progressive landowner in Lord Iveagh, who has kindly and brilliantly championed the A11, much of which transgresses on his land.

We Suffolk MPs are so keen on this route because we are Conservatives, and we believe not in levelling down, but in increasing both the general wealth and the regional prosperity of our two counties. I am pleased to be joined by the Norfolk MPs in that quest; they are clearly following in the tradition of past fine Suffolk MPs. One might well ask why the Member of Parliament for Ipswich is arguing for better road links to Norwich. Well, increased prosperity in Norwich is, of course, very good for Ipswich. The good people of Norwich can visit our superior parks and our pre-eminent museums and galleries. They can also come to be trashed by our transcendent football team. All of those things are good for Ipswich and for the people of Norwich.

Many transport infrastructure projects affect both our counties, and it is entirely right—I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) referred to this—that we are hunting as a pack, as the issues affect all of us. In my case, there is the issue of improving the Copdock interchange and the Harris Bacon curve, which will allow freight to go to the midlands and will allow us to improve our main train line from Norwich to Ipswich and London. Of course, there is also the matter of the franchise arrangements, which we will approve in the near future, and my hon. Friend referred to that subject.

Traditionally, our two counties have suffered from a chronic lack of investment in transport infrastructure. That is a missed chance, because we are one of the regions that contribute to the Exchequer—not many do. It would seem sensible to invest in that success to enable the major towns and areas of our two counties to grow and prosper even more. In that way, we can benefit the rest of the country.

Is it not the case that, under the previous Government, the economic return of projects was not properly considered or factored into decisions that were made? That is why so many rational projects did not go ahead at a time of unprecedented Government spending. They failed to fix not only the roof but the road while the sun was shining.

I am pleased to endorse my hon. Friend’s comments. She is entirely right: capital expenditure was neglected, particularly in the east of England. A point that I made in my maiden speech, and that I wish to impress time and again on the Exchequer, is that although the Budget for this year is set—I was glad to see that capital expenditure was protected in it—it is vital that ongoing Budgets bear down as much as possible on current expenditure to release funds for capital expenditure.

As anyone who has driven around the country knows, after going down nice bits of dual carriageway, one suddenly drives into a village where everything is blocked. That has gone on for too long. The issue is not just with the A11. We have failed to finish major infrastructure projects across the country. As for the spending on roads to which the Government wish to commit over the next few years, they should start by tidying up those areas that clearly need investment, and the issue that we are raising is surely at the top of the list.

I would like to touch on one further point. Members from Norfolk and Suffolk have been writing letters of a joint nature on schools, health care, broadband, roads and railways. In all those things, we lag behind the rest of the country, in terms of spending per capita. It is simply unfair for that to persist. It occurred not only under the previous Administration, but under Administrations before them. The situation is unfair, and not just because it fails to release the prosperity of the counties of which I have spoken; it is unfair on the pockets of deprivation that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman) mentioned so wisely. It is all too easy for deprived areas that are surrounded by areas of relative affluence to be forgotten because of their wealthy neighbours. That is not fair on those areas.

In 1277—a year much lamented by Welshmen in this House; I count myself as one—Edward I began his invasion of our nation. He progressed with a giant force of not archers or swordsmen, but road builders. He built a road across the Dee from Chester to your beautiful constituency, Mr Williams. I am glad to see a new reincarnation of that great king in my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk, who, I hope, will drive a road not to Caernarfon but to Thetford and then Norwich. He will thereby release for both Norwich and Ipswich the prosperity that we can realise only by receiving the investment that we need.

I congratulate the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock) on securing a debate on an issue that I know he campaigned on long before he was elected. Like so many of us, he raised the matter in his maiden speech—indeed, he managed to lobby me on the issue before either of us had been sworn in as an MP. I also pay tribute to the work of my neighbour the hon. Member for Norwich North (Miss Smith), who is sadly unable to address us. I know she cares passionately about the issue because of the benefits that dealing with it will bring to the people of Norwich.

It is important to recognise the challenges posed to the local economy by lack of infrastructure in and leading into Norfolk. The county’s economic position within the east of England and the greater south-east region is not typical of those areas. Business birth rates in Norfolk are less than 9%, which compares poorly with a rate of more than 11% across the east of England, and prospects appear to be worsening relative to the wider region, with the number of business births in Norfolk down by 17.5% since 2007. That figure compares poorly with a drop of around 5% across the wider east of England.

In 2004, there were 3,690 new businesses in Norfolk; in 2006, that figure fell dramatically to 3,195; in 2008, it fell dramatically again to just 2,765. Norfolk is slipping further behind, and the gap is widening. In the past, East Anglia has generated a high number of start-ups, some of which have gone on to achieve huge success, such as Bernard Matthews and his turkeys. The drop in start-ups in a county that has traditionally relied economically on large numbers of small business operations is worrying. A key reason for that decline is the lack of infrastructure within a sparsely populated county, which puts it at a competitive disadvantage.

Yet Norfolk can contribute so much. There is huge untapped potential in Norwich and across Norfolk waiting to be unleashed by the completion of the dualling of the route. My constituency is at the end point of the A11, and it is appropriate that its starting point was originally the Bank of England, because Norwich businesses will need a fast, direct route to the banks for the enormous proceeds that dualling the road will generate. Norfolk has the potential to be at the cutting edge of green technology, science and research, but that depends on improving our infrastructure. Offshore energy, engineering, financial and business services and creative and media industries are among the areas in which Norfolk could be a world leader, but to develop them we must overcome the shortcomings in our transport system. It is enormously frustrating that a whole county’s development has been held back by a series of delays to a final decision on upgrading the A11.

Norfolk’s transport infrastructure has been under-invested in for decades. The need to dual the A11 was first raised nearly 40 years ago by Edward Heath in 1971. In 1984, the Eastern Daily Press threw its weight behind the campaign, as have dozens of Norfolk MPs over the intervening years, and yet we are still waiting in 2010. It is perhaps because of that long-term under-investment that the economic case for dualling the A11 is so compelling. Norwich is the largest UK city that is not connected to the dual carriageway and motorway network, and making that connection is one of the few low-hanging fruits, ripe and easily picked, that would result in enormous benefits. For Ministers looking for cost-effective ways of delivering economic benefits through infrastructure investment, the A11 is surely at, or near, the top of the list.

Norfolk is geographically isolated and sparsely populated, which provides challenges for economic development, and the poor quality of the county’s road network and its lack of connectedness make those challenges much harder for businesses to overcome.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that not only do businesses in Norfolk lose out as a result of that bottleneck, but many businesses at the other end in Suffolk, which would dearly love to work with the great businesses he has mentioned and the great scientists other Members have mentioned, lose out because the bottleneck splits those two areas?

I certainly agree with that point and thank the hon. Gentleman for making it. The benefits would be not just for Norfolk, but for all the other areas where greater interconnectedness would provide new business opportunities.

The other major roads leading into Norwich and Norfolk from outside the county are single carriageway for significant and extended stretches, which places an even larger strategic value on the A11. Getting Norwich and Norfolk better connected to the wider region is a vital step towards overcoming our geographical constraints and the competitive disadvantage that businesses in the region face. The journey time savings that would result from dualling the final stretch of the A11 are estimated at around seven minutes during peak times, but they could be considerably greater. Lack of capacity on the road regularly leads to delays of up to 20 minutes or more, or considerably longer during peak holiday seasons. Those who witness the A11 at the start and end of bank holiday weekends witness a seemingly never-ending convoy of caravans going nowhere, which is surely a deterrent to return holiday visits to the county, and it unfairly reinforces the stereotype of Norfolk as a remote and peripheral region.

A £600 million benefit to Norfolk’s economy is waiting to be realised from the dualling of the A11, providing significant value for money at a time when public spending needs careful scrutiny for economic impact, as so many hon. Members have said in the debate. The Atkins report identified time savings worth £558 million and a further £136 million of wider economic benefits, including agglomeration benefits. Much of those agglomeration economies will be driven by productivity increases in Norwich. Businesses in my constituency and research institutions in and adjacent to Norwich are particularly likely to see the positive impacts of increased clustering. The region will see the economic benefit of improved connections between two key centres of growth: Norwich and Cambridge.

May I mention a third sector of growth, in addition to those in Ipswich that I have mentioned? My hon. Friend might be interested to know that Martlesham has the largest area of software development in Europe, and because of the poverty of the A140 as a road, the quickest way to get there is via the A14 and A11, so getting the third part of the triangle is important for his constituents and mine.

I certainly take that point on board. There is enormous expertise and world-class research in Ipswich, as well as the existing business opportunities. There is a real opportunity for all centres across the region to benefit from the clustering effect.

Businesses are being deterred from investing in Norfolk because of the A11’s current inadequacies. Tackling the bottlenecks on the route will provide a huge confidence boost to businesses in Norfolk and outside that are looking to generate new investment and employment opportunities in Norwich and Norfolk. Norwich is one of the UK’s top 10 shopping destinations, but despite that some major retailers have held back from investing there because of the threat of hold-ups to deliveries on the A11.

The completion of the dualling of the A11 was identified as the No. 1 priority for Shaping Norfolk’s Future, the private sector-led economic development partnership. Its petition attracted 16,000 signatures and all-party support from the county’s MPs. Norfolk chamber of commerce, alongside Shaping Norfolk’s Future and more than 100 business leaders from Norfolk and Suffolk, submitted a joint letter of support for that proposed scheme. The consensus is strongly in favour of the scheme and the strength of feeling is high.

In conclusion, the reason there is such huge support for the scheme is that the case is so compelling. It will bring major economic benefits to Norwich, Norfolk and well beyond, at a time when capital investment projects need to demonstrate strong justification. I am confident, as I hope the Minister is after hearing our submissions, that the evidence in favour of the scheme proceeding is compelling. I strongly urge Ministers to reach a conclusion on it as quickly as possible so that Norwich and Norfolk can look forward with optimism and confidence to future economic development.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Williams. I congratulate the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock) on securing this important debate, which is of great relevance to securing higher economic growth in East Anglia and the wider east of England area. The fact that I am faced by so many Members on the coalition Benches and have no Members on my own Benches shows just how far my party has to go in trying to win back the trust of people in the east of England, a task that we shall pursue with great diligence in the course of this Parliament.

The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) campaigned with great effectiveness and persistence before and after the general election for the dualling of the nine-mile stretch of the A11, between the Five Ways roundabout at Barton Mills and the roundabout at the southern end of the Thetford bypass, and I pay tribute to their efforts. We have followed the hon. Gentleman’s contributions in the Chamber with great interest, particularly those on economic matters. He has quickly demonstrated a zeal for fiscal consolidation, of which his right hon. Friend the Chancellor would undoubtedly be proud. Indeed, given the hon. Gentleman’s background, it would not be surprising to learn that he was the architect of the plan for fiscal consolidation. Today, however, he made a surprising but welcome case for targeted capital investment in transport infrastructure. Who knows what further progress we may make before the end of this Parliament? Perhaps we will find that beneath that only occasionally monetarist exterior there beats the heart of a Keynesian after all, at least with regard to transport investment.

Is it not the case that even Adam Smith, quite a dry economist, suggested that infrastructure spending was important for the viability of businesses? It is hardly a Keynesian case.

The hon. Lady makes an important point, and one to which I will return later in my remarks. I know that hon. Members are keen on establishing the provenance of their arguments through literature reviews—indeed, I have an important article to which I will refer later.

The hon. Member for West Suffolk eloquently argued that investment in roads now can generate higher economic growth in the future—I strongly agree. I pray in aid an important article by Nicholas Crafts in the Oxford Review of Economic Policy last year. He cited the problem of the relative lack of transport investment in roads over the past few decades, for which Governments of all political hues should be held accountable. The important point in his piece—indeed, the nub of his argument—was that public investment in roads provides greater returns in private investment. He concluded that the productivity gains obtained “crowd in” and do not “crowd out” private investment. I hope that Government Members take that argument on board.

I pay tribute to the other contributions to the debate from the hon. Members for South West Norfolk, for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), who spoke with great insight about the benefits of the A11 dualling for his area, for Waveney (Peter Aldous), for Broadland (Mr Simpson), for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman), for Ipswich (Ben Gummer) and for Norwich South (Simon Wright).

As the hon. Member for West Suffolk mentioned, although investment in completing the dualling could cost the public purse anywhere between £106 million and £147 million, the Highways Agency has estimated that such investment would bring £557 million in benefits to the East Anglian economy and improve safety capacity and journey times along the A11.

The hon. Member for Norwich South referred to the Atkins report commissioned by the East of England Development Agency, Norfolk county council and the Government office for the East of England. It established that benefits could be worth £202 million for commuters and leisure travellers, £355 million for business travellers, including freight and car travellers and an additional 20%—perhaps £136 million—in time savings.

In the “A11 Wider Economic Impacts Study”, Atkins makes a powerful case for the economic benefits that could be brought by the dualling. The report cites increased business efficiency and confidence, and bringing together the communities of Norfolk and Suffolk—tangible benefits that would emerge from the investment.

The section is the last remaining stretch of single carriageway on the M11-A11 route to Norwich, where congestion is a consistent problem, exacerbated at times by agricultural traffic. A public consultation was initiated in 2001, a preferred route was announced in November of that year, a draft order was published in 2008, and a public inquiry commenced in November 2009.

The project has been met generally with favour and approval locally. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Natural England, reportedly opposed to the scheme at first, withdrew its opposition after the Highways Agency agreed to create suitable habitats for nesting stone curlews. On 28 April, as already referred to, my noble Friend Lord Adonis, the then Secretary of State for Transport, on behalf of the Labour Government made a commitment to complete the dualling of the nine-mile section between Thetford and Barton Mills, subject to receipt of the planning report following the public inquiry into the project.

I am interested in that admission. Given the journal cited earlier by the hon. Gentleman—I am afraid that I missed that issue, but it seems self-evident that investment infrastructure is important, especially roads—why did the Minister make such a declaration on 28 April this year and not on 28 April 1998?

As ever, the timing of my noble Friend Lord Adonis was impeccable. He will have made that decision having weighed up all the factors, in his inimitable style.

Other transport capital investment is contributing to economic recovery in East Anglia. Rail freight contributes £870 million to the UK economy each year, and Network Rail’s decision to upgrade the line between Felixstowe and Nuneaton via Ipswich, Ely and Peterborough will help the rail freight industry in East Anglia in particular, potentially taking 750,000 lorries off the roads in the UK and on to rail by 2030.

I am pleased to see the Under-Secretary of State in his place. During the election campaign there was quite a tough war over the A11 dualling between his right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for Transport and his hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker). The coalition agreement makes 12 commitments on transport issues, but none relates to the £6 billion plan for roads investment which the Government inherited from their predecessors.

I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity today to affirm the Government’s support for necessary improvements to our roads network, of which the completion of the A11 dualling is a key part, and to make it clear that the Liberal Democrat pre-election policy of cuts in new roads investment has been repudiated. More widely, can he outline what his Department’s criteria are in its value-for-money analysis of transport capital projects? Can he indicate which criteria, in his view, the completion of the A11 dualling would fulfil?

My broader point, which was referred to by the hon. Member for West Suffolk, is that countries that have attempted a programme of fiscal consolidation remotely resembling that being pursued by the Government have seen transport as an easy target. Canada in the mid-1990s is a case in point, where spending was slashed by 50%. That must not happen in the comprehensive spending review and in the programme of fiscal consolidation.

I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman accepts that the Government of whom he was a part failed to invest in infrastructure enough. It is good of him to admit that. Therefore, does he agree that not reducing capital spending in the Budget was the correct decision? Given his citation of the economic literature, does he commend that decision by the Chancellor?

The point made in the Crafts article, and in a number of studies, is that Governments—both Labour and Conservative—over decades have not invested enough in transport. I hope that that is borne in mind in the comprehensive spending review.

Am I content that the Chancellor has not cut capital investment further? Absolutely. We shall see what happens on 20 October, but transport has a strong case for needing additional capital investment, not least in projects such as the completion of Thameslink and high-speed rail, on the benefits of which I have spoken in previous Westminster Hall debates.

I hope that the Minister will show today that he and the Secretary of State are prepared to fight for investment in our roads, buses and trains, and do not simply see their budget as one which is ripe for pruning by the Chancellor. I pay tribute to the contributions made by other hon. Members and hope that the Minister will have good news for the people of Norfolk and Suffolk.

It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Williams, for the first time on the Government side of the House, under the new coalition.

My hon. Friends are hunting in a pack today, as they do regularly in the House. I congratulate them on doing so. It is good that people stand up for their communities, come together to agree what they agree on and move forward on that. I am somewhat trapped, as hon. Members know, by the draft orders that are still in place. I must be slightly careful about what I say so that I do not prejudice any developments. The spending review is still going on and, once it is over, we will announce as soon as possible which programmes will go ahead. That is the right way to proceed—promises broken are not worth anything.

The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Bain), referred in his short comments to unfunded projects. We know that many of those projects would not have gone ahead unless the previous Government had borrowed even more and given us even more fiscal problems than we have at present.

My hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) said that I have a speech written by my officials. Yes, I do, but, if I tried, I would not be able to read it in the next 10 minutes. Actually, because of the nature of the debate, I think that it would not be right and proper to do that. In the time that I have been in the House, I have often sat on the other side of this Chamber and watched Ministers read out, in good faith, what was put in front of them by their officials, but not respond to comments that were made during the debate.

This debate has been excellent, and I shall try to respond to as many questions as possible. If I cannot respond directly today, I shall write to the individuals responsible on the issues that have been raised. So much has been said, and I do not want to leave anything hanging in the air. We will write, talk about the issues and work together to go forward.

I have been lobbied by Members of this House—the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham), and my hon. Friends the Members for Norwich North (Miss Smith) and for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon)—who, because of other responsibilities, were not able today to make the points that they would have liked to make. However, they have made their views known to me in the Tea Room, in the Lobby and anywhere else. My broad shoulders can take the kind of lobbying that I get on roads at present.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock) put the argument for the A11 fantastically well. I am extremely familiar with that part of the world. Until I went into the military at 16, I spent every holiday on the Norfolk Broads, and, since I left the military, I have spent at least one long weekend every year in the area. My children are grown up now—they are 19 and 21—but they will not mind my saying that they loved Center Parcs when they were young. We have sat on the A11 more times than I have had hot dinners, long before air-conditioning for cars was invented, cooked while we waited, and then took our lives in our hands as we tried to cross back on to the A11. That was before the new traffic lights were put in at Elveden for Center Parcs. I know that they caused a great deal of controversy locally when they were put in, but they have saved lives.

On saving lives, there were 148 accidents between 2004 and 2008 on this section of the road, 12 of which were serious and two of which were fatal. Our thoughts are with the families and loved ones of the people who lost their lives on that road.

The argument is broad. It is about congestion, but what does congestion cause? We have heard today about the economic effects on communities in Suffolk and in Norfolk. I visited many hon. Members during the general election in my shadow Health role, which I had before I moved to my new and exciting role as the Roads Minister. I talk about roads all the time to everyone—I love being the Roads Minister.

My hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) is here today. I went to Great Yarmouth when he was the candidate. I went up the night before because I was petrified about not being there on time for an appointment at 9 o’clock the following morning—I know what that road is like. He was generous and very kind in entertaining me the night before.

The argument is not just about business, although the business argument is there, but about other factors that we need to consider such as pollution, and the environmental effects on constituents of that kind of congestion on the road. Investment decisions have to be made not only about businesses but about homes. There is no point building many homes in a part of the world where the road infrastructure is so bad.

I will ensure that the points raised by hon. Friends on rail infrastructure, particularly for freight, are taken to my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for Transport, and that she is made aware through my officials of the comments that were made today. I visited Felixstowe only the other day, and I know that investment in rail to get freight out of that part of the country is crucial to such ports. I pay tribute to Hutchison for investing in the railways, not just there but further down the line as well.

In many ways, the things that were said today show what is great about this country. Politicians will not give up on this—I am thinking especially about the new generation of younger politicians. I am conscious that I shall have to look at why this section of the road has not been dualled, and whether there is funding for it. Obviously, I will look at why, in 13 years, the previous Government did not do the work. They did some of the preparatory work, and they knew when they came in how important it was.

The hon. Member for Glasgow North East said that the project was important, and asked me to give an answer today. He had 13 years to get the previous Government to do that. Actually, because they borrowed so much and did not worry about the country’s fiscal situation, the funding was there.

The Secretary of State for Transport, officials and I will look at the business case. Projects have gone ahead in the past 13 years with tiny benefit-cost ratios of 1 and 2. Projects with a business case that is a tiny percentage of that for the A11 were started and are going ahead today. All I can say is that, if I had been the Roads Minister then, such projects would not have gone ahead because there was not a local business or environmental case for them.

I cannot change the past. I cannot say today that I will stop projects halfway through. We have said that every road project across the country that has not started will stop, and we have stopped the public inquiries. I do not want public money spent on public inquiries, projects and engineers, plans being drawn up and the public worrying even more, if there is a possibility that many of the projects will not go ahead. If we are to make progress, it is right and proper to ensure that the money is there.

What are we looking at? The BCR for the A11 project is not 2, 3, 4 or, as alluded to earlier, 19—it is actually 20. I shall not beat about the bush. My hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk asked me to comment on what the Secretary of State said the other day about the project having a very high BCR. I will repeat what he said: it has a very high BCR. We are waiting for the analysis to be done within my Department to confirm that it is 20. If it is not, I am fairly certain that it will be between 19 and 20, and, if that is the case, it is very high.

Can I say today that the project will go ahead? No, I am sorry that I cannot. However, I promise to look at all the environmental, business, community and pollution advantages of each scheme, including the A11 scheme. I most certainly will do that.

On behalf of my colleagues, may I say that we are extremely grateful for the Minister’s thoughtful and direct response? Is he able to publish, or point us to published evidence of, the BCRs for the other projects that are in the pipeline?

The coalition Government and I, as Minister, are determined to be as open and honest as possible in respect of all projects. At present, there are no projects in the pipeline. When we publish our decisions, I intend to publish what is likely to go ahead and also what will not go ahead.

I am conscious of blight associated with some projects around the country. Believe it or not, communities desperately do not want some projects to go ahead, yet the previous Government were going to force them through. We should not do that, if we believe in local democracy and local people having a right to say what should happen. If there is a shortage of money, and if they do not want a project to go ahead, it is unlikely—not definite, but unlikely—that it will go ahead.

I promise that when we list the projects that will go ahead, the BCRs and business cases for them will be published. We will also publish the business cases for projects that will not go ahead, so that the public know exactly what they are. In some cases, people may wish to challenge a decision not to go ahead, so there will be consultation. It is important that people feel that this is not a done deal, and that they can challenge the business case and start to come forward with some innovative ideas.

Hon. Members may be aware that for junction 11A of the M1, which is one of the other projects being considered, the local community joined the developer and came forward with a substantial amount of money—some £50 million—to aid the project, should it go ahead. That new way of thinking involves developers and communities coming together for a project that they want. I am saying not that that is what should be done in respect of the A11, but just that there are different ways of doing things. We will be open and honest about that as we develop the road programme.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk and other colleagues on spending so much time in this Chamber on the last day before the House goes into the summer recess. I congratulate them on hunting as a pack, and I look forward to more lobbying in the Division Lobbies and the Tea Rooms.