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Westminster Hall

Volume 514: debated on Tuesday 27 July 2010

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 27 July 2010

[Hywel Williams in the Chair]

A11 (Dualling)

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.

Burton upon Trent County Court

Thank you, Mr Williams, for presiding over my first appearance in a Westminster Hall debate. I hope that you will be gentle with this Westminster virgin.

I thank the Minister for giving up his valuable time to attend. He knows that I have attempted to make points on behalf of my constituents in Burton on a number of occasions; I am grateful for the opportunity to make my case today. I also thank the Minister for engaging in genuine consultation. Unfortunately, under the previous Government, we got used to consultations that were little more than an exercise in futility—tick-box exercises, rubber-stamping decisions that had already been made in an air-conditioned office in Whitehall, delivering a Minister’s grand master plan. There is genuine reassurance in knowing that we have a proper consultation, with discussion and debate, about the future judicial system. I have visited Burton county court and met the staff, who appreciate having the opportunity to make their case for Burton county court surviving.

The Minister understands that the proposed closure of Burton county court is of concern to my constituents in Burton and Uttoxeter—to those hard-working people employed in the justice system, to those who use the service, and to those who are worried about how the judicial system will operate in this brave new world.

It is important to recognise that savings across the public budget are urgently needed. The previous Government’s excesses and mismanagement have left the country, like many families and businesses in my constituency, facing difficult, tough decisions when it comes to paying for the essentials in life. This debate takes place in the context of those tough financial constraints.

My constituents are not stupid: they realise that the country is broke and that savings have to be made. It is understandable that the Courts Service should bear its share of that belt-tightening, but it is equally clear that that belt-tightening must be done in a manner that protects the interests of justice and, above all, access to justice. Although this debate relates to the proposed closure of Burton county court, it would be a mistake to consider the matter in isolation, rather than as part of a wider reorganisation programme.

Underestimating the role that the county court system plays in our society would be a fundamental mistake. The services offered by Burton county court, and county courts throughout the country, often deal with the most sensitive, painful and challenging elements of modern life; bankruptcy, divorce and family breakdown are all dealt with in our county courts. Those courts represent a direct link between our local communities and the justice system. We must understand fully the impacts that any closures will have on those communities before we proceed with any closures.

The previous Government’s disastrous post office closure programme showed us that proposals that might appear justified when considered in isolation can have a disproportionate effect when their cumulative impact in an area is considered. I fear that those mistakes could be repeated if the proposed closures in the county court system go ahead. That is why I am delighted to be able to urge the Minister to stop and reconsider the impacts.

Nationally, the reorganisation of the court system will mean that approximately 25% of county courts will close. Yet in Staffordshire, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) knows, Leek county court has already been lost, and it is proposed that two of the four remaining county courts should go, so the cut in my county will be 50%, which is double the amount expected elsewhere in the country. Both the county courts that are closing—Burton and Tamworth—are in the eastern part of the county. Closing both those courts simultaneously would be a double blow to the area, leaving residents in both east and south-east Staffordshire with long journeys to the nearest county court.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Is he aware that in Staffordshire more than 23,000 fines, with a value of more than £11 million, remain uncollected by the Courts Service? Residents of Staffordshire will therefore find it difficult to see why there should be the 50% cuts about which he reminded us.

I thank my hon. Friend for his insightful and useful intervention. It is important to consider the effectiveness and efficiency of the court system. As he says, such a backlog of unclaimed fines is unpalatable and uncomfortable for anybody running the court system. I will mention later the impact that the proposals for cuts will have on the future efficiency and effectiveness of the courts.

The proposal in the consultation document is that work from Burton will go to either Derby or Stafford, my hon. Friend’s constituency. The consultation paper states that Stafford county court is 26 miles away by car, by the shortest route, and that the journey takes 45 minutes by car. Even by car, that is no short journey, and the task of attending court will be much more difficult for the 24% of households in my constituency—almost a quarter of my constituents—that do not have access to a car or van and rely solely on public transport. Many of those households are among the most vulnerable in the area, comprising those on a low income, the elderly and people with disabilities. A third of the wards in my constituency that are covered by the county court are among the 20% most deprived wards in the country; that gives an indication of the kind of vulnerable people who are served by the court. That deprivation brings with it related problems of poverty and increased social and family breakdown—precisely the kind of problems dealt with by the county court.

According to the consultation paper, it takes two hours and 23 minutes to get from Burton to Stafford by bus—a journey well worth making, because Stafford is a wonderful place to visit—but the round trip takes the best part of a working day for anybody from my constituency who wishes to attend the county court in Stafford. It takes five hours to travel there and back, not taking into consideration waiting time or the time for the case to be heard. Even the train takes one hour and 40 minutes, with a change, at a cost of some £14.30 for a normal adult return fare. That is simply unaffordable for many on low incomes in my constituency.

It is important to remember that the journey times calculated are for a journey from the county court in Burton to the proposed alternative in Stafford. For the many people who do not live right next door to Burton county court, the journey will be significantly longer, because they will have to go into Burton town to get a train or bus to travel onwards.

As for constituents who live in areas such as Marchington, which is one of the larger villages in the middle of my constituency, or Rocester, the home of JCB, no combination of trains and buses can get them to Stafford county court in time for a 9 o’clock meeting. I accept that Derby county court is more convenient for some of my constituents than Stafford, and it may seem sensible in principle to say that cases will be transferred from Burton to Derby, but many people have doubts about whether that is likely to happen in practice, and what percentage of cases will be affected. Perhaps the Minister will tell us what he envisages happening, and how many cases he proposes to send to Derby, and how many to Stafford. That would provide a clearer picture of what we may expect.

Derby court falls outside the West Mercia and Staffordshire area court services. Derbyshire’s courts are subject to a separate review, and I would like an assurance from the Minister that the two reviews will be dovetailed together and considered as a whole. What guarantees can he give that if changes to the county court service in Derbyshire lead to more work being transferred from other courts in Derbyshire to Derby county court, Burton will not fall down the pecking order, with cases ultimately being transferred to Stafford, with the associated difficulties that I outlined?

The suggestion in the consultation paper that work could be transferred to Derby has so far done little to reassure my constituents. We must consider the consequences of the vastly increased travel times. I fear that they will result in people not bothering to attend. If witnesses are faced with five hours’ travel to give evidence for 20 minutes, they will simply not turn up, and that will further frustrate the court system, delay justice and waste even more money—taxpayers’ money. Surely, if the priority is to reduce inefficiency in the court system, our priority should be to tackle non-attendance in court and non-payment of fines, an issue to which my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford referred. That is a problem in the civil courts and in magistrates courts, and it should surely be at the top of our hit list. The problem will be made worse by increasing the inconvenience for witnesses who are called to give evidence.

My constituency has no court facilities whatever, and little public transport, so I can vouch for my hon. Friend’s points about witnesses’ inability to get to court, and the difficulties created for many of those constituents of mine who are called as witnesses.

I thank my hon. Friend for her important intervention. I mourned the passing of Leek county court; in a rural constituency such as hers, it is important to consider travel times and the sparsity of public transport. Not to do so would be to the detriment of justice and fairness in the system.

I am worried about the impact on the legal process. It is not difficult to understand that some witnesses will find it difficult if they are forced to travel to court on the same bus as the plaintiff, the defendant or the person against whom they will give evidence. It is not difficult to understand that witnesses may find that a harrowing and frightening experience, perhaps frightening enough to stop them giving evidence. Will the Minister assure me that he does not envisage everyone involved in a case being forced to travel on the same bus to give evidence?

In the consultation paper, the rationale for closing Burton county court seems to rest on two factors. The first is that the facilities have not been upgraded, and that is obviously due to the previous Government’s failure to invest properly in the Courts Service. I yield to no one in my belief that public spending must be brought under control to repair the damage that was done by that spendthrift Government, but it would be short-sighted, and would damage the justice system, if we closed the court to save the one-off capital cost required to bring it up to scratch. Imposing such a cut, which would significantly inconvenience many east Staffordshire court users, to save what would not even amount to a rounding-up error in the deficit reduction plan risks undermining confidence in the bigger picture of balancing the nation’s public finances.

The second reason suggested in the proposal is that Burton county court is not used efficiently. I have met the dedicated, committed and hard-working staff, and there is no doubt but that it is not used efficiently. It has a total of 178 sitting days before district and deputy district judges, but the problem could be easily overcome if we considered the overall effect of the closure of courts in Staffordshire, rather than considering the closure of Burton county court in isolation.

The consultation paper proposes the closure of two courts, the second being Tamworth county court; its work would be transferred to Stafford. Tamworth is 11 minutes from Burton by train, and the bus links between the two are fabulous. That closeness is recognised elsewhere in the Minister’s helpful consultation document, where it is proposed that Tamworth magistrates court be closed and its business transferred to Burton. Surely the answer is to follow that approach, and to transfer county court cases to Burton. That sensible approach would add an additional 60 sitting days, at least, to Burton county court, vastly improving its effectiveness and efficiency, and delivering much better value for money and access to the justice system.

Court users in Tamworth would benefit from the proposal, because they would have to travel only to Burton, rather than to Stafford, and the case load at Burton would rise to the necessary amount because of that increased work load. Furthermore, Staffordshire would bear its fair share of the burden of the reorganisation, losing one in four of its county courts—exactly the national average of 25%. I respectfully ask the Minister to reconsider the proposals, and to ensure that we have a strong civil court system in Staffordshire that offers access to justice for all, rich or poor. I ask him to ensure that Staffordshire shoulders its fair share of the pain, and to guarantee that my constituents will have fair and equal access to justice in the court system.

I welcome this debate to discuss our proposal to close the Burton upon Trent county court, subject to consultation. This might have been my hon. Friend’s first appearance in Westminster Hall, but it was certainly a good one, and he ably represented his constituents’ best interests.

Allow me, Mr Williams, to set out the Government’s position on our proposals to reform and rationalise the court estate. I will provide details of the reasoning behind including Burton upon Trent on the list of possible closures. I am sure that my hon. Friend will want to respond to the consultation that closes, as he will be aware, on 15 September. County courts across England and Wales have seen a real change in recent years because Her Majesty’s Courts Service has dramatically increased access to online and telephone services. Currently, 70% of money claims, and the vast majority of possession actions, are issued centrally via electronic channels. People can pay fines online for driving infringements, or for not paying their TV licence on time. They can pay off debts or court fees online, using a wide variety of methods. We are working to improve the availability of information on the web and over the telephone, using dedicated information centres with comprehensive details of all civil and family cases, so that fewer people will need to travel to court to ask a question.

We cannot continue to deliver the same level of service in the same way and ignore the changing needs of society. New technologies, which we are all confident about and use in our everyday lives, have not been sufficiently adapted for use in the courts, although they are essential to streamline our processes and improve services for the public. That is why, in addition to consulting on the courts estate, I am inviting members of the public, MPs, and others with an interest, to give me their ideas for improving and modernising the courts service.

HMCS is also looking at how to speed up the experience for court users in the county court by changing how the back offices work. We are establishing a series of large, multi-purpose, multi-skilled administrative centres, which will centralise claims and process work from all county courts, thereby freeing up front-line services and staff to focus on supporting more complex cases that need judicial intervention. That is not a new innovation; there has been an incremental move towards more centralised administrative centres for 30 years. The concept has been successfully tested in local business centres, and we plan to centralise civil work into two key locations in Salford and Haywards Heath, where civil claims will be administered until judicial intervention is necessary. We will also continue to support high-volume users in our bulk centre in Northampton.

Wherever court users can make use of a non-judicial intervention for family and civil cases, we must provide them with all the support and information that they need to explore a variety of dispute resolution routes. A large number of cases go to court, but in practice many people find the full court experience to be inconvenient, intimidating and expensive, as well as slow and unpleasant. That is neither necessary nor in the best interests of either party in the case. Providing options for alternative dispute resolutions, such as mediation conducted over the telephone, is often a better, and less stressful, option for people involved in court cases.

Where judicial involvement is required, we are exploring whether in future physical attendance at court is always a necessity. Can the use of telephone hearings be extended? Does video conferencing technology open new possibilities? In that context, let me point out to my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley) that fines are not dealt with by the county court. Fines are one area where we know that having a physical court does not result in higher payment rates. However, my hon. Friend’s point was well made, and I confirm that we have invested in making it easier to pay fines using methods such as telephone, internet and so on, in order to improve the rate of payment.

Since Lord Woolf’s civil justice reforms in 1996, the number of civil cases has declined by 20%. In order to meet future needs of customers in a faster, more efficient and affordable way, we are working closely with partners across the civil justice system, including Citizens Advice and the Legal Services Commission, to increase the provision of mediation and further improve court procedures. Furthermore, we will work closely with the judiciary to support work on procedural improvements.

Although cost is by no means my only concern, given the dire national economic situation, which my hon. Friend the Member for Burton acknowledged, we cannot forget the savings that would be delivered by this programme of closures. If all courts under consultation were to close, we would achieve savings in running costs of £15.3 million per year, as well as avoiding a backlog of £21.5 million in maintenance costs. A further assessment will be necessary on the level of savings that could be achieved and the potential value that could be released from the disposal of properties.

The closure of Burton county court would save around £106,000 in operating costs that would no longer have to be paid. Furthermore, we would not be liable for the additional investment of around £450,000 in maintenance backlog costs. I confirm to my hon. Friend that we are looking at the area as a whole, and we know that there is a high density of county courts in Staffordshire and West Mercia. As less work is dealt with in the courts, we will need fewer court buildings. We want to ensure that we have all the evidence available before making decisions about which courts provide us with the best service and should remain open. Therefore, I encourage all affected MPs to write in to the consultation with their views.

I thank the Minister for explaining much of the rationale behind his decision, but there will always be people who need to access the court system. Will the Minister explain what he believes would be a reasonable amount of travel time for accessing a county court? Has he done any work on the impact that increased travel time has on non-attendance at county court hearings?

We have considered that point, and we felt that a travel time of 60 minutes would be appropriate. I will come on to that point if I have time. In his earlier remarks, my hon. Friend said that attendance at court is a stressful experience, and he spoke about situations of bankruptcy, family breakdown and divorce. As traumatic as those things are, most people will not frequently get divorced or be declared bankrupt, so the comparison that he made with the closure of a local post office—something used by many people on a daily basis—was not accurate.

Having talked to some MPs during the programme of consultation, I am aware of the prevailing view that the principles on which we are consulting are right. Understandably, however, few MPs wish their own local court to close. The passion about this issue that I have seen from all MPs—not least my hon. Friend—is admirable and important to our constituents. Nevertheless, if we accept that we have to reduce the courts estate considerably for the good of the public, we must also accept that sometimes the court in our own constituency may be the most strategic one to close.

Some of the local county courts in Staffordshire and West Mercia have larger and better facilities that are multi-functional and can take a large proportion of the work in the area. As far as possible, we want to try and focus work in those courts. It is our responsibility to think about what is best for the whole of the area, and we believe that the five larger courts at Hereford, Stafford, Stoke-on-Trent, Telford and Worcester would offer the area a strong, efficient and effective civil court system.

There are 10 members of staff at Burton county court, and a total of 43 staff in all the county courts proposed for closure in the Staffordshire and West Mercia area. Once the Lord Chancellor has made his final decisions about whether and which courts to close, we will work closely with the trade unions to look at the impacts on staff.

No member of the judiciary is based at Burton county court, although two district judges sit a total of 127 days per year, with a further 51 days of deputy district judge sittings per year. That is marginally less than the standard we have set, but we must consider the area as a whole. Across Staffordshire and West Mercia, county courts are considerably underused, with an average utilisation rate of 61%. We know which courts offer the best long-term opportunities to continue to deliver a good-quality service in larger multi-functional facilities.

Burton courthouse is under the freehold ownership of HMCS and does not offer facilities to the standards that one would expect of a county court. For a start, it would not be compliant with the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 unless significant maintenance work took place. Hearings and counter services at Burton county court will transfer to either Derby or Stafford county courts, depending on which is closer for the parties involved. Both Stafford and Derby county courts are purpose-built buildings with a high standard of accommodation and facilities for court users, judiciary and staff.

I would like to confirm what the Minister meant when he said that the decision about whether a court user has to go to Derby or Stafford county court would depend on the distance to be travelled. Is it correct to say that if Derby is closer, a person would not be forced to go to Stafford?

The distance would be different for various constituents. One court may be more appropriate than another because of what it does. Not all courts do the same things so we cannot generalise in that way. I appreciate the issues about distance and travel raised by my hon. Friend. He made his points well, and he should submit them to the consultation.

Sitting suspended.

Hospital Services (North-East)

[Jim Sheridan in the Chair]

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan. The debate is about hospital services in the north-east, but I shall focus on services in North Tees and Hartlepool, so I welcome the fact that I can see here my hon. Friends the Members for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham), for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) and for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson), as well as the hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton). I am also pleased to see a good north-eastern Member in the form of my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery). As I said, I shall focus on North Tees and Hartlepool, but I think that the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) will wish to catch your eye, Mr Sheridan, and widen the debate so that it has a more regional perspective. I thank him for writing me a note, asking to participate in the debate.

I welcome the opportunity to discuss hospital services in North Tees and Hartlepool again. We had an important but too short debate on 5 July, initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North, in which many hon. Members hoped to contribute so that they could express their concern about, and seek clarification on, the Conservative-Liberal Government’s decision to cancel the £464-million new hospital that was to serve the populations of Hartlepool, Stockton, Easington and Sedgefield. I am indebted to Mr Speaker, who, after discussing the matter with me, granted this longer debate so that we could discuss more thoroughly the vital issue of health care and hospital services in my area. We also had a meeting with the Minister in the week following that debate.

The decision by the new Government—one of their first decisions on coming to office—to withdraw the £500-million investment from our area throws the vital issue of health care and hospital services back into complete confusion and mayhem. My constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North, as well as those of my hon. Friends the Members for Sedgefield and for Easington, are worth much more than that and deserve much better.

It is especially important that there should be excellent health care in Hartlepool and the surrounding areas because the people whom I represent experience some of the worst health inequalities in the country. Much of that is due to our legacy as a former heavy manufacturing town, with industrial diseases and injuries. Much of it is due to the deindustrialisation of the 1980s and ’90s, and the failures of Government at that time to put in place an alternative economic model. Economic inactivity and health inequality go hand in hand, and we have in the past 30 years suffered from high levels of deprivation. Much of the health inequality has to do with poor and inadequate investment in primary health care in Hartlepool in the last half-century. For example, we have had a much lower ratio of GPs per head of population than we should have had for much of the time that we have had an NHS. As a result, we have had to rely on hospitals, whereas other areas may have had suitably high levels of GPs and primary health facilities.

Frankly, much of the inequality has to do with people’s lifestyles. One third of the population of Hartlepool smoke, as opposed to 24% across England. Some wards in Hartlepool have smoking rates of 40% to 50%. The rate for smoking in pregnancy is way above the national average. The proportion of women who breastfeed their baby in Hartlepool is half what it is across the country. Hartlepool is above the national average for the proportion of people who binge-drink, although I would like to point out that it is below the average for the Teesside area as a whole. Rates of early death from heart disease, strokes and cancer are significantly worse in Hartlepool than the national average, as is life expectancy. Although the gap in life expectancy between Hartlepool and the rest of the country has narrowed in the past decade, it remains the case that a man in Stranton ward has a life expectancy some 11 years shorter than that of a similar man in a more affluent area.

All that history—the lifestyles and the poor health outcomes—means that it is vital that we have the best possible health service for my constituents. Although progress has been made, it will take more sustained help and support, and reconfiguration of services, to narrow the gap still further. We have seen more investment in Hartlepool health in the past 10 years—actually, we have seen more investment in primary health facilities in the past five years than in the previous half-century—but the people of Hartlepool still feel battered and bruised when it comes to the future of hospital services.

Since the 1990s, there has been huge uncertainty about what shape the health services will take, and where they will be located. There has been review after review after review—the Tees services review, the Darzi review, the report from the independent reconfiguration panel—and now there is the decision to scrap the hospital at Wynyard. In that time, other areas have seen a reconfiguration of hospital services; in our neighbouring area south of the Tees, one of the best hospitals in Europe—the James Cook University hospital—has been built. Those of us north of the Tees deserve something similar.

While the uncertainty has continued for my area, the hard-working staff in our local NHS have not been provided with the clear vision and leadership needed. That has compromised their ability to provide world-class health care for our area. The uncertainty has led to a loss of morale and subsequent difficulties in recruitment and retention. The trade union Unison is to be commended in my area for proudly standing up for the people who work in hospitals, but the Government’s decision, together with other reforms that they propose, is placing strain on local services and threatening jobs. We need certainty and continuing investment, and the Government, in one of their first acts in office, have provided neither.

It is fair to say that many people in my area might consider the Government’s decision to scrap the proposed new hospital to be appropriate—indeed, welcome—and might think that with a hospital not being built in Wynyard, the University hospital of Hartlepool will stay open, and that services will migrate back to it. It surely defies common sense, as I have been told by some constituents, that a town such as Hartlepool, with a population of 90,000, cannot have a fully functioning district general hospital, with all the modern services that hospitals should provide. It is argued that the decision to scrap the proposed new hospital at Wynyard presents an opportunity to provide that, and will mean that the University hospital of Hartlepool will have a secure future.

That is an understandable stance, based on affection for the great service that Hartlepool hospital has provided down the years. The big events of life have occurred in the hospital for many thousands of Hartlepudlians, including me. I am thinking of the births of my four children, the death of my nana and the saving of my son Benjamin’s life twice—first when he contracted meningitis at the age of eight, and then at the age of 12, when he suffered a stroke. The dedication of people working in that hospital is second to none, and my family are very much testimony to that.

However, I fear that we will not see the return of hospital services to Hartlepool, and that we will have the worst of all possible worlds—hospital services will move away from Hartlepool and become more inaccessible to the people whom I serve, and we will not have a world-class facility in the borough of Hartlepool to replace them.

I fully accept and embrace the changes in health services. I welcome the technological advances that mean that whereas previously certain medical procedures required extensive stays in district general hospitals, those procedures can now be done safely and more cheaply in a local setting. Just a few years ago, high-quality internet use, for example, could be provided only by bulky and costly desktop computers; now, people can have internet access in the palm of their hand. In the same way, such advances are pushing more and more medical and surgical procedures into the community, into GPs’ surgeries and even into people’s homes. I welcome that.

We are certainly seeing that trend in Hartlepool. The Momentum programme is reconfiguring more and more services that were once the preserve of the hospital, putting them into the local clinic, closer to people. I met a man in Hartlepool recently who had had his toes amputated. Just a few years ago, that would have required an operation in a hospital and a lengthy stay there for recovery and recuperation. The man I met had had the procedure carried out in the operating theatre of his GP clinic in the Headland surgery, and he was home in a matter of hours. We shall see much more of that.

The newly opened One Life Hartlepool centre, built as part of the Momentum programme, is equipped to carry out minor skeletal surgery and will do orthodontic work that was previously the preserve of hospitals. GP surgeries increasingly take blood samples on-site rather than requiring the patient to attend hospital. Again, that is welcome.

However, we also have to admit that increases in medical specialisation, coupled with a wider and more miraculous range of things that can now be achieved through science and surgery, mean that many surgical procedures are now reserved for doctors and nurses with very specialised skills, as opposed to those in general medicine and surgery.

In preparing for this debate, I have been in contact with the Royal College of Surgeons of England, and I am grateful for its help. As part of its best clinical practice, for acute general hospitals that provide the full range of facilities, specialist staff and expertise for elective and emergency medical and surgical care, the college recommends a preferred catchment population size of between 450,000 and 500,000 people. However, the college estimates that hospitals of that size account for fewer than 10% of acute hospitals in England, and states that there is unlikely to be a significant shift to that size of hospital in the short to medium term. As it is, the majority of acute hospitals have, and are likely to continue to have, catchment populations of about 300,000. That is significantly more than the population of my constituency.

It is essential that MPs and all representatives listen to the professional advice of eminent surgeons. I do not intend to play fast and loose with patient safety and clinical excellence. As a politician, I realise that I do not know better than doctors, and I want the best possible health care for my constituents. I will fight to the last to achieve the best possible services for Hartlepool. They have to be safe and medically advisable, but if something is seen to be clinically essential by surgeons, it is right that my hon. Friends and I should listen. It is also right that Ministers should listen to eminent surgical and clinical advice, and I suggest that the cancellation of the proposed new hospital means that they did not. I hope that the Minister will do so today.

I believe that Lord Darzi’s proposals of 2005, under which Hartlepool hospital was to become a centre of excellence for women’s and children’s services, and the University hospital of North Tees was to become a centre of excellence for emergency surgery, were workable and feasible. Alas, it was not to be, as other parts of Teesside felt that they could not live with that. Although I thought that the subsequent independent reconfiguration panel review was unnecessary, I respect its decision, the quality of its evidence and its professionalism. I cannot argue with the overpowering weight of clinical advice on the matter.

In the IRP report, paragraph 4.8.5, entitled “Clinical views—the need for change”, stated:

“There was a common view across all staff that no change is not an option. Staff are keen to work with the Trust management and to embrace clinically-driven change”—

“clinically-driven change” is a hugely important phrase—

"that secures the best outcome for patients, staff and the Trust…There was widespread support for a new modern hospital, north of the Tees, concentrating on providing high quality hospital services that cannot be more appropriately provided in local communities”.

The IRP also stated:

“This is not simply a matter of recruiting additional staff. Specialist skills can only be acquired and maintained with sufficient ‘throughput’ of cases. Since safety standards can only be expected to rise in the future, the current model of service provision is unsustainable.”

In the concluding remarks in the report, the chair of the IRP—a GP and the chair of an acute NHS trust in Nottingham—stated in his personal recollections that:

“The clinicians were virtually unanimous in their desire to work on one site. This was not based on their personal convenience but on clinical evidence and a belief that a real and sustainable improvement in patient care would take place.”

I want the best possible services for Hartlepool. The ideal situation if I lived in utopia would be a hospital in the very centre of Hartlepool that provided the widest possible range of specialisms. In the real world, however, I realise that the desire to see a hospital serving the people of Hartlepool, Stockton, Easington and Sedgefield was driven by clinicians, based on clinical evidence and fuelled by a belief that patient outcomes would improve and health inequalities diminish as a result.

To be fair, I think that the present Government recognise that, too. In a recent answer to my written parliamentary question on whether he would implement the recommendations of the Darzi review, the Minister replied:

“The recommendations of the Darzi review of acute health services north of the River Tees were superseded by the advice provided by the Independent Reconfiguration Panel to the then Secretary of State for Health in December 2006. This advice formed the basis of the ‘Momentum: Pathways to Healthcare programme’ which was developed by the local national health service to provide a new health care system for the people of Stockton, Hartlepool, Easington and Sedgefield.”—[Official Report, 28 June 2010; Vol. 512, c. 407W.]

From that response, it seems that the Minister accepts that clinical pressures were driving and pushing this matter.

In that context, will the Minister confirm that the proposed new hospital entirely meets the criteria set out in a letter of 20 May from the NHS chief executive to Monitor—criteria that are about ensuring that all service changes are led by clinicians and patients, not driven from the top down? Taking that point further, will the Minister explain how the Secretary of State reconciles his policy of clinical-led decisions with the pledge made during the general election campaign that Hartlepool hospital would not close if a Conservative Government were elected and a Tory MP returned for the seat of Hartlepool? What clinical evidence was there to back that pledge? Is that not an example of top-down meddling by politicians, regardless of clinical evidence? Is it now Government policy for the configuration of health services to be contingent on voting behaviour, rather than clinical decisions?

Will the Minister provide further clarity about his written answer to me, to which I referred a moment ago, on whether Darzi should be implemented? If he believes that Hartlepool hospital should remain open, will he provide additional support and resources to ensure that it can remain open, and that services will return to it? However, this is not just about money; it is about the way in which services are provided and how they are linked.

Since the Adjournment debate of 5 July, and our subsequent meeting with the Minister, the NHS White Paper has been published. It rightly pledges to put patients at the heart of services and decisions regarding services. I welcome that. The phrase used in the White Paper is

“nothing about me without me”.

The White Paper also asks for an enhanced local voice; again, that is welcome. However, I would be interested to hear the Minister’s view on what should happen if there is a stark difference between what the professionals want and what the public want—if surgeons and clinical teams say that specialism requires a concentration of services on a central site, but local communities say, as they often do, that they like the status quo and that change is unwelcome? How does the Minister envisage such tension being resolved, given that such views are often polar opposites?

The Minister may say that the independent NHS board will be important when it comes to resolving tensions or contradictions, and that its decisions will be based on clinical views and free from political interference. That would be welcome, but does that mean that the NHS commissioning board will have responsibility for resource allocation? The White Paper certainly suggests so, saying that the board will

“allocate and account for NHS resources.”

In that context, I think that “resources” means revenue resources, but does it also mean capital resources? What would happen if the NHS commissioning board recommended that, for hospital services north of the Tees, it was clinically essential that the recommendations of the independent reconfiguration panel were implemented? Would the board’s decisions overrule ministerial priorities?

The Minister may respond along the lines that the independent NHS board will take decisions out of the hands of politicians, but the White Paper contradicts that. It states on page 33:

“The Secretary of State will have a statutory role as arbiter of last resort in disputes that arise between NHS commissioners and local authorities, for example in relation to major service changes.”

In other words, the reconfiguration of hospital services, which can cause bitterness and fear in many communities, as it has in mine, can still be decided by the Secretary of State. That does not take politics out of changes to hospital services at all.

I ask the Minister to address a number of other points. Does he accept that the manner in which the project was assessed within Whitehall—in both the Department of Health and the Treasury—under the Labour Government was entirely in accordance with appropriate procedures? Does he accept that the project was appraised by officials in an entirely appropriate and rigorous manner, and that that was not done a couple of weeks before the general election, but had been planned and prepared for several years? Hartlepool borough council has written to the Secretary of State on the matter. The letter was signed by the chairman of the council and the leaders of the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat groups; they have yet to receive a response, so I would be grateful if the Minister could expand on what he said in the earlier debate.

Will the Minister publish the revised criteria and assessment considerations on which the project failed, so that we can see what is to be done to address the matter? Why are Hartlepool and North Tees rejected, when Liverpool and Epsom are not?

I might be able to help the hon. Gentleman on that point, so that he need not get confused. As he is a diligent Member, I need only remind him that in our debate on 5 July—in column 150 in HansardI went into great detail in answering that question. I am afraid that the situation has not changed since then. That was the accurate answer then, and it is the accurate answer today.

I thank the Minister for that clarification. Some of my hon. Friends might probe him a bit further on that point, because we are unclear about a number of aspects. Let me return to the point about the appropriate and rigorous procedure that took place in Whitehall. My recollection might be incorrect, so the Minister may have to provide further clarification. Will he confirm whether a letter of direction, which would be needed if the permanent secretary was unhappy with the decision taken by the Secretary of State, was needed for the proposed new hospital? The decision has left Hartlepool and the surrounding communities high and dry. There will be no new world-class hospital, the plans for which were based on clinical decisions, and no money to upgrade existing facilities. I fear that we will soon have one hospital serving the people of my constituency, and that hospital will be in North Tees. That is completely unsuitable for the task, and for the people of Hartlepool, who will find it appallingly hard to travel to.

We have no clear direction from the Government on the future of hospital services; there is only a vague sense of having been told, “You are on your own; you can do what you like.” That is part of a worrying pattern emerging in the north-east. First, there was the future jobs fund, then the working neighbourhoods fund, then the decision on the hospital, and then the scrapping of Building Schools for the Future. The people of Hartlepool and the surrounding areas are worth more than that and deserve better. I hope that the Minister will acknowledge that this afternoon and clarify how we will provide help, support and additional resources to improve hospital services in North Tees and Hartlepool.

I thank the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) for allowing me to speak in this debate. I accept and acknowledge that fundamentally he secured the debate to raise issues in relation to the role of hospitals in Hartlepool. However, as it is a debate on hospital services in the north-east and as I am the Member of Parliament for the largest constituency in the north-east and have responsibility for many rural areas that cover well over 1,000 square miles, I want to lay down a few markers in relation to the hospital services in my area.

The Government are engaged in a widespread review of everything from care to hospital facilities, but rural areas—I know that I speak for other Members who represent rural areas—have to be treated and reviewed in a slightly different way. In my constituency, I have a wonderful hospital, which was opened as a general hospital by the former Prime Minister Tony Blair, and which has been consistently downgraded over the past few years. That is a source of great upset to the people of Hexham. The hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) and others will know of the issues relating to the proposed Cramlington hospital, which is still in the pipeline. I have been told by health officials in the local primary care trust and the strategic health authority that there is no difficulty with the hospital going ahead because the funding is assured. Although health has not been as affected as other areas, will the Minister none the less reassure me that the hospital has survived the funding reviews?

In dealing with rural services, let me turn to the issue of the rebuilding of Haltwhistle hospital. Again, it takes the best part of an hour and a half to get there from Newcastle and the various hospitals there. There have been significant difficulties relating to the hospital, not least the fact that people have been waiting for the hospital to be rebuilt for well over 10 years and that has not yet happened. I sincerely hope that those matters will be reviewed. Will the Minister write to me over the next month with some assurances about the way forward?

I have two final points to make. I know that others wish to speak in this debate. The hon. Member for Wansbeck knows of my concerns because they have come up in discussions between ourselves. The issue of care and how it is provided in Northumberland and, I suspect, throughout the north-east has been a nightmare of bureaucracy and difficulty. Tremendous attention to detail is required to improve the situation. Regrettably, at present, care is provided by a multitude of providers, and the budgets are split and differentiated between individual providers and individual utilisers. I accept that a commission has been set up to review care, but it must consider how provision is made, particularly in rural areas such as ours. I blame no particular Government for the problem because it has developed over a period of time, but this is an area that clearly needs review.

Let me finish on an issue that relates to the way in which we review the provision of health care. We need to ensure that the healthy choice is the easy choice. My constituent, Dr Steven Ford, who ran against me as an independent candidate in the recent general election, said that we must be living in a very odd world when, in the middle of an obesity epidemic, the European Union cuts the price of sugar by more than one third. Therefore, we are trying to address the problem of obesity at the same time as we are cutting the sugar price. It seems to me that we would benefit greatly if we addressed that issue in future.

I am grateful for having the opportunity to speak in this debate. I do not need any specific replies from the Minister today, but I hope that he will write to me in due course about the points that I have raised.

I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan, in this important debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) on securing this debate on hospital services in the north-east. In my remarks, I intend to focus on the future of hospital services for my constituents in the south of Easington who, until June of this year, were looking forward to the benefits of a new acute hospital at Wynyard, which would have served local people in five parliamentary constituencies: Stockton North, Stockton South, Hartlepool, Easington and Sedgefield. This state-of-the-art hospital costing £464 million was granted approval in March following many years of preparation and consultation, with health professionals and clinicians working on the ground. The original concept for the new hospital was set out by Professor Sir Ara Darzi, and proposals by an independent reconfiguration panel were clear in recommending a new hospital to replace the existing provision spread across two sites, 14 miles apart.

It is evident that the North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust will struggle to continue to provide high-quality health care as we move forward into the future with the existing, ageing configuration. I commend the work of health care professionals and ancillary support staff at the University hospital of North Tees and the University hospital of Hartlepool, without whose dedication and commitment our health service could not function.

North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust has worked hard to meet key targets—Labour’s targets—to ensure a high quality and universal standard of health care for all the people in its catchment area. More than 90% of outpatients and 85% of inpatients wait no more than 18 weeks from being referred by their GP to receiving their first treatment in hospital, which is no mean achievement. The trust has also consistently managed to see, treat, admit or discharge 98% of patients within four hours of arriving in accident and emergency. Like services across England and Wales, the North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust guarantees to see patients within two weeks if a GP thinks that they may have cancer. That final target, the cancer guarantee, has been kept by the Minister, although my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) had to work hard for that victory. If the proposed hospital at Wynyard does not go ahead and our services must continue to be delivered from inadequate and increasingly outdated hospital buildings, I have a real concern that patients will suffer. Within the context of the proposed new hospital, I want to touch briefly on NHS targets. The Government’s principal argument against targets has been eroded since they accepted the two-week cancer guarantee, so why can they not admit that targets are important to ensure a universal quality of health care?

Hospital services in the north-east have offered high-quality standardised care during the past decade. As I have mentioned, my concern is that, if North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust is forced to deliver care to patients from two existing and increasingly outdated hospital buildings, the removal of targets that would have guaranteed a certain level of patient care will put patient care at risk. It is possible to foresee a scenario whereby, in comparison with those areas where the Government have allowed the construction of new hospital buildings to go ahead, the services provided in North Tees and Hartlepool—in much more challenging circumstances—could fall behind the standard of care offered by the new hospitals elsewhere in the country.

I remember that the Minister had some difficulty over the figures that were quoted when he responded to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) on 5 July, as has already been mentioned; perhaps there was some confusion over the figures. I would appreciate it if the Minister could clarify this point, because the record was corrected and I am taking these comments from Hansard, concerning the evaluation of the relative costs of providing health care with and without the new hospital. The corrected version of Hansard reads as follows:

“Over the appraisal period of 35 years”—

that is, the life span of the hospital—

“the total net present cost—that is, the whole-life cost—of building, maintaining and operating the new facility was £5.033 billion, but the cost of repairing”—

I want to reassure the hon. Gentleman, with regard to the changes made by Hansard, that there was no confusion on my behalf at all. The Hansard scribe printed it wrongly and I sought for it to be corrected. That is what happened—no confusion on my part.

I want to continue on this point, because the Minister is reinforcing my point in relation to the costs. He said on 5 July that the cost of “operating the new facility” was £5.035 billion over the 35-year period that is the hospital’s life span. He continued:

“but the cost of repairing defects, maintaining, operating and providing services from the two existing buildings was £5.24 billion.”—[Official Report, 5 July 2010; Vol. 513, c. 150.]

Therefore, although it was not immediately clear, is that incorrect?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. Let me just clarify it for him. The figures were £5,000,033,000 and £5,000,024,000, not £5,000,240,000.

Okay, thanks. The cost difference is very marginal, when we factor in things such as NHS inflation and so on. The Minister has already given some clarification, but my point is that by not continuing with the proposed new hospital the cost of delivering health care may in fact—

I have to say that the figures that the Minister has just given in his intervention on my hon. Friend seem to make the Government’s position even worse than I thought it was. What we are actually talking about is a margin of difference of £11,000—based on the figures that he has just given us here in Westminster Hall—across the 35-year operating programme. Now, I am not sure if that is actually correct. I wonder if it is a bit like the lists given out by the Secretary of State for Education; the figures and the numbers keep altering on us. But based on the figures that the Minister has just given us, we are talking about £11,000, and that is the cost of not having a brand spanking new state-of-the-art hospital to serve five constituencies: my own constituency; the constituencies of my hon. Friends the Members for Stockton North, for Hartlepool and for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson), and the constituency of the hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton).

There seems to be some confusion here with the figures. However, in my mind, perhaps in the minds of other Labour Members and certainly in the minds of the good people of Easington, it only shows what a bad decision it was. I do not believe that it is being made for the stated financial reasons, but instead seems to form part of some type of idelologicallybased course of action taken by the coalition Government.

It is clear now that the saving of £464 million—the figure that was widely quoted to the media at the time of the hospital’s cancellation—is completely misleading. At some point, I hope that we will also get to the bottom of the true costs to the taxpayer of cancelling and pulling the plug on this new hospital development, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool has indicated, has been in the planning since 2005.

On 2 May 2010, in an interview with Andrew Marr, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr Cameron) talked passionately about how a responsible society should protect the vulnerable. This is what he said:

“The test of a good society is you look after the elderly, the frail, the vulnerable, the poorest in our society. And that test is even more important in difficult times, when difficult decisions have to be taken, than it is in better times.”

I am sure that many of my colleagues knew at the time, as I did, that that statement lacked substance.

Easington is one of the most deprived areas in the United Kingdom. Health inequalities still play a large role in Easington; there is shorter life expectancy and poorer quality of life. Life expectancy in Easington is a full two years lower than the national average. The proposed new hospital was part of a clinically led strategic reorganisation of health provision for one of the poorest areas in Britain, which would have gone some way to tackling some of the worst health outcomes in the country.

The latest figures that I have been able to access are the 2007 statistics on standardised mortality rates per 100,000 population. They show clearly that death from illness that is amenable to health care—that is, deaths that would have been preventable with health interventions—accounted for 256 deaths per 100,000 of the population in the Easington local authority area, compared to an average of only 195 across the rest of England and Wales. For all causes, the figure for Easington is 713, compared to 582 for England and Wales. For coronary heart disease, the figure is 112 per 100,000 in Easington compared to 90 per 100,000 across the rest of England and Wales. For cancer, the figure for Easington is 219 per 100,000 compared to 175 nationally.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the success stories in his constituency has been the local primary care trust’s anti-smoking policy—the area has seen some of the largest drops in smoking anywhere in the country? Does he also agree that the fact that that policy will be abolished too will add to the health inequalities in his constituency?

That is a very good point and the development of community health infrastructure has been integral to the proposal for the new hospital. It is key to improving health and tackling health inequalities.

I have some sympathy with the Minister, as it seems that the proposed hospital suffered at the hands of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury as he searched to save around £2 billion in June. However, regardless of the changing economic circumstances that saw Britain’s budget deficit improve by £10.4 billion from the original pre-election forecasts, I do not believe that it is too late for the Minister to give the proposed new hospital a second chance, following a reconsideration of the evidence.

If you do not mind, Mr Sheridan, I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman. I know that time is short, but I am almost finished and I think that the hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity later to speak. I have almost completed my contribution.

As it stands, the future of health provision in North Tees and Hartlepool is being put at serious risk. The cancellation of the hospital at Wynyard can only ever be viewed as a delay—the need for it still exists. Whether it is a delay of five years, 10 years or longer, the people of Stockton North, Stockton South, Hartlepool, Easington and Sedgefield need a new hospital. I invite the Minister to think in the long term and not to abandon a well thought-out project that would improve health care for people who have suffered a legacy of some of the worst health outcomes in Britain.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak in the debate, Mr Sheridan. I want to make a business case for the Wynyard hospital based on its effect on the local economy, because the Government’s decision is short-sighted. The new hospital was to be sited at Wynyard park—a 700-acre business park owned by Wynyard Park Ltd that has created more than 1,000 jobs in the past five years. Fifty-five companies have moved on to the site, and the hospital would have been a catalyst for further private sector investment and jobs. The Government go on all the time about the need to rebalance the north-east’s economy, and the Opposition agree with them. One way to do that and to help generate private sector investment would be to invest in infrastructure and public sector hospitals, such as the one that the Government have cancelled.

The cancellation of the hospital came on the back of the announcement about housing benefit. The former Chancellor said that we would take £250 million out of housing benefit through reforms, but the present Government want to take out £1.8 billion, which would greatly affect areas of County Durham. In addition, just under 100 schemes have been cancelled under Building Schools for the Future, which is a problem not just for education, but for construction jobs in the region. On top of that, the regional development agency is to be abolished. It has played a part in work on the Wynyard site and the foundation hospital, and it has tried to attract investment into the area.

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s terminology when he says that the RDA will be abolished, but is it not rather the case that it will be replaced by more localised local enterprise partnerships, which will deliver better for local people in communities across the north-east?

Actually, it is being abolished—that is what is happening.

I want to make two points about the RDA. First, it invested £2 million last year in attracting inward investment. On the basis of that money, it attracted £720 million of inward investment into the north-east—82% of inward investment into the region comes through the RDA, so if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Secondly, in preparation for the hospital development, the RDA organised meetings between the foundation hospital and overseas firms to see whether those firms would come on to the site.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the person who had the vision for the Wynyard site was John Hall? He saw the benefits of working with the RDA and others to develop it, and the hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) was a big supporter of his during the election.

That is absolutely right. I heard John Hall speak last Friday, and he also has a lot to say about the abolition of the RDA.

My hon. Friend is making a convincing economic case for the hospital. Does he agree that the £464 million in investment that was to be provided could also provide about 550 apprenticeship opportunities in the construction industry and elsewhere? The Government say that they want private sector-led growth and recovery, and I agree with that approach, but scrapping the hospital and cancelling Building Schools for the Future will mean that private sector construction industry jobs are not maintained. Is that not a devastating blow for the north-east?

That is absolutely right. Over the past 13 years, the number of apprenticeships in the region has gone up astronomically. In 1997, in my constituency, there were fewer than 30 apprenticeships, but there are more than 700 today. Obviously, anything that curtails the growth of apprenticeships in the future should be frowned on.

As far as other jobs are concerned, the hospital would be a catalyst for inward investment and private sector investment. Wynyard Park Ltd worked closely with the hospital, local universities and further education colleges because it realised that high-value medical and other research jobs would come to the area. The company estimated that 12,500 jobs would be created on top of the 3,000 jobs that the hospital would create. There would be 12,500 private sector jobs in the area on the back of the hospital development—just think of the Government’s income tax and national insurance take and all the other benefits that they would pick up on the basis of that growth in the local economy. Public sector investment would kick-start growth in the private sector.

The hospital would also have become an anchor tenant—a tenant that attracted a lot of other investment to Wynyard. In addition, it would have brought greater investment in infrastructure: the roads and transport networks would have improved, which would have brought more businesses to the park. This is not just about the hospital, as great as that would be. My family and I have used the North Tees and Hartlepool hospitals, and they are great hospitals, but it is time to replace them and to have a new hospital. The credible case put by the new hospital’s designers was that the development would be not only a hospital, but a catalyst for growth in the private sector economy in the south Durham and Tees valley area. That case has been completely ignored.

I really get annoyed when people try to say that the project was worked out on the back of a fag packet a few weeks before the general election. I have been attending meetings on the issue since I was elected in 2007, and meetings were going on before then. We need the development to happen.

The Government’s proposals prove what the Prime Minister said during the election campaign when he pointed out that the north-east would feel the brunt of the cuts. He was right to say that we rely too much on public sector jobs, so the Government should give us the opportunity to change that, but that opportunity was taken away from us when the hospital programme was cancelled.

The hon. Gentleman asserts that the area should be given the opportunity to address the lack of private sector jobs, but that that would not be done by spending more public sector money. We cannot address the deficit on every single occasion by creating private sector jobs through public sector spending, which is surely the basis of the hon. Gentleman’s hospital argument.

We are not saying that we should do that at every opportunity, but when we spend public money, we should take the opportunity to ensure that it pump-primes the local economy. That is what the Wynyard scheme was bound to do. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman does not think that the public sector is of any value, but Opposition Members do.

No, several other Members want to get in on the debate.

Figures have been bandied about, such as the £5 billion and the £11,000 difference, which was actually £11 million—the Minister corrected that error, and I noticed it, too, and went up to correct it. That £11 million, over 35 years, means the difference between a new hospital and a hospital that is falling down. Surely we could have found that money somewhere to help to maintain the hospital.

I want to end with a question to the Minister. Three or four weeks ago, we brought down the foundation trust’s chief executive and the chair for a meeting, and I was pleased that the Minister could meet us. I took away from that meeting the view that the Department would look again at the development if the trust could come up with a credible scheme or initiative to get money from the private sector. If all the figures stacked up, would the Department underwrite such a proposal? We are talking about a foundation hospital. Are we saying that foundation hospitals will be around for ever? Things might change—Governments might change, policy might change—but the hospital must still be funded. Are the Government prepared to underwrite any financial arrangements with the banks and the private sector?

On that point, I will sit down and listen to what other Members have to say. The proposed hospital is a missed opportunity for growth in not only the public sector but the private sector in the region.

I am grateful to have another opportunity to discuss the need for a 21st century hospital to meet the needs of my constituents and those throughout the north-east; however, I shall be briefer than I was the last time I spoke on the matter.

It was good to hear my hon. Friends talk about specific issues affecting the health of people in their constituencies, and to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) outline the benefits that the hospital could bring over and above health. I want to start with an outline of the health picture in the borough of Stockton-on-Tees. Things have improved in recent years, but much still needs to be done. According to the NHS health profile for 2010, which has just dropped through my letter box, in Stockton-on-Tees life expectancy for men living in the most deprived areas is still nearly 12 years less than for men living in the least deprived areas. In relation to early deaths from heart disease and stroke, survival rates have steadily improved over the years: from 160 deaths per 100,000 people in 1998 to about 80 per 100,000 people in 2007. That is half the number of deaths and there is much credit due to our hospitals’ care and to the local PCTs and health programmes. However, we are still well behind the England average in our progress in relation to early deaths from heart disease, stroke and cancer.

What do the decisions made by the coalition Government mean for the north-east and people’s health? A new hospital has been scrapped. That is a huge blow, and it is still not clear why our hospital was chosen, while others have been given the go-ahead. We have had years of planning, as other hon. Members described, and that was discussed in detail in my Adjournment debate on 5 July. I accept that the decision has now been made, but it is not clear what will happen. There is also uncertainty for patients in the scrapping of Labour’s promises. The coalition has scrapped the 18-week waiting list target and the 48-hour GP access target and downgraded the four-hour accident and emergency waiting time target.

There is also great uncertainty for people who work in the NHS locally, who will commission services in the future. I met Dr John Canning, a member of the Cleveland local medical committee, and discussed, among other things, the re-organisation of the NHS and in particular GP commissioning. We await detailed plans, but I am dismayed that the Government, who in opposition promised “no more pointless reorganisations” are presiding over the biggest structural overhaul of the NHS in 60 years. The NHS needs stability; it does not need to be forced to deal with a huge and unnecessary politically motivated structural upheaval at a time of significant financial pressure on public services.

The new GP commissioners will be responsible for ensuring that their patients get the best possible health care in the best possible facilities. I just wonder how they will make those decisions. Perhaps they will send patients many miles to a new hospital with all the services required by the patient close together and under one roof. Alternatively, will they utilise the services at their local hospital, where the care might be very good but the facilities could be less than first class? Some patients make a positive choice to travel to neighbouring hospitals, which have the most modern and up-to-date facilities, and could be expected increasingly to shun local services because they believe, rightly or wrongly, that in that way they will get better treatment.

The strategy outlined by the foundation trust remains the right one. When Stockton-on-Tees borough council met, every member in the chamber voted to ask the Minister to review the decision; that included the Conservative council leader. So can we look forward to a new hospital? The answer could still be yes if it is the true and honest will of the Government. Detailed work on developing a private finance initiative to meet the costs of the new hospital is well under way, but there remains great uncertainty about whether there will be Government support. If the foundation trust completes the work and satisfies Monitor, its financial regulator, that it has a robust project that will work, will the Department of Health approve it and ensure that the people of my constituency and the surrounding ones get the hospital they need and deserve?

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) on securing the debate this afternoon. He is a worthy champion of his constituency and the region, with respect to a range of matters including health, education and economic regeneration. He spoke passionately about the need to deal with the health inequalities that blight this country, and the problems in his constituency in particular, as well as the need for excellence in health care in the north-east, including the new hospital that is at the heart of the debate.

Like all hon. Members who have spoken, I pay tribute to the staff of the NHS, whose work for and commitment to the people of the north-east and the rest of the country is excellent. It was striking to hear the personal experience that my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool had in his local hospital, and what excellent care he and his family received. I pay tribute to all hon. Members who are present today, including my hon. Friends the Members for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham), for Easington (Grahame M. Morris), for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery), for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson), for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon), and for North Durham (Mr Jones). I know that they all feel strongly and passionately about the issue.

I want to comment on the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Easington. He put patient care and safety, which is what the debate is really about, at the centre of his remarks. He set out his concerns about what will happen to patients who are left with the two hospitals, where they will now be treated. Will the abolition of targets affect care and safety? That is an important issue, which I hope the Minister will deal with. My hon. Friend also raised the important issue of finances and how they stack up. I would like to know in particular whether the difference in cost between building a new hospital and repairing and maintaining the two is £11,000 or £11 million. I am sure that the Minister will clarify that.

If it will help the shadow Minister I shall clarify the point yet again. The reason the question ever came into the public domain was that on the morning of the previous debate the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) incorrectly put out a press statement saying that the building of a new hospital would be cheaper than the maintenance and upkeep of the two existing hospitals, over a 35-year period. The figures, which Hansard originally printed wrongly—hence the correction—showed a difference of £11 million. It was cheaper by £11 million to keep the two existing hospitals. The point was merely to show that the right hon. Gentleman was factually incorrect.

I am grateful to the Minister for correcting what he said earlier, when he talked about the figure of £11,000. We understand that the figure is £11 million. I suggest that in the great scheme of things, if the difference in cost between maintaining and repairing two hospitals and building a state-of-the-art new one is £11 million, Labour Members might think that it is £11 million that should be spent.

I just want to make two points. First, I am sure that it was an oversight, but I point out that my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) is here. In his short time in the House he has been a fantastic representative of that fair area. On the point about net present values and appraisals of the hospital, my hon. Friend may know more than I do about it, but—whatever the talk of £11,000 or £11 million—are the wider savings to the taxpayer from better health outcomes and from ensuring that people do not rely on hospitals for protracted periods also part of the appraisal system? Are they taken into account, or is it a matter of the narrow costs of maintaining existing or new sites?

I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead for not mentioning him; I know that he takes a particular interest in the issue.

I hope that the Minister will explain the rationale for the decision that was made about the hospital, and whether the cost-benefit analysis included the savings that would come about from a healthier population with better access to health services. I am sure that he will explain it. My hon. Friend the Member for Easington also mentioned health inequalities. It is important to ensure that patients and communities have access to high-quality in-patient facilities when they need them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield argued compellingly on business grounds that the hospital could help lead the regeneration of the area. He described the hospital as an anchor tenant that could attract up to 12,500 private sector jobs, a telling point for an area of the country that wants to attract private sector business and stand on its own two feet. He made a compelling case. My hon. Friend also said how good the care that he and his family had received from the local NHS was.

It is important that the Minister has now clarified that the figure is not £11,000, as he stated earlier, but £11 million. I am sorry, but the difference between the figures that he gave was in fact £11,000, and I hope that the record will show that. That said, we now know that the figure is £11 million over 35 years, or £314,000 a year, the lack of which will deprive the people in those five constituencies of a brand spanking new hospital facility that could add significant value over that period to detract from the additional cost.

My hon. Friend makes an important point about the cost over 35 years.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North, who I understand is a former non-executive director of the North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust, spoke clearly about the need for a new hospital. I know that he also tabled early-day motion 273, which attracted a great deal of support, to request a review of the coalition decision about the hospital. He, too, made an important case about health inequalities and why the hospital is needed. He also pointed out that structural upheaval in the NHS at a time when we are facing such financial problems is a recipe for chaos. What is the future for the people represented by him and our hon. Friends? Again, I look to the Minister to explain the coalition Government’s thinking about what will happen to the needs of communities in the north-east.

I do not wish to rehearse the history of this £464 million hospital project—my right hon. Friend the former Secretary of State made it clear that it was a top priority for the NHS, and agreed in March this year that it should go ahead—but it had been in planning for a long time. It was not just signed off close to a general election. As we have heard, the coalition Government decided to cancel the hospital project within the first few weeks of taking up their position in Government. It is clear that the Treasury and other Departments reviewed every significant spending decision made between 1 January and the general election on 6 May. The proposal for the new hospital scheme, which received Government approval only in March, was considered properly during that review, but there are questions about why that particular hospital project was cancelled and others were allowed to proceed when my right hon. Friend had made it clear that the hospital was a top priority for the NHS.

As I said to the hon. Member for Hartlepool, if the hon. Lady studies carefully our debate of 5 July, as I am sure she has—I do not usually recommend that people read my speeches—she will see that column 150 gives in detail the answer to that question.

The Minister will be pleased to know that I took great pleasure in reading his response to that debate, but I am still not satisfied with the explanation given. There is room for further explanation why that particular hospital was chosen.

What precisely does not satisfy her in that explanation? What in particular causes her concern?

I am particularly concerned—I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool mentioned this—about the clear view of all the clinical professionals—[Interruption.] I do not have the speech in front of me, but considering that the Secretary of State for Health talks continually about the need for doctors and clinicians to be in the driving seat when decisions are made in the NHS, and considering that, as my hon. Friend said, it is clear that the clinicians and health professionals involved were very centred on having that one hospital, why have those views been suddenly pushed to one side? Will the Minister explain that, given the coalition Government’s new approach of saying that clinicians are at the centre of decision making? If so, I will be pleased.

Also, on the cost of cancelling the project, how much money was spent getting to the point of preparing to proceed? What yearly maintenance and repair bill does the Minister think will now have to be paid for the two hospitals? What is the coalition Government’s plan for in-patient health facilities for that community? What does he see as the future for either a new hospital or a different style of health service provision in the area? What is his thinking? It is certainly not clear.

The Office for Budget Responsibility’s projections, to which one of my hon. Friends referred, show that the actual deficit was lower than was projected before the general election. We have also seen higher-than-expected growth figures this week, which hon. Members might find surprising. I ask the Minister to reconsider the economic impact of refusing to follow through on the decision to build the hospital, taking into account what my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield said about the potential for the hospital to be an anchor tenant to attract important private sector businesses and jobs. I know that the coalition Government are committed to helping the private sector grow us out of our present financial situation, so will the Minister reconsider? The range of Members present in the Chamber shows a clear commitment to ensuring that the people of the north-east get their fair share of resources and the kind of hospital service that they so richly deserve.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) on securing this debate. As he and his hon. Friends will know—as the shadow Minister rightly said, they are here in force—we have had a briefer debate on this subject, and I have had the pleasure of welcoming most of the Opposition Members present to a meeting at my Department, where we had a useful exchange of views.

Before I address the main thrust of most of the contributions, which is North Tees and Hartlepool, I will give a brief overview of the health situation in the north-east and will refer to some of the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman).

Earlier this month, as hon. Members know, we published our vision for the national health service in the White Paper “Equity and excellence: Liberating the NHS”, which signals the beginning of the most profound reform in the NHS’s 62-year history. By taking power away from Ministers and civil servants in Whitehall and handing it to patients and clinicians, we shall transform the health service from the ground up.

I am intrigued. I read carefully the coalition agreement, which said that there would be no top-down reorganisation of the NHS and mentioned having elected representation on primary care trust boards, which I understand are now to be scrapped. Will he explain why, in a few weeks, the Government have completely ditched that proposal, which was in the coalition agreement?

I will certainly explain that when I get on to the specific point about Hartlepool because, unfortunately, as will be unveiled to the shadow Minister and the hon. Member for Hartlepool, their comments today are based on a false premise and show that they do not fully understand the previous speeches on the issue, or the meeting we had at the Department of Health. All will be unveiled shortly, and I hope that the shadow Minister will understand the reasoning behind the decision taken.

As I was saying, as part of the vision, and the moving forward on the White Paper, we want every hospital trust in the country to become a foundation trust. We want to direct every aspect of the national health service at delivering clinical outcomes that are as good as, or better than, any in the world. The north-east is already ahead of the game in many respects. In November 2009, it became the first and only region in England to have all of its NHS hospital and mental health trusts awarded foundation trust status. When the Care Quality Commission reviewed hospital services in the region last year, every single hospital trust and every ambulance service was rated either good or excellent for the quality of their services. That gave the north-east the highest score in England for the third year running.

Among those hospital trusts, Gateshead Health NHS Foundation Trust, Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust all received double excellent scores for both quality of services and the use of resources. The high quality of services across the north-east is down to the skill, dedication, creativity and sheer hard work of the thousands of NHS staff across the region. I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to them and wish them well in their continued success in providing first-class care and services to the people of the north-east.

Would the Minister care to help us get a hat trick, and to go from double to triple excellence, by having a brand new hospital for the people of North Tees and Hartlepool?

I admire the hon. Gentleman for his persistence. If he could have a little patience, I shall talk about the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham, and will then come on to the hospital that has so dominated the debate.

My hon. Friend mentioned Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust and its proposal to build a £75-million emergency care hospital in Cramlington. I am advised that planning permission is currently being sought for the proposed site and that further development work is under way. I hope that that goes some way to answering the point that he raised. I will make sure that I write to him during the next week or so on the other points that he mentioned to explain all the outstanding issues.

I shall now turn to the review of the hospital in North Tees and Hartlepool. The hon. Member for Hartlepool specifically raised the Government’s decision to cancel North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust’s proposal for a new hospital building. As I stated in the House in our last debate on this matter on 5 July, the original proposal for a publicly funded capital scheme received Treasury approval in March this year, in the run-up to the general election. In view of the shocking state of the public finances and the desperate need to reduce the £155 billion deficit, which I need not remind Labour Members was left to us by their Government, the Treasury and other Departments reviewed every significant spending decision made under the previous Government between 1 January 2010 and the general election on 6 May.

I appreciate the Minister’s explanation and analysis, but if the Conservative-Liberal coalition Government are concerned about the state of the public finances and want to help drive down the debt quicker, why was there not a moratorium on all capital spend in the NHS, similar to that which the Secretary of State for Education put in place with regard to Building Schools for the Future?

Because, as I will again explain—this is similar to what I said on 5 July—there were a range of criteria determined and, as the hon. Gentleman is aware, we took the decision on the hospital on the grounds of affordability and the foundation trust status of the hospital. If he will bear with me, I will explain that again, so that even if he does not accept the decision, he will, I hope, come to understand the reasoning behind it.

On 17 June, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, my right hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander), announced to the House the decisions made following the Government’s review of spending commitments. The review cancelled 12 projects, including the proposed new hospital at North Tees and Hartlepool.

The aim of granting foundation trust status is to give bodies, such as the trust in the area represented by the hon. Member for Hartlepool, greater financial independence. As well as being able to keep any internally generated resources, foundation trusts also have greater freedom to borrow from either the public or the private sector. As the proposals required an allocation of public dividend capital from the Department of Health of more than £400 million, they were not consistent with that financial independence. Treasury and Department of Health Ministers, including me, decided that, overall, those factors—affordability within the changed economic climate and the hospital’s foundation trust status—weighed against the £458-million scheme for North Tees and Hartlepool more than they did against the other three schemes at Liverpool, Epsom and St Helier, and the Royal National Orthopaedic hospital. For those reasons, the Government withdrew support for the scheme.

Following our previous debate, I was pleased to meet, on 8 July, Paul Garvin—the chair and non-executive director of North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust—together with the hon. Member for Hartlepool and many of his hon. Friends now present. At that meeting, we discussed the possibility of the trust putting forward a new proposal under the private finance initiative. As I have said repeatedly, I cannot in any way give any guarantees that such a scheme would, or would not, be approved. Like any proposal, it would have to be considered on its merits and in the light of the economic climate at the time it was put forward for consideration and possible approval.

However, the advice I would offer the foundation trust is the same advice I would offer any organisation putting forward such a proposal. Any scheme must reflect the changed realities of the national health service, as set out in the White Paper. It would clearly have to demonstrate that it passed the four tests for reconfigurations set out by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. That is, it has to have the support of GP commissioners; arrangements for public and patient engagement, including with local authorities, must be strengthened; there must be clear clinical evidence underpinning any proposal; and it must develop and support patient choice.

The economic and policy circumstances have changed since the original proposals were put forward. It would be advisable for the foundation trust to make sure that any revised proposals reflect those changes, and can demonstrate that they have the full support of GPs, the public and the local authority. Any new proposal must be realistic, affordable and provide value for money.

On the point about providing value for money, and the elephant in the room, which is the implied advice that the appropriate route for a foundation trust is a PFI initiative, does the Minister accept that the evidence suggests that over the 35-year write-off time, or life of a hospital, there would be an estimated additional cost to the pubic purse of £5 million a year as a result of going down the PFI route? That would cost the public purse an additional £175 million over the lifetime of the hospital—money that would otherwise go into patient care.

I have to say, in the kindest, gentlest way possible, that I fear we are beginning to go around in circles. I have given the corrected figures; confusion was caused by what Hansard originally printed in the last debate on the subject, when I talked about the comparable costs of maintaining the two hospitals that exist and building a new one. There was a marginal £11 million difference.

The hon. Gentleman must wait a minute, because I have only 10 minutes in which to answer the questions that the hon. Member for Hartlepool asked. The fact is that the decision was taken on affordability and on the fact that the trust was a foundation trust and so was free to seek other means by which to finance the project, rather than going to the Department for capital funding. Those decisions were taken because of the tough economic situation we inherited after 6 May and the massive deficit the country was left with. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer rightly believes that the No. 1 priority for sorting out the economy is to get rid of the deficit as quickly as possible. Regrettably, tough decisions have to be taken in the light of the dire economic situation.

I must tell the hon. Members for Hartlepool and for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana R. Johnson) in the nicest terms possible, that it was their party’s mismanagement of the economy and deficit that put us in the current situation. We will have to take tough decisions if we are to have a buoyant, vibrant economy again. [Interruption.] If I might continue—[Interruption.]

I will now answer some of the Opposition Members’ questions. The hon. Member for Hartlepool asked whether there was an optimal population size for a hospital. I have consulted my officials, who tell me that they are unaware of whether there is an official optimal population size for hospitals, so I will look into the matter and write to him with a satisfactory answer as soon as possible, giving him any information we have.

I have already explained, including on 5 and 8 July, the decision that governed the withdrawal of approval for the hospital. On the hon. Gentleman’s question about the future of Hartlepool hospital, there are currently no plans to close it, and that will remain the case unless the strategic health authority and the PCT propose closure. There are no such proposals at present, as far as I am aware.

I thank the Minister for that clarity. Given the proposals to abolish SHAs and PCTs, what will happen after that?

It is perfectly reasonable for the hon. Gentleman to express concern about and an interest in finding out what would happen. The answer is that that will depend on a combination of factors, including the national commissioning board that will be created, the GP commissioners and the decision of the local health community. If a local health community put forward any proposals to reconfigure health patterns in its area, it would have to go through all the procedures that are currently in place, and there will also be the changes that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will put in place to strengthen the community’s input into any proposed reconfiguration. The views and support of clinicians and GPs will be sought, and the focus will be on improving outcomes and affordability, and including the views of local populations.

The hon. Gentleman will know from reading the White Paper and the five related documents that have so far been published, which flesh out the details, that local authorities will have a greatly enhanced role in the provision of health services and the maintenance of health care standards in the local community, and will not be restricted solely to their current role in public health.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether the Government will implement the recommendations of the Darzi review on acute health services north of the River Tees. The recommendations of that review were superseded by advice provided by the independent reconfiguration panel to the then Secretary of State for Health in December 2006. That advice formed the basis of the “Momentum: Pathways to Healthcare” programme, which was developed by the local national health service to provide a new health care system for the people of Stockton, Hartlepool, Easington and Sedgefield. We understand that NHS Hartlepool and NHS Stockton-on-Tees will continue to work closely with North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust on delivering the wider Momentum programme, and will be discussing the options available with the trust. I hope that that goes some way towards satisfying the hon. Gentleman.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North mentioned the generality of the provision of health care, and new health care facilities, in the region, and I can reassure her by mentioning a number of initiatives that have taken place in the Stockton-on-Tees area in recent years.

Yes, in recent years—there is no point in the hon. Lady sitting there and saying that because, to be frank, anyone who takes a sensible approach to such matters will not try to score cheap party political points. I recognise that for the past 13 years we have had not a Conservative but a Labour Government, and I am mature enough and comfortable enough within myself to recognise that during those years advances in health care were made. I am not one of those narrow politicians who say that, because there was not a Tory Government, everything was awful, or that everything done by a Tory Government is wonderful; it is a mixture of the two. One has to be mature enough to recognise that, as I do. The initiatives I will refer to took place in the past few years, so they were under a Labour Government.

As the hon. Lady will know, 26 of the 46 Momentum business service change projects are under way as part of the “Momentum: Pathway to Healthcare” programme. They consist of detailed service reviews, a revised pathway based on a map of medicine, a value impact assessment and a service implementation plan. Examples of pathways reviewed to date include those on diabetes, respirology, cardiology and haematology. There are also cross-cutting business service change projects under way in the areas of work force and education, IT, and communications and engagement. There is also an integrated care centre at Hartlepool, with which the hon. Member for Hartlepool will be familiar, and an integrated care centre at Billingham, which I expect the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) and my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) will know.

I am pleased that the Minister has read out a list of initiatives introduced under a Labour Government, but I am interested in the coalition Government’s thinking on health service provision in the north-east. What initiatives do they have planned for dealing with the health inequalities that have been mentioned by Members today?

I thank the hon. Lady for giving me the opportunity once again to tell her that those are all contained in the vision outlined by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in the White Paper that was published last week. It is a vision that puts patients at the heart of health care, so that they can have the best health care of the highest quality. It is based on the premise that there should be a local, bottom-up system, rather than one in which politicians and bureaucrats in Whitehall issue diktats and tell local communities with which they are unfamiliar what they should and should not do. That is the way forward for enhancing health care.

Our vision is based not on processes that are distorted for party political purposes, but on the need to improve outcomes so that people get better health care. The patient experience, whether in a hospital setting or when a patient visits their GP, should be tailored to their needs, rather than to what the state tells them that they should have. That move will be spearheaded by GPs, through GP consortiums, as it is they who are closest to patients, know the health care that they need, and know how patients can best access it. That will all be determined by improving outcomes and the patient experience in order to give the finest quality care that the country can provide—the highest in the world. That is the answer to the hon. Lady’s question.

Ship-to-Ship Oil as Cargo Transfer

I welcome the opportunity to have my first Adjournment debate under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan.

The regulations on the ship-to-ship transfer of oil as cargo excite passions right along the Forth and elsewhere, in a way that the dry title of the debate might not credit. Many of my constituents and those of my parliamentary colleagues feel strongly about the need for the regulations, as do all the local authorities in the east of Scotland and a range of environmental organisations, such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds—I should declare that I am a member of the RSPB, as I am sure many colleagues are.

I place on record that I accept the assurance offered by the Minister that he did not intend to give the impression that the Government were sneaking out the U-turn on the regulations. Labour Members accept that he was merely badly advised by his civil servants, who either did not realise or did not inform him of the hostility and anger that the Government’s announcement would cause in Scotland.

I was going to let the hon. Gentleman have a free run, but the decision about when to lay the statutory instrument was not the result of ill advice by civil servants—it was my decision. Thursdays are full sitting days in the House. Every single MP who had shown an interest was e-mailed a letter and a copy of the statutory instrument. The measure was laid on a full sitting day—Thursday—and was not sneaked out. I resent how that has just been portrayed.

I reiterate, I do not believe that the Minister was trying to sneak the statutory instrument out by using the form of a written statement. I hope he understands that many Scottish Members of Parliament would have been grateful for the opportunity to have a debate on the subject, perhaps after an oral statement, so I very much welcome today’s opportunity.

Giving a background to the subject might be helpful. The regulations followed a commitment by the previous Government after my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) withdrew his private Member’s Bill, the Environmental Protection (Transfers at Sea) Bill. The Bill was itself the result of an outcry in Scotland against proposals by Forth Ports to start carrying out ship-to-ship transfers in the firth of Forth. The Bill followed the introduction of new Scottish regulations, brought in by the Scottish Government in 2007, which dealt with those aspects of environmental regulations devolved to the Scottish Parliament. Significantly, those regulations were supported by all parties in the Scottish Parliament, including the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives.

Let me clear up one myth that opponents of the regulations—the shipping lobby in particular—have been perpetuating, namely, that the regulations have been rushed in some way. The 2010 regulations took the Department for Transport two years and two consultations to produce. They were eventually laid before Parliament in the so-called wash-up in April, to get through which we assume they must have had all-party support. Therefore, further delay and a third consultation are frustrating. It is unclear to us what new, previously unavailable information might be obtained by the third consultation that was not available from the first two processes. I hope that the Minister’s reply will clarify that point.

May I also make it clear that Labour Members do not oppose ship-to-ship transfers in principle? The Scottish Government and environmental bodies such as the RSPB do not do so either. Furthermore, the Scottish Government cannot be accused of nimbyism when they are championing the use of other Scottish waters. However, because oil spills into the sea are an environmental and tourism disaster, we believe that ship-to-ship transfers must be regulated. We only need to look at what happened in the gulf of Mexico, or closer to home in the Shetland islands with the Braer oil tanker a few years ago, to see what can happen to our environment when things go horribly wrong.

Regulations should ensure two things—that ship-to-ship transfers are carried out in the right and safest place; and, secondly, that they meet the current environmental regulations. Therefore, long-standing good practice should be permitted to continue, as in Scapa Flow, which is sheltered, overseen by the harbour authority and in close proximity to pollution control equipment and expert staff. However, the use of potentially hazardous places such as the firth of Forth, which is open sea, uncontrolled and with little if any nearby pollution control, should be prohibited.

The 2010 regulations, in our opinion and that of the shadow team before the general election, provided just such an approach. They also provided a means to ensure that the operations comply with current EU regulations, otherwise the Government would be at risk of committing an infraction, as I am sure the Minister will confirm.

I do not believe—I suspect that colleagues would not disagree—that the shipping industry should be allowed to pursue the policy of self-regulation for which it is lobbying. Before entering Parliament, I worked at a nuclear power station and on the railways. No one in their right mind would argue for allowing either the nuclear or the railway industries to self-regulate. Given that we require independent, statutory regulation of those two industries, and given the risks involved in the activity that we are discussing, why should the shipping industry believe that it should be allowed to self-regulate? I hope that the Minister will rule out that option today when he replies or, failing that, will expand on his thinking on self-regulation.

The shipping lobbyists and their supporters will complain about the cost to them of following the regulations. However, I understand that the cost is only about £9 million a year, and the proposals would add only an extra half-day’s sailing to reach Scapa Flow rather than the Forth. I do not believe that £9 million is too high a price for the protection of our environment.

As I have made clear, the subject concerns a great number of my constituents. It is rare indeed when the SNP Scottish Government, the Lib Dem and SNP-run Fife and Edinburgh councils, Labour MPs, and Labour, SNP, Lib Dem and Conservative Members of the Scottish Parliament all speak with one voice. That, I hope, demonstrates to the Minister the level of anger felt by many people in Scotland.

The RSPB is one of the big campaigners on the issue. My area certainly experienced such campaigns when I was on the council, which was before 2007—that is how long we have been talking about the matter. The RSPB stated that it could not understand why the regulations could not go ahead. Was my hon. Friend aware of that?

My hon. Friend has been a champion on the issue in Edinburgh for quite a while. She is right that the RSPB is unhappy. I think it is fair to say that it feels that its voice has not yet been heard in the debate. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us a guarantee today that, as part of his consultation over the next six months, he will find an opportunity to meet with the RSPB and me, as well as with my right hon. and hon. Friends, if he can find time in his diary, perhaps in September or October. The RSPB could then have an opportunity, in person, to make its case.

I am conscious that I have been pursuing this issue for some time.

I appreciate that there was some confusion about who would raise this matter, there being two new Members from Scottish constituencies with the same first name. I understand that that caused a little confusion.

I have been aware of the issue for some time, having worked in the Scotland Office. I wonder whether my hon. Friend is aware that, at the time of the build-up to the regulations being laid, there was a considerable period in which there was significant resistance to them from the Department for Transport, although the Scotland Office and other bits of the Government were pushing for them. Could the Minister respond to that point, which is of concern to some of us on this side of the Chamber?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those comments. He obviously has particular expertise and knowledge of the mechanics of government from his former life. I would be grateful if the Minister could respond to that point. It might also be worth his clarifying what representations, if any, he has had from either the Secretary of State or the Under-Secretary of State for the Scotland Office. We understand that they are supposed to be Scotland’s champions in the Government, and, given that the Scottish Government and the local authorities have raised the matter with his ministerial colleagues, it would be helpful to get an understanding of whether the Scotland Office has been asked for, or has proactively provided, any input to the review.

I am conscious that I am beginning to approach the Minister’s time, so let me make one final observation. Of course, we would never seek to use early-day motions as a method of gauging the overall strength of feeling in the House. I suspect that the Minister and I would be at one in suggesting that they are not necessarily the best way to make policy. However, it may be worth looking at the two early-day motions that were tabled on this subject.

One was from the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton), who I welcome to the debate. I am sure that she will have some thoughts for us in a moment. Her early-day motion, which began

“That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty”,

asked for the regulations to be annulled, and attracted four signatures.

The counter to that early-day motion was early-day motion 308, which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith and which attracted 28 signatures. Basically, it said that the House welcomed the regulations, and asked for them to be enforced. Curiously enough, however, the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mr Hancock) seems to have signed both motions. Far be it from me to try to establish why a Liberal Democrat might think that he can be both in favour of and against something simultaneously—I suspect that the Minister might have more experience of that than I do.

In conclusion, I welcome the opportunity to have this debate. So that we are all clear, I accept the Minister’s assurance that he was not seeking or intending to sneak out the announcement. I hope that he can give us some reassurance on the points that we have raised on regulations and other subjects, and I very much hope that he will be able to shed some light on who has made representations to him so far, and on his plans to take further representations from Members on both sides of the House.

Order. Before I call the next speaker, I remind Members that it is normal practice to allow the Minister at least 10 minutes to wind up and to give appropriate answers.

Thank you, Mr Sheridan, for allowing me to speak. I also thank my hon. Friend the Minister for allowing me to make a few comments.

On the early-day motion, Members probably know that one is forced to table an early-day motion to pray against a set of regulations, so my motion was a technical intervention to register my concern about the regulations and to pray against them, in the hope that the Minister might consider my arguments for reconsidering them.

To reassure Opposition colleagues, I, too, represent an area that might be viewed as the other part of the Celtic fringe. Some hon. Members who represent constituencies at the other end of the British isles certainly refer to it in that way. I represent an equally beautiful part of the country that prides itself on its natural environment, and it is of the utmost importance to me and all Members from Cornwall to protect that environment.

I also represent the port of Falmouth, which is the third-largest natural harbour in the world. It is a special area of conservation, and we very much prize its environment. It has the last oyster-fishing fleet still under sail in Europe. We manage to consider the environment, while having a vibrant commercial port that not only has contracts with the RAF for servicing its ships, but has ship-repairing, yacht-building and oil-bunkering businesses.

I received representations from constituents who were concerned about the operation of the regulations as laid before the House. We all absolutely understand the importance of protecting our natural environment. I grew up in Cornwall at the time of the appalling Torrey Canyon oil spill, which blighted all the beaches of Cornwall and caused devastation to wildlife. I have lived through such a situation, and the last thing that I would want is to be associated with anything that would jeopardise the environment or cause such degradation.

I felt that it was important to make representations to the Minister, and I am absolutely delighted with the course of action that he has taken to ensure that any regulations passed by the House are enforceable. My concerns were about the enforceability of the regulations and ensuring that they did, in fact, deliver what we all want, which is a balance between environmental protection and a vibrant shipping industry, which makes a great contribution not only to my constituency but to the British isles as a whole.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan, for the first time speaking from the Government Benches. I have been chaired by you before, but only when I was in the Opposition.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) on securing this debate—his timing is perfect, just as we go into recess. If he looks around, he will find that many colleagues have disappeared north and south, even though this is a full sitting day. I know about the difficulties of travelling to different parts of the country when the House adjourns. For some time, Thursdays have not been one of the longest sitting days—not very much business was whipped on Thursdays. However—I am afraid that we may all have to get used to this—they are very much a full day, and we could have Friday sittings as well. Written ministerial statements will be tabled on Thursdays.

There was a debate when I first took on this job and looked at the regulations, when I asked about the correct method for informing the House and the country that I had some concerns about how they had been laid. In May, when I became the Shipping Minister, there was a huge pile of paperwork to go through—that is natural enough, for a brand-new Minister. One of the things that struck me, before I received any representations from anyone, was the legislation that had been put through in the wash-up period.

I was here for only five years before the hon. Gentleman was elected, and I do not know all the processes. However, I know that not everything that goes through in the wash-up period has received general agreement, especially when it comes to statutory instruments. It does not work that way, so it is wrong to say that everything was agreed and was fine—it was not. Putting in a statutory instrument three days before the House rises for an election is perhaps not the way to have open government or to discuss things, be able to pray against them and move forward.

I accept the hon. Gentleman’s concerns that the statement was made on a Thursday and that Scottish MPs were on their way back to Scotland, but the House was sitting. The written ministerial statement was tabled by 9.30, and by 9.36, every MP who had shown an interest, including every Scottish Member who had done so, as well as Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government, was e-mailed with the written ministerial statement and a letter from me explaining why I was going through the process.

On the point about the wash-up, can the Minister clarify what representations either the Conservative or the Liberal Democrat transport teams made against the regulations being introduced in April? That might clarify matters for us.

I understand where the hon. Gentleman is trying to go. Let me be honest and say that I do not know. In the way that I am looking at the matter now, I do not think that that matters, because it is about whether Parliament was fully informed and had an opportunity to go through the process that was required for such important regulations.

I set out in my letter quite firmly that, although this important issue seems techie, it is not. The environment comprising this country’s shores is important. This is not a devolved matter. I listened intently to hon. Members’ comments. Although we have to take into consideration the views of other Parliaments in the United Kingdom and those of other Members of Parliament, this decision is being made by one of the few ministerial roles that still deals fully with the United Kingdom. I am proud of that.

I considered carefully, and understand exactly, what the regulations were trying to do: protect the environment and bring some ports inside regulation—the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife mentioned Scapa Flow earlier—that are outside both it and the European habitats directive, which is not acceptable.

I accept that regulation is required—there is no argument about that—but we are looking for suitable regulation for the process, which is why we have gone into consultation. We need to consider whether the regulations are a sledgehammer to crack a nut, in certain respects, and whether they are enforceable. That is why I asked for the consultation and suspended the implementation of the regulations, scheduled for October. I did not revoke the SI, which was another option that could have gone ahead. Instead, I delayed its implementation for six months so that we could consult fully—Parliament should do that—and find out about any other concerns that the public, those involved in shipping, the RSPB and others may have about how the regulations will work in practice. I do not know what those concerns are, because the consultation is not over. My hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) has already mentioned the concerns in Falmouth about how the regulations will work.

After such a long gestation period for the regulations, does the Minister understand the scepticism and anger in the communities that have campaigned about this matter and want to see it happen? I came off Edinburgh city council in 2007. We were discussing regulations then and there was a bit of confusion about the degree to which the Scottish Parliament could take part. After such a long time, does the Minister understand how people feel, and is he prepared to give clear reassurance to those who want clear regulation in this regard?

I understand the public’s concern, throughout the country, about what would happen if there was an oil spill and about the dangers to the environment. I also understand that the consultation was lengthy. But the regulations are sitting there and there is genuine concern on both sides of the argument about whether they go far enough. As the Minister responsible, it is crucial that I ensure that the legislation that is put before the House is fit for purpose.

I was heavily lobbied on this issue immediately after I was elected and I listened to a lot of businesses that are concerned about the job prospects in the Lowestoft area as a result of the ban. I should like to mention in particular the Regulatory Policy Committee’s report, dated 13 April, the summary opinion of which is:

“The case for the prohibition of ship-to-ship oil transfers in UK territorial waters outside of harbour areas has not been made. There appears to have been little assessment of risk in drawing up this proposal, and it is not clear that the environmental benefits will be achieved. Furthermore, there is no adequate explanation for the enhanced environmental benefits of the preferred Option 3, over Option 2.”

Will the Minister confirm that he has had regard to the findings of the Regulatory Policy Committee in coming to his decision?

Not only have I had those findings, but I will look at them after the consultation is concluded.

One of my biggest concerns is whether all the regulations are likely to work. That is a point of law. If they are not going to work in law, what is the point of having them? The measures in respect of Scapa Flow, the habitats directive and the environmental consequences will have to happen: that is part of the regulations. I understand that the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife vehemently does not want ship-to-ship transfer in the Forth, but we have to consider whether there is a legal way of ensuring that that does not happen. Although the hon. Gentleman does not want ship-to-ship transfers, ships could move 12.1 miles off the coast and do the transfers legitimately there. Under the regulations, we cannot do anything if they move outside the 12-mile limit. That worries me an awful lot.

Ship-to-ship transfers also take place off the Suffolk coast. My hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), who is not in this Chamber today, is concerned about whether ships will move outside the controlled environment, where transfers happen at the moment, and go beyond the 12-mile limit. My hon. Friends the Members for Truro and Falmouth and for Waveney (Peter Aldous) have mentioned concerns about jobs being jeopardised.

The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife asked whether I would rule out self-regulation. There will be regulation: there is no argument about that. This is about how far regulation goes and whether it is enforceable: that is the crucial thing with any regulation made in the House.

My scepticism is not based on my lack of willingness to protect the environment. Anyone looking at my track record will know my views on the environment. I am a fisherman and have fished in many of the coastal areas that the hon. Gentleman represents. We have to consider the risk. The hon. Gentleman mentioned earlier what has happened in respect of BP in the gulf of Mexico. Sadly, that might happen—God forbid that it does—on any of the rigs sitting out there today. There has not been a spillage from ship-to-ship transfer. The regulations are preventive and will put a burden on the shipping business: there is no argument about that, because that will happen. If we put such a burden on shipping, will ships sail up to Scapa and go in and pay their dues, or will they move a few miles out? I am not a shipping person, but I understand that the margins are not huge. That may happen.

A lot of ships doing the transfers are Russian. As hon. Members know, the Russians have a large fleet, some of which is not the best quality. I hope that the Russians do not get upset about that, but it is a fact. If we can at least see the ships and control them to some degree within our territorial waters, we stand a chance. If they sit offshore, we will not be able to protect them at all.

It is crucial that Parliament sets laws that are enforceable and fit for purpose. I will return to this point. I suspended the regulations because I am concerned that they may not be enforceable and are possibly not fit for purpose. However, I stress that that does not take away the requirement for regulation. I am disappointed that, as revealed in earlier comments, there seems to have been a lack of communication or co-operation between the Scotland Office in the previous Government and the Department for Transport. I assure the hon. Gentleman that that does not exist now and that there is now real co-operation between all the relevant Departments.

I will meet as many different people and representative bodies as possible, including the RSPB. I am conscious that I have not had the sort of representation from the RSPB that I should like to have seen, but I expect to receive it during the consultation.

Of course, the shipping industry is concerned, but it is not just about the shipping industry, as we have heard from hon. Members from around the country, who are concerned about whether these are the right regulations to protect the environment and jobs and whether they are a sledgehammer to crack a nut. I will consider that matter carefully during the consultation period.

Strategic Transport (Cambridge)

I am delighted to have secured this crucial debate, especially as it is the last Westminster Hall debate before the long recess. I apologise, Mr Sheridan, for detaining you and the Minister from the break. Transport affects all my constituents daily, in one way or another, and it is a major concern that is raised constantly by residents and employers. Having spent almost my whole life in Cambridge, and having chaired the Cambridge traffic management committee for many years, I know the problems all too well. However, I am enthusiastic about the opportunities to make transport in Cambridge better for all—for businesses using important freight routes, for commuters who make the daily journey to work, and for tourists who come to enjoy the region’s historical and cultural attractions.

If we are to have a transport system that is better for all, we must get our priorities right. That means seriously considering whether we should continue our dependence on cars and lorries. I am sure that I need not rehearse for the Minister road vehicles’ impact on the environment. I have long believed that there are good arguments based on nothing more than simple self-interest. Congestion is increasingly problematic everywhere, and particularly around Cambridge. Everyone knows that, and no one enjoys it, but the evidence shows that, if more roads are built, more congestion fills those roads.

The best argument for doing things differently is simply the A14, which is vital to the region and the country, but is notoriously congested and unsafe. The traffic loads are far above those recommended by the Highways Agency, and almost a quarter of vehicles on the road are HGVs travelling to or from Felixstowe port. HGVs are responsible for more than one third of the accidents on the A14. Anyone who has travelled along the road a few times will know how often there are hold-ups. Even a trip to the supermarket may quickly become an expedition worthy of Captain Scott. Sadly, the Highways Agency’s way of dealing with the problem belongs in the history books. The agency and the county council are trying to ram through a scheme that would see the road widened to a 10-lane superhighway at the exorbitant cost of around £1.4 billion. That is a huge, unaffordable sum, especially at this time of financial constraint.

My concerns are not just financial. The proposed scheme, which the Government have put on hold, would also wreak havoc on Cambridge. The calculations show that several key roads in Cambridge would have a huge increase in traffic. For example, Huntingdon road, which is the main entry into the city from the north-west, could have 60% more traffic, while Horningsea road, to the east, could have traffic levels more than doubled. The effects of that extra traffic on other roads in Cambridge—for example, the ring road system—have simply not been calculated.

That is not to say that nothing should be done. In 2002, when I was a young, new county councillor, I argued that we should make safety improvements as soon as possible, develop a smaller scheme that would also deal with associated problems, such as the Huntingdon viaduct’s end of life, and prevent Godmanchester from being a slip road for the A14. I made my suggestions at a council meeting, but they were dismissed by the ruling Conservatives, who said that a big scheme would be along soon. My proposals would have saved time and money, and they would also have saved lives. It is disgraceful that, eight years on, no safety improvements have been implemented, and a coherent, affordable plan has not been developed to deal with the A14 problem.

I pay tribute, in passing, to Cambridgeshire police, who have taken special measures to reduce the number of accidents, although they can only do so much. The introduction of average speed cameras has been impressively effective in reducing accidents. Will the Minister examine the affordability and cost-benefit analysis of a much smaller-scale improvement that would deal with the main safety concerns, could be delivered soon, would benefit so many residents and start to save lives now?

Sadly, the A14 is not the only problem area for travel around Cambridge. The fiasco of the Cambridge guided bus is another example of poor strategic thinking. As Liberal Democrat leader on the county council, I led the campaign against that ill-conceived project. The money and the space, even as designed at the outset, could have been far better used for other schemes. One problem is that the bus is not guided through Cambridge, which is precisely where a guideway would have been most useful. It is notable that the inventor of the guided bus concept lives in Cambridge, and was an active campaigner against the guided bus.

The county council, egged on by the previous Government, became so fixated on the guided bus that other facilities lost out on resources as a result. That error was compounded by the failure to ensure that Cambridge residents would be able to use the system. There are continuing limits on where it will stop to pick up passengers. In the meantime, other bus routes have been altered, and stops removed from service to allow the guided bus to speed through when, if ever, it starts running. As I speak, the whole project is some £50 million over the allotted budget of £106 million, and is more than a year overdue, with no immediate prospect of running any time soon. Indeed, some of the buses bought by Stagecoach to run on the guideway used to say, “I’ll be on the busway soon”, but were repainted to say, “Will I be on the busway soon?” That shows the level of its concern.

The latest public papers suggest that legal arguments between the county council and the contractors, BAM Nuttall, are likely to run until 2014-15, greatly benefiting the lawyers on each side, I suspect, whatever the outcome. That is not ideal for people in Cambridge who would like to be able to get around. I hope that, when the scheme is finally up and running, it will be effective, and that people will use it. A white elephant with some usage is far better than a white elephant with no usage. But given the broken promises by the Conservatives at Shire hall that it would be built “on cost, on budget” and at

“no cost to the Council taxpayer”',

I am not holding my breath. The Minister agreed in response to my parliamentary questions to hold a review of guided bus policy, and argued that the county council should perform its own inquiry into the system. I thank him for that.

What are the solutions in the A14 corridor? The Liberal Democrats have long argued that the best way to lighten congestion on the A14 is to get freight off the road and on to rail. Our manifesto pledge, as I am sure the Minister knows, was to take money from the major roads budget and to use it to reopen closed rail lines. One such line is the east-west link, which comes in two forms, depending on who one talks to, but both would be beneficial. One version is the Cambridge-Oxford line, and opening up a direct route across the country from Ipswich to Oxford; the other is more northerly, via Nuneaton, and would allow freight to travel from Felixstowe docks without having to use roads until much nearer its destination. Work has already commenced on the Nuneaton section, and I hope that the Minister will give a commitment to see that essential work through to completion, so that we have a functioning freight route.

Those schemes would massively reduce traffic on the A14, making it safer, faster and more reliable. They are remarkably cost-effective, and would use existing infrastructure for much of the route. For the wider region, that would provide far greater freedom of movement for workers and tourists, along with better and safer options for businesses—truly a transport system better for all.

As well as investment in rail infrastructure, which would enable a switch of freight mode, further incentives are needed. A scheme in Switzerland, the Leistungsabhängige Schwerverkehrsabgabe, or LSVA—I apologise to the Hansard reporters and anyone who knows how it is pronounced—is a nationwide scheme that charges HGVs to use the roads. The fee is based on all distance travelled; it is charged per kilometre as well as per tonne. It also includes an element depending on vehicle emissions, and applies to all HGVs weighing more than 3.5 tonnes. Will the Minister investigate such schemes to encourage freight off the road and on to rail, hopefully with the rail scheme that he will help us to deliver?

Another vital step for Cambridge is the introduction of Chesterton railway station. It has been needed for many years and, at a stroke, would reduce congestion in the centre of the city. Surveys show that around 70% of the vehicles parking at Cambridge station come from north of the city, so a station at Chesterton, which is in the north, would see the majority of those vehicles diverted there, bringing welcome relief to residential streets and the historic city centre. That project would be relatively cheap, and would be an excellent fit with Government policy. It would meet criteria for improving access to key centres and reducing carbon emissions. It would also be beneficial for the many high-tech companies around the Cambridge science park, as they would benefit from more convenient travel for their employees, and from better connections to London. On a technical note, such a project would ease the existing congestion at Cambridge station. Cost-benefit calculations are extremely positive, and that proposal was the top regional priority under the former grading scheme.

I understand from the Minister that the Department for Transport is working with the county council to assess the scheme for Chesterton, and that the council is considering funding options. I urge the Department and the council to reconsider the expensive and bloated expansion of the A14, and to redirect funds where they are most needed. Cambridge can grow in a sustainable way only if investment is put into public transport facilities now.

Such investment should include transport interchanges, and one specific issue is that of access to cycle parking at Cambridge station. There is huge demand for cycle parking at that station, as anyone who has used it will know, but there is gross underprovision of spaces. I have raised the issue with Network Rail, First Capital Connect and National Express East Anglia, and those companies have agreed to work on the problem. In particular, Network Rail has committed to looking at providing new double-decker cycle racks at the station, until the large CB1 scheme is complete, and I thank it for that commitment. Will the Minister ensure that such small proposals, which would nevertheless make a huge difference to people’s daily lives, are supported, mandated and funded?

We must encourage people to use forms of transport other than the private car. As a driver, cyclist and pedestrian, I am keenly aware of the conflicting needs of different travellers, but it is a constant balancing act. I have no wish to deny drivers essential access, but I also want to ensure that we promote environmentally sustainable forms of transport around Cambridge. Cycling and walking are the ideal forms of travel, and they help people to stay healthy. Too often, however, local authorities are slow to provide good-quality routes for people to use on which they feel safe and which do not deviate from their direction of travel. Such routes tend not to get the appropriate levels of maintenance when potholes appear and—at least in Cambridge—they are not gritted sufficiently during the winter months.

In Cambridge, we had to reinstate legal cycling along a national cycling route through the city centre after it was banned by the Conservatives. Other measures would also help. A speed limit of 20 miles per hour should be easier to implement on a city-wide basis, so that although the speed limit on major roads would continue to be 30 miles per hour, side streets would have a limit of 20 miles per hour. That would have a limited impact on drivers, but would significantly increase the safety of cyclists and pedestrians.

We need less bureaucracy. In Cambridge, we spent many years seeking permission from the Department for Transport for road signs that indicated no entry to all except cyclists. We campaigned on that for years, and we have finally been allowed a pilot of a sign that should be easy to demonstrate and use. Such signs are more easily understood by road users than the low-flying motorbikes that are the alternative sign.

We must also promote bus services. Buses provide essential access, but too often they are run by monopoly providers, whose main interests are their own financial returns rather than the provision of a proper transport service to the population. Such providers use their clout to extract huge sums of money from councils to provide essential services. Will the Minister defend funding for cycling and walking schemes in Cambridge and elsewhere, and will he support more local powers to improve the bus services? Will he help with the trains so that there is more space to find a seat and tickets are better and more clearly priced? As a parochial interest, could there be a sign in King’s Cross underground station to state which platform the Cambridge train will depart from?

Two years ago, this House made the courageous decision to pass an Act to stop climate change. However, it is no good setting targets if positive action is not taken to achieve them. If we persist in ignoring the fact that it is impossible to build our way out of congestion, we will not only make life more miserable for motorists, cyclists and pedestrians alike, but throw in the towel in the battle against catastrophic environmental damage.

Making transport better for all in the short term is one thing, and I am delighted to have had the chance to set out my proposed strategy for Cambridge in the coming years, but we should never lose sight of the fact that, by increasing access to public transport and creating sustainable communities, we are not only making transport better for all—we are also building a fairer society.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) on securing this debate; this is the first time that I have had the chance to welcome him formally to this place, and I also congratulate him on taking over from David Howarth in representing the people of Cambridge. He has asked a number of questions about transport in Cambridge and has raised some important issues. I am pleased to respond to his first Adjournment debate on a subject that I know is of great importance to him and his constituents. He will recognise that he has given me a huge wish list, and I cannot promise to satisfy him on every point in my response.

As a preamble, I shall say something about the priorities of the coalition Government. The coalition agreement makes clear our commitment to a modern low-carbon transport infrastructure as an essential element of a dynamic and entrepreneurial economy. However, I must also make clear at the outset that the overriding need identified by the coalition Government is that of tackling 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 forthcoming comprehensive spending review.

The Department for Transport is playing a full part in the spending review that will report in the autumn; there will be a statement from the Chancellor on 20 October and we have already announced a range of measures aimed at delivering reductions in spending. On 24 May, the Chancellor and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury gave details of £6.2 billion of savings in Government spending in 2010-11. The Department for Transport is contributing to those savings by finding £683 million this year, and that has meant taking difficult decisions on funding. On 10 June, the Secretary of State for the Department for Communities and Local Government published further details of local government savings, including £309 million of savings from local transport funding.

I understand that those reductions and the deferring of decisions on some transport schemes until after the outcome of the spending review will be 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 identify where efficiencies can be found. There is also an opportunity to rethink transport plans and priorities and ensure that proposals are environmentally, as well as financially, sustainable. Given current financial constraints, it is essential to ensure that any new infrastructure is affordable and offers value for money.

My hon. Friend knows better than I do that Cambridge has always been an important and distinguished city whose origins go back to Roman times and the location of the first bridged crossing of the River Cam inland from the sea. Transport clearly had a crucial role in society then, as it does now. Cambridge is a world-renowned university town with three universities. It is city of science that has hosted such eminent scholars as Newton, Darwin and Watson and Crick. Lately it has built a world-wide reputation as a leader in bio-engineering technology, and the growth of that sector is a powerful economic driver, both locally and nationally.

The growth of Cambridge and the demand for travel has led to increases in traffic congestion. With many more new homes planned for the sub-region over the next 10 years, even more people will be travelling around. Since the 1970s, successive Governments have attempted to solve the congestion problem by building more roads. First came the M11 from London to the south of Cambridge in the mid-1970s. That was later extended to provide a western bypass of Cambridge in 1979 and the Cambridge northern bypass followed soon after as the A45. The old A604 road to Huntingdon was dualled and widened, but it was not until the mid-1990s and the completion of the M1 to A1 east-west link in Northamptonshire, that the whole route was renumbered as the A14. That route became the first major east-west trunk route linking the east coast ports to the manufacturing centres in the midlands and the north-west but, as my hon. Friend will know, the road is now a congested artery.

In widening the old A604 to a dual two-lane carriageway, the Government of the day did not foresee the demand that would be placed on that road once it became part of the A14. As long ago as 1994, the standing advisory committee for trunk road assessment—SACTRA—made clear in its report that new roads tend to generate additional traffic, which must be taken into account in forward planning.

There have been various schemes to widen the A14 between Cambridge and Huntingdon. The most recent is the present A14 Ellington to Fen Ditton scheme, which emerged as a recommendation of CHUMMS—the Cambridge to Huntingdon multimodal study. My hon. Friend will be aware that a preferred route was announced for that scheme a few years ago, and that a public inquiry was scheduled to start last month. That inquiry was suspended pending the outcome of the spending review, as has happened with other such schemes across the country. It was simply not tenable or sensible to continue with the statutory process of the scheme, given the uncertainty in relation to the spending review. I should record at this stage that there is significant support for the scheme, but there are also many people who have serious reservations about it, on both environmental and financial grounds.

The scheme cost is now in excess of £1 billion, which would be a huge investment for a single road. The spending review means that we must reconsider the affordability of that scheme and all others. We shall need to consider whether we really have the best and most sustainable solution to the problem. We have to ask that question about all schemes.

I take my hon. Friend’s point about safety improvements. It is certainly important that we do not have an absence of safety improvements to a road because we are holding out for something bigger. I had a similar situation in my constituency with the A27. Clearly, people who have concerns about safety have a right to have those addressed. That will need to be factored into any consideration that we undertake in relation to the road that we are discussing today after the spending review is complete. I stress that no decision has been taken about the road as yet.

The previous Administration recognised that there was a separate need to cater for people who live in the villages around Cambridge and who work in the city or at the science park. The solution to that was seen as the guided busway. That scheme was approved by the previous Administration way back in 2001 and construction commenced in 2007, yet it is still not open. It has become a very expensive project, with costs rising from £116 million in 2006 to an estimated £160 million now. That is more than three times the original estimate.

Delivery issues remain to be resolved between Cambridgeshire county council and the contractor, as my hon. Friend said. I know that he has concerns about the project; he expressed those in a parliamentary question, which I answered last month. There are clearly lessons to be learned from both the Cambridge and the Luton to Dunstable guided bus projects. That is why I have asked my officials to consider the history and cost structure of those projects. I have asked for a report by the end of September on that matter and associated matters relating to light rail. Many of those schemes have also come in significantly above budget or were cancelled by the previous Administration. We need to learn the lessons to ensure that that does not happen again.

Let me deal with the issue of tackling congestion in the city centre. First, I want to make it clear that building big expensive infrastructure is not the only answer to tackling congestion. I know that my hon. Friend shares my view that much more can be done to support sustainable travel. We can achieve a great deal by concentrating much more on local interventions that respond to local needs. That will mainly be achieved through the local transport plan process. As I highlighted in a recent speech at the Transport Times conference in Manchester, local transport plans remain the best way for authorities to plan and deliver their strategy for integrated, safe, sustainable and efficient transport in their areas.

However, in line with the coalition agreement to promote decentralisation and devolution of power to local government, my Department will no longer seek to intervene in how local authorities review their progress against local transport plans. That will be a matter entirely for them. After the spring 2011 deadline for renewal of the plans, reports or reviews will no longer be required for central Government to consider.

Local authorities are working hard to have their new plans in place by next April, and I encourage them to be creative and innovative in doing so. Cambridgeshire county council and the city council have done excellent work on sustainable travel in recent years, and I trust that their commitment to that cause and their working in partnership will continue. They have had considerable success in raising bus patronage locally through the development of park-and-ride sites. The traffic management scheme in the city centre, which my hon. Friend oversaw in a previous capacity, has been very successful in promoting safe cycling and walking and containing traffic growth.

If cycling is to succeed anywhere in the UK, it must succeed in Cambridge. Unlike my constituency, Cambridge is, after all, relatively flat and situated in the driest part of the country. Cycling is also the mode of choice for the large student population. With 18% of all journeys made by bike, Cambridge already has the highest level of cycling anywhere in the country. The aim is to increase that further. As a cycling demonstration town project participant, it is receiving some £3.6 million of extra funding for that from my Department. I would like to see the experiences of Cambridge applied to other places at the end of the project.

Enabling people to interchange easily from one public transport mode to another is fundamental in getting people out of their cars. Again, I am aware that Cambridge is at the forefront of that through the development of the station gateway project. That project will deliver a bus interchange facility right outside the main rail station. We are keen for such projects to expand and to be replicated throughout the country.

That leads me on to the issue of rail. Let me assure my hon. Friend that the present Government are committed to making the best use of our rail network, as part of our commitment to creating a low-carbon economy and to improving the travelling experience for passengers. I am pleased to note that Network Rail is expected to commence work shortly at Cambridge station to construct the new island platform. However, the estimated cost of £15 million is obviously high. I shall add in passing that the ministerial team in the Department are quite keen to get better value from Network Rail for some of these projects. That cost does seem to me rather expensive for a platform.

In any case, the new platform will provide much-needed extra station capacity to enable First Capital Connect and National Express East Anglia to operate in a much more efficient and organised manner. The new platform is expected to be in operation by the end of next year. In addition, the completion of the Thameslink programme will give Cambridge faster journey times to London, access to St Pancras and many more direct connections to places south of the Thames.

My hon. Friend will be aware that the issue of new rolling stock for London to Cambridge services is under review by my Department. It is important that in ordering new trains, we get the very best value for money and that the specification is exactly right for the job that we want them to do. My hon. Friend will also be aware that stabling for the new trains was one of the factors taken into consideration in relation to the development of a new station at Chesterton, to which he referred. I know that he is very keen on that project. I appreciate that Chesterton station is regarded as important for the people of north Cambridge wishing to avoid the need to travel through the city centre and for people working at the science park. While the spending review is under way, I can give no assurances about the funding of that project, but I know that Cambridgeshire county council is working hard with Network Rail to develop various technical and funding options, and I welcome that.

Network Rail is also working hard to deliver another scheme that my hon. Friend supports—the gauge upgrading of the Felixstowe to Nuneaton rail line to take continental-size containers and hence get more freight off our roads and on to rail. He mentioned the opportunity for modal shift for freight from road to rail. Phase 1 of that complex scheme, which is being part-funded by the Government, Hutchison Ports UK and the European Commission, is nearing completion. When it is finished next year, the number of freight trains will increase to eight per day per direction, and when phase 2 is complete in 2014, up to 24 freight trains per day will be able to travel to Peterborough and hence the north. Further work is needed in control period 5, and Network Rail is working on that, but at this stage I can provide no certainty about funding. However, 24 freight trains a day in either direction means a lot of lorries off the roads.

The coalition agreement includes a commitment to make the transport sector greener and more sustainable, which includes reforming how decisions are made on which transport projects to prioritise, so that the benefits of low-carbon proposals are fully recognised. Work is going on in the Department and we hope to have something in place to enable us to reassess projects when the spending review is complete, so those two elements of work can come together.

Getting more freight off the roads and on to the railways is one way of doing what I have described. Investing in low-carbon buses is another. That is why, building on that policy framework and on the success of the first round of the green bus fund, I was pleased recently to announce a second round of the fund, worth £15 million, which will support the procurement of an additional 150 low-carbon buses in England. All transport authorities, including Cambridgeshire county council, are encouraged to submit a bid, and I hope that my hon. Friend will take that back to his county council.

The county council should, in identifying its needs and priorities, consider the full range of options available and the potential for attracting funding from sources other than public sector ones. Given the current financial climate, I cannot offer any assurance at this time about the future time scale for taking forward schemes identified, but reviewing the feasibility of options should mean that Cambridge is well placed to benefit from available investment when the financial position eases.

My hon. Friend asked about lorry road user charging. He will know that there is a commitment in the coalition agreement to take forward lorry road user charging. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), who was in this Chamber a few minutes ago, is leading that work for the Department.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge also mentioned road signs. A road sign review is under way. I have asked officials to note his comments on that issue to feed them into the road sign review. The object of the review is to make it easier for local authorities to get signage up that is sensible for their areas and consistent with an application of national standards so that people understand the signs if they come from elsewhere in the country. We want to make it easier to get signs up that suit local needs.

My hon. Friend mentioned powers to improve bus services. We have no plans at present to change the regulatory arrangements regarding buses, although the Competition Commission inquiry considering the architecture of the bus network and the structure of the industry is under way. It would be imprudent to take a decision either to loosen controls or to tighten them in advance of that reporting. We expect to have a draft report from the Competition Commission probably by December this year.

It is clear that we face a challenging period. Tough decisions have already been necessary to tackle the UK’s budget deficit. The Government have identified their most urgent priority as tackling the deficit, and transport must play its part in that process. Only when the Government’s spending review has been concluded will we be in a position to see what investment can be made, but I assure my hon. Friend that we are committed to promoting low-carbon forms of transport. We are committed to sustainable transport—

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11)).