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Volume 558: debated on Tuesday 5 February 2013

Good afternoon, Mr Sheridan. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, and I am grateful to Mr Speaker for granting me this important debate for the county of Essex.

I thank the Minister for his attention today. He is fully aware of the strategic importance and significance of the A120, in particular, as an economic and strategic link, not only throughout the county of Essex, but to Europe. It is part of the trans-European transport network route known as the UK-Ireland-Benelux road axis, and it connects with Stansted airport in the west—in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst)—which is Britain’s second largest air freight port transporting cargo worth £8 billion a year, as well as with Harwich International port in the east, which has trade links with northern Europe and serves about 1 million passengers a year.

However, the A120 is not only about connecting locations. It is important and strategic, because it gives people and businesses opportunities to access national, European and global markets. The importance of the road to the economic well-being of the region and the county of Essex cannot be understated. The road is particularly important to my constituents and to businesses there. Essex is a dynamic county of entrepreneurs with a vibrant mix of traditional industries, such as manufacturing, rural farming and innovative light businesses. Of course, entrepreneurs are the wealth creators not only for the county of Essex, but for the country, and are creating private sector jobs and prosperity in our economy.

In my constituency, small and medium-sized businesses are highly significant. The proportion is more than 80%, and they are growing, despite the economic downturn that we have had. I have to say—the Minister has heard me say this before, as have many other Essex colleagues—that we are a great county to do business in. Our strategic geographical location, our proximity to London, and our access not only to ports, but to Stansted and Southend airports has a lot to do with it. Our 20th century transport infrastructure, however, is holding us and, particularly, businesses back. Nowhere is that more evident than with the A120 and particularly the 12-mile single carriageway stretch that runs north to my constituency, between Braintree and the A12 at the Marks Tey end of the A120. That also touches the southern edges of the constituencies of my hon. Friends the Members for Braintree (Mr Newmark) and for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin).

The road is one of the most heavily used in Essex by the business sector. Some 56% of businesses responding to an Essex chambers of commerce survey indicated that they use the road regularly. However, the single carriageway section, as I have alluded to, is not fit for purpose. It is extremely congested, causes severe delays, is highly dangerous, and is a barrier to economic growth. Those delays harm businesses and damage small and medium-sized firms, not only in my constituency, but in neighbouring constituencies. For them, an extra half-hour delay in traffic can mean the loss of a lucrative contract. It can damage their reputation, prevent them from expanding and adding more capacity, and it adds hundreds of thousand of pounds to their running costs each year.

The Minister has been generous with his time, meeting me and other representatives from my constituency to look into the pressures on the road, but I would like to highlight that figures as far back as 2005 show that an estimated 25,000 vehicles use that stretch of road every single day, when single carriageway roads are typically expected to carry approximately 23,000 vehicles. Annual daily traffic flow data from the Department for Transport in 2010 indicated that on parts of the A120, some 14% of traffic is accounted for by HGVs, compared with an average of only 6% across Essex. That demand inevitably puts strains on the road and its junctions, leading to delays and a backlog on to smaller roads, affecting nearby villages.

In 2008, a report by Atkins, commissioned by the East of England Development Agency, examined those problems and stated:

“The single carriageway section of the route, between Braintree and the A12, is congested and suffers traffic delays.”

It noted:

“The A120 is currently constrained by the capacity of the single carriageway section of A120”,

and there is clear evidence that most traffic on that particular section

“has no real choice of route”.

There are no alternative routes where traffic can go. The report also highlighted that unless plans were put in place to accommodate increased traffic flows in future, stress levels as measured by the congestion reference flow indicator could reach 150% on the western section of the single carriageway.

To address those problems, it was recommended that the A120 was classified as a route of strategic national importance to attract funding from other sources and a wider pool, and crucially that the single carriageway section be dualled in a scheme which, at that time, would have cost approximately £500 million. The advantages of dualling were clearly laid out. First, it would enable the road to increase capacity and accommodate an average 25% increase in traffic in both directions. Secondly, with less congestion, journey times would decrease by between six and 11 minutes, which is significant for this 12-mile stretch of road. Thirdly, an upgraded and dualled road would lead to economic benefits, estimated at the time to be around £725 million for users, and with wider economic benefits of £106 million. At today’s prices, it is estimated that the benefits would exceed £1.1 billion. The proposed scheme would have delivered good value for money and, naturally, it would have unlocked wider economic potential, helping to create thousands of new jobs in the process and improving access to the Haven Gateway.

However, as my hon. Friend the Minister and other colleagues know, the A120 was not considered to be a priority by the previous Labour Government, who went on to scrap the scheme. We are now living with that local legacy, and there is huge disappointment locally. The Minister will be aware that we are coming together collectively with the Essex chambers of commerce, Essex county council, Braintree district council, the Highways Agency, Colchester borough council, Tendring district council and the Haven Gateway partnership, in particular, to start lobbying and fighting to make it a strategic route, and to get it listed as a strategic route on the priority scheme.

I take this moment to pay tribute to all my colleagues, and my local authorities and neighbouring local authorities. Despite the disappointment of what happened in the past, we are now adamant about building an even stronger economic and business case for dualling the A120. The Essex chambers of commerce has recently set up the Essex business transport and infrastructure forum to support businesses and the business effort in co-ordinating the development of economic arguments. I invite the Minister to come to one of our future meetings to discuss this important issue, and to support new and much needed road infrastructure for our county.

I want to touch on the A120 and the road safety implications. As the Minister has heard before, there are significant road safety issues relating to the A120 and to the single carriageway being dualled. Local parish councils along that route—Marks Tey, Bradwell and Coggleshall—along with local residents, to whom I would like to pay tribute, have set up a significant campaign called “Save Lives Not Time”, and they have campaigned to see the road become much safer. We have had lots of problems on the road, as I have mentioned, but they have done tremendous work to see that lives are saved and that accidents are prevented.

The Road Safety Foundation has classified the A120 as one of the 10 most dangerous roads in the country and figures from the CrashMap website, set up by the Government, also show the number and seriousness of road traffic accidents. There has been not just a high number but more than 50 further serious accidents in the period from 2005 to 2011, and further fatalities have occurred on this stretch of road. Naturally, we want to see that stopped. The Highways Agency has been very helpful and recognised that. It has in place a maintenance programme to address some hot spots—in particular, around the Earls Colne road junction. However, unless this road is upgraded and the capacity issue addressed, there will be further serious and life-changing accidents, all of which I believe can be prevented.

I would like now to come on to how we can fund the A120. I have touched on the fact that the cost of a previous scheme was estimated at £500 million. I appreciate that in the current economic climate and given the appalling state of the public finances inherited from the previous Labour Government, the current Government are prevented from doing what we would all like to see—investing and committing hundreds of millions of pounds to the A120. However, I have already said—the Minister has heard me say this consistently—that this should be treated as a priority scheme. I believe that there is an opportunity for the Government to consider innovative funding models.

The Minister will be aware that in recent years the Marks Tey consortium, known as Gateway 120 Ltd, has developed proposals that could unlock a considerable amount of money, through section 106 agreements and the community infrastructure levy, to help to provide private sector funding to support upgrades. Braintree district council has already said that it has allocated £5 million of new homes bonuses to contribute towards joint investment in this major infrastructure project. In addition, there have been discussions on and the development of a revised proposal, which differs from the previous scheme considered by the Highways Agency and could be much more cost-effective.

I believe—I would like the Minister to look into this—that funding may also be available through the European Union. The A120 is part of the trans-European transport network and may qualify for TEN-T programme funding or funding from the structural and cohesion funds. I urge the Government to look into that. The Minister will not be surprised to hear that I believe that Europe has had far too much of our money. I think that this is an opportunity for us to bring back some of that money and invest it in infrastructure, not just within the region but in our country. I urge that more work be done to investigate that aspect of funding.

I believe that spending public funds on upgrading this road will yield significant economic benefits, along with greater tax revenue for the Government. At a time of economic austerity, we need barriers to trade and private sector growth and investment to be removed; with alternative private funding models, such as that to which I have alluded, we can help to unlock that process. If the Government can commit to upgrading the road, that will naturally help to unlock the economic potential not just of Essex but of the eastern region and also the south-east of this country and unleash the power of the country’s wealth creators. But at the same time, we must look at alternative funding sources as well. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for being allowed to make a small contribution to the debate. If I may, I shall add a little historical perspective. The Saffron Walden constituency, from the point at which I became the Member in 1977 until 2010, included the northern part of the Braintree district, and across that section of the county there ran the A604, which was a principal road between Colchester and Cambridge. It was later downgraded to become the A1124 and the A1109. I had, as the Member, many representations at that time for village bypasses to overcome some of the problems—very similar to those that my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) has mentioned on the stretch of road from Braintree to Marks Tey—and to avoid the heavy traffic that was thundering through, with accidents and great risk to pedestrians.

However, I was told then, by Essex county council and by the Department for Transport, that I did not understand what the strategy was. It was explained to me that the strategy to bring heavy traffic and, indeed, all traffic from the east coast ports to the midlands and the north was twofold. It was to build the Orwell bridge, so that traffic could have the choice of going up the A12 and then on to the A14, or come along the A120, which was to be upgraded to the M11 at Stansted. It is extraordinary that after 35 years, we had half of that done, from Stansted to Braintree, and the other half conspicuously, dramatically undone—one and a half routes between the east coast and the midlands and the north. That is truly ludicrous.

Of course, that strategic decision, explained to me in 1977-78, was before a decision had been taken to allow the development of Stansted airport, which of course has generated much more traffic, so it is even more extraordinary, with the institution by many of the freight companies of headquarters at Stansted and the traffic that that generates, that there still appears to be no recognition in the Department for Transport, over many, many years now, of the importance of completing the link that was originally intended when I first became involved on behalf of my constituents. Thirty-five years we have had to wait—how much longer? Surely the time for the gap to be plugged has come.

I am pleased to see you in the Chair, Mr Sheridan, and I am delighted to be here. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) on securing the debate. She knows that, were it not for the debate in the main Chamber, many more people would be here this afternoon. I have been particularly struck by what she and my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) said in lobbying to reverse the local legacy and to ensure that Essex is a great county in which to do business in the future, to quote her.

My hon. Friend has been a tireless campaigner on the need for future investment in this road, as has my right hon. Friend. I recognise her continuing determination to speak about the importance of this subject for her constituents, local businesses and the local economy. I am of course aware that she has asked a number of parliamentary questions about the improvements that she quite rightly believes are required to the A120 and to the A12. She secured an Adjournment debate last year on transport in Essex. As she will remember, I met her recently to discuss the proposals to improve the A120 and therefore I am pleased to be responding to this debate this afternoon.

The strategic road network is the Government’s largest single asset, currently valued at about £100 billion and comprising some 4,350 miles of motorway and trunk road. The Government recognise the importance of the transport infrastructure to supporting the economy, and local economies throughout the country, and therefore we have announced increased levels of Government funding to deliver improvements targeted at supporting economic growth.

My hon. Friends will remember the announcement in the 2010 spending review that we were investing an extra £1.4 billion in starting 14 major road schemes over the spending review period. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, as part of the 2011 autumn statement, identified several other schemes that would be brought forward for delivery. In the 2012 statement, the Chancellor announced additional capital investment in this Parliament that would enable four major schemes to be brought forward.

I therefore hope that my hon. Friends will recognise that the Government are keen to support the infrastructure of our country. Indeed, in the 2012 statement, there was the provision of a further £100 million of capital expenditure in this spending round to undertake further pinchpoint schemes. My hon. Friend the Member for Witham will be aware that that included a £0.28 million—£280,000—pinchpoint scheme to widen Galley’s Corner roundabout south-east of Braintree. It is obviously true, but I am sure that it disappointed her, that no other schemes that applied for pinchpoint funding on the A120—several did apply—could be delivered within the scope and the criteria of that fund. She and I have spoken about that.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden spoke a little about the history of the A120, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Witham. Obviously, sections of it are single-carriageway road, as she rightly said. The A120 east of the M11 is a trunk road and therefore part of the strategic road network. As she points out, it also forms part of the comprehensive trans-European road network.

My hon. Friends were right to point out that if one looks at the history of the road and the Department’s consultations, surveys and studies on proposed improvements to the A120, one sees that in 2001-02 a comprehensive study was undertaken to look at the problems facing the A12 corridor between London and Ipswich, which included the A120. The study recommended road improvements between Marks Tey and Braintree, and that dualling the A120 from the A12 to Harwich should be considered in the longer term.

As my hon. Friends said, the previous Administration’s review of regional priorities in the east of England provided advice that changed those priorities, and the regional assembly removed the proposals from their prioritised programme. In the previous Government’s response to the advice, they accepted the recommendations for prioritisation, and the Department for Transport instructed that the scheme should not proceed further. That is the history. It is worth setting out the context.

My hon. Friends will know that, given the previous decisions on the prioritisation of improvements, there was not a sufficiently developed business case for the proposal at the time of the Government’s 2010 comprehensive spending review. I have spoken about the schemes that the Chancellor prioritised. A developed business case was a key requirement in both 2010 and 2011. The Department therefore had no plans to develop future scheme improvements in this location. There have been subsequent developments, to which my hon. Friends referred.

In our January meeting, I explained that, in assessing schemes for the future, the Highways Agency is looking at a process that would involve local parties in considering future priorities on a more local level, rather than on a simply regional basis. For the record, it may be worth setting out exactly how we expect such route-based strategies to work.

In response to the recommendations in Alan Cook’s review of the Highways Agency, we agreed to develop and roll out a programme of route-based strategies to identify future transport investments for the strategic road network. The Highways Agency is developing three route-based strategies at initial locations, one of which is the A12 from its junction with the M25 to its junction with the A14 and the A120 between Colchester and Harwich.

The three initial strategies will be complete in March this year. We will take the lessons learned from the production to inform a wider programme of strategies to assess network prioritisation, starting in the next financial year, which as I explained is likely to include the remaining section of the A120 west of the A12. Route-based strategies will ensure that there is clear evidence to make informed decisions on what is necessary for the strategic network to support economic growth locally and keep the country moving.

As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Witham when we met in January, a key element of the route-based strategy is the engagement and involvement of local groups, including, as we discussed, local enterprise partnerships. I very much welcome the work of the Haven Gateway group in bringing together the range of local interests. I also welcome its analysis of the potential transport benefits and, more importantly, the potential benefits for economic growth in the region, which will be useful in informing the route-based strategy for the rest of the A120. I have made it clear, and I hope she accepts my reassurances, that the Highways Agency will work closely with local groups, via the LEP and local authorities, when it undertakes the route-based strategy work for the rest of the A120.

As I have said in this and other debates, the Government recognise the importance of transport infrastructure to facilitating economic development and the role that it can play in bringing forward proposed new housing developments. In our January meeting, my hon. Friend highlighted the development proposals from Gateway 120 Ltd. My Department and the Highways Agency are more than happy to discuss with prospective developers the needs and costs of transport infrastructure improvements to the strategic road network in the area. As she will recognise, any development proposals will clearly need to fit in with the aspirations of the local plans, and, at the meeting, I took some reassurance from her that that was so. She also knows that I promised to facilitate a meeting between officials and Gateway 120 to that end. That meeting took place yesterday. I am happy to ensure that she gets a full debrief.

My hon. Friend is right that, potentially, there are new and innovative funding areas for the A120 for us to explore together, with my Department’s officials, and I will ensure that we do so. She will also be aware that the Department clearly needs to know more about the absolute details of the transport proposals that underline the Gateway 120 scheme before we can take a view on the future funding that could be committed. She and Gateway 120 have undertaken to ensure that such details are available.

My hon. Friend rightly mentioned safety. I understand the deep concern and recognise the continued campaign for improvements. I have been speaking to the Highways Agency. We recognise the concerns over safety. I have asked Highways Agency officials to investigate options to make the junction at Pellens Corner safer. It is shortly due to complete a road safety audit for that location, which will provide detailed evidence of incidents and accidents and allow a detailed analysis of the situation. That will allow us to bring forward options to address the problem. I am more than happy to meet my hon. Friends to discuss their concerns about safety and the options that we are likely to bring forward.

Again, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Witham and my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden for their contributions. I congratulate them on their tenacity in campaigning for the transport infrastructure needed in their local area to make Essex a great county in which to do business. The Government recognise the importance of the A120 as a strategic road and the benefits that the Highways Agency and Gateway 120 working together could bring to their constituencies.

Sitting suspended.