It is a delight, Mr Sheridan, to serve under your chairmanship. Two years ago, I took part in a general Westminster Hall debate and used it not only to highlight some of the positive business developments that were taking place in my constituency, but to set out a number of problems with the local roads that needed to be solved if we were to attract even more investment to the area. Those problems have not gone away and in some cases have got worse. I want to use my time today to repeat some of my concerns about the road infrastructure in my constituency.
In many ways, the problem has been brought about by the success of business in our area, which is ironic because the other side of the same coin is that the very same problem could hold back future investment. Sheppey has a major port that is used for the import and export of thousands of cars every year, and we have the largest prison population in the whole country. Eurolink in north Sittingbourne will, when its current expansion plans are realised, be the largest industrial and business park in the south-east. Morrison’s regional distribution centre is also situated in Sittingbourne, and next door is the largest paper mill in the United Kingdom. The thriving Kent science park is in south Sittingbourne and is at the cutting edge of life sciences.
Those success stories generate valuable employment, but also an increasing amount of traffic that is threatening to overwhelm our local roads. When I listen to BBC Radio Kent in the mornings to hear what traffic problems I will face on my drive into London, the same motorways are almost always mentioned: the M25, the M20, and the M2, as well as the Dartford crossing. On the A roads, there is occasionally a problem on the A2, the A20 and the A21, but one Kent road is mentioned every morning without fail: the A249, which happens to be the main road into Sittingbourne and Sheppey from the M2.
Anyone who witnessed the horrendous multi-car pile-up on the Sheppey bridge a few weeks back will appreciate the number of vehicles that use the A249 every day. Not only is it the only road off the Isle of Sheppey, it is also the road used by the thousands of people who commute from Sittingbourne. Traffic from the Eurolink industrial park, the Morrison’s regional warehouse and the paper mill also feeds on to the A249. That has created at least two major pinch points: one at the roundabout at the junction between the A249 and the northern relief road—I will come to that project in a moment—and the other at the roundabout where the A249 meets junction 5 of the M2. The latter is a particular problem because the congestion created at the roundabout affects not only the slip roads from the M2, but local roads.
The Kent science park also creates congestion on local roads in south Sittingbourne, which is another problem that needs to be resolved. The owners of the park, with Swale borough council and Kent county council, have plans for a link from the M2 at what would become junction 5A, but they have been stymied by current Highways Agency restrictions on spur roads from motorways. I wrote to the Minister’s predecessor about the problem and received an assurance that his Department was reviewing that restriction. Is there any update on that? I am keen to see that spur built because not only would it help to relieve congestion on a number of roads in south Sittingbourne; it could form part of what we hope will eventually become the southern relief road.
That leads me back to the northern relief road, which links the A249 to both Eurolink and Great Easthall, which is a housing development north of the A2. The problem is that the northern relief road has never been completed, so it is not much of a relief to anyone. Obviously, local businesses on Eurolink and the residents of Great Easthall want the final link to be built as soon as possible, but many other people feel that finishing the northern relief road without first building a southern relief road would be a mistake because it would simply increase congestion on the A2 and the number of vehicles using rural roads in villages such as Bapchild, Bredgar, Rodmersham and Tunstall as rat runs to the M20.
I have some sympathy with the latter view, which is one reason why I have long held the view that a southern relief road is critical to Sittingbourne’s long-term future. Not only would it open the way to completion of the northern relief road, while protecting the southern villages; it would help to reduce congestion on both the A2 and the A249.
Another pinch point on the A249 is where it joins the A250 on the Isle of Sheppey. Until it hits that junction, the A249 is a dual carriageway, but thereafter it goes into a single lane all the way to Sheerness. That part of the A249 is also the main road into Sheerness docks and we desperately need the dual carriageway to be extended at least as far as the eastern boundary of the docks to allow easier access. That would allow a major expansion of the docks, thereby creating additional employment in one of the most socially deprived parts of my constituency.
There is also a problem on Sheppey with the newly created A2500, which is the main road link between the A249 and the eastern part of Sheppey. The A2500 feeds into Minster, which is the largest community on Sheppey and has seen the largest expansion of housing. Sadly, the junction at the A2500 and Barton Hill drive, which is the main route into Minster, is simply not fit for purpose and is seriously congested daily, all year round. The A2500 is also the main road to the three prisons on Sheppey, and ironically also feeds the main holiday camps on the island, so the congestion increases still further during the summer.
The Minister has kindly agreed to come to my constituency next year to open a new logistics hub that, ironically, is being built alongside the A249 and will no doubt add to the current traffic problems at the Morrison’s roundabout. I wonder whether he would agree to meet representatives from Swale borough council and my local business community on the same day to hear at first hand their concerns about our local road infrastructure.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) on securing this debate on road infrastructure in his constituency. I also congratulate him on the excellent progress he is making with his “Movember” moustache.
I know that the subject is of great importance to him and his constituents, including businesses in the area, and he spoke eloquently about that. I had the opportunity to have a session with my officials to update myself on the current situation and to hear some of the history of developments in this important area.
Road transport has always been important to the area. From the Roman road, Watling street, which goes through the constituency to the less evocatively named Sittingbourne northern relief road, which opened in December 2011, roads have always been important to the local economy. My hon. Friend highlighted the congestion on the major roads in the area, and he will know that this Government recognise the issues and the importance of transport infrastructure to support the economy. He also knows that we are looking at easing congestion at the Dartford crossing through a new lower Thames crossing to deliver additional capacity. We consulted on options earlier in the year and will make an announcement later in the autumn.
We have already announced increased Government funding to deliver improvements around the trunk road network, targeted at supporting economic growth. Our commitment to delivering a step change in future investment in transport infrastructure was made clear by the Chancellor in his statement on 26 June, when he announced the conclusions of the Government’s 2013 spending review. The Treasury’s Command Paper, “Investing in Britain’s future”, set out that the Government will invest
“over £28 billion in enhancements and maintenance of national and local roads”.
That includes £10.7 billion for major national road projects and £4.9 billion for local major projects. More than £12 billion has been allocated for maintenance, with nearly £6 billion allocated for repairs to local roads and £6 billion for maintenance of strategic roads, including resurfacing 80% of that network.
On future investment planning, my hon. Friend will know that the Highways Agency is conducting its route-based strategy process, which is involving local stakeholders in the consideration of future priorities. It may be useful if I say a little more about the approach we are taking, as that is the mechanism by which we will look at issues on roads such as the M2 and the A249—which, as we have heard, feature so regularly on local radio congestion reports—between Sittingbourne and Sheppey.
In our response in May 2012 to the recommendations in Alan Cook’s report, “A fresh start for the Strategic road network”, we agreed to develop a programme of route-based strategies to inform the identification of future transport investments for the strategic road network. Route-based strategies will provide a smarter approach to investment planning across the network and see greater collaboration with local stakeholders to determine the nature, need and timing of future investment that might be required on the network. We will produce a uniform set of strategies for the entire network, including the M2, the A249 and the M20, as part of the “Kent corridor to M25” route-based strategy.
The Highways Agency has recently completed a series of local engagement events to help identify the performance issues on those routes and the future challenges. I welcome the enthusiasm with which stakeholders in Kent, including those in my hon. Friend’s constituency, have participated in the progress so far. The Highways Agency and the Department will use the evidence to prioritise and take forward a programme of work to identify indicative solutions that will cover operations, maintenance and, if appropriate, potential road improvement schemes. That will then be used to inform investment plans beyond 2015.
The route-based strategies therefore provide an opportunity for stakeholders to provide evidence about problems on the A249 trunk road or the M2, so that the need for improvements can be considered, and I will certainly take my hon. Friend’s speech as part of that process. In addition, the Highways Agency continues routinely to engage with the planning system. That helps to ensure that improvements to the strategic road network are identified and delivered where they are required to mitigate the traffic impacts of local plans and planning applications.
My hon. Friend, in his support for the new junction 5A on the M2, also raised an issue of policy relating to new junctions on motorways. In that regard, the Department has recently published new policy guidance on the way in which the Highways Agency will engage with communities and the development industry to deliver sustainable development and economic growth, while safeguarding the primary function and purpose of the strategic road network.
That guidance is entitled “The Strategic Road Network and the Delivery of Sustainable Development”, and it provides that, where appropriate, proposals for the creation of new junctions or direct means of access to motorways may be identified and developed at the plan-making stage in circumstances where it can be established that such new infrastructure is essential for the delivery of the strategic planned growth. I understand that Swale borough council may be bringing forward proposals for the expansion of the Kent science park as part of its plan-making process, although it is not yet determined whether that development constitutes strategic planned growth, or whether a new junction with the M2 is essential for the delivery of that growth.
The Highways Agency recently met Swale borough council, Kent county council and the operators of the Kent science park regarding those matters, and discussions are ongoing. Decisions on whether a new junction can be accepted in policy terms will be taken in due course, and I will take a personal interest in that decision-making process. Apart from the policy deliberations, consideration also needs to be given to the technical hurdles in providing a junction that is safe and affordable and does not increase congestion on the strategic road network.
It is widely recognised that the condition and efficiency of the local road networks is also essential for economic growth. Nearly all journeys will start or finish on those networks, which are relied on by local residents and businesses alike. Maintenance and management of the networks is the responsibility of the local transport authority. In the case of Sittingbourne and Sheppey, that is Kent county council.
Local road funding, in the guise of integrated transport block funding, is available to local transport authorities in England outside London for small transport improvement projects, such as road safety schemes, bus priority, cycling infrastructure and real-time information. That funding allows local authorities to ensure that their transport networks are kept in good condition. It enables them to improve road safety and to stimulate local economies and growth by reducing congestion in their local communities. Between 2010-11 and 2014-15, Kent county council will have received £39.4 million through that funding route, and the funding is set to total some £2.75 billion across England between 2015-16 and 2020-21.
Highways maintenance block funding is also given to local transport authorities in England outside London to maintain their highway networks, including carriageways, pavements, structures and so forth. The funding allows local authorities to ensure that their highway networks are kept in good condition. It enables them to improve road safety and to stimulate local economies and growth by reducing damage to vehicles and goods. Between 2010-11 and 2014-15, Kent county council will have received £105.8 million for highways maintenance, and the recent 2013 spending round commits to providing just less than £6 billion to local highway authorities over the six-year period between 2015-16 and 2020-21. Indeed, before the 2010 election, when I was in the shadow Transport role, I visited Kent county council to see some of the innovative technology it was using to identify how best to use that money, and particularly the way it addressed the problem of potholes. That funding equates to £976 million a year and highlights the Government’s commitment to the country’s most valuable public asset and to ensuring that our local highways are fit for purpose.
In addition to that funding, the Government have recently announced plans to create a local growth fund from 2015-16 onwards. That fund, among other things, will allow localities to prioritise infrastructure schemes that are deemed essential for economic growth. Those schemes are expected to include major road improvements on the local road network, such as the type of relief road my hon. Friend referred to. That LGF pot will be worth at least £2 billion a year until 2021. The fund will be devolved to local enterprise partnerships across England, and Kent is part of the South East local enterprise partnership. It is for the South East LEP to identify its priority schemes for funding as part of its strategic economic plan. I am sure that my hon. Friend will want to make the same representations he has made today to his local LEP to ensure that it understands the importance and priorities of the schemes in his constituency, not least in connection with the port and the science park.
The LEPs have already had some LGF funding allocated to them by formula to enable them to bring forward plans for local major transport projects. The confirmed allocation for the South East LEP is £65.9 million for the four-year period from 2015-16 to 2018-19 inclusive. In addition, the South East LEP will have the opportunity to bid for a lot more than that next year when submitting its strategic economic plan to the Government in March 2014.
The Government recognise the importance of an effective transport infrastructure to the growth of the economy, and there is a real commitment to enhancing our transport networks. More than half the £12 billion that the Chancellor has committed to the local growth fund over the six years from 2015-16 onwards is coming from transport budgets. That amounts to £1.1 billion in 2015-16 and a further £1 billion a year for each of the following five years for long-term planning of priority transport infrastructure. The growth deals currently being negotiated between the LEPs and Government will enable access to that funding. It is a competitive process, and the areas that present the most compelling and robust evidence-based arguments for growth strategies will be the most successful in accessing that finance.
We see the growth deal process as critical in ensuring that essential transport projects are put forward and funded. I know that Kent county council and local businesses are playing an active role in the South East LEP to ensure that the process delivers necessary infrastructure in the LEP area.
I again congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. It reminds us of the importance of an effective transport network to the economy. I have been clear that this Government are committed to, and have set out plans for, large-scale investments to improve both the local and strategic road networks. Indeed, the money we are putting into roads during the next 15 years is equivalent to the entire cost of the High Speed 2 project, including the rolling stock.
Through the funding streams set out in the spending round, and through the route-based strategies and strategic economic strategies, processes are in place to identify future transport needs, but also to consider the range of possible solutions. This morning, I was in Birmingham, looking at some of the managed motorway schemes—or smart motorways, as we now call them—which show how we are already managing to deliver better transport solutions in all parts of the country, including the north, the west midlands, the east midlands and, of course, the south-east.
It will be important for future investment proposals to be clearly supported by local stakeholders and for clear consensus to exist on what is required. Ultimately, any future investment proposals need to demonstrate a strong business case and the delivery of both transport and wider economic benefits. In that way, we can place ourselves in a strong position to make the best use of the funds available and establish a sound base for the future development of an effective transport system that can contribute to a low-carbon economy.
I very much look forward to visiting my hon. Friend’s constituency and seeing the situation at first hand next year, when I plan to visit the opening of one of his local logistics companies. I hope that at the same time, as he suggested, there will be an opportunity to meet representatives of Kent county council, the local district council and the local enterprise partnership, as they will have as key a role as Members of Parliament and other stakeholders in determining the priorities for transport investment in the south-east and ensuring that the taxpayers’ money we are investing in this way is spent wisely and in the place where we get the most biggest for our buck.