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Transport Infrastructure (South of England)

Volume 577: debated on Monday 17 March 2014

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Amber Rudd.)

I am delighted to have the opportunity this evening to raise the important issue of transport infrastructure in the south of England. In particular, I want to talk about the south coast, but the regional economy of the south is undergoing deep structural changes. Improved connectivity between our southern cities and better links to the capital are vital if we are to ensure that no one gets left behind as we move forward. The presence of international hubs such as Portsmouth and Southampton means that the south and, in particular, my region of the Solent act as a gateway to the world. Good transport links are therefore crucial to connect local firms with the rest of the country and international markets. Unfortunately, people in the south too often feel cut off from prosperity due to unreliable and overcrowded transport links.

The deep pockets of deprivation across the south coast will never be overcome while we have the second-rate transport network that we currently endure. Better connections would allow suppliers to reach more businesses, allow businesses to reach more customers, and allow customers to visit more towns to spend their hard-earned cash. In short, they would increase trade, create jobs and raise the living standards of people throughout the region. They are also vital if flagship Government projects such as the Solent enterprise zone, which is an attempt to breathe new life into the disused military airfield at Daedalus in my constituency, are to fulfil their economic potential and generate the employment and prosperity that are desperately needed. Such connections would help to spread investment and raise the living standards of some of the poorest people in the country.

I know that the Government fully appreciate the importance of transport and I am glad that they are committed to investing in major developments of our rail and road networks, which are welcome and cannot come too soon after decades of rising congestion and chronic underinvestment. The UK now ranks 24th in the world for the quality of our roads, so the £28 billion that is to be spent on the maintenance and enhancement of national and local roads is long overdue. However, our debates about transport seem to focus too often on two issues: the need to deal with crises in capacity in the capital; and the nebulous desire to rebalance the economy from south to north. That dangerously overlooks the real and immediate need to invest in the south of England at a time when it is undergoing huge economic changes.

It is often incorrectly assumed that the south of England is made up of leafy suburbs and rural shires that are untouched by poverty. Sadly, parts of the south suffer from shocking deprivation. In the town of Gosport, 19% of children live in poverty, and the proportion rises to 32% in parts of neighbouring Portsmouth. Gosport has less than half a job per working adult—it has one of the lowest ratios of people to jobs in the UK—which means that 20,000 people have to commute out to work every day along a single carriageway road. Given that we have low average wages, it is testament to my constituents’ strong work ethic that our unemployment rate is not significantly higher.

As both a peninsula and the largest town in the country without a train station, we are hugely reliant on our bus network. Unfortunately, recent commercial decisions to change bus routes risk cutting people off from prosperity, stifling aspiration and allowing pockets of poverty to deepen. Local people are not afraid to get on their bikes, as Gosport has the UK’s third highest regular bicycle use. Everyone is doing their bit to try to ease the congestion, but it is plainly insufficient to have a single carriageway on and off a peninsula.

Better connections are therefore no vanity project; they are essential to fighting the deprivation that is endemic in communities throughout the south of England, and even more important as a result of recent heavy economic blows. Following BAE’s decision to end shipbuilding in Portsmouth and the job cuts at Ford in Southampton, the city deal for Portsmouth and Southampton that the Government have announced is welcome, but to maximise the potential of that investment and subsequent business opportunities, we need to improve links between towns and cities in the south.

The distance between Portsmouth and Southampton is just 20 miles, yet at peak times that journey can take well over an hour by road. The journey by rail often takes the same time, as there are only two or three direct trains an hour. Inevitably, slow journey times and poor service frequency on the rail network mean that more and more people take to the roads, thus clogging up the already hideously busy M27. I have heard that it can be quicker for commuters in the extreme western end of the Solent to get to Portsmouth via the Isle of Wight, which involves taking two ferries, than by using the M27, which is clearly ridiculous. Such wholly inadequate connections are more than just an annoyance; they hold back business. A study by Atkins estimates that road congestion is already costing Hampshire around £400 million every year. More than that, it reduces the attractiveness of the area for future inward investment. Work by Solent Transport shows that without the necessary investment in transport infrastructure, the region could miss out on around 8,000 jobs.

The naval dockyard and the commercial port in Portsmouth are significant defence and economic assets to the UK, and the port of Southampton is seeing massive growth across all its key sectors. The port master plan has identified that cruise passengers through Southampton will increase 113% between 2005 and 2020, and container handling is forecast to increase 95% over the same period. In order to take full advantage of our great southern hubs, it needs to be easier to travel between these two cities.

It is also vital that we improve links between London and the south coast. It is often assumed that geographical proximity to the capital means fast connections, yet it takes longer to get from London to Portsmouth on the fast train than it does to get from London to Doncaster—a distance that is more than twice as far. These journeys are rarely pleasant, as both the trains and the stations are packed. Passenger journeys on South West Trains are up 22% in the past six years, and more people now go through Waterloo in three hours every morning than fly from Heathrow in an entire day. We need more trains on the line as well as more carriages on those trains to deal with the crisis in capacity. I join my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) in her call for an express train from Portsmouth to London every half-hour. This is an excellent idea that could cut journey times and relieve passenger congestion.

After decades of underinvestment, action to address the problems of nightmare roads such as the A32 is crucial. They were described by a Deputy Prime Minister in the previous Government as strategically unimportant, which does not do much for the morale and self-esteem of an area. Investment in the area would help my constituents who frequently feel cut off from the prosperity being enjoyed in other parts of the country.

At a meeting earlier today Hampshire county council transport team gave the green light to the Solent local enterprise partnership to bid for £90 million of Government funding in order to make desperately needed road improvements around Gosport and Fareham. I hope the Government will look seriously at this bid and understand that it is vital if we are to stand a chance of redressing decades of chronic underinvestment in our local transport infrastructure. This Government have a good record on investment for London and the north. We need to make sure that every part of this country has a modern transport infrastructure that is fit to face the challenges of the 21st century.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) on securing this debate. It follows on from an Adjournment debate that I was delighted to respond to last week when, as my hon. Friend pointed out, my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) made a number of salient points about transport infrastructure in the south of England. My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport clearly made the case tonight that this is a subject of great importance to her and her constituents, including businesses in the area. I am sure she will remember that when she launched her innovative suggestion that the HMS Daedalus site become an economic zone I was delighted to be with her and to support her on that first occasion, some 18 months ago. That campaign has been hugely successful and I shall comment on it later.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport is right that effective transport infrastructure is vital in supporting local communities, enabling people to access their workplace, and driving local economic growth, so it is right that we take time to debate these issues. She is right, too, to point out that, as many of us who are Members of Parliament for constituencies in London and the south of England know all too well, the south is not all leafy suburbs. As a man who was born and bred in Southampton, I am delighted that she raised the need for connections between Southampton and Portsmouth. They may have traditional rivalry in a number of things, but the links between the two great cities of the south need improving. I am pleased that the Government are clear that we need to invest in record amounts to maintain, upgrade and expand our road and rail infrastructure.

I go to Southampton by train quite a lot and I totally support what my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) says about the time that it takes to get to Southampton from London. If we had an express link, as suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt), more people could get up to London and get more jobs, helping the depressed people of Portsmouth and Gosport.

My hon. and gallant Friend is right. I will comment on rail infrastructure in a few moments, but I want at the outset to set the debate in context.

The Government inherited not only a budget deficit but an infrastructure deficit. In doing what we are doing, we will improve the growth potential of the economy and boost demand. In total, between 2011 and 2014, we are investing £32 billion in roads, rail and local transport infrastructure, and between 2015 and 2021 we are committed to a funding plan of some £56 billion, which will be spread across the length and breadth of the country, including the south of England. We are also working with local authorities to ensure that that is being shaped by local priorities.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport was right to raise the issue of investment in rail infrastructure. We are committed to record levels of investment in the network, again supporting economic growth and jobs and delivering a greener and more efficient railway that is better for freight and passengers. During the next five years, Network Rail will be spending more than £38 billion running and expanding our railways. There are major infrastructure projects, as has been pointed out several times before, in and around London as well as across the country. A huge programme of electrification will provide faster and more reliable services on the Great Western main line, including some of those from Southampton to the north of England, and there is a £50 million capital contribution towards the redevelopment of Gatwick airport station.

I am clearly conscious that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport pointed out, Gosport is the largest city not directly connected to the national rail network. She will know that different sections of the branch were closed from the 1950s onwards. Network Rail is identifying funding priorities for the Wessex route for the period 2019 to 2024, as well as the strategy beyond that. I know that my hon. Friend has an aspiration that the town will be reconnected with the national network, and I encourage her, as I did my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North in an Adjournment debate last week, to engage with Network Rail. I will be happy to facilitate that contact. Just as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North last week that I hope that in the near future there is the Mordaunt Flyer, I hope that there will be the Dinenage Dynamo in the near future from Gosport. My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport is right to mention the number of people who wish to travel to and from Waterloo. She will know that the Government, working with Network Rail, are ensuring that the Eurostar platforms will come back into use over a period of time, which will facilitate growth at Waterloo.

It is also important that the road network is fit for purpose, and the Government have already announced increased levels of funding to deliver improvements all around the strategic road network. That is a step change. As the Chancellor made clear in his statement in June last year, we will announce further infrastructure improvements and commitments during the next period. The Government will invest £28 billion in enhancements and maintenance of national and local roads. That includes £10.7 billion for national road schemes and £4.9 billion for local major projects. In addition, £12 billion has been allocated for maintenance on both the local and the strategic road network, which means that 26 new major Highways Agency projects will go ahead, subject to the usual value-for-money and deliverability requirements.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport is specifically interested in the south-east, where we have committed to delivering smart motorway schemes between junctions 9 and 14 of the M3 from Winchester to Southampton and between junctions 4 and 11 of the M27 from Portsmouth to Southampton and the A27 Chichester bypass, subject to the finalisation of options and consideration of the business case.

The smart motorway schemes will allow us to make maximum use of what we already have by delivering additional capacity through the conversion of the hard shoulder into an additional running lane. The schemes can be delivered more quickly and provide more real benefits than would be achieved through a conventional widening scheme.

The Highways Agency is also committed to an investment of more than £10 million in two pinch point schemes in the Solent area, on junctions 3 and 5 of the M27. Those junction improvements will help reduce congestion by increasing the capacity of the junctions, reducing the journey times experienced by most road users and improving safety at the junctions. I hope that will ensure that the sorts of delays my hon. Friend mentioned will no longer be experienced by those trying to travel on the M27 between Portsmouth, Gosport and Southampton.

My hon. Friend will be aware that the Highways Agency is currently conducting its route-based strategy process, which is, importantly, involving local stakeholders in the consideration of future priorities. Such strategies provide a new, smarter approach to investment planning across the network and will see much greater collaboration with local interest groups to determine the nature and need of future investment and to ensure that it follows local priorities.

We are in the process of producing a series of strategies for the whole network, a number of which cover the south of England, including the south coast central route, which includes consideration of the A27; the Solent to midlands route, which includes the M27; and the M25 to Solent route, which includes the A3 and M3.

The Highways Agency completed a series of local engagement events last autumn to help identify performance issues and future challenges. I congratulate stakeholders on their engagement in that process.

My hon. Friend will also know that we are committed to identifying and funding early solutions to the long-standing problems on the A27 corridor. Initially, there will be a feasibility study. The A27 corridor study aims to work with local interest groups to identify the opportunities and understand the case for future investment solutions on the corridor. The outputs of the route-based strategy work and the outcomes of the feasibility studies will inform the Department’s roads investment strategy, which is currently being developed and put together and which we have committed to publishing by the end of the year.

It is, rightly, widely recognised that the condition and efficiency of local road networks is an essential contributor to economic growth. Practically all journeys start or finish on those networks and they are relied on by local residents and local businesses alike. Responsibility for the maintenance and management of those networks lies with local authorities—in the case of Gosport, that is Hampshire county council—and it is essential that they spend money on that. Funding from the integrated transport block supports those networks, and from 2011-12 to 2014-15 the south-east and south-west will have received some £400 million for local transport schemes.

In addition, in the autumn statement of 2012 we introduced the local pinch point fund, which was designed to target local congestion and to ensure that we help facilitate the creation of jobs and the delivery of new housing. To date, the Department has awarded local authority funding of more than £266 million for 112 schemes across the whole of England, which, along with joint funding, will enable schemes costing more than £511 million to go ahead. One of the schemes being delivered by Hampshire county council is designed to ease congestion for road users in Havant and help to unlock the Dunsbury Hill farm development site, a key employment site between Waterlooville and Havant. Another scheme, which is being delivered by Southampton city council, will ensure that six key bridges in the city remain fit for purpose in the years to come.

Looking to the future, the Government have recently announced plans to create a local growth fund from 2015-16. The pot will be at least £2 billion a year until 2021, and all LEPs across the country—including the Solent LEP, which includes Gosport—will have the opportunity to bid for funding through their strategic economic plans, which are due to be submitted to the Government by the end of this month. Among other things, the fund will allow local people to identify and local authorities to prioritise infrastructure schemes that they deem essential for economic growth in their area.

I note that one of my hon. Friend’s particular priorities is to improve the traffic flow in her constituency. I urge her to work with the Solent LEP to consider the local growth fund as a possibility for funding schemes that will help deliver that priority.

I referred in my speech to the £90 million that Hampshire county council will ask the Solent LEP to make when it meets on Friday. That is all part of the scheme mentioned by the Minister, which is about looking at roads in the Gosport and Fareham area, including the A27 corridor, about which he has spoken. I very much hope that the Government will look very favourably on that bid.

I obviously hear my hon. Friend’s plea. As she will know, a number of people will make such a plea.

I was going on to commend my hon. Friend, because the fact that the Solent LEP and Hampshire county council are working together will make their bid to the Government for a grant from this fund more powerful. From this Dispatch Box, as well as in writing and in one-to-one meetings, I have stressed to several colleagues that it is absolutely essential for the local economic partnership and the economic zone to work together, which will certainly achieve a higher priority in assessments. She is right that it is clear that a LEP’s agreement to a scheme ensures that it is most likely to be in the strategic economic plan, and although the process is competitive, it is of course likely that the strongest bids will receive the biggest slices of funding.

In conclusion, I again congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. The powerful case that she has made tonight has reminded us of the importance of an effective transport network for the economy. As I have made clear, this Government are committed to, and have set out plans for, large-scale investments now and in the future to improve local and strategic networks both in rail and on the road and—importantly—across the whole of this country, including the south of England.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.