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Infrastructure Investment (Stroud)

Volume 586: debated on Tuesday 21 October 2014

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and to see the Economic Secretary to the Treasury in her place. I will raise a number of infrastructure-related issues involving my constituency.

In 13 years, the Labour Government were effectively unable to find funding for the necessary redoubling of the Stroud to Swindon railway line. Just last week, finally and quite properly, we formally opened that redoubled line with the Princess Royal, as a result of the coalition Government’s delivery of £45 million. The project will make it possible for my constituents to get to London faster, for tourists to get to Stroud more easily and for further works on other lines to take place while the redoubled line is used as a relief route. That is exceptionally good news for the valleys and vale, and it clearly demonstrates that the coalition Government are delivering more investment in our rail network. To put it in context, we will have electrified 880 miles of railway line by the next general election, whereas Labour, in their entire 13 years in government, electrified just nine. The contrast between our commitment to infrastructure investment in railways and that of the previous Labour Government is stark.

The second big project for which I have been campaigning successfully is £5 million of investment in the GREEN—Gloucestershire Renewable Energy, Engineering and Nuclear—Skills Centre at Berkeley, a training centre for renewable and nuclear energy and engineering. The great triumph is that the project will be housed in the former Magnox engineering works for the Berkeley power station, which is being decommissioned. The process is effectively complete. It is a useful project for my constituency, in terms of providing opportunities for young people in the key areas of energy and engineering. It has been spearheaded by Stroud college, now merged with Filton college, and it is yet another example of our focus on delivering opportunities for young people by ensuring that further education can develop, and by providing facilities, such as through the infrastructure investment of £5 million at Berkeley.

That is the background to my submission for other investments in the valleys and vale in the forthcoming years. Following the success of getting £45 million for the redoubling of the Stroud-Kemble railway line, £5 million for the GREEN project at Berkeley and a load of other additional moneys, I want to set out the case for more investment in the valleys and vale.

I start with my campaign for a university technical college in Berkeley. When we have the buildings for the GREEN Skills Centre, it will make sense to have a UTC, so that we can focus on engineering and provide appropriate skills for our growing manufacturing sector, particularly in advanced manufacturing, an area in which Stroud already has an excellent reputation. Firms such as Renishaw, Delphi, Dairy Crest, Omega Resource Group and others contribute to an exceptional level of growth and huge opportunities for young people.

That is why we currently enjoy just 1.2% unemployment, a huge change from what I inherited back in 2010, when more than 1,400 people were unemployed. That number is now 630, largely because the real economy has taken off. We are not only translating that into jobs for hard-working families, improving their chances of avoiding poverty, as the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), said in the previous debate; we are also seeing some growth in wages and salaries. That is really impressive, and it is exactly what I want to bring about.

The second project that I will discuss is investment in Stonehouse. It is absurd that people from Stroud and Stonehouse must go via Gloucester or Swindon to get to Bristol. It is not good for growth or for individuals seeking opportunities in Bristol or elsewhere. I want a railway station in Stonehouse, so people can get from there to Bristol easily and swiftly. It is appropriate because the business case stacks up. There is substantial growth in the business parks in Stonehouse, and there is also a case for ensuring that commuters can get to Bristol and Birmingham more easily. The project would be easily facilitated if we could get agreement from various stakeholders, and if it were consistent with the electrification of the line, which is targeted for 2020.

I believe that infrastructure can produce growth in areas that have been a bit isolated. Sharpness is a good example. At one point, it was connected to the Forest of Dean by a bridge over the Severn. There is a case for doing so again. Not only do the communities like to be together—they would like to be reunited—but Sharpness has a huge amount of growth potential, with a thriving port and many industries around it. Connecting it to the Forest of Dean would bring more growth and ease congestion around the A40 and A38.

One project that deserves special mention is tackling the A417 bottleneck. It is bang in the middle of Gloucestershire, and it has a terrible record of road accidents; deaths are all too frequent. We must end the congestion that it causes. Gloucestershire county council has made a strong case for something to be done. I am keen for the Minister to recognise the strength of that case, so that we can deliver for Gloucestershire a solution to a long-term issue that has caused problems for not just the people of Gloucestershire but people going through the area, the industries, supply chains and everything that depends on decent connections.

It is also critical to consider the M5. That is more of a long-term project, but junction 14 is a source of difficulty for commuters and hauliers due to the peculiar traffic arrangement there. It is also important to recognise the need to improve access from Dursley through Cam to the M5. I have not yet made up my mind whether that will involve reconstructing junction 14 or building a new junction, because that is properly a matter for civil engineers to explore, but we need to get that debate on the table.

Essentially, I have set out infrastructure projects for the future of the valleys and vale that make a huge amount of sense in terms of economic growth. There is a good case for each of the projects, and taken together, they will provide opportunities for our young people and businesses to thrive and prosper, which is exactly what we want. I set up a commission to look into those matters, which is why I can use so much evidence and so many facts to support each case. I thank the various members of my commission, including Councillor Penny Wride, John Stanton and Robert Evans. They and many others have contributed powerfully to the discussion on these issues.

I ought to mention that infrastructure is about not just roads and rail, although they are important, but protecting the valleys and vale, so reference needs to be made to the tremendous work that the Government have done to ensure that we are properly protected against flooding. The Environment Agency has done a huge amount, having received funding for various projects, and I am off to Lapper Ditch on Friday to see the results of the £700,000 being spent on a significant flood defence project there. That work is all about recognising that the area I represent has huge value, needs to be protected and has people who make massive contributions to our economy and who need to be supported. I am pleased, therefore, that we have made so much progress in improving flood defences. Of course, there is more to do and I will constantly ensure that flood defences are maintained and, where necessary, improved. We need to be vigilant, but I want to put on the record my thanks to the Government for contributing so much additional money in recognition of the need to defend our beautiful part of England, which is the valleys and vale.

To reinforce my case, I have surveyed a large number of people in my constituency about which infrastructure projects they think are important. They have saluted the projects that have already been delivered, to which I have referred. Indeed, almost all the projects I have announced have attracted considerable support in the survey. It is a real piece of evidence that needs to be taken into account. People understand what we are trying to do and why, and therefore they support our efforts.

I have received a huge amount of advice, and it is critical that I demonstrate that it has underpinned so much of the efforts that I have talked about. For example, the Institution of Civil Engineers has been a really interesting source of advice, in terms of the value that it attaches to infrastructure investment. Closer to home, the local enterprise partnership has been powerful in articulating the case for these projects. In fact, in its former guise, as Gloucestershire First, it was pivotal in helping to secure the £45 million of funding from the Government, and it has also helped to promote the case for the GREEN project at Berkeley through its strategic economic plan.

Gloucestershire county council—and indeed Stroud district council, although it is Labour-led—has been quite good at advancing the case for investment. Stroud district council has, in its plan, the idea for a bridge from Sharpness to the Forest of Dean, and it recognises that Stonehouse railway station needs to be upgraded or moved. I can therefore say that a large number of stakeholders have contributed to this discussion, and I am really pleased to make that point to the Minister as further evidence of the strength of the case I am making.

With the economy growing in the Stroud valleys and vale, there are some pressures. One of them, slightly paradoxically given my emphasis on road transport, is a shortage of lorry drivers, newly trained lorry drivers in particular. I want to put on the record the need for us to encourage young people to consider that career as a possibility, because if we do not deal with logistical challenges, we might find that growth does not happen as quickly as we would like, or in the way that we would like. I make a plea to anyone listening to this debate: consider encouraging young people to move into haulage.

My last point is that for three years I have been running a festival of manufacturing and engineering. I have attracted support from a wide range of businesses, and I have made sure that schools and colleges understand and support the idea that young people can have a future in manufacturing and engineering. If we consider that in the context of how our real economy can grow, it is our responsibility to put in place the infrastructure for that growth to happen unhindered. That is why it is important for us to have better links with London, through rail; why we need improvements to roads through Gloucestershire, such as the A417; why we need facilities to train young people in engineering and the energy industries; and why we need to take the whole package together and consider what we can do next for the Stroud valleys and vale, to ensure that any growth is not only sustained but increases.

Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for calling me to speak. I am delighted to be here in Westminster Hall today, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) on securing this debate.

The quality of a nation’s infrastructure is one of the foundations of its growth and, of course, the living standards of its people, so ensuring that Britain has first-class infrastructure is a crucial part of our long-term economic plan, supporting businesses, creating jobs and providing a better future for all our citizens.

We need to equip the UK to compete on the global stage by giving businesses the infrastructure they need to thrive. That is why the Government have put long-term investment in transport, energy, telecommunications, flood defences and intellectual capital at the heart of our growth plan. Because of the tough decisions we have taken in day-to-day spending, we can prioritise public investment where it is most needed and create the right conditions for private investment in infrastructure, where such investment can bring value for the taxpayer.

The national infrastructure plan sets out the Government’s strategy for delivering the infrastructure that the UK will need during the next decade and beyond. Our intention is to improve further our approach to planning, financing and delivering this critical economic infrastructure as we go through a significant period of renewal. We have outlined a pipeline of projects and programmes worth more than £380 billion, and in the Budget we published further analysis of how we expect that pipeline to be financed. That work builds on the long-term funding settlements we have already announced for sectors such as roads, rail and flood defences, and the steps that we have taken to support private sector investment.

The national infrastructure plan not only sets out the Government’s decisions as to what infrastructure our country will need during the next decade and beyond but sets out our strategy for how we will bring that infrastructure about. It lays out how the pipeline of projects will be financed, building on both the long-term public funding settlements that we have already announced —£100 billion of capital investment in projects during the next Parliament—and the steps that we have already taken to support private sector investment, for example through the creation of the UK guarantees scheme and by ensuring the independence of our regulators for key utility sectors. It also lays out the action that we have taken to strengthen planning, whereby a number of improvements have helped to take the number of planning approvals to a 13-year high.

We are continuing to streamline the system, including through the new specialist planning court for infrastructure, which opened in April, and the measures published in the Infrastructure Bill. The national infrastructure plan also lays out the action that we are taking on delivery, to make sure that we have the capability in the public sector to deliver projects on time, on budget and to specification. That also means having delivery bodies with the right structure to provide the autonomy and operational flexibility that are necessary to ensure success. Corporatisation of the Highways Agency will provide that in the roads sector, where we are about to see the biggest programme of investment since the 1970s.

We are already making big progress. Major infrastructure projects are now being completed, including major improvements at Reading station, smart motorways to relieve congestion up and down the country, and a new terminal 2 at Heathrow to enhance our international connectivity. In fact, more than 2,000 infrastructure projects and improvements have been completed over the last four years.

In this financial year alone, more than 200 projects are due to start and another 200 are due to complete, and that will directly support over 150,000 jobs in the construction industry. These projects are part of £36 billion of investment planned for 2014-15.

The Government are taking steps to ensure that the benefits of investment in infrastructure are distributed across the country to generate growth, create jobs and help rebalance the economy. The south-west region is no exception, with more than £18 billion of planned investment in the published infrastructure pipeline across 31 different projects and programmes. This investment includes a number of key projects within the Government’s top 40 priority infrastructure investments, including Hinkley Point C, the first new nuclear power station in a generation, and the Great Western rail electrification—my hon. Friend knows that work is currently under way to improve one of Britain’s oldest and busiest railways. Other projects include the A380 Kingskerswell bypass, which is currently in construction; the expansion of the National Composites Centre in Bristol as part of the Government’s science and innovation catapult programme; supporting the roll-out of superfast broadband with more than 6,500 premises now passed by the south Gloucestershire and Wiltshire broadband scheme; and the designation of Bristol as a super-connected city.

I, too, welcome the completion of the redoubling of the track from Swindon to Kemble. This key piece of infrastructure will support our wider ambitions to electrify the Great Western main line, significantly improving connectivity for the south-west. I congratulate my hon. Friend on his persistence in making the case for this work. I am sure that it will make a positive contribution to those living and working in his area. I confirm that it was indeed extra cash found by this Government in its very first Budget that enabled the Swindon to Kemble line improvements to go ahead.

Along with my hon. Friend, I welcome the local growth funding provided to the Gloucestershire local enterprise partnership to convert the redevelopment of Berkeley power station to provide a training centre for science, technology, engineering, and maths skills. This is just part of £62.5 million provided to the local enterprise partnership by central Government, and it will bring forward at least £80 million of additional investment from local partners and the private sector.

I thank my hon. Friend for his active engagement with the local community and am interested to hear his further ideas for infrastructure improvements in the Stroud valleys and vale area. He can rest assured that I will write straight away to my ministerial colleagues in the Department for Transport, asking that they provide an update on his proposals for a new station at Stonehouse, an additional Severn crossing at Sharpness, a solution to congestion on the A417 and improvements to the M5 at junction 14.

In the meantime, I hope that both he and I can agree that the Government should continue to focus on their existing commitment to deliver key infrastructure schemes throughout the country, including in the south-west.

Sitting suspended.