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Morecambe Bay (Tunnel)

Volume 587: debated on Wednesday 29 October 2014

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I secured the debate to discuss the idea of a transport tunnel across Morecambe bay—or, more to the point, under it—starting at Heysham, in my constituency, and hopefully going all the way to Barrow.

Since I was elected as Member of Parliament for Morecambe and Lunesdale in 2010, I have secured £123 million of investment from the Government for the Heysham-M6 link connecting Heysham and Morecambe to the M6 at Lancaster. That vital route has been in the planning stage for more than 60 years, and my constituents, who can now see it being built, are grateful to the Department for Transport for giving the road the green light. It brought with it an upgrade to the port, a footprint for the third nuclear power station in Heysham and countless contracts for businesses in the White Lund business district, not to mention a projected rise of house prices in the area.

Now that the route is well under way, it is time to look to the future and new infrastructure links that could be built. The most obvious next step is a tunnel under Morecambe bay towards the Furness peninsula, which would not only link the M6 to the port and nuclear power stations in Heysham, but create a streamlined route to nuclear installations and BAE Systems on the Cumbrian coast. I would like a tunnel that would allow two-way traffic to travel between Heysham and the Barrow area. Currently, that journey takes approximately one hour and 30 minutes, but with the tunnel, it would be cut down to 20 to 30 minutes, or even less, meaning a saving of more than two thirds in the journey time. Traffic would also be freed up from roads in a vast rural area.

The inspiration for the tunnel is twofold. For many years, various groups have discussed how to link together these two strategic areas. There have been ideas for a cableway across the bay and a barrage bridge over the sand. Before the general election, it was reported that £700 million was on the table from the Bank of Scotland to construct a barrage. However, as Morecambe bay is a site of special scientific interest and a habitat for rare birds and wildlife, that idea did not become a reality. Nevertheless, it showed that there is a commercial interest in linking together these two areas of vital strategic importance.

Earlier this year, I was approached by National Grid. As part of work on connecting new energy installations in Cumbria, it came up with the idea of constructing a power cable under Morecambe bay. That idea is subject to consultation, but National Grid believes that as the tunnel will go under the sands completely without disrupting the wildlife, it will not come up against environmental constraints, as the barrage project did. National Grid invited me to Willesden Junction in London to see how its London power tunnel project is being built. I saw that the machines being used for that tunnel could work in the same manner on a larger scale. I was fascinated by that visit, because it showed me that in this country we have not only the technology for a tunnel, but some of the best tunnelling experts in the world. If a power tunnel can go ahead in the sands, there is no reason why a transport tunnel is not a viable option.

My constituency is becoming a bottleneck of funding. Since becoming its MP, I have secured nearly £700 million of investment from the Government and the area as a whole is booming with success. Opening the area up to other parts of the Furness peninsula would greatly benefit the many manufacturing and energy companies in my constituency and on the other side of the bay. On the Cumbria coast, we have BAE Systems, and also Sellafield and the National Nuclear Laboratory. If the workers in my constituency at Heysham power station could access those sites more easily, there would be more scope for the sites to work together. A tunnel would also create more employment opportunities in the science and technology sectors for young people in my constituency. These two areas have expertise in energy and engineering, and linking them would create an “Aberdeen effect” for skilled workers in both of them. It could only be a good thing for my area and Barrow as a whole.

Due to the M6 link project, the port of Heysham is receiving an upgrade so that it will be able to process more ships. A faster link to Furness would mean that more companies in the Isle of Man, Northern Ireland and Cumbria would be able to use the port which, again, would create more jobs and economic benefits for the area.

A link under the bay would also help my local NHS trust. University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Foundation Trust has always said that it needs faster links between its hospitals. Under the previous Government, the trust faced a lot of problems, but that situation has already been talked about too often in the main Chamber. A link between the hospital sites would benefit both sides of Morecambe bay, as well as people in Cumbria, including in the Barrow area, and in my constituency of Morecambe and Lunesdale. At the moment, it is difficult to transport staff and patients between the two trust sites, and even more difficult to practise a joined-up approach across the sites. The tunnel that I propose would at least halve the journey time between the sites, which would allow them to work together more easily.

The proposed tunnel would not go into Barrow itself, but would go from coast to coast, from Heysham, and join up with the existing road network. In recent weeks, residents from both sides of the bay have been contacting me about the scheme. In fact, on Radio Cumbria this morning, a lot of people from Barrow said what a good idea it would be. This scheme could only benefit the public and the businesses in the area.

However, if such a project is to go ahead, we will need to attract private investment and get some sort of Government funding. As I said, £700 million was on the table for a barrage five years ago, so there is no reason why such a project should not attract the same kind of investment. To attract such investment, the project would need some form of Government help so that a business case for the proposal could be compiled. Support would be needed from the Treasury, the Department for Transport or the local enterprise partnership—or a combination of the three—so that a feasibility study could be carried out.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. May I be clear about what he is saying about this project? When he originally mooted it, I thought it was directly tied to the tunnel being built for power lines under the bay. Is he now saying that this is an entirely separate venture? I ask that because, of course, National Grid says that if this tunnel scheme was to be part of the work to put power lines under the bay, that would be delayed by at least a decade, and probably more.

I can clarify that this project would have nothing to do with the power cabling. Originally, when the tunnelling experts and I talked, it was suggested that the transport tunnel would have been an escape route for the power lines tunnel, but now the transport tunnel would not be the same tunnel at all. The transport tunnel is a completely separate project from that proposed by National Grid, which already has investment for the power lines tunnel. However, if National Grid would like to come on board with this project, I am absolutely certain that bodies can talk together and reach agreement.

I understand that this transport tunnel is a big idea and will require considerable investment, but I have a can do attitude. I firmly believe that, having secured funding for the M6 link project after it had been planned for 60 years, there is no scheme too big to be delivered. I look for guidance from my hon. Friend the Minister about how best to go about the scheme, and how to make it a reality that would economically boost both my constituency of Morecambe and Lunesdale, and the Barrow peninsula, as phase two of my infrastructure plan.

It is always a joy to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris)on securing this debate about a tunnel under Morecambe bay, and on his vision and ambition for transport as a driver of growth. This Government recognise the crucial role that effective transport plays in facilitating growth across the country, in creating a more balanced economy and in connecting communities and enabling people to access jobs, services and leisure. That is why we have been determined to secure significant levels of investment in infrastructure, and in road, rail and other public transport services. We are committed to ensuring that this investment benefits all parts of the country, from north to south.

Before setting out how much we are doing to deliver real change for transport in the north, I must make it clear that the tunnel my hon. Friend referred to forms one of the options that National Grid is currently consulting on, regarding the proposal to connect the proposed Moorside nuclear power station to the electricity transmission network, although—as he made clear in his speech—the two tunnels may not be co-located. His suggestion is for a tunnel separate from the one that National Grid is proposing. Nevertheless, I must say that any subsequent planning application by National Grid will be decided on by the appropriate planning authorities and Ministers. Therefore, it would not be appropriate for me to give a view on the particular details of this transport tunnel project, as I am sure my hon. Friend will understand.

I must also point out that this tunnel scheme is not a new idea. Indeed, I have a record of the debate that took place in the House on 10 May 1965, when Hector Munro—who I recall would go on to become Sir Hector Munro—asked a question of the Minister for Land and Natural resources:

“If he will make a sum of money available to Strathclyde University and to universities in England to enable them to investigate the Solway and Morecambe barrage schemes.”

The Minister in question—the hon. Member for Sunderland North, Mr Frederick Willey—replied:

“Not at this stage. The Water Resources Board is now conducting feasibility studies into the Morecambe Bay barrage project and jointly with the Scottish Office, into that for Solway Firth. We must first see how these studies progress.”

Hector Munro came back:

“Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that three Ministries have been making enthusiastic statements about these barrages for six months but that not a penny has been made available to the universities to set up study groups?”

In turn, Mr Willey came back, saying:

“I am anxious to encourage co-operation with the universities, but in this particular case we have feasibility studies in hand and we must see how they go. These are properly with the Water Resources Board and the engineering consultants.”

I have to say that that is just the sort of stuff my officials give me to read out from time to time. More importantly, the hon. Member for Farnham—a Conservative, Sir Godfrey Nicholson—asked:

“Is the Minister aware that in Morecambe Bay there are millions of shrimps? Who will watch their interests?”—[Official Report, 10 May 1965; Vol. 712, c. 15-16.]

However, it was not clear whether he had an environmental or gastronomic interest in the shrimps.

This country certainly leads the world in tunnelling. Indeed, in my own constituency there is an application for a potash mine that would incorporate two 23-mile tunnels carrying conveyor belts from the mine to Teesside. Tunnelling has come on a long way.

I now turn to transport in the north in general. I have a very clear view about the benefits that this Government’s strong commitment to transport is delivering. For example, in my hon. Friend’s constituency, after years of prevarication and delay by previous Governments we are finally delivering the £120 million-plus Heysham link road, which will link the port at Heysham with the M6 and thereby significantly enhance growth opportunities locally.

That is just one example of the way in which this Government have taken decisive action to tackle long-standing problems in the north-west. We have listened to what local businesses, organisations and communities have told us, and we have responded by investing in all modes of transport, to improve connectivity across the north-west and between the north-west and other parts of the country.

Regarding this Government’s commitment to infrastructure investment, we have already announced increased levels of Government funding to deliver improvements all around the strategic road network, which are targeted at supporting economic growth. Our commitment to deliver a step change in future investment in transport infrastructure was made clear by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in his statement in June 2013, which announced the conclusions of the Government’s 2013 spending review.

I thank the Minister for giving way; he read my mind. I would love to be able to magic up a tunnel under Morecambe bay. I would love to be able to promise my constituents a personal helipad or a teleporter in Barrow town hall to take them anywhere in the country. If I did that six months before an election, my constituents would rightly think that I was just making something up to appear more electable and would not give me much credibility. Does the Minister agree that perhaps the best thing for the Government to do is to find funds to give the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris) a spade and then ask him to get digging? That may be the most realistic way of making the tunnel happen in the near future.

The hon. Gentleman produces a wish list of projects, but I must make it clear that there is no point in a wish list if there is no budget to go with it. The Government are committed to putting in £3 billion a year—some £24 billion—into roads over the next five to six years, which is more than three times the previous Government’s investment. Indeed, I seem to recall that when the Blair Government came to power in 1997 they announced a moratorium on road building, which was not good news for people struggling with congestion in the north. Coupled with the investment already mentioned, we are investing £38 billion in the classic rail network. In addition, we have ambitious plans for high-speed rail in the north, which will from day one connect the north—cities such as Carlisle and Glasgow—and will not stop at Birmingham, but will keep going.

I thank the Minister for that point. Before becoming MP for Morecambe and Lunesdale, I secured funding for a bypass that had been discussed for 60 years. I have wish lists that actually become reality.

My hon. Friend need not convince us of his campaigning zeal in getting the best deal for his constituents and ensuring that they and the north get their fair share of the pot. I also represent the north, so I am conscious of the criticism that all the money is being invested in London’s infrastructure and big projects such as Crossrail. It is important that the north gets its fair share in the Chancellor’s vision for High Speed 3.

The Treasury’s Command Paper “Investing in Britain’s Future” set out the fact that the Government will invest over £28 billion in enhancements and maintenance of both national and local roads in the period up to 2021, including £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 for repairs to local roads and £6 billion for maintenance of strategic roads, including resurfacing 80% of the network.

On future investment planning processes, my hon. Friend will be aware that the Highways Agency is currently conducting its route strategy process. Route strategies will provide a smarter approach to investment planning across the network and see greater collaboration with stakeholders to determine the nature, need and timing of future investment that may be needed on the network. A set of strategies is being developed for the entire strategic road network, covering Lancashire, Cumbria and the north-west, London to Scotland west, and the south and north Pennines.

The route strategies are to be delivered in two stages. The first stage identified performance issues on routes, future challenges and growth opportunities, taking full account of local priorities and aspirations. Using that evidence base, the Highways Agency will establish and outline operational and investment priorities for all routes on the strategic road network. The first stage is now complete, and finalised evidence reports were published on 23 April. The second stage will use the evidence to prioritise and take forward a programme of work to identify indicative solutions to cover operational, maintenance and, if appropriate, road improvement schemes to inform future investment plans.

We are also taking action on the strategic road network in Lancashire and Cumbria now by delivering junction improvements at, for example, junction 32 of the M6 and junction 1 of the M55, on the A585 at Windy Harbour, and at junction 65 on the M65, and making safety improvements on the A590 to Barrow at Greenodd roundabout and at the A595 Mirehouse road junction near Sellafield in west Cumbria. The Highways Agency is also currently developing a scheme for a new junction on the M55 to support the Preston city deal, as well as proposals to feed into the roads investment strategy that we will announce later this year.

The schemes are tackling problems that were flagged up to us by local authorities, local enterprise partnerships and the business community—

And me! On the Greenodd roundabout, it was me and the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron).

Order. If the hon. Gentleman wants to intervene, I suggest that he does so, rather than making comments from a sedentary position.

I am sorry. Just on the Greenodd tunnel, the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale and I pushed rather hard over a considerable number of years to get that, so the Minister might want to mention it.

This Government are always keen to take representations from all sections of the political community. Indeed, looking at some of the investment projects, we can certainly not be accused of pork barrel politics given that much of our investment priority is for the north of England. Indeed, we have been collaborating with the leaders of the great cities in the north to ensure that projects that will support prosperity are delivered.

The Government are also investing significantly in local roads. Through our current “local majors” programme, we are making significant resources available to local authorities to take forward the transport schemes that their areas need. For example, as already highlighted, we are providing £111 million to Lancashire county council towards the £123 million Heysham link road, which will provide a much needed and long-overdue improved link to the port at Heysham, as well as providing congestion relief to the centre of Lancashire.

We are not just working on major programmes. Our pinch point programme is helping local authorities to tackle the hotspots and constraints on local roads that are holding up economic growth. Over the four rounds of the local pinch point programme, we are funding four schemes in Lancashire and Cumbria that are vital to the connectivity needs of local businesses and communities. All are due to be completed next year.

The Government recognise that the local road network is one of this country’s most valuable public assets and that we therefore need to ensure that our local roads are fit for purpose. That is why the Government are providing over £4.7 billion between 2010 to 2015 to local highway authorities in England for the roads that they are responsible for, including the £200 million we provided to councils in March 2011 to help repair damage to local roads caused by the 2010 winter, and the further £183.5 million in March 2014 following the wettest winter on record. More recently, we announced a further £168 million to councils through the pothole fund in the 2014 Budget. The 2013 spending round confirmed that just under £6 billion will be given to local highway authorities over the six-year period from April 2015 to March 2021, equating to £976 million per year and highlighting our commitment to maintaining the road network.

The Government believe that local people and organisations are best placed to understand the needs of their areas to support and boost growth. That is why we are devolving significant resources through the local growth fund to local enterprise partnerships. In the first wave of growth deals announced on 7 July, funding of up to £6 billion for local projects was awarded to the 39 LEPs, including some £3 billion of Government funding for new local transport schemes, reflecting local priorities for what is needed to support local economy growth.

The two LEPs in Lancashire and Cumbria secured significant growth deals with Government. The Lancashire LEP was awarded over £233 million, including over £70 million for vital road infrastructure around Preston to support its city deal growth aspirations, for vital rail schemes in Blackburn, a range of transport improvements in Blackpool, including an extension to the town’s iconic tram service, and a new link road in St Annes. The Cumbria LEP received over £26 million to improve station facilities at Maryport and Workington in west Cumbria as well as to address congestion in Ulverston and Kendal to support growth. Both LEPs will now be able to take forward a range of transport schemes that will support their growth aspirations.

In conclusion, I again thank my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale for securing this debate. I hope that what I have said today demonstrates the Government’s real commitment to transport in Lancashire, Cumbria and the north in general.

The Minister has not said anything about the prospect of a tunnel under Morecambe bay, unless I fell asleep during that bit. Does he think it is remotely realistic?

It is certainly a scheme that would need a lot more work before the viability could be seen. One would need to see the cost-benefit ratios for any such scheme. Any scheme would have to be subject to planning and other considerations, which as a Minister it would be inappropriate for me to talk about at this time. It is absolutely clear that there is a real need for transport infrastructure in all parts of the country, particularly in the north with the development of nuclear power stations and the vital national asset that is the Sellafield plant. We all understand that it is important that it can get goods and people in and out to enable it to flourish.

It is clear that my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale has a bold vision of how transport investment, through the provision of a tunnel under Morecambe bay, can support local growth. The Government believe that local people and organisations are best placed to understand the needs of their areas and support and boost growth. Therefore, while I support his ambition, I suggest that he engages actively with the Lancashire and Cumbria LEPs to promote this matter further.

Sitting suspended.