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A1(M) (Hertfordshire)

Volume 588: debated on Friday 21 November 2014

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

I am glad to have the opportunity to raise the issue of Hertfordshire’s roads and the widening of the A1(M), which is an important concern for my constituents, Hertfordshire and the UK economy.

Each morning and evening on the A1(M), between Welwyn Garden City and Stevenage, there are long tailbacks, and this bottleneck is affecting several constituencies and our national infrastructure. I am grateful to the Minister of State, Department for Transport, the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), the trunk roads Minister, for agreeing to meet me, along with my right hon. Friends the Members for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) and for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley) and my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland), to discuss in more detail what improvements might be possible.

Given that the Minister agreed to this meeting, it might be helpful if I set out some of the main concerns. Hertfordshire is one of the most productive of revenue-raising counties in the country. Its geographical location and the nature of its economy make it suited to sustainable business growth. It has world-beating industry, such as Johnson Matthey in Royston, and major companies, such as MBDA and GlaxoSmithKline in Stevenage. Watford is a business success and the county is a centre for the cultural industries: it is home to Elstree studios, and many film and television programmes are shot on location in the county. Letchworth garden city, in my constituency, has an innovative Da Vinci school specialising in training young people, from 14 to 19, in cultural industry skills.

The Hertfordshire local enterprise partnership makes it clear that congestion is a key issue for businesses and residents and that addressing the issue will be instrumental in accommodating further growth in the county. The LEP believes that increased capacity on the A1(M) is the No. 1 priority for the county’s road network between 2015 and 2020. Our strong local science base has huge potential for further growth. Some 861 hectares of employment land are accessed from the A1(M), and the area employs 200,000 people, with 60,000 commuting in. Many homes are due to be built in the corridor over the next 20 years. By 2017, that section of the A1(M) will be under even greater stress and will struggle to accommodate any growth in the corridor without additional capacity.

Hertfordshire can be accessed easily from London and the midlands. It is convenient for the east coast ports and it has five railways and main roads—the A1(M), the A5, the A6, the A41, the M1, the M11 and the M25—that provide access to the rest of the country. We also have two airports, at Luton and Stansted, on the borders of the county, which open it up to the rest of Europe. This successful part of the country needs a well-functioning and well-funded transport infrastructure. Although much of our infrastructure is good, there are instances where we are let down. I would like to elaborate on three of them and consider the widening of the A1(M) a little later.

I held an Adjournment debate on the subject of roads of Hertfordshire in 1998, in which I called for three bypasses in my constituency: one for Baldock, one for Wadesmill to Puckeridge, and one around Royston. I can report that two have been built, which is a substantial investment, but not the one for Royston. There has long been a bypass to the north of the town, diverting the east-west A505 around it. However, the north-south A10 still goes right through the town centre. In the 17 years since I first called for a bypass on the A10, the situation has, if anything, worsened. The joint success of London, Hertfordshire, the midlands and Cambridgeshire, and a natural growth in the town’s population has put even more pressure on our road networks. Royston’s problems are becoming more serious, with heavy traffic streams through the town on a daily basis, tailbacks and road congestion clogging up Melbourn road, which affects children attending the main schools located on the other side of the A10.

Both the town council and local county councillors are united behind a plan to improve the situation with a bypass. In 1994, the Highways Agency announced that it supported the construction of an A10 bypass at Royston and the then Minister pledged to keep the case under review. I think you would agree, Mr Deputy Speaker, that it is a long review. Royston remains the only town on the A10 between London and King’s Lynn without a bypass. In my view the case is a strong one. I wonder whether the Minister would write to me about how best to make progress on that.

We have been fortunate locally in recently gaining funding from Government for a bypass on the A120 around Little Hadham and improvements to the A602, both in my constituency. The county council is consulting on the detail of those schemes, but given the strategic importance of the link between the A10 and the A120 in relation to Stansted airport and travel on the A120 east of Bishop’s Stortford, I would be grateful if the Department started to consider how best to improve the route further. I would argue that a Standon bypass is needed to complement the works that have already been agreed.

I should like now to turn to issues surrounding the widening of the A1(M). I have described the huge value of Hertfordshire in terms of its businesses and local enterprise. From our multinational corporations to our small and medium-sized enterprises, at all levels of the supply chain our businesses are successful. UK Trade & Investment says that inward investment to Hertfordshire shows a 61% increase in the last year. Members of Hertfordshire chamber of commerce tell us that the pool of skills comes not just from local residents. Major companies such GSK and Airbus, although based in north Hertfordshire, cast a wide net for employment. Those commuters must be catered for on our roads. The road network is not as strong as it should be, so some of Hertfordshire’s potential is not being realised.

One of the most important of those roads is the A1(M). Starting in London, it moves into Hertfordshire, servicing Hatfield, Welwyn, Stevenage and Letchworth in my constituency, and then goes on to Peterborough, Doncaster, Leeds and finally Edinburgh. The road is important in getting workers to work and also products out to the UK market and beyond. London and Edinburgh are extremely important in that, and recent announcements by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor about the creation of a northern hub will make the A1 even more significant. The section between Welwyn and Huntingdon needs further improvement. The road is not as good as it should be. The section of the A1(M) between Stevenage and Welwyn is important, but it is composed of only two lanes in each carriageway. Every morning and evening, the road is congested and tailbacks are long, as the road narrows for that section.

I recently received a letter from a constituent in Letchworth, explaining that these problems had lasted for 25 years. He said:

“During that time I have travelled up and down the AIM between Letchworth gate and the clock roundabout at Welwyn and ended up going into work before 7 and coming home after 7 in the evening to miss the jams on the AIM. Even when I was travelling 25 years ago the bottleneck of the dual carriageway motorway from the Corey’s Mill roundabout at the Hitchin Junction and the clock roundabout is a crawl that adds considerably to travel time, pollution and frustration…Even today when I travel to Heathrow or Gatwick airport you either have to travel at 5 in the morning or the day before and the cost of a hotel because of the bottleneck. Successive governments have failed…on upgrading the road to 3 lanes in each direction.”

Junction 7 at Stevenage connects one of the biggest industrial areas in Hertfordshire with the rest of the UK, but drivers see regular queues on the motorway and some members of the Herts chamber of commerce suggest that continued non-remedied access to Stevenage could prompt them to relocate. We cannot let this happen. At the other end of the two-lane section, Welwyn Garden City junction 6 is dead-centre of the so-called golden triangle of Oxford, Cambridge and London. The problems here are a blight on one of the powerhouses of the UK economy.

Some changes to the slip road at junction 6 have been suggested, but there is confusion locally about the announced managed motorway solution. At first, it spoke of use of the hard shoulder to add capacity, but that was then rejected by the Department for Transport. One of the best and simplest things that could be done is the widening of this section of the A1(M) to three lanes on each carriageway. This would allow for a greater stream of traffic, it would ease congestion and enable an important national connection to flow more freely. Businesses would be helped, things would be made easier for commuters, less time would be spent in traffic jams and it would reduce pollution.

Hertfordshire is a strong contributor to the UK and to public spending across the country. Hertfordshire contributes £12 billion in tax revenues each year and receives £8 billion in public expenditure—meaning that the county’s net contribution is £4 billion a year. My constituents feel that some of these public funds should be used in Hertfordshire to sort out the problems I have outlined.

I look forward to meeting the trunk roads Minister with my colleagues. I hope that the Minister responding today will be able at least to acknowledge the importance of the Hertfordshire economy and the need for a good strong infrastructure to support it.

I congratulate my hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Hertshire (Sir Oliver Heald) on securing this debate on future strategic improvements to the A1(M). The great north road is a very important trunk road for this country, and coming from the great north myself I understand its importance. Indeed, much has already been done on the A1, as many sections have been upgraded to motorway standard, and we look forward to further investment in this very important route in the future.

I know that my hon. and learned Friend has been supporting his constituents, local businesses and the local economy by pursuing improvements to the A1(M) to unlock potential growth in Hertfordshire throughout the year. I applaud his engagement with the A1(M) consortium and would hold up this cross-organisational body as a good example of a constructive approach to stimulating debate and developing consensus on the way forward for Hertfordshire.

Before I passed over responsibility for strategic roads to the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), I took a particular interest in the issue of the A1(M) in Hertfordshire, meeting both my right hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) and the editor of the Welwyn Hatfield Times to discuss future improvements to this road. At those meetings, I made it clear that my Department would give serious consideration to this issue, together with taking early action to address pinch points.

I also know that my hon. and learned Friend expects to bring a number of MPs from across Hertfordshire to a meeting with my right hon. Friend the Minister of State who is responsible for strategic roads in order to set out the case for widening the A1(M) from the M25 to Letchworth before the autumn statement.

Before I respond to the points raised by my hon. and learned Friend, it is perhaps worth taking the opportunity to set out this Government’s position on investment in the strategic road network and the history of proposals for major improvements to the A1(M), as well as setting out how my Department will consider options for future major investments.

The strategic road network is the Government’s largest single asset, currently valued at about £100 billion and comprising approximately 4,350 miles of motorways and all-purpose trunk roads. The Government recognise the importance of transport infrastructure to support the economy, and we have already announced increased Government funding to deliver improvements targeted at supporting economic growth. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor made clear our commitment to deliver a step change in investment in transport infrastructure in his statement on 26 June 2013, when he announced the conclusions of the Government’s spending review of that year.

The Treasury’s Command Paper “Investing in Britain’s future” said that the Government would invest more than £28 billion in enhancements to, and maintenance of, national and local roads, and confirmed that we would provide funding for the building of a number of Highways Agency major road projects to tackle the most congested parts of the network, subject to value for money and deliverability.

On current investment in the strategic road network in Hertfordshire, smart motorway systems are now in operation between junctions 23 and 27 of the M25. Smart motorways help to relieve congestion by using technology to vary speed limits, and they also allow the hard shoulder to be allowed as a running lane to create additional capacity. They deliver those benefits at a significantly lower cost than conventional motorway widening, and with less impact on the environment during construction. The project is already relieving congestion and smoothing the flow of traffic, which is improving safety and journey times. Those benefits are also supporting economic development in the region.

The pinch point programme forms part of the UK Government’s growth initiative, which was outlined in the autumn statement in November 2011. That was followed up with the allocation of further funding in the 2012 autumn statement. The Highways Agency has designed the programme to deliver smaller-scale improvements to the strategic road network that will help to stimulate growth in the local economy, relieve congestion and improve safety.

More than £2 million of funding has been allocated to improving junction 6 of the A1(M) at Welwyn. The key features of the scheme include amending the current road layout to provide a lane drop at junction 6 and extending and amending the existing layout of the junction 6 entry slip road. That will improve traffic flow on the A1(M) northbound carriageway, with the amended entry slip road layout providing additional distance for traffic joining the A1(M) to merge safely with the main line of traffic. Work on the scheme will start in December and is due to be completed in April 2015.

In addition, £5.6 million has been committed to the A1 Black Cat roundabout improvements at Chawston. Although that is in Bedfordshire, that scheme will have a positive impact on the effectiveness of the A1(M) in Hertfordshire. It will reduce congestion by widening the roundabout and the A1 approach roads, and by providing 24-hour signals at the points at which the A1 meets the roundabout. It is predicted that the proposed scheme will reduce congestion, improve journey time reliability, improve safety and reduce carbon emissions. Work began in June and is due to be completed in early 2015.

In July, the Government announced a series of growth deals with businesses and local authorities across England through the local growth fund. The Hertfordshire local enterprise partnership has secured £199.2 million from the fund to support strategic development, relieve congestion and reduce journey times across the Hertfordshire area. As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Hertfordshire mentioned, the Hertfordshire local enterprise partnership has been successful in securing a substantial amount of funding through its local growth deal—in the region of £48 million—for the M11/A10 transport package, which includes Little Hadham bypass, upgrades to the network to improve the resilience of the A10 and improvements on the A602 around Stevenage. Further priorities for improvements to the local transport network will be for the Hertfordshire local enterprise partnership to identify for future rounds of the local growth fund.

As my hon. and learned Friend will know, the Hertfordshire growth deal reflects the importance of the A1(M) for local growth ambitions, with £3.8 million being invested in transport improvements through the A1(M) transport package, and £16 million being invested in the A1(M) growth area forum to help facilitate developments around Stevenage. The package also includes a number of sustainable transport measures to provide more realistic alternatives for local trips, including the A1 sustainable transport package, the A602 local congestion measures and Buslink 2016. The M11/A10 transport package attracted £48.4 million of local growth fund money for a package of schemes including station access improvements, upgrades to the network to improve resilience, the Little Hadham bypass, A602 improvements and A10 network resilience.

The M1/M25 transport package has £15 million of local growth fund finance for a package of transport schemes including A414 junction improvements, Hemel Hempstead station forecourt enhancements, and Watford business park pedestrian and cycle access enhancements. Hertfordshire county council’s BigHertsBigIdeas project is a package of measures designed to address congestion and regeneration needs in Watford, Hemel Hempstead and St Albans. That includes cycling provision, public transport improvements and electric vehicle charging. The county council has secured a total of £11.69 million from the Department for the project through the local sustainable transport fund.

Hertfordshire county council continues to receive high levels of maintenance and integrated transport block funding. It was also allocated an additional £3.621 million from the March 2014 weather repair fund, and £2.191 million from the June 2014 pothole funding allocation to help to deal with all the potholes that appeared during the bad weather. I suspect that some of the potholes were there before the bad weather started, but they still need to be dealt with.

As for the Government’s future investment planning processes, my hon. and learned Friend will know that the Highways Agency is currently conducting its route strategy process, and that the Government recently concluded the growth deal process with all local enterprise partnerships. Earlier in the year, John Gourd, the chair of Hertfordshire local enterprise partnership, met officials from the Department and the Highways Agency to discuss the Department’s future investment planning processes, including the route strategy process. The strategies that are being developed by the Highways Agency will establish outline operational and investment priorities for all routes on the strategic road network—including the London to Leeds (East) route strategy, which encompasses the A1(M)—for the period up to March 2021, and will give an indication of the priorities beyond that.

Last autumn local enterprise partnerships, local authorities and other interested groups were invited to contribute to discussions about the current and future performance of the strategic road network to help to identify local priorities, and the evidence report has subsequently been published. It acknowledges the issues that exist on the A1(M) in Hertfordshire and the fact that, as we heard from my hon. and learned Friend, there is planned development and growth in the surrounding area. The Highways Agency and the Department used the evidence to identify priority locations for possible future investment in the strategic road network, and have started a programme of studies at those locations. Proposals emerging from those preliminary studies will be considered by my Department in the lead-up to the autumn statement—which, confusingly, will be presented in December this year—and will help to inform the Department’s road investment strategy, which we aim to complete before the end of the year. The route strategy work is due to be completed by the end of March 2015.

I note that the A1 corridor consortium is already working with the Highways Agency and other parties to develop a strategy to address congestion and future capacity issues on the A1(M), and I encourage the consortium to continue to work with the agency as the route strategy process develops.

I congratulate my hon. and learned Friend on his tenacity in campaigning for investment in transport infrastructure in Hertfordshire over a number of years. I fully recognise the importance of the A1(M) to him and his constituents. I have made it clear that the Government are committed to, and have set out, plans for large-scale investments to improve our national strategic road network in the relatively short term. We are also committed to maintaining a pipeline of future longer-term investments. Indeed, we are tripling the budget that was delivered by the last Government—if “delivered” is a word that can be used to describe that paltry investment.

In considering the choices to be made in relation to future investments in the strategic road network, my Department and I, and the Highways Agency, will work closely with local stakeholders through the route strategy process, to ensure that not just future transport problems but the range of possible solutions are considered. As I have said, it is important that proposals for future investment are clearly supported by local stakeholders, and that there is a clear consensus on what is required. Ultimately, any proposals for future investment need to be able to demonstrate a strong business, and the delivery of both transport and wider economic benefits.

We are also committed to working with local partners, including local authorities and local enterprise partnerships, on considering proposals for improvements that are affordable and clearly supported by local and regional stakeholders. In that way, we can place ourselves in a strong position to make the best use of the available funds and to establish a sound base for the development of a transport system that can contribute to a low-carbon economy and to our long-term economic plan.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.