It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I am reassured that this Minister is responding to the debate and feel completely assured of a sympathetic hearing. I know he understands the issues at hand and I look forward to his response.
The issues that I wish to raise are incredibly and genuinely important. Plenty of my constituents will currently be sitting in their cars on congested roads not fit for purpose or be crammed into trains that are full to bursting. This is a daily occurrence for many in west and south Cumbria who are simply trying to get to and from work.
West Cumbria and the whole Cumbrian industrial economic crescent, which stretches north to south, has the potential to be an engine for substantial economic growth for the region and for the country as a whole, but the current infrastructure is already creaking under the strain. Nowhere is this issue more visible than on the A595 from Barrow to Carlisle. This key artery for the economy of the north-west is simply not fit for purpose in its current state. I shall set out the irrefutable case for significant Government investment in the A595 to ensure that Cumbria’s economic potential can be realised.
Earlier this month, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), I wrote to the Secretary of State for Transport outlining these issues, and I want to expand on them. I should be grateful if the Minister outlined the Government’s position on investment in this critical piece of road infrastructure.
The A595 is an 85-mile carriageway extending from the Dalton-in-Furness bypass in the south to Carlisle in the north. The vast majority of the road is single carriageway, with only a few examples of dual carriageway along the route. The road around Whitehaven, which is also served by the A595, was designated a trunk road in 1946, but was de-trunked in 1998, apart from an 18-mile section between Clifton and Calderbridge, and from Sellafield to the A66. The road carries over 10,000 vehicles each day, including those on a large number of inevitable, unavoidable work-based trips. It is the main route for people travelling to and from Sellafield, a site of incredible national importance. At shift change, twice a day, it is not unusual to see around 10 miles of tailbacks, with people sitting in their cars for hours. The chaos this causes to emergency services, schools, and more, is palpable and clearly understandable to all hon. Members here.
The road simply cannot cope with the volume of traffic it currently carries, and this situation will only get worse as our local economic plans accelerate. One section of the road to the south of Whitehaven is ranked as the 10th least reliable road within the north Pennines route, and according to the Highways Agency three sections of the A595 rank in the 100 least reliable roads in the whole country. There is also a large number of collisions on the A595. The route is in the top fifth of routes with the highest rates of injury from collisions.
Given the rurality of the region, with pockets of urban populations linked by the A595, many people rely on the road, but it just is not fit for purpose. On 14 April 2014, the then Minister of State for Disabled People, the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), following a visit to Sellafield, wrote to the Minister’s colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), decrying the state of the A595, saying:
“This congestion causes significant issues for the site, its employees and the local community alike and will only get worse.”
“I would encourage the Department for Transport to facilitate action in this area.”
That Minister’s letter represented an unusual, unexpected, but welcome intervention and he has my full support on this issue. I have not seen the Government’s reply to the Minister, but I should be grateful if the Minister undertook to furnish me with a copy of that response.
In his letter, the Minister stated:
“We have seen the potential of major transport infrastructure projects to promote economic regeneration in east London following the 2012 Olympics.”
The incoming investment to west and south-west Cumbria is on an Olympic scale—potentially greater—and it demands Olympic ambition for the infrastructure that will serve it. As I have set out, the current infrastructure is woefully inadequate.
A technical annex to a Highways Agency report estimates that by 2031 there will be substantial growth in the area. In Allerdale, Barrow-in-Furness and Copeland combined, 14,000 new jobs will be created, with an additional 12,000 new homes created as a result. Local economic development agencies, such as Britain’s Energy Coast, estimate that many more thousands of jobs will be created, in excess of the 14,000. In any event, there will be an influx of tens of thousands of new workers, with the associated increase in vehicle trips and strain upon the road network. The increased industrial activity will see more freight on the roads. Without improvements, the network will grind to a halt.
The Highways Agency’s “North Pennines Route Strategy Evidence Report” states:
“Certain specific developments provide specific operational challenges, for example on the A595 in Copeland”—
“traffic associated with operations at Sellafield, which directly employs around 10,000 people, causes significant congestion outside the normal morning and evening peak periods. The lack of alternative routes and viable alternative travel options, such as local bus and rail services, combine to result in rapid build-up of congestions when incidents occur.”
It also states:
“The A595 and A590 in Cumbria are likely to be the major focus for economic development on the route with the expansion of activities related to energy generation along the ‘Energy Coast’ including the construction of a new nuclear power station at Moorside.”
I expect that my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness will talk about stress on the roads in relation to the huge development that he has helped to secure in his constituency, too.
I fully support the hon. Gentleman’s arguments. Cumbria desperately needs some real infrastructure spending internally, although we have good communications going out. Does he agree that the A595 going up to Carlisle is equally important for the development of Carlisle? If there were better connectivity between the east and the west, that would be good not just for economic development but for the health economy.
It is absolutely in the best interests of Carlisle to develop the A595. Considering that we have all worked on a cross-party basis for many years to try to get the airport developed there, it needs to be served by good road infrastructure, otherwise the benefits from it will be not what they should. I will come on to the health service in due course.
In reality, more than 10,000 people work on the Sellafield site, and it will soon be one of the biggest construction sites in Europe as decommissioning progresses, whether or not new missions are secured. The report goes on to state:
“Without any interventions, planned development is likely to result in further deterioration in network performance.”
The case for investment to upgrade the A595 is overwhelming. It is undeniably in the national interest, and the Government should recognise that fact and act accordingly. In less than a fortnight, a petition arranged by me and my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness has gathered well over 1,000 signatures. It calls for investment, and more people add their support daily. A few testimonies from the many people who have signed the petition show just how much of an impact the A595 has on their daily lives. One person said:
“I am the manager of a health centre and cannot get to work by any other road. When it blocks, we cannot get essential staff to work. When this happens, our patients are affected.”
“Every day my travel to work of 17 miles exceeds one hour, ten minutes.”
I would like to see people in London put up with that kind of delay. Another simply added:
“Something needs to be done.”
My constituents rightly demand that the Government take a lead on this matter. As I have repeatedly said, this infrastructure is of national importance and the economic case is indisputable. West Cumbria can be a world leader when it comes to the creation of skilled jobs, and we are already hugely significant in that regard. Imminent inward investment from around the world means that our position as a global centre of excellence will be not only maintained but enhanced. Our vision is to become a global centre of nuclear excellence and through that to diversify and grow the economy through spin-outs, but the only way we can realise that potential is to have the infrastructure in place to support the growth and make it stick. It is a clear example of where a return on investment would greatly outweigh any initial costs and would improve the lives of many thousands of people.
So far I have spoken mainly about the economic benefits of new investment in the A595 and the economic cost of inaction, but a failure to invest would have wider ramifications, not least for health care, as the hon. Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) pointed out. There is great strain on ambulance services in the region, but North Cumbria University Hospitals NHS Trust envisages more patient transfers in the coming years. The journey time between West Cumberland hospital in Whitehaven and the Cumberland infirmary is already upwards of two hours bed to bed. As congestion worsens, that travel time is set to deteriorate further. Without investment in the A595, there will be serious ramifications for the health of my constituents, and that is unacceptable. It is also a key reason why patient services should not be further stripped from the West Cumberland hospital. This is not the place to air those issues, but let me be absolutely clear: there must be no further erosion of services at the West Cumberland hospital and no more unjustifiable transfers of services from Whitehaven to Carlisle. Not even the best road in the world would be capable of shortening the 42 miles between the two hospitals. No road upgrade could ever justify further service erosion.
In west Cumbria, we are building a 21st-century economy on 19th-century infrastructure. By failing to act, any Government would be knowingly acting against the economic interests of the region and the country as a whole. Cumbria simply cannot reach its full potential if we do not have the roads to enable us to achieve our ambitions and to make the unprecedented investments coming our way stick. The ambition of west Cumbria is there. It is manifest in our community spirit, our ambition and our determination, all of which bind our local economic ambitions—north, east, west and south.
Will the Minister make a commitment to undertake a feasibility study of what improvements will be necessary to cope with future economic developments in the area and future demands on the road network? The scope of that work need cover not simply road improvements but how more Sellafield workers, for instance, could be located away from the Sellafield site in Whitehaven town centre and right across Copeland in new office buildings, thereby achieving town centre regeneration and reducing site risk and road congestion. Will he also give a commitment to meet me and my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness to discuss the issues in more detail? The Minister is usually amenable, and I know that he is a committed and passionate public servant when it comes to dealing with requests from all parts of the House.
In west and south-west Cumbria, we are about to receive the single largest private sector investment we have ever seen. It has been hard won over many years, and it has not happened by accident. These are once-in-a-generation investments, and every opportunity must be seized. West Cumbria’s best days are ahead of us, but we can only reach our true potential if significant improvements are made to the A595. These are not tiresome partisan issues, but issues of national strategic importance. Will the Minister back our drive for growth?
Thank you for your forbearance, Mr Hood. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I know that you must particularly look forward to these debates on A roads. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Mr Reed) on securing this debate and on leading the campaign on the A595 with such energy. It is an urgent issue. My hon. Friend put the case so well, but for a couple of minutes I will add a few brief points.
Nearly 400 people travel from my constituency to Sellafield every day. As the area realises its ambition to become a global centre of nuclear excellence alongside the building of a new nuclear submarine fleet in Barrow-in-Furness, it will become an extraordinary powerhouse of nuclear expertise. As the travel-to-work area spans that geographic footprint, there will be much greater use of the A road in both directions, yet parts of it are barely worth calling a road. There is an infamous bit in my constituency that is literally a farmyard. If the Minister has time, I urge him to watch the videos that intrepid safety campaigners in the Kirkby area have made. For drivers on this stretch of road, it is an almost daily occurrence to see huge juggernauts coming towards them with, at points, no way around.
We have seen 18 deaths and 550 injuries on the road in the past five years, but there has been no upgrade in spending, which is vitally needed. We need better public transport and transport infrastructure investment that matches both the scale and ambition of the growth and the amount of value that will be added to the UK economy—not just the economy of our area. I want much better engagement from the train companies and the Government for park and ride schemes in Askam or Broughton going up to Sellafield and the new Moorside sites, but that cannot come at the expense of the investment that is so clearly needed. We are not asking for all the money up front, right now. All we have asked for in writing is for the Government to pay for the feasibility study. Will the Minister confirm that they will do that? If his view is that there should be a bridge across the Duddon, say that now. We need an option, and it needs to be properly looked at. We need the money for the study.
It is a great pleasure to be able to respond to this debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Copeland (Mr Reed) on securing it. I worked with him when I was an energy Minister, particularly on nuclear issues, given his commitment to and expertise in that area. That is not irrelevant to this debate, as he made clear in his contribution. The growth in demand from the investment in Sellafield will undoubtedly have an effect on the volume and character of traffic. It is important that the infrastructural investment in nuclear power be matched by infrastructural investment of other kinds to make that economic regeneration as meaningful as it can be. I welcome the contributions of the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) and my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson), who have highlighted the wider effect that such investment might have on their localities.
Given that we are discussing a part of the country that boasts our splendid Lake district, some may have expected me to quote one of the Lake poets, but I am not a predictable Minister. The only thing predictable about me is that I will quote a poet, but it is not going to be a Lake poet; it is going to be W. B. Yeats. When I think of the Lake district, I think of Yeats and “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”:
“I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.”
As the hon. Member for Copeland spoke, I thought of that glorious part of the country. Because it is glorious, it attracts a considerable volume of traffic, not only from the locality and not only for the economic reasons he described, but because many people choose to go there for all kinds of other reasons. I have been there to enjoy the scenic beauty of that part of the country.
With its industrial heritage, the glorious landscape is also a vibrant and dynamic place, as the hon. Gentleman made clear. I mentioned Sellafield, which is a modern powerhouse and deserves to be treated as such. As the hon. Gentleman indicated, we are planning to build three new nuclear reactors at Moorside, near Sellafield, which will create very many jobs—more than 20,000. That will have a big effect, particularly when one adds in the 10,000 jobs at the reprocessing site. In the early part of this Parliament, before I was an energy Minister, I was the Minister responsible for apprenticeships, so I am delighted to be able to celebrate the fact that there are going to be 121 apprenticeships as well.
There has been a lot of interest from companies that want to mine the extensive coal deposits that still lie under the Irish sea. Such developments are welcome. The road investment strategy we have set out is the most ambitious road-building programme since the 1970s and the first time a Government have committed long-term funding to such a strategy, and it is important for Cumbria. We will invest £15.2 billion in more than 100 major schemes to enhance, renew and transform the network between now and 2020. That will take 69 new road schemes into construction over the next six years, as well as completing existing projects and delivering on our previous commitments.
All the infrastructure I have described will support economic growth of the kind I have briefly amplified, and to which all the hon. Gentlemen who spoke drew the House’s attention. It is really important that the work we are doing, the investment we are making and the plans we are devising and delivering in those principal arterial routes are supported, as the hon. Member for Copeland said, by route strategies. I will share a secret with all those present, although it is not a secret to you, Mr Hood, as you so ably chaired the Infrastructure Bill Committee. I insisted that that Bill be amended to take account, on its face, of the significance of route strategies. As I considered the matter and discussed it with shadow Ministers, it seemed to me that unless we got the strategy right for the roads that feed the main arterial routes, we would not succeed in providing the extra capacity required to benefit areas such as the hon. Gentleman’s and, by the way, my own, as well as those of many other Members.
The hon. Gentleman rightly said that, working with all agencies, which of course includes Cumbria county council, the local highways authority, we must now ensure that the decisions made are consistent and coherent between all authorities. I was in a meeting yesterday with council leaders from the south-west, and we were discussing the A303, another of those key arterial routes, on exactly that basis. I intend to encourage and, indeed, to ensure further consultation with local authorities, local communities, stakeholders, businesses and others to make sure that the route strategies actually match the same kind of ambitious thinking, are built on the same sort of empiricism, and commit the funds required to deliver the infrastructure outcomes that service the economic demand described by the hon. Gentleman. That goes for the areas immediately adjacent to the main arterial routes, but also for the areas adjacent to those areas—a point made by the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness and my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle.
The hon. Member for Copeland will know that the document to which he referred, the north Pennines route strategy, helped to inform our road investment strategy—our macro document, one might say—which underpins the plans that I have outlined. I will ensure that the north Pennines route strategy will be used as a basis for future investment decisions. The second part of the route strategy, which details the proposed solution, has not yet been published but will be. It will be published on the basis of that kind of stakeholder engagement—that consultative approach—informed by the hon. Gentleman and other local representatives, along with the other interested parties, which will of course include major local employers.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether I would make available the response that originated from the visit of a previous Minister to his neck of the woods. We will look to see whether a response was made. If it is on record, I will happily make it available to him and, if it would be helpful, to other contributors to this debate, so that they can be as informed as possible.
At this point, it seems that I should return to the script that has been prepared for me. I do not like to do that with too much regularity, because it makes one’s contributions to debates such as this altogether less interesting and less of a response to what has been said before one rises. Nevertheless, the hon. Gentleman can look forward to a concentration of resource and expertise from central Government, working with the relevant partners to try to bring about some of the things he set out.
The hon. Gentleman will know that Cumbria county council has received £13.7 million for integrated transport improvements over the past four years, and £109 million for highways maintenance. Picking up the point made by the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness, I accept that maintenance is not the principal concern in respect of the road of which he was speaking, but clearly it is a concern. Until we reach the point where we can make major new investment, it is important that we make good the highways that people use day to day. We certainly would not want to delay the necessary maintenance and repair work just because we intend to do more.
Over the next six years Cumbria county council is set to receive more than £13 million for integrated transport improvements and more than £141 million for highways maintenance. That money is not ring-fenced and the council is free to spend it as it wishes. Having said that, the more co-ordinated we can be and the more that the joint working I have identified can take effect, the more success we are likely to have in ensuring that the money is allocated properly.
Finally, I could speak about the need to integrate with rail as well, because that is a pressing concern in the locality we are discussing. I know that it was not the basis of the speech by the hon. Member for Copeland, but he has raised the matter previously. I pay tribute to him and, in order to conclude, I will commit to writing to all hon. Members present with any further information that is useful. Once again, I assure the hon. Gentleman that he has paid us a service in drawing these matters to our attention.