[Mr Andrew Turner in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered dualling of Worcester’s southern link and the Carrington Bridge.
It is a pleasure to move this motion under your chairmanship, Mr Turner, and to do so before a Minister whom I am truly delighted to welcome to his place and his new role. I discussed the strong case for improving Worcester’s transport links with the previous Roads Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), when he hosted me, my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) and the former Member for Mid Worcestershire, as well as representatives from Worcestershire County Council and the Worcestershire local enterprise partnership, at his office in the Department for Transport. Since then, the Secretary of State for Transport has been to Worcester to see for himself both the ongoing work to dual the southern link and the bottleneck currently formed by the Carrington bridge. The new Minister is always welcome to make that journey himself, and I would be delighted to show him the long queues of traffic.
The Minister will know that traffic is one of my constituents’ top concerns—it is one of the few things keeping Worcester from the very top of the list of cities in the country in which to live; it is in the top 10—and that the southern link road is not only a vital road but a key strategic link for our county and its neighbours. In addition to its crucial role as a transport link, it provides essential flood resilience for a city that is unfortunately all too well known for its propensity to flood. Beyond the single carriageway Carrington bridge, there is a long area of causeway on which the A4440 crosses the flood plain to the south of Worcester, and I was pleased to learn from the Environment Agency only this morning that it is already advising on how best the widening of that causeway could be achieved without a negative impact on flooding elsewhere.
I am delighted that after years of support from Sir Peter Luff I am joined for today’s debate by his successor, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston), whom I congratulate again on his election to this place. My hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire, newly elevated to high Government office, would also be here were it not for the demands of that office. The A4440 southern link road around Worcester is not only a vital part of the city and county’s infrastructure, but the key link between the M5 and her constituents in Malvern and many other points west of Worcester. In addition to the strong support we have won for its improvement from Worcester City Council and Wychavon and Malvern Hills District Councils, we have now submitted letters of support from Herefordshire County Council and The Marches local enterprise partnership. It is one of only two crossings of the mighty River Severn between Holt Fleet and Upton-upon-Severn, and the only one with the potential to carry more than a single lane of traffic. It is the key bottleneck for a population of hundreds of thousands and an increasing amount of business traffic.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire pointed out at last week’s Prime Minister’s questions, Worcestershire has been the third-fastest growing county economy in the UK over the past few years after only London and Oxfordshire. That growth has seen unemployment more than halve and youth unemployment decline even further. It has seen huge numbers of new businesses starting up, existing businesses, such as Joy Mining Machinery and COMPCO in the west of Worcester, growing and taking on more staff and the development of new clusters of excellence, such as Malvern’s thriving cyber-security cluster. The rise of rural broadband notwithstanding, such commerce naturally increases the weight of traffic and the demand for infrastructure.
At the same time, our county has committed to building tens of thousands more homes. There are already smart new estates to the west of Worcester and where once Dines Green marked the western edge of the city, there are now new houses, doctor’s surgeries and care homes at Earl’s Court Farm and along the Bromyard Road. Under the south Worcestershire development plan, tens of thousands more homes will be built to the south and west of the city. Not all those people living to the west of the city will be able to work, shop and get to schools on the west side of the river and not all those on the east will be able to stay on the east. We want the new residents of the south Worcestershire urban extension to be able to enjoy the beautiful Malvern hills and the Elgar trail, and we want those on the west to be able to venture across to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire and experience the delights of Evesham, Droitwich and Broadway.
In addition to the rising demand, there are some wonderful transport improvements in prospect for which I should thank the Minister and his Department. The previous Government committed to upgrading both of Worcester’s motorway junctions and resurfacing much of the M5, as well as making it a smart motorway. That will improve our access to Birmingham, to the M5 corridor with its high-tech jobs and aerospace and, indirectly, to London and the rest of the country.
That improved access will only fully benefit my constituents, and those of my neighbouring Worcestershire MPs, when the southern link allows them to reach the M5 with greater ease. We also have the exciting prospect of a project for which the county has been calling for over 30 years being delivered in the next two: Worcestershire Parkway Station. That crucial addition to our rail links will improve our rail connections with London, Bristol and Birmingham and serve the entire south of the county. For my constituents in Worcester, it will mean that thousands more have access to our railways, as neither of our existing stations has sufficient parking for people to be able to leave their cars. For people living in Warndon Villages, St Peter the Great or anywhere on the western side of the city, Worcestershire Parkway will make rail travel an option, but only if they can reach the station. The southern link provides crucial connectivity for all those people.
Today, however, and for most of the past decade, the southern link has been running at capacity. As a regular listener to BBC Hereford and Worcester, I am far too often regaled with the news that traffic is at a standstill on the Carrington bridge. Far too often in the morning, I am sat in long queues on the bridge or the approach road. Every morning and every evening, that crucial transport link is simply overwhelmed by the amount of traffic with which it must cope. As a result, more traffic is diverted through the centre of Worcester city.
When the floods hit Worcester last February and closed our city centre bridge, the queues could take hours. Getting up at 6 am to make a 9 am appointment in Worcester was not an ideal commute. That happened before the new developments in the south Worcestershire development plan, which the county council estimates could generate an additional 342,000 trips a day by 2019 and 588,000 a day by 2031. The road that has skirted the south of Worcester for decades has needed dualling for most of that time and the bridge that joins the west of the Severn with the east might have admirably met the challenges of 1985, but it desperately needs upgrading for the 21st century.
One of the pleasant surprises of the visit of the Secretary of State for Transport on a sunny April day this year was taking him down the hill from the viewing platform that overlooks the Carrington bridge and coming across the plaque that commemorated my father, as MP for Worcester and Energy Secretary, opening it on almost precisely the same day in 1985. A great deal has changed since 1985 when I was seven years old, but I hope we share with that period the fact that we have a Conservative Government prepared to invest in our country’s infrastructure and inject new energy into the challenge.
It is worth noting that the coalition Government invested in improving the southern link and, along with Worcestershire County Council and the LEP, delivered the substantial upgrades that the Transport Secretary was able to see under way during his recent visit. Through a combination of pooling the new homes bonus, local funds and a Government contribution to the Worcestershire LEP’s strategic economic plan through the local growth fund, the dualling of the southern part of the road and upgrades to its major roundabouts have already been set in motion. After decades in which Worcester’s infrastructure seemed to be set in stone, this is a huge step forward and the first major new roads investment since the 1980s in this part of the county. However, the full benefits of all that work—the dualling of the A4440 between the M5 junction and the Ketch roundabout—will not be seen until full dualling of the road is achieved, including the bridge and the causeway beyond it.
Many constituents have complained to me that it could be a waste of money to have doubled the road only as far as the Carrington bridge. Many more have pointed out that traffic from the west will still head through the city, rather than around it, as long as there is no dual carriageway between the west and the south. Put simply, the wise investments made by our county, our districts and our country in upgrading the road could be made to look like a white elephant if the job is left incomplete, but a golden opportunity if it is finished. A well-supported online petition put together by my constituent Brian Gladman also made that point. Mr Gladman also campaigned for many years to improve the broadband infrastructure in the west of Worcester, which ensured that all my constituents are well served. It is great that he is bringing his leadership to improving our roads infrastructure, the importance of which was hammered home to me on the doorsteps of Worcester during the recent election campaign.
Any reader of the Worcester News will know about the concerns regarding the layout of the new roundabouts and that they are a consequence of the design of the scheme being for a proper dual carriageway but the work at this stage only being funded sufficiently to deliver that dualling as far as the River Severn. Once the dualling is taken across the river and over the Carrington bridge, the bottlenecks will be removed, the traffic will flow more freely and the roundabouts will work as they were intended.
To date, dualling has achieved significant improvements in traffic flow, but what can be achieved in taking it further would be much greater. The work has been proceeding on a phased basis and we are seeking help with phase 4, estimated to cost a total of about £74 million. The first three phases, which cost about £40 million, will be completed by 2018. At that point, crucially, whether through local funds, further LEP bids or Government funding, we must have the finance in place to secure the fourth phase. Worcestershire County Council has estimated that the Government contribution required would be in the region of £60 million, but that the benefit-cost ratio is more than 2:1.
My point today is to make it clear that that would be money well invested. As the chairman of our LEP, Mark Stansfield, said,
“The southern link road is a key initiative focussed on keeping businesses moving and connected in Worcestershire and to neighbouring counties. The dualling”—
of the Carrington bridge—
“is fundamental to achieving the goals set out in the ten year Strategic Economic Plan.”
Simon Geraghty, leader of Worcester City Council and deputy leader of the county council said:
“The Worcester Southern Link Road is one of the most important strategic routes in the County, used by over 30,000 motorists a day, to connect communities and businesses west of Worcester to the M5 Motorway network as well as providing an alternative route for local traffic to bypass the busy…City Centre. However, heavy congestion on this road is now holding the Worcestershire economy back and hampering efforts to improve the environment in the historic City Centre. Everyone agrees this road needs to be dual tracked from the motorway to the west of Worcester to enable strong economic growth to continue and allow the much needed new homes and employment sites to go ahead. Working together, clear plans and funding packages are now in place to complete significant sections of the route but the narrow single lane Carrington Bridge is proving to be a real bottleneck. Securing funding to tackle this issue is now the County’s number one transport and infrastructure priority.
It is vital to deliver the growth targets set out in the County’s 10 year Economic Plan and working together funding must be secured if we are to unlock the economic potential of this part of Britain whilst preserving the great quality of life and environment that Worcestershire already offers.”
As Councillor Linda Robinson, the newly elected leader of Wychavon District Council, put it,
“The Carrington bridge is an essential piece of infrastructure, being part of a main arterial route connecting much of South Worcestershire and the M5. It is a notorious bottleneck and currently causes considerable delays and frustration to residents, visitors and commercial users alike. Its deficiencies represent a very real negative impact on business investment. Improving accessibility reinforces the message that Worcestershire is open for business by addressing such key issues.”
My favourite quote of the lot, however, comes from the president of our chamber of commerce, Jim McBride—never knowingly underspoken—who said:
“We must proceed with the Southern Link Bridge as the current situation is intolerable. We have a dynamic growing industry, mainly in the high tech sector, being held back by our inability to build ONE bridge. It’s like having a fibre optic cable with an old fashioned copper section in the middle making the whole thing unworkable!”
You just need to come off the motorway and down to the bridge to see how ridiculous it is. We need to help our industry not hinder it.”
Amen to that.
Carrington bridge overlooks the battlefield of Worcester where, in 1651, Cromwell won the day for Parliament and stormed the River Severn with his bridge of boats. The same barrier that he overcame that day in a few hours remains a challenge centuries later for my constituents and many others beyond, but securing the investment will turn it from a barrier to growth into a pathway to prosperity. I commend the project to the Minister and I hope that he can support it for funding, whether as a pinch point, a local road or a vital strategic road. Most of all, it is a project that is essential to local growth.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner, for the first time.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) on securing this afternoon’s debate on the dualling of Worcester’s southern link and the Carrington bridge. I also thank him for the invitation to come and see things for myself. I have some knowledge of the area and have driven the roads that we are discussing, but my main reason to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency has often been related to New Road and watching the cricket. Nevertheless, at some point I hope to take him up on his offer.
My hon. Friend mentioned that people want to travel around the area and to experience the delights of the Malvern hills and western Worcestershire. I, too, want them to experience that, because the area is truly special. I liked the lovely link across the years with the story of his father opening the bridge in 1985 and my hon. Friend now working to make it even better.
I am aware that the topic has been the subject of previous parliamentary questions and ministerial correspondence. I praise my hon. Friend for continuing to highlight the importance of good transport infrastructure in building a strong economy and sustainable communities. I am aware of his excellent work over recent years to represent and promote Worcestershire as a whole. I hope to address some of his points.
Worcestershire is a marvellous county with a population of more than 500,000. It is served by a number of key transport connections, and today’s debate should be placed in that broader context, which I will highlight. The nationally important M5, M42, M50 and A46 all run through the county, as do the major local roads, the A449 and the A4440—our focus today. Rail also plays an important role in the county, with lines offering connections to Birmingham, Hereford, Bristol and London, via Oxford.
My hon. Friend emphasised the success of the Worcestershire economy, which has an entrepreneurial work force—that is certainly my experience—and the county is an attractive place in which to live and do business. As he said, the Worcestershire transport network is critical to the performance of its local economy. Reliable connectivity enables the residents of Worcestershire to have good access to jobs and local businesses to have good access to their markets.
The area, however, has a propensity to flood—it is famous for that—and I have been there during occasions of intense floods, seeing for myself the impact on local roads. My hon. Friend highlighted the floods of the winter of 2013-14, which was the wettest winter on record. We had flooding not only in Worcestershire, but in parts of the south-west, the south-east, and Yorkshire and the Humber—throughout the country. I remember the Prime Minister visiting my hon. Friend’s county one weekend in February during the flooding. I checked before the debate, and the River Severn had peaked at 5.3 metres, its highest level since summer ’07, and 100 or so properties in Worcestershire were flooded, with more than 40 of them in his constituency.
Resilience is an important issue for the local transport network. The floods caused a number of road closures and impacted on business. The Worcestershire County Council emergency response team did an impressive job, which was highlighted at the time by my hon. Friend. The Secretary of State for Transport has announced additional funding for highways authorities throughout the country—some extra support to tackle their resilience issues—and that saw more than £2 million allocated to Worcestershire County Council. My hon. Friend made the point about the importance of the reliability and resilience of the transport infrastructure.
One of the key things that I have to tackle and one of the key priorities of the Department for Transport is our road investment strategy. Basically, the Government are committed to a long-term economic plan, as we have detailed previously, and part of that is to deliver infrastructure investment—such investment in transport is key to continuing economic growth. As we all know, roads play an important part in our economy—a central role. Nearly every area of that economy would grind to a standstill if our road network did so. We require a high-performing road network to deliver the economy that we need. Our commitment in delivering that is the road investment strategy, which is a significant, £15 billion commitment that will see investment in 127 schemes across the road network between now and 2021.
This is a positive time for road investment, and that has implications for my hon. Friend’s constituency, because our strategy includes significant investment in Worcestershire, such as the introduction of smart motorways between junctions 4a and 6 on the M5. The work on that scheme is due to start later this year. When it is complete, we will see additional capacity through the use of the hard shoulder as an extra lane. We will also see the deployment of world-leading technology to make journey times more reliable and to reduce congestion on the network.
I am grateful for the investment that has been announced, which I welcomed earlier in my speech, in particular the fact that new surfaces are included, because that will help to make the motorway quieter for nearby residents. Over the years that has been a major concern for my constituents in Warndon Villages and for those of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire in Droitwich. Does the Minister accept that linking the extra capacity on the M5 to the west of the county will have significant economic benefits for the wider county economy?
I certainly accept that. Improving the strategic road network will have a knock-on effect on all the other arterial roads surrounding it. That is the point. A network does not just stop; it runs and flows—or at least it is meant to. I agree entirely with my hon. Friend.
Investment in local transport infrastructure such as the southern link road is vital to communities in the area, as recognised not just by my hon. Friend but by all local MPs. The strong economic benefits that the southern link road and Carrington bridge would bring are recognised by the LEP in its strategic economic plan. The A4440 Worcester southern link road is seen as an essential part of Worcester’s main road network, providing that important link between the M5 south and west to Worcester, Great Malvern and the wider Malvern Hills district, and on into Herefordshire and beyond. It is also an important bypass of the city centre and provides one of the two crossings of the Severn—the next crossing, at Upton, is a long way south. The road’s importance—its impact on the immediate area and on the remainder of the county—is entirely understood.
That is why, as my hon. Friend has highlighted, there has already been some investment in the road: the improvements to the Ketch roundabout and dualling of the A4440 towards Norton roundabout received funding as a major local transport scheme through the Worcester transport strategy. That strategy received a funding package of £14.2 million from the DFT and aims to improve the role of Worcester as the county’s principal economic hub through the delivery of a package of measures designed to improve sustainable transport and maximise access to economic activity in the city.
The elements of the southern link road package have already been detailed, and have made quite a difference. My hon. Friend highlighted how phases 1 to 3 have already brought improvement, but the image he gave of high-level fibre optics suddenly coming to an old copper connection brought home the importance of completing the scheme. I understand, however, that the work on that fibre-optic section—phases 1 and 2—has been progressing well and is due to finish this summer.
The Government recognise the need for improvement. That is not the issue here at all. The improvements on the A4440 south of Worcester have helped to support growth. The Government have put investment funding in place for those improvements. The importance of further investment was recognised in the expansion of the Worcestershire growth deal in January this year. We have confirmed that we will work with the county council, as the local highways authority, to determine how further stages of the work on the A4440 can be taken forward.
The A4440 is a key local road, and as such is the responsibility of the local highways authority, the county council. Any proposal for further improvements to the road is therefore a matter for the council. I know that the council recognises the complexity of the situation. The road is in a beautiful area of historic significance, as my hon. Friend highlighted, and crosses the Severn at its floodplain. The situation is sensitive, and I understand that feasibility work would need to be undertaken on the scheme. That is already under consideration.
I turn now to the point about clarity on funding streams. The Government have made a commitment to growth deals and to providing ongoing support to local enterprise partnerships to deliver jobs and growth. Funding for proposals such as the further development of the southern link road and the Carrington bridge is provided through the Government’s local growth fund and the growth deals agreed with LEPs. Any future growth deals would allow Worcestershire to put forward schemes that would make the biggest difference in the area, as has happened with previous deals, including the one for this road. It is therefore important that local MPs continue to work with the county council and the local enterprise partnership to maintain the scheme’s visibility as funding becomes available.
The Government recognise the power of transport to change lives and economies. It brings opportunity, tackles congestion, and improves connectivity and quality of life in an area. I have mentioned some of the ways in which the Government are already working to support transport infrastructure in Worcestershire. There are others. The local enterprise partnership was awarded £47 million in its growth deal last year, and a further £7.2 million in January. The local enterprise partnership has made a good start in delivering its growth deal and should be congratulated on both its strong governance and its excellent work in delivery. My hon. Friend gave a pithy quote from his LEP leader.
My hon. Friend has made a compelling case. He has clearly won local support. The quotes from the LEP and the council demonstrate that phases 1 to 3 have made a difference. I cannot say today, “I am bringing you a cheque from the Treasury”—I wish I could—but I can say that I think the scheme is a good one and that phase 4 would indeed complete the package. The Government will continue to invest in transport, in local growth deals and through LEPs. It is therefore important to make sure that this scheme is at the front of the funding queue—he has made a compelling case but it is a big queue. Historically, there has been under-investment in infrastructure, and the Government are trying hard to catch up. The infrastructure deficit almost matches the financial deficit that we are also tackling. The Government remain committed to investing in infrastructure and to excellent projects waiting for funding. I know that, with his customary tenacity as a champion for Worcester, he will keep working with neighbouring MPs to maintain the profile of the scheme. I will keep working to make sure that the Government deliver the best we can for the people of the city of Worcester and the rest of the fine county of Worcestershire.
Transport infrastructure is necessary, and the scheme is a good one. It is a question not of lack of will but of making sure that we have the cash. As the Government get and keep the economy moving, more and more cash is being invested in infrastructure. The issue is making sure that this scheme is at the top of the list locally, and my hon. Friend has done a fantastic job of making a compelling case for that today.
Question put and agreed to.