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Road Infrastructure (Shropshire)

Volume 602: debated on Wednesday 18 November 2015

I beg to move,

That this House has considered road infrastructure in Shropshire.

It is a great pleasure to have this debate about road investment in Shropshire under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth.

Shrewsbury is growing rapidly and we are earmarked for a very large number of new homes. I see congestion in the town as the single biggest threat to its future prosperity. In the past 10 years, while I have been an MP, I have seen the levels of traffic in Shrewsbury increase significantly. A relatively small town, we have got to the stage where there is considerable congestion, which is starting to affect the ability of commuters not only to get around the town but to get across Shropshire by traversing the Shrewsbury area.

We have a ring road around Shrewsbury, but it is only three-quarters complete; the last quarter has never been finished. This morning, I spoke to one of my councillors, Councillor Peter Adams, and he told me that the idea of a north-west relief road was first mooted in 1948, and we have been going round and round the Wrekin, as we say in Shropshire, on this particular issue and putting forward proposals for the completion of the north-west relief road ever since. We were almost there and the council had the project “oven-ready”—ready for Government investment—but the financial crisis led to the reduction of investment in such projects and the work never went ahead. Now that the economy is picking up, I very much hope that the Government will take a real interest in the project.

In all my communications with the Secretary of State for Transport, he has led me to believe that a road of this kind would be the responsibility of the local enterprise partnership. It is for the LEP to prioritise as the body that has been tasked with negotiating with the Government on major infrastructure projects that will affect prosperity and employment in Shropshire. I understand this new relationship that the Government have devised, whereby funding and setting priorities will be, to some degree, under the jurisdiction of the LEP, and that is why I have engaged significantly with the LEP in my area during the last few years to highlight to it the priority that I attach to this project. However, I am very pleased that I have the opportunity today to flag it up with the Minister and I look forward to hearing from him about his understanding of where this project is and what additional support the Government can give to the LEP.

Interestingly the benefit-cost ratio, which is a Government statistical tool, of the proposed route is 5:4. A BCR of more than four is classified as very high, making the proposal very good value for money according to the Government’s own criteria. Indeed, the project matches the Government criteria perfectly; it meets the test for value for money that the Government themselves have set.

The proposed road would provide the missing river crossing between the western and northern parts of Shrewsbury, significantly reducing the traffic that at the moment crosses through the town centre unnecessarily, and reducing congestion on the town’s western and northern approaches. It would also slash journey times between the west and north of Shrewsbury by two thirds, from 19.1 minutes to just 6.6 minutes. I am sure the Minister can appreciate just how important the project is for me and Shrewsbury residents.

We have huge support from Shrewsbury Business Chamber, the local chamber of commerce, our local council, which is a unitary authority, and many residents associations. At a public meeting, I asked members of the Shrewsbury Town Centre Residents Association who was in favour of this road project and the people there overwhelmingly—about 95% of them—were very supportive. That is simply because they can see the congestion affecting people’s ability to get into Shrewsbury.

We really depend on visitors. Shrewsbury has more listed buildings than any other town in England. We trade on the fact that we are a very historic town and tourism is our No. 1 income generator. If people are struggling to get into Shrewsbury to appreciate its beauty and all it offers, including the unique shopping experience, they will bypass our town and go to other parts of Shropshire, or to Chester and beyond. That is why this issue is so critical to the prosperity of Shrewsbury, and indeed to the prosperity of Shropshire and mid-Wales.

As the Minister knows, the Oxon link road is the embryo of the north-west relief road. I have already discussed this road project with him and I look forward to hearing from him that the Oxon link road is live, and that the planning and finance for it are coming forward for this first chink, or first part, of the north-west relief road. I am very pleased about that, but I look forward to hearing from him today about his understanding of how that first part will lead to the completion of the whole road.

Of course, I also invite the Minister to come to Shrewsbury. If he can come on a Friday afternoon, that would be best, because everyone will be collecting their children and he can see the type of traffic mayhem that takes place in Shrewsbury. He can come and speak to us in my constituency, but he can also see that traffic mayhem. If he can do that, it would be wonderful.

The A5 is another very important road in my constituency and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson). The A5 is part of a trans-European network that runs from Holyhead all the way to Felixstowe. It is a major trans-European network, and the part of it that runs through Shropshire is the only part that does not have dualling. My right hon. Friend and I went to see the Secretary of State recently, to highlight our concerns about the number of accidents and deaths on this road. We had a very productive meeting and we specifically asked him to initiate work that will give us an understanding of the costings involved in dualling this stretch of the A5. We very much look forward to seeing the result of that work.

I will give way shortly.

The stretch of the A5 that runs north from Shrewsbury through north Shropshire links up with the A483, which goes into north Wales. As I have said, it is the last stretch of the trans-European transport network from Felixstowe to Holyhead to be dualled. It is inadequate for the volume of traffic coming from Ireland and the industrial areas of north-east Wales, and it is frequently the cause of congestion, disruption and danger. That is why I wanted to raise this issue with the Minister.

I give way to my right hon. Friend, who has been campaigning assiduously on this issue since he became an MP in 1997.

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend and neighbour for raising this very important issue, and for giving way to me. He is quite right to cite the terrible damage that the lack of a dual carriageway on this stretch of road has caused. Between 1991 and 2015, this single-track road between Shrewsbury and Chirk has killed 48 people. There have been 48 fatal casualties, as well as 308 serious casualties and 1,081 slight casualties.

My hon. Friend is quite right to cite the pressure of traffic. Traffic has increased by 33% since 1993, from 36,807 vehicles in a 24-hour period to 49,045 vehicles. The only solution to the problem is to dual the road. We had a most satisfactory and constructive meeting with the Secretary of State, who promised to come to Shrewsbury, and I endorse the invitation that my hon. Friend has made to the Minister today. I also ask the Minister to come and see how we can co-operate in the closest possible way with the road investment strategy 2.

Another neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies), is in Westminster Hall today. We also raised the issue of the A483 Pant to Llanymynech bypass, which is the subject of the UK’s longest-running bypass campaign, because 90% of the damage resulting from the lack of a bypass falls in my constituency whereas 90% of the benefits of the A483 go to Wales.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising those points. I would like the Minister to know that my constituents and I have followed just how doggedly and passionately my right hon. Friend has lobbied on the issue. Someone going from Shrewsbury to Oswestry, particularly during the summer months when many tourists are using the A5, would be shocked that this trans-European network route is so congested and is not dualled. Interestingly, someone trying to get on to the A5 from some Shropshire villages—I must get this point across—has to wait for a gap in the traffic. That is to get on to a trans-European highway, and that is causing some problems.

The A49 runs from Ludlow to Shrewsbury. In anticipation of this debate, I asked my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne) whether he wanted to contribute. He is not able to be here, but he stated that his constituency is the sixth largest in the country and does not have a single metre of dualling anywhere. That lack of dualling is prevalent throughout Shropshire. The A49 has a huge amount of freight traffic coming from Herefordshire, Gloucestershire and parts of Wales and going all the way past Shrewsbury. That traffic winds through a lot of small Salopian villages, and its speed on narrow roads is a significant cause of concern for many local residents. I have spent many years campaigning on pedestrian crossings in some of the small rural villages that the A49 runs through. We have had some wonderful successes, particularly in the village of Dorrington, where we have secured an important pedestrian crossing, but nevertheless more needs to be done on that road.

I have mentioned the north-west relief road, the A5 and the A49, and those are the roads I would like the Minister to focus on.

I simply want to raise some issues with Shropshire roads that my hon. Friend has probably only mentioned in passing. Shropshire is the gateway to mid-Wales, particularly in terms of transport, because alternative transport routes are absent. The cross-border scheme between Pant and Llanymynech on the A483 and the Middletown scheme on the A458 are crucial to the economy of Wales. I hope the Minister will allow me to join him when he comes for tea in Shrewsbury, so that I can explain how crucial those two developments are. The devolution complexities have made them far less likely to go ahead, and we need to liaise to ensure that they happen.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He will of course receive an invite to join us in Shrewsbury and put his case when the Minister visits our town.

I would like to say something positive to the Minister. The M54, which comes into Shropshire, has been incredibly well resurfaced. Highways Agency staff get a lot of flak when road building improvements take a long time, but they have worked tirelessly night and day on the M54, and the surface and the standard of the M54 are probably the best that I have known over the past 15 years. I pay tribute and extend my thanks to them. I would, however, like to see a reclassification of the road, because the M54 stops at the Wellington junction and continues as the A52 to Shrewsbury. Those last few miles represent a very short distance, and we would like them to be reclassified because that would put Shrewsbury on the motorway network. There are some differences, but the A52 looks almost identical to the motorway. The business community is passionate about that reclassification and wants to convey that to the Minister. When a company, particularly a foreign investor, is looking to invest in a factory or a new plant, they will always look at a map of the motorway network in the United Kingdom. For us not to be on that network puts us at a disadvantage, so I would like the Minister to look at that matter.

We have received pinch point funding of nearly £4 million to improve the Emstrey island and the Preston Boats island. Those are two massive roundabouts where the A5 comes into Shrewsbury, and the work carried out has been superb. I thank the Government for the investment.

Tourism, as I have already indicated, is the No. 1 income generator for Shrewsbury and Shropshire. We need to ensure that people find it as easy as possible to come to our beautiful county on holiday and to see Shrewsbury and other places of interest throughout the county. Working together as Salopian MPs, we have secured a direct train service from London to Shrewsbury, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire is trying to get an extension to north Shropshire. That link to London has been critical. The volume of traffic coming on Virgin Trains to Shrewsbury as a result of our campaign is superb, and Virgin is pleased with the initial results. We want to replicate what we have done on rail connectivity and investment for Shropshire with our roads system, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.

First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) on securing the debate. I am aware that he is a long-standing campaigner on transport issues in his county and constituency. I thank him for his invitation, which I would be delighted to take up. It sounds like it will be a jolly tea party. Shropshire is one of my favourite parts of our country, and I like the idea very much.

I hope to address some of the points that have been raised, but I start by setting out what we are already doing in the area. Shropshire has a resident population of more than 300,000 people. My hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) made a point about it being a gateway into mid-Wales, but it is also at the heart of the UK. The nationally important M54, A5, A49 and A458 run through the county, and the transport network provides vital access and connectivity for local people and businesses.

I am sure everyone is aware of this, but the Government are committed to a long-term economic plan and to delivering infrastructure investment, because, as has been made so compellingly clear in this debate, transport investment is key in driving economic growth. We are committed to delivering a step change in investment in transport infrastructure. That was made clear in the road investment strategy, which was announced last December. It is the biggest road investment programme since the 1970s, with £15 billion of investment across the motorway and A-road network by 2021, and it includes 127 major enhancements. As part of the strategy, we created five ring-fenced funds totalling £900 million to enable actions beyond Highways England’s business as usual. Some of the outcomes we expect Highways England to secure through the funds may be relevant for roads in and around Shropshire, including a safer, integrated and more accessible strategic road network for cyclists and vulnerable users.

Although no major Highways England schemes in the county are listed in the RIS, Shropshire may benefit from one scheme, which is the M54 to M6/M6 toll link road scheme. There have been other areas of investment in recent years, including smaller schemes. The Highways Agency’s national pinch point programme offered the benefits of improved safety, reduced congestion and the tackling of delays. My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham mentioned some of the schemes, but there have been five works along the A5, at Preston Boats, Edgebold, Emstrey, Mile End and Churncote. He was generous in his comments on the quality of the work by Highways England, and I will pass those kind comments back.

My right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham have been long-term campaigners for investment in the A5 and A483. I know they met my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport last month. The A5 provides an important strategic route that has implications not only for the local economy but on a broader, national basis. The points that have been made about its role in the tourism sector are beyond question. Safety issues on the road have been made clear, and safety is a key pillar of our road investment strategy.

We are developing a second road investment strategy to run directly after the current strategy finishes. Highways England is due to start the next round of route strategies, revisiting the entire English strategic road network to help inform the preparation of RIS2. Highways England will use the route strategies to identify current and future constraints on economic growth that the performance of the strategic road network potentially causes, and will identify how future delivery and investment plans can address them and unlock the opportunity for growth.

Where there are specific investment proposals, there will of course need to be a strong and clear business case to support them. As we develop RIS2, I want to see greater input from local economic bodies such as LEPs, councils or combined authorities. I also want to see nominations from colleagues here. I want the process to be wide. As we narrow down the filter, we will look at all the requests we have for capital and then come up with a clear plan to run smoothly from this road investment strategy into the next. The aim is to have continuity of delivery and to break out of the stop-start approach to investment in transport, especially roads, which has held our country back for a long time. I will be happy to work alongside colleagues from all over the country to help develop schemes for consideration in the second road investment strategy. The points that have been made about how we can unlock economic development and improve safety are key criteria that will be used in our assessment for the second road investment strategy.

Highways England plans to publish route strategies by the end of 2016-17. I am keen that we use the data so that colleagues, LEPs, combined authorities or whoever it might be can contribute. I will certainly ensure that the reclassification that has been requested will be considered as part of that process as well.

I am acutely aware of the importance of local roads, infrastructure and transport to local communities. They are of course the responsibility of the local highways authority, Shropshire Council. 1 know that the condition of local roads is of concern to my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham, but the Government are taking action and providing the tools and funding to help local highways authorities, including Shropshire, maintain the roads for which they are responsible.

Shropshire is receiving more than £86 million to help fix and maintain the local highway assets that it is responsible for between now and 2021. It can also receive up to a further £10.5 million, depending on where it is within the highways maintenance incentive element that is being introduced next year. That funding is intended to incentivise authorities to take proactive management of their assets, understand their assets and encourage collaboration, and to ensure that they are spending taxpayers’ money in the most efficient manner possible.

I have already mentioned some of the ways in which the Government are investing in Shropshire, but there are others. At a local level, The Marches local enterprise partnership was awarded £75.3 million in the growth deal in July last year and a further £7.7 million in January this year. That funding will support important transport schemes such as the Shrewsbury integrated transport package.

My hon. Friend explained his support for a new relief road in Shrewsbury. The Oxon link road is in its first phase. That £12 million scheme is under way, with a £4 million contribution from the Department for Transport. The local growth fund is the primary funding route for Government funding of local transport infrastructure schemes. Following the spending review next week, we will know a little more about that, but he was absolutely right to raise the issue with the local enterprise partnership, which will be the vehicle for the decision making. We will provide support, but it will be a local decision. Having looked at the proposals on a map—I will see them at first hand when I come to visit—I can see much merit in them. It is quite a difficult scheme, with river crossings and railways, so it is not straightforward to deliver the scheme. However, the significant local support is positive.

It might be worth contacting Midlands Connect, the potential sub-national transport body. That is not a particularly catchy phrase—but such bodies are effectively combined new bodies that will decide local transport strategies and develop transport plans for their areas. A new clause has been added to the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, which is progressing through the House at the moment, to put the sub-national transport bodies on a statutory basis. They will set priorities for transport investment and will be big bodies. This is not about taking powers away from highways authorities—they will be left intact—but about decision-making stuff that is currently handled in Whitehall being handled locally. Contact with Midlands Connect will be very important in assessing transport priorities.

Midlands Connect has a £5 million Government grant to help it develop a midlands-wide transport strategy. The opportunity for the midlands to speak to Government with one voice and to make transport planning on a local basis is a huge opportunity. I expect transport bodies to develop across the country. Transport for the North will be the first, but it is already acting in a voluntary capacity. Putting such bodies on a statutory basis will increase their powers and give everybody the chance to plan on a much longer-term basis. Working with the LEP and with Midlands Connect is the way forward in establishing transport need in the area. I will make sure that Highways England is aware of the work that Midlands Connect is doing.

The debate has been helpful and constructive. I hope I have made it clear that the Government are committed to modernising and investing in transport infrastructure across the country, most certainly within Shropshire, as a key part of our long-term economic plan. My right hon. and hon. Friends have made compelling cases for investment in their area, and the fact that we have significant local support and that progress has been made in developing plans is an encouraging basis from which to build. I look forward to working with colleagues and helping to develop business cases.

It is in the second road investment strategy that the opportunity to make a big step change on key strategic roads will lie. That is where the opportunity and the budget will lie. We will launch the process for the second road investment strategy within weeks, and I very much look forward to working with colleagues on that.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.