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M6 Toll Road

Volume 608: debated on Tuesday 19 April 2016

I beg to move,

That this House has considered usage of the M6 toll road.

It is a great pleasure to serve once again under your chairmanship, Ms Vaz.

On 4 February, a day that will live in infamy for west midlands motorists, the M6 motorway was paralysed for more than 24 hours. Drivers looked for alternative routes, which meant significant knock-on effects on nearby roads such as the M42. The only road that was not heavily congested was the M6 toll.

Our country’s only toll motorway was originally designed as the Birmingham relief road, but it brings no relief, so it does not serve the function for which it was originally intended. High prices have driven ordinary motorists from the road, creating a rich person’s motorway, which is underutilised even in normal, everyday conditions.

During times of crisis, when we need a relief road the most, the contingency plans in place might have been deliberately designed to never be used. To open the toll to general traffic costs £300,000, an astonishing sum that represents, at best, a generous estimate of the cost of a day’s toll take—although the toll waiver might not even be needed for a full day, but just for a few short hours. Worse, the final decision to implement the plan, dubbed Operation Freeway, rests with civil servants, who are not accountable to local residents and cannot be fairly expected to make snap decisions about such huge sums of taxpayers’ money.

If the M6 toll is to serve the best interests of the west midlands and our economy, as it was built to do, we must see fundamental reform of how it operates, especially during gridlock and crises. There are several options to consider. We could move towards a system in which the toll road is free to use during periods of gridlock, with an annual fee paid to the operator to secure that service and access, rather than having a one-off, never-generated fee. Midland Expressway Limited needs its compensation, but at the moment it is in the worst of all worlds: it never gets the money anyway, because it is never triggered. Alternatively, an annual fee could purchase an allotment of days of access—five days during the year, for example. Only last night, the M6 northbound, at junction 6, I think, was again entirely gridlocked due to a spillage of diesel. In such cases, such an option could be triggered for a few short hours to bring genuine relief to the people of Birmingham.

Either way, we must vest the final authority to implement such measures in people who are properly accountable to local residents. The new West Midlands combined authority, under the excellent leadership of Councillor Bob Sleigh from Solihull, is the ideal institution to make such a decision. The WMCA’s leadership would be able to take a broader view of the best interests of residents and of the region than a Highways Agency official can do. For example, February’s gridlock is estimated to have cost the west midlands economy an eye-watering £40 million in such things as lost days, products not reaching their intended destinations and people not being able to turn up to work.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing the debate. My constituency is very close to the M6 toll and, indeed, to the M6. Does he agree that any cost is not only financial? When the M6 is blocked, the ensuing gridlock impacts on local communities, on places such as Brownhills, which has the A5 running through it. They can be adversely affected by the extra traffic, so we need to look at ways in which to mitigate that.

My hon. Friend makes a good point, as a strong advocate for her community. As I said at the start of my speech, there is the damage to arterial routes and the heavy congestion in surrounding areas, but emergency services and their access to those areas are also affected. The West Midlands police and crime commissioner is deeply concerned about what happened on 4 February, and has happened on other days. The PCC would like to see action and a fairer means by which we can gain access to the M6 toll when necessary.

It is unfair, however, to expect specialist public servants to take such considerations into account, especially at short notice. That is precisely why they are not the right people to be making those decisions.

We should also consider lowering the day-to-day cost of the M6 toll. When it opened in 2003, the standard fare for cars was only £2, compared with £5.50 today. The charge for vans has also more than doubled, from £5 to £11. The result is a very quiet road, which is an absolute pleasure to drive on for the minority prepared to pay for the privilege, but it does not serve the wider community as it should. In effect, motorists are presented with a game of chicken as they approach the turning for the M6 toll: do they take the risk? Do they go through Birmingham and all those junctions, or do they pay the money to take the M6 toll? I genuinely believe that if we lower the cost, more motorists will make the decision to take the M6 toll, and that alone will help congestion.

A report on the M6 toll was done for Alistair Darling, then the Secretary of State for Transport, soon after the road was opened. It concluded that the road was bringing relief and helping to decrease traffic in the M6 area. According to later reports, however, since the escalation in toll prices, relief has not taken place; a lot of the good work that was done has now been undone by the very excessive charges.

International comparisons are certainly not flattering. Depending on the time of day, the M6 toll charges a car driver between 14p and 20p per mile, compared with averages of 9.6p per mile in France, 8p in Italy and Spain, and only 6p in the world’s largest economy, the United States. It is no coincidence that those countries have a broad network of toll roads, whereas Britain has never built a second. If the operator is interested in the long-term future of road charging in this country, it is in its interests to work with us to make the M6 toll more accessible and attractive to motorists. That could even have an immediate benefit—an increase in traffic—which would be good news for Roadchef’s Norton Canes service station, which has always seemed quiet on the few occasions when I have stopped there.

Renewing support for the project might also allow us, once again, to take an optimistic view of the future of the M6 toll—for example, it could be extended to connect with the M54, as originally intended. Opening up the toll to more traffic will also have considerable benefits for motorists and the wider west midlands region: journey times will be cut; emissions will be reduced as congestion on the free roads is eased by the better distribution of traffic across the system; and better road access will open up the local economy and better connect west midlands businesses to suppliers and customers around the UK. If a day’s gridlock costs the local economy £40 million, the benefits of year-round smooth operation must be considerable indeed.

The system is in clear need of reform, which offers the Government a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate the strength and benefits of the devolution agenda. The new combined authority provides the ideal means to put that vital piece of regional infrastructure under democratic, accountable local control, which would not only lead to better management of the road, but be a concrete demonstration to residents of the benefits of the new arrangements and of our decentralisation agenda. Too many voters see the WMCA as just another layer of bureaucracy; they do not yet appreciate the important role it can play in promoting regional growth. If they see action on the M6 toll to ease congestion in the area, they would see a real benefit of the WMCA.

Other measures should also be considered. I have proposed elsewhere that the WMCA be given control of air passenger duty. Birmingham airport is an important employer in my constituency, and we must be allowed to maintain a level playing field for it and its counterparts in Scotland, where the First Minister has announced plans to scrap APD entirely. Control of the toll would be a positive first step. The Government have placed the northern powerhouse at the centre of their agenda, focusing on delivering greater autonomy and improved infrastructure to our cities and regions. There is now an excellent opportunity to put those principles into action in the west midlands engine. Empowering local leaders to fix the problems created by bureaucratic control and unlock the potential of our existing road network will benefit local residents and businesses, stimulate the regional economy, and make a powerful case for devolution.

I do not suggest that what I have outlined is a silver bullet and will somehow solve all congestion. I know that a lot of the traffic that goes on to the M6 gets off between junctions 6 and 8, an area not covered by the toll. However, if people are sitting in gridlock and can see a sign that says “M6 toll clear” but cannot get to it, that is a failing. I believe that the rich person’s motorway is a sign of failings in the transport system in the west midlands, and that by bringing some relief to the situation we can help the devolution agenda, save money for the economy, and promote growth and jobs.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Vaz—for the first time, I think. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) on securing the debate.

The motion relates to the usage of the M6 toll road, so I shall begin by reflecting on how it is used. The toll road is open to all traffic, and is priced according to vehicle type. Average traffic levels have recently been rising, and have reached about 50,000 vehicles a day, which is catching up with the volume experienced before the recession.

The current figures I have are about 48,000 to 50,000; the Minister is correct. However, that is still below the 72,000 a day that was originally envisaged when the toll road was built.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. He makes a good point, and he has made an important case today. He highlighted the cost to the west midlands economy of the terrible incident on 4 February, but what he said was also part of a wider case about how road investment opens up local economic development. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) cited the social impact of the incident on 4 February. The two aspects of the matter are aligned. Our road network is not just an economic tool; it is how our society travels—how people reach schools, workplaces and hospital appointments, and go to see family and friends. If we have a failure in our road network we see that in all aspects of our lives.

What happened on 4 February was a terrible incident for the west midlands, and it is important to debate it. It may be helpful if I give a little information about it. On that day, the M6 between junctions 5 and 6 was closed for 24 hours following a serious traffic accident, which sadly involved a fatality. As my hon. Friend knows, the Secretary of State and I are keen to explore whether more can be done to prevent such a degree of impact on road users and business in future. The recent event highlighted our expectation that our road network should be reliable and resilient. The issue is not only what alternatives there are should parts of the network be unavailable, but how quickly and effectively key organisations are able to respond to the circumstances. I think that the incident on 4 February showed that we have to review that, and work to improve the situation.

I shall explain the incident in more detail. The M6 northbound between junctions 5 and 6 was closed from 1.50 am on Thursday 4 February 2016 until 1.45 am on Friday 5 February owing to a collision involving two heavy goods vehicles and a car. As I mentioned, very sadly that resulted in one fatality. Extensive incident investigation work was carried out by the central motorway police group before Highways England could fully assess the damage to the carriageway. Once Highways England had access to the road it became evident that all four lanes of the carriageway—a section about 200 metres in length—required resurfacing repair work as a result of the large volume of diesel that had spilt on to the carriageway causing widespread damage to the road surface. The closure of that section of road resulted in inevitable disruption for road users and communities. My hon. Friends the Members for Solihull and for Aldridge-Brownhills discussed the impact in their constituencies, and many other areas were affected. In fact I was caught up in the traffic jams myself, and so was the Secretary of State. There was a big impact across the west midlands.

As hon. Members would expect, Highways England has diversion routes agreed with relevant local authorities to mitigate the impact of incidents on the road network. As my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull is aware, there is an agreement in place with Midland Expressway Ltd to make use of the M6 toll road in cases where there is an extreme event over and above that associated with a serious road traffic collision. The agreement is known as Operation Freeway and it enables tolls to be suspended for an agreed period of time—24 hours. As the M6 toll road is a commercial operation, suspension brings with it a fee of £300,000 excluding VAT per day, which is a significant cost. The arrangement is a little clumsy—it has never been used, despite the fact that the agreement has been in place a long time.

Highways England has criteria for deciding whether to activate Operation Freeway. The deciding factor is whether the road is likely to have to be closed for a number of days, rather than hours. After the event on 4 February, Highways England took the decision not to suspend the toll because the incident did not meet the criteria for activation: it was not seen to be an extreme event impacting the carriageway over and above what is associated with a serious road traffic collision.

I know my hon. Friend has his own ideas about how the west midlands could make better use of the M6 toll road, not only when there has been an incident but at times of heavy congestion. We all know that there are many periods when the M6 and M5 suffer from heavy congestion. I also note my hon. Friend’s concerns about the most appropriate way in which to take the decision whether to implement Operation Freeway. He has made important suggestions today, and we are due to meet—I think our meeting is only a few weeks away—to discuss that very issue. Of course there are a whole range of issues which we need to consider, including cost, policy and value for money. I look forward to the meeting, and it is clearly appropriate to review everything, in the light of the serious incident that occurred.

It may be helpful if I now talk about how local areas can shape the decisions that are made about them. If there is desire locally for specific schemes or improvements through local authority groups such as the West Midlands Combined Authority, there is a process to put forward ideas as part of the development of the second road investment strategy. As my hon. Friend knows, the Government agreed a devolution deal with the WMCA in November, in anticipation of its transition to a formal combined authority. The deal sets out the terms of a proposed agreement between the West Midlands Combined Authority shadow board and the Government to move forward with a radical devolution of funding, powers and responsibilities. In particular, it sets out the expectation that the Government and the WMCA will work together through the development of the second road investment strategy to examine options for the most effective way to facilitate the movement of goods and people, and manage congestion in the region on the strategic road network.

At this year’s Budget we launched the process for the second road investment strategy. Over the next couple of years, we will seek input from stakeholders on what the Government should fund during the period 2020 to 2025. We are one year into the first road investment strategy, as my hon. Friend knows. It is on budget and on schedule and has proved to be a success so far. As we develop and build on that, we have a secure stream of funding through road hypothecation—the reforms to vehicle excise duty—so we have visibility for many years ahead on road investment budgets.

As we develop the content of RIS 2, I want to ensure that we are able to take input from a much broader range of people. The core work preparing that will be the route strategies prepared by Highways England; they will be the basis for that work. However, I want people to be able to contribute on a local basis—certainly colleagues here or local authorities, combined authorities or local enterprise partnerships.

We should view our road investment strategy as a key facilitator of our longer-term economic growth, so over the next couple of years I want to ensure that we receive input from as many stakeholders as possible on what that scheme will look like. Of course, we already have significant commitments to the strategic road network in the west midlands in the current road investment strategy, which runs until 2020 and is indeed an investment. It is a step change for our country: this is the first time we have had a statutory road investment strategy. It commits £15 billion of funding for strategic roads. That is on a national basis, but £3 billion of that spending is within the midlands. It includes key investments such as rolling out smart motorways—smart motorways have increased capacity by bringing in all-lane running, either full time or part time—and upgrading key junctions such as the M6 junction 10 and the M42 junction 6.

I apologise for my late arrival. I have just spoken to my local council leader about junction 6 of the M42, which needs to be redesigned. Would my hon. Friend the Minister ensure that Highways England takes account of the master plans of the local authority; the local plan, which is for a garden city at that location; the fact that the interchange station for High Speed 2 is to be built at that location; and the fact that the airport has its own separate master plan? We have concerns about the lack of joined-up thinking in the redesign of that junction, which is failing to take account of other planning proposals.

My right hon. Friend has clearly had a most timely meeting with her local council leader and makes a really important point. I am very happy to give a commitment and ensure that Highways England discusses the proposals with the bodies that she has just mentioned. I will raise that with Highways England personally, so that commitment is very easily provided.

I have met council leaders in the area. They came down to express their concerns about the incident on 4 February and to ask for my support in terms of what can be done to bring people together to find solutions. I have talked to them about how collaboration or communication on a local basis needs to improve, but they are building on some success, and the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull made on the importance of local decisions and local capacity for decision making is building are completely true. I have also met the police and crime commissioner about that incident.

We are at the beginning of a process. We recognise that there has been under-investment in the road network across our country for years. We are addressing that with the first road investment strategy. We are building on that work with the second road investment strategy. I want as much local input as possible so that we can provide schemes that make a difference on a local basis. The incident on 4 February was not just a personal tragedy for the family who lost a loved one; it also highlighted the lack of resilience and capacity in the network around Birmingham and the fact that we have to think about all elements of that capacity, including the M6 toll road, as we plan both for resilience and for extra growth. I am happy to have such conversations, which have already begun, but we need to build on them. I am happy to work with everyone locally to make that happen.

I conclude by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull on securing this debate. Ensuring that we are making the best use of our network is an important issue that is worthy of debate, and he has my support on proceeding with the local issue. The Department and Highways England are investigating whether improvements can be made to respond better to incidents such as the one on the M6 on 4 February.

There is a real appetite locally for the Minister to visit the area to see how the loaded M42 and M6 easily snarl and how that relates to other transport infrastructure. He is the roads Minister, but the midlands motorway crossroad combines with Birmingham airport, the west coast main line, the M6 and the A45. We would be grateful if he paid a visit so that we can show him the situation first hand.

That is another commitment that I am happy to give. I would be delighted to visit the area to see the situation for myself. Seeing an area first hand helps to bring the issue home. I am familiar with the area—having been caught up in a traffic jam for many hours on 4 and 5 February, I saw even more of it than I normally might. I am happy to make that commitment and to work with colleagues, both here and locally, to improve the situation.

This is an important issue for the west midlands, and the serious incident highlighted the lack of resilience and capacity. We need to work together, with continued dialogue, to improve the situation for the future.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.