Skip to main content

Transport Infrastructure: York

Volume 614: debated on Tuesday 6 September 2016

I beg to move,

That this House has considered transport infrastructure in York.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth.

Appropriate and effective transport infrastructure is a fundamental requirement for the economic growth and success of every village, town and city across the country. However, York’s historical setting presents a unique challenge for transport infrastructure in the city. Its Roman foundations and medieval layout would certainly not be approved by today’s planning authorities, and traffic congestion in the centre will always be a difficult issue for the city to tackle.

In some ways, York is a victim of its own success. It is an attractive place to live and do business, sitting in the heart of Yorkshire just outside the A1(M) corridor with good links to London, Newcastle and Leeds. As York’s population has grown, its transport network has come under increasing strain. Sitting in my constituency is the A1237, which is known locally as York’s northern outer ring road. Some might call it other names, but I probably could not divulge them in this setting.

The road is in desperate need of dualling. It was built by North Yorkshire County Council back in the 1980s, and the single carriageway is now greatly over capacity, causing serious consequences not just for York but for Yorkshire and the north. The number of vehicles using the road has increased substantially over the past decade, and there has been a 10% increase in journeys on the road since 2012. There is no longer a peak period, as severe congestion persists throughout the entire day. The current average journey time from Hopgrove roundabout to Askham Bryan is more than 30 minutes, meaning that the A1237, which is a national speed limit road, has an average speed of less than 20 mph.

As an infrastructure development that was designed to reduce journey times and make villages to the north of York safer, the A1237 is no longer fit for purpose. Many drivers now choose to divert their journeys away from the road via the city centre or through outlying villages such as Haxby, Skelton and Strensall, and then on to the A64. Back in 2013, our then Prime Minister came to York Outer to visit Portakabin’s headquarters in Huntington, and experienced at first hand the “car park” on the A1237—those were his words, not mine.

Some might say that the congestion is just an inconvenience, but that would be to overlook the terrible impact that overloaded roads have on businesses and the wider economy. As journey and delivery times increase, so do costs, and there are knock-on effects when goods vehicles are persistently late. The impact of traffic on the A1237 on York is most evident at Clifton Moor business park, where many buildings are now sadly sitting vacant as businesses no longer see it as an attractive place to relocate to and shoppers are choosing to go elsewhere.

Simply put, the congestion on York’s outer ring road is acting as a noose on the city. It is choking growth and disincentivising inward investment. Having said that, York is still a great place to do business, and it is in a prime position to lead a regional economic surge at the heart of Yorkshire, but we cannot let poor infrastructure stand in the way of that great opportunity.

It must not be lost on anyone that the congestion issue on the A1237 has a wide-ranging regional impact beyond York. The road is a major east-west road for Yorkshire and serves journeys from the wider area, including the districts of Harrogate, Ryedale, Hambleton, Scarborough and East Yorkshire. There is also a significant amount of heavy goods traffic between Teesside and Teesport in the north and Hull and the wider Humberside area to the south. Much of that traffic comes along the A19 and bypasses York via the A1237. If we are to rebalance our economy to make it work for everyone, it must also work for Yorkshire and the north, and infrastructure investment in projects such as upgrading the A1237 is key to achieving that goal.

I have painted a rather grim picture of the current situation, and things will only get worse without future investment. City of York Council is currently consulting residents on York’s latest local plan, which allocates a considerable amount of land to housing developments to the north of the city and will only increase traffic pressure. York needs more housing, but it is vital that it has adequate transport infrastructure to accommodate those increases. The York Central teardrop site—one of Europe’s largest city centre brownfield sites at 72 hectares—will put further strain on the northern section of the ring road. In addition, the British Sugar site, which is a mere stone’s throw away from the A1237, will include more than 1,000 residential units. Failure to upgrade that key section of the road will burden our fantastic city centre with even more traffic congestion.

Back in the 2014 autumn statement, there was welcome news as the Government announced an investment of up to £250 million in upgrades to the A64 and the Hopgrove roundabout. The A64 loops around the southern side of York and is dualled, with grade separated junctions. The new investment will allow for works hopefully as far as Whitwell-on-the-Hill on the A64. That road is under the authority of Highways England, but surely we must take a wider and more strategic approach to infrastructure investment and examine where taxpayers’ money can be best spent.

Some 44,000 vehicles use the dualled section of the A64 south of York on a daily basis, compared with 35,000 vehicles using the York northern ring road. The average speed on the A64 is just over 50 mph, dwarfing the less than 20 mph that is achieved on the A1237. Many drivers now use the A64 as a way to simply avoid the northern ring road and save time. Upgrading the northern ring road would undoubtedly reduce the amount of traffic on the A64 and therefore cut the distances that motorists are travelling and the unnecessary extra emissions produced.

On the topic of emissions, the City of York Council has a robust programme to reduce carbon emissions and stimulate economic growth by influencing travel behaviour. That includes promoting walking, cycling and the use of public transport in the city, incentivising hybrid electric taxis and a growing number of electric charging points for vehicles in the city centre. York has one of the best and most successful park and ride facilities in the country. The four park and ride routes include a number of electric buses and have significantly reduced the total number of vehicles travelling into the city centre. However, although sustainable transport initiatives must continue, there is a limit to their effectiveness when the core transport network is insufficient. Sadly, the A1237 is the weak link that is causing a host of problems elsewhere in the city.

As I am sure the Minister is aware, the City of York Council has submitted a bid to the local major transport fund announced by the previous Chancellor in the 2016 comprehensive spending review. That investment allows local authorities to bid for funding for projects that sit beyond the reach of the local growth funding pots. Upgrading the A1237 is a great example of a transformative infrastructure project that has been an aspiration for far too long. The bid to the local majors fund has been listed as the York, North Yorkshire and East Riding local enterprise partnership’s No. 1 transport priority and has the full support of the Leeds City Region local enterprise partnership.

Funding is being sought to develop the business case for increasing capacity on the northern ring road. As I have outlined, the northern ring road is critical to York’s future success. Along with Clifton Moor Business Association, York and North Yorkshire chamber of commerce, Make it York and Transport for the North, I have submitted a letter of support to the bid.

Developing the business case for upgrading the A1237 to a dualled carriageway would complement the roundabout upgrades that have already been delivered, as well as the further upgrades planned to be completed by 2021 through the West Yorkshire transport fund. The initial upgrade will help to resolve some of the pinch point issues at the roundabouts, but it is effectively a sticking plaster over a much more serious problem that will only get worse.

Delivering a scheme of such magnitude clearly comes with significant cost. Dualling the A1237 between Copmanthorpe and the Hopgrove roundabout will have an estimated £142 million capital cost. Naturally, that is the scheme’s major hurdle, but the benefits of that work should not be underestimated. This is not just about making travel more convenient for local residents; it is about delivering the well-connected economy outlined as a key priority in the York, North Yorkshire and East Riding strategic economic plan.

Fast and reliable journey times between key centres are crucial to the region’s economic development and its attractiveness to UK and international markets. Tourism is incredibly important to York’s economy. The city hosted nearly 7 million visitors last year alone. In order to continue to attract visitors from across the UK and further afield to experience all that York has to offer, we must ensure that our transport network functions properly.

Of course, there are key transport infrastructure projects other than the dualling of the A1237 that are important to the city. Our north-south rail connection is strong, with journey times to King’s Cross being as little as one hour and 50 minutes. However, it is not acceptable that travelling from York to Manchester, a journey of just 70 miles, takes an hour and 25 minutes at best. Electrifying the TransPennine Express route will be incredibly important, with reduced journey times and increased overall capacity playing an integral part in that upgrade, which I welcome. We all know that the north-south divide provides a major challenge that we have to overcome. To ensure that we get economic growth right across the north, the Government must ensure that key infrastructure projects are delivered and that more budgets are devolved to regional decision makers. The arrival of High Speed 2 will make a difference to rail capacity, as well as reducing journey times. When the Government come to look more seriously at extending HS2 beyond Manchester and Leeds, as I fully expect they will and should do, as a local MP I will be shouting from the hilltops to ensure that York is not bypassed.

Finally, I ask the Minister for an update on the new stations fund. Haxby and Wigginton, with a population of more than 14,000 people, sits to the north of York in my constituency. The York to Scarborough line runs through Haxby, but its station has been disused for more than 80 years. The economic case for reopening the station is compelling, and a station would help to take cars off the York outer ring road, which is the primary subject of this debate. Is there still a fixed cost for local authorities to submit bids to the new stations fund, which is non-refundable if the bid is not successful? If so, does the Minister think the fixed cost might deter bids?

I hope that I have outlined to the Minister the real need for transport infrastructure upgrades in York and the north of England. I welcome him to his position. Will he look closely at the local majors bid made by City of York Council as a crucial step towards the dualling of the A1237? Dualling would allow the fantastic, historic city of York to thrive long into the future.

Benjamin Disraeli said:

“The greatest good you can do for another is not just to share your riches, but to reveal to him his own.”

During my brief speech I hope to reveal to my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) the riches that he has brought to this debate and, indeed, to all his work in advancing the interests of the people of York, particularly on the need for infrastructural investment to improve their wellbeing and their social and economic prospects. He is right that we need to think about such things strategically and, indeed, the Government’s infrastructural investments are founded on exactly that principle. I commend and congratulate him on securing this debate, which gives me the chance to say a word or two about that.

My hon. Friend is right that York is a wonderful ornament to our country and its history and, more than that, is a vibrant living place that does much not only for its inhabitants but for its area. My wife did her master’s degree at York University, and I have visited York many times. Indeed, I often holiday in East Yorkshire and North Yorkshire, particularly at Whitby, so I understand my hon. Friend’s point about the wider impact of transport around York and its effect on East Yorkshire and other parts of that important county.

The Government agree with my hon. Friend’s core assertion that work between local partners and national Government in delivering infrastructural investment—the kind that he recommended to us today—is critical. We are investing significantly in transport infrastructure, as he said, and we have brought forward major investment programmes for road, rail and local transport. To that end, we created Transport for the North precisely for the reason he highlighted—the necessity of a strategic approach. The aim of Transport for the North is to provide plans that support economic growth in the north, and I will return to that in my closing remarks.

I will dedicate a good part of my short, pithy but, I hope, none the less impressive speech to my hon. Friend’s particular concerns about the York outer ring road, which he described as a “noose” around the neck of the city. He is right that there are ongoing challenges in respect of that ring road. I support his desire for the roads around York to work effectively in order to minimise traffic disruption in the centre of the city, to ensure that people can get to where they need to go quickly and reliably, and to support the city’s continued growth.

My hon. Friend made an important point about housing development. Bluntly, the Government need to do more to co-ordinate policy across a range of elements of growth. The important relationship between infrastructural investment and population growth must be part of our thinking, as he has powerfully described in respect of his constituency. I acknowledge his point that we need to think laterally and strategically in those terms.

My hon. Friend acknowledged that York Council has already made improvements to the route by improving a number of roundabouts. He will know that the council also has plans in train to access funding from the West Yorkshire Plus transport fund to improve the remaining seven junctions on that outer ring road. It is a good example of central and local government combining, as I described a moment ago. As he made clear, the West Yorkshire Plus transport fund programme, which is worth up to £783 million over 30 years, is being funded from the Government’s local growth fund awards in July 2014.

City of York Council is currently developing the business case for its next plan of work and schemes, and will be taking it forward through the West Yorkshire approval process. Once funding is confirmed, York will start a programme of works to improve seven roundabouts in 2017, which the council expects to be completed in 2021-22. In addition, York Council has also made a bid to the Department’s large local majors scheme for development funding to build the case for dualling the route. That is a separate and significant piece of work.

We set up the scheme for exceptionally large and potentially transformative projects that, because they are too big to be taken forward through the normal local growth fund allocations, would otherwise not be funded. We have allocated £475 million in local growth fund money to a competitive scheme that will enable local enterprise partnerships to implement the best of those large schemes. It is a two-stage approach, as my hon. Friend will know. Recognising that transformative schemes can take significant time and resources to develop, we are enabling sponsors to apply for development costs for their business case and then, later, to apply for full scheme costs.

The criteria for the development funding are clear; I hope that this will be helpful to my hon. Friend. We are considering schemes that will help deliver area growth objectives, which were at the heart of his speech, and clear value for money, and that can produce an outline business case quickly but with robust and plausible time scales. The schemes must be deliverable and have strategic impact that can be delivered cost-effectively. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already announced funding for four schemes in the fast-track round of the competition.

The Department is now considering bids under the main round, including the bid from York. The winners will be announced around the time of the autumn statement later this year. I must say to my hon. Friend that the process is very competitive; I am sure that he imagined so anyway, but it is important for me to put it on record. The Department has received a significant number of bids, and of course we want to back the strongest proposals. As I am sure he will appreciate, I cannot comment further on York’s bid. None the less, he has highlighted the significance of the challenges associated with York and its infrastructure needs. In that respect, he has done a service to the House, his constituents and the city of which he is so proud.

We are investing record amounts in the strategic roads network. My hon. Friend will know that when I was in the Department for Transport previously, I took through the House the Infrastructure Act 2015, which gave life to the road investment strategy. We are committed as a Government to creating a better road network that works for drivers and the people who live in and around cities and communities such as York. In Yorkshire and the north-east, we are investing £1.4 billion in the strategic road network, delivering the biggest increase in capacity in the region since 1971. That includes an upgrade to the strategic roads serving York and North Yorkshire.

As my hon. Friend mentioned, the road investment strategy also announced a scheme to improve the A64 Hopgrove junction by upgrading the Hopgrove roundabout east of York. That scheme is set for delivery by the end of the second road investment strategy period of 2020 to 2025, and Highways England is currently conducting a feasibility study to identify options for upgrading the roundabout.

My hon. Friend referred to wider transport issues for the north. He will know that the Government remain committed to creating a northern powerhouse to rebalance our economy, which is why we created Transport for the North. We have given £200 million to resource that effort, providing both a long-term financial commitment and the leadership required to deliver that kind of vision. The north now has a single joined-up body to shape the investment that will transform transport across the north of England.

It would be remiss of me not to mention in the time available the significant investment that we are making in railways. The north of England rail infrastructure upgrade programme will transform rail travel in the region, delivering faster and more frequent rail services with benefits and better connections for many cities across the north by 2019. Our £1 billion investment programme includes a substantial electrification programme and other track, station and signalling improvements to improve capacity and the number of services, making journeys quicker and more reliable.

Between Manchester and York, for example, options are being developed to deliver an improvement in journey times of up to 15 minutes by the end of 2022. Passengers will benefit from additional infrastructure and other franchising investments. York travellers are already benefiting from the extra seats and services provided by the Virgin Trains east coast franchise awarded in 2014. I point out that I often travel on trains that originate in York, getting on the train at Peterborough and travelling to King’s Cross, so I know that service well and how important it is for the many who travel from York to London. Further proposed investment in that line will add benefits to travellers like my hon. Friend and me.

I am pleased to say that the Government and our agencies are working with York Council to develop the potential of York station as a major gateway to York, Yorkshire and the north. Successful developments at stations such as Birmingham New Street, Manchester Victoria and London King’s Cross have delivered transformational improvements to the communities that they serve. As I have responsibility across the Department for the built environment, I am determined to ensure that all station improvements are as good as the development at King’s Cross. We must ensure that they are not only ergonomically satisfactory but aesthetically of the highest order. As he will know, York station was announced to be part of the station regeneration vanguard in April this year.

My hon. Friend said a word or two about Haxby station, so it would also be remiss of me not to mention it briefly. He will know that the new round of the new stations fund was launched on 26 August, making £20 million available to promoters. Haxby bid in an earlier round of the fund, and I understand that it is likely to bid again. As he will also know, the criteria have been altered. Although I cannot comment on the outcome, I am keen—although I am not the Rail Minister as a rule, I take the opportunity to say this now, because for the purposes of this debate, I am—to open new stations. We should be ambitious about reopening stations where there is a strong business case for doing so. My hon. Friend has done a service in highlighting the case of Haxby station in this short debate.

As I say, my hon. Friend has done a service to the House, and in doing so, has given me the opportunity to restate this Government’s commitment to the kind of transformative investment and strategic approach that he has recommended to us. It is vital that this House and these debates inform Government thinking. It is not good enough for Ministers simply to parrot what was going to happen anyway; we must also think carefully about the arguments made by Members across this House and, where necessary, recalibrate and rethink policy approaches accordingly. That is precisely the approach that I have taken as Minister, and I shall continue to do so as a result of this useful contribution to our thinking.

I spoke earlier of Disraeli, and I will end with him too. He said:

“Man is not the creature of circumstances, circumstances are the creatures of men. We are free agents, and man is more powerful than matter.”

Let us gauge circumstances and create a better future with the power that men can bring to alter those circumstances where necessary.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.