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A34 Safety

Volume 616: debated on Wednesday 26 October 2016

I beg to move,

That this House has considered safety on the A34.

I am grateful for the opportunity to hold this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. This is an important opportunity for me and my colleagues to describe the importance of improvements to the A34, which is a major arterial trunk road that runs from the south coast up through Hampshire, west Berkshire and Oxfordshire to the midlands. It is a vital economic route that is also used by many thousands of commuters—in fact, some 79,000 vehicles a day use the road.

May I put on record my gratitude to the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood), who as a Back Bencher campaigned vigorously on this issue and secured £50 million towards road improvements in the previous Parliament? She cannot be at the debate today, and as a Minister she would not be able to speak in it, but I know she will continue to work and lobby on this issue of importance to her constituents. My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), who also unfortunately cannot be with us today, has been extremely active in campaigning for improvements. Many of my hon. Friends and colleagues in the Chamber will no doubt wish to intervene or make remarks in the course of this short debate.

It will be useful for my right hon. Friend to note that the A34 runs through a bit of the north of my constituency, near the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood). My right hon. Friend can rely on me to help campaign for the changes he wants to see on the road, which I am sure he will come on to shortly.

I am grateful. My heart always lifts a little when I am on the section of road that runs through my hon. Friend’s constituency. Given his track record in working for his constituents I know that he, too, will play an important part in a campaign that, although I expect it to be long-running, we hope will lead to some significant improvements.

The central point of my remarks, and no doubt that of colleagues, is that the A34 is no longer fit for purpose. It is a dangerous road, and the delays and accidents that happen regularly on it are having a significant economic impact on one of the most economically productive areas of the country.

The road is dangerous: there were almost 2,000 accidents on the A34 between 2010 and 2014. On the stretch of road that runs between the M4 and the M40 through Oxfordshire and west Berkshire, 32 people have unfortunately been killed. In the past four months, there have been two fatal accidents and numerous injuries both serious and less serious. I am sad to say that one recent fatal accident claimed the lives of four people, including three children, and the most recent accident resulted in the tragic death of a three-year-old child. Action is therefore long overdue. The urgent need to improve road safety alone would justify a significant investment of money and time from the Department for Transport and Highways England.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this debate in what seems to be a sauna this morning. Will he acknowledge that while the statistics he outlined are alarming, they are even more alarming if we add in the accidents that take place at intersections with other roads? For instance, I am concerned about the junction of the A303 and the A34 at Bullington Cross, which by about 100 yards is not in my constituency but which is used nevertheless by my constituents. A significant number of accidents there are reported as A303 accidents but relate to the junction between the two roads and could be attributed to either road.

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. I focused solely on the accidents on the small section of the A34 that concerns me as the constituency MP, but he is quite right that if one takes the statistics along the whole of the A34 and for accidents attributed to other roads in close proximity, I am afraid the toll is higher. That again leads to the central point about the need for a clear strategic plan for the whole of the A34, to improve road safety.

Having started with the most important issue of keeping people safe on the A34, it is also important to highlight the economic impact that the delays and accidents are having on my constituency, and no doubt the whole of the region. For example, I am privileged to represent Harwell Campus, which is the one of the world’s leading scientific research centres. Its director, Angus Horner, wrote to me recently and said:

“I often witness dangerous conditions on A34…Immediate term safety improvements will be strongly supported by thousands of us at Harwell Campus…The A34 is operating far beyond its designed capacity and major infrastructure investment should be allocated right now to substantially improve its capacity.”

He continued:

“In a broader context, it is essential that the UK maximises the potential of its world leading knowledge economy…UK hotspots must be properly connected….Better vehicle flow along A34 would have a substantial positive impact at Harwell by facilitating even more collaboration with our neighbours at University of Oxford, plus tens of thousands of other regular research visitors and hundreds of companies who use A34 to access Harwell’s ideas and £2 billion of international labs.”

I also have the pleasure of representing Milton Park. On that business park there are 250 companies employing 9,500 people. The park is located right next to the A34, and its productivity is being severely affected by delays on the road. Its director, Philip Campbell, wrote to me and said that

“the A34 is central to maximising future success of this unique and vibrant area. A safe, free-flowing A34 is critical, for our area’s future growth and prosperity and for the resilience, health and wellbeing of residents.”

He signs off with a flourish:

“The A34 needs an A1 plan!”

Our local enterprise partnerships are closely involved in campaigning for improvements. Oxlep, the Oxfordshire LEP, and the Thames Valley Berkshire LEP have written a joint letter to me and my hon. Friends in which they say:

“As a key transport artery through our respective areas we believe it critically important to address the capacity issues of the A34 now; to help mitigate the serious and all too often tragic incidents that have taken place over the last five years and to support economic growth.”

My right hon. Friend is making a powerful case for the A34, and its economic impacts in particular. Does he agree that another impact— I am interested in whether he experiences this as well—is that when there is the slightest delay on the A34, the alternative routes, which are more rural in nature, become completely jammed with lorries trying to avoid the traffic? In my constituency those routes include the A343, which runs down from Highclere through Hurstbourne Tarrant to Andover.

That is an excellent point. All too often I have witnessed the A34 at a complete standstill. Sometimes I am lucky and I am witnessing that from a distance when I am not actually on the road. As my hon. Friend points out, one then witnesses the traffic overspill that naturally results from that, with large lorries and a lot of commuter traffic using rural roads that are clearly unfit for purpose and go through villages and small towns.

The Oxford local transport plan, which is part of the county council’s initiative to look at improving transport in the area, notes:

“The A34 is particularly congested and adversely affecting journey time reliability. This is particularly due to its high proportion of HGV movements, which account for above 20% of daily trips.”

The Road Haulage Association has written to say that it is

“constantly hearing complaints from members of deliveries failing booking times and the cost of delays with drivers running out of their legal driving and duty hours, due to delays on the A34.”

It cited the case of a small company whose 15 vehicles get stuck in traffic for 30 minutes every morning and evening. It loses about 4,000 man hours a year, which it has calculated costs about £150,000. With that comes an environmental cost, which is the third element that should enter our thinking when looking at improvements to the A34.

My interest in today’s debate is that I use the A34 a lot, and have done over the past five years, because I have an interest on the south coast. From my constituency in Coventry, it is one of the main routes via the M40 down to the south coast, especially Bournemouth and the surrounding areas. I have witnessed a lot of accidents and been in a lot of traffic jams on the A34. In the right hon. Gentleman’s opinion, is over-capacity the only reason why there are so many accidents?

Over-capacity is the reason why there are so many accidents. In this case, over-capacity means that the road itself—being a dual carriageway and not a motorway—does not have any capacity to deal with accidents. We have not so far had what we need, which is what the Government are now considering: a strategic plan for the road network for the whole area, particularly the links between Oxford and Cambridge, which will have a knock-on effect of improving the A34. If that strategic study goes ahead, it will have an impact.

It is important that I mention the work of the A34 Action Group, which is a group of my own and my hon. Friends’ concerned constituents, including those who have lost loved ones and people who regularly use the route to commute. It put forward a manifesto that encapsulates some of the small, immediate improvements that can be made, specifically focusing on safety. They include a full risk assessment of the road; evidence-based—that is important to emphasise—traffic-calming measures, such as average speed cameras or chevrons in the right places; and improved flow mechanisms, such as a crawler lane or, in particular parts of the A34, no-overtaking areas. We are not saying that there should be a blanket ban on lorries overtaking, but there are certain parts of the A34, in particular on steep inclines, where no-overtaking areas would be suitable. The suggested improvements also include refuge and rest areas and a hard shoulder. That goes to the point made by the hon. Member for Coventry North East (Colleen Fletcher), because when there is an accident on the A34 there is nowhere for anyone to go. If there were a hard shoulder where people could pull over or HGV drivers could rest, that would have a massive impact.

Improved junctions, which I know are of concern to my hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse)—we were discussing it earlier today—are also important. There has been a fantastic improvement at the junction with the M4, and my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon secured £50 million to help improve junctions at places such as Pear Tree, Hinksey and Botley, as well as East Ilsley in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury. What is needed is, for example, longer slip roads for easier access to and from the M4. The Botley and Pear Tree junctions have already been redesigned as a result of that funding. A driver information system to alert commuters to problems ahead, a number of CCTV cameras and other technology improvements, such as detection loops, are also being introduced with that funding.

Measures are under way, and we now have the Oxford-Cambridge expressway strategic study, which was published this summer. It calls for a “strong case” for “strategic transport interventions” and identifies the A34 as a key part of the jigsaw in improving east-west links between Oxford and Cambridge. It notes, as so many have done, that the problem is not going to go away and is simply going to get worse. There are 100,000 new homes planned for Oxfordshire in the next 15 years and a prediction of 85,000 jobs being created there over the next 10 or 20 years, so the strain on roads and infrastructure is simply going to increase.

I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister no doubt has a desk full of the many proposals to improve strategic road networks. Only today, I saw that a group of my colleagues from Kent had been to the Chancellor to seek improvements on the A2. I know that money is limited, but I urge my right hon. Friend the Minister to look at the case of the A34. In post-Brexit Britain, where we are looking for infrastructure investment and it is a matter of national debate, we need strategic infrastructure investment that has an immediate impact on our economic prospects. We could not find a better area in which to make improvements than the south-east around Oxfordshire, west Berkshire, and Hampshire, where we have such a concentration of innovative, future-looking companies that need that investment in order to keep growing.

I know that the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) wants to make some short remarks, so I will conclude. I look forward to his remarks and to hearing from the Minister. May I also put on record how grateful I am that he has agreed to meet me and colleagues at the end of November? I am also going to meet Highways England with colleagues in November to discuss this issue.

I congratulate my colleague, the right hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), on securing this debate and on his speech, and I thank him for providing time for me to make a brief contribution.

Although the A34 does not touch my constituency, it is used by thousands of my constituents and local businesses every day. It is, indeed, not fit for purpose and is dangerous, as the recent horrific record of traffic accidents shows. As the right hon. Gentleman said, the problems are the volume of traffic—in particular, heavy lorries on what is a national strategic route—limited capacity and the speed of vehicles. Like other Oxfordshire colleagues, I have been pressing for safety and capacity improvements and I, too, call for the measures that he mentioned today.

The problem we face is that the A34 is fulfilling a motorway role without motorway capacity or safety features. Last month, in response to my written questions, the Minister assured me of A34 scheme improvements between Chievely and the M40, including vehicle detection loops to inform electronic traffic signage, CCTV and driver information systems. Those would be welcome, as would distance separation chevrons, safer stopping places and further junction improvements. Perhaps the most significant thing the Minister told me, however, was that Highways England intends to start work by March 2020 and that his Department is not minded to carry out a further review of the route at this time. That simply is not good enough, and I urge him to think again. Measures need to be started now if the risk of further accidents is to be reduced, and there needs to be a major review of the whole route.

I fully support all the measures that the right hon. Gentleman has mentioned and think they would be extremely useful, but will they not come to naught unless the A34 is turned into a motorway?

That is the logical conclusion of what I said: it needs to be motorway standard to guarantee the safety and capacity that we all want to see. The problems are only going to get worse as the economy grows in the future. As well as a major review of the whole route, we need to look at options for getting traffic across from the A34 to the M40 south of Oxford, to address the additional problems caused by the A34 being both a strategic route to the midlands and the north and a local access road and Oxford bypass.

I feel sure that the Minister will want to reflect on the points made today. I am glad he has agreed to a meeting at the end of November, and I would very much like to be part of the delegation meeting him.

It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate, Mr Chope, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) on securing it. He is a doughty champion of his constituents and a great friend of mine.

As my right hon. Friend described, the A34 has been of concern for a considerable length of time. He was right to draw attention to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood), who raised and discussed this issue with me just this summer, following the tragedies that my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage drew to the Chamber’s attention. It is absolutely right, at the outset, that I offer my condolences and sympathies to all those affected by those dreadful events he has highlighted today. Sympathy matters, but support matters more. It is really important, for those people and others, that we show that support; I think Disraeli said that

“justice is truth in action.”—[Official Report, 11 February 1851; Vol. 114, c. 412.]

We need action, because it is just and right that we give proper consideration to the A34.

First, let me deal with a matter that the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) raised—I have lots of notes here but I will refer to them only fleetingly, because I do not want to lecture people who already know more than most about details relating to the A34. However, I want to say, following his remarks, that I will review safety on the A34. I will take a close look and commit to a study of safety on the road. I have been thinking about the issue for some time; discussing it with my officials, given that this has been a matter of detailed concern, as I say, for a considerable time; and I have reflected on representations that have been made to me by Members in this Chamber and others and feel that we now need to look at safety on the A34.

Secondly, I am absolutely committed to the meeting that has been mentioned twice. It needs to be with all interested parties—by that I mean not only all colleagues who have a direct involvement and interest in these matters because of their constituency responsibilities, but Highways England and my officials. This round-table meeting should involve a genuinely open-minded debate about what more can be done.

A series of steps can be taken, so let me rehearse those in detail. I have no doubt that further technological improvements that we can make to this road will make a difference. Having looked at the map of the area, I am particularly conscious of the problems in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage because of its topography. This is a relatively small road with hilly terrain, carrying a large number of HGVs, not least to and from the port of Southampton and the south coast. For that reason, it is sometimes a difficult road to navigate.

There may be further technological changes we can make. I am happy to write to hon. Members following this short debate to rehearse in detail some of the improvements that have been made. Many safety improvements have been made over the last five or six years by the Government, Highways England and prior to that, the Highways Agency, as hon. and right hon. Friends and Members know. However, we may be able to go still further with technological changes, by which I mean such things as interactive signage, gantries, and more information being provided to drivers that will compensate and mitigate some of the challenges associated with the topography that I described.

That being the first thing, the second thing was referred to by my right hon. Friend. We are, of course, looking at the Oxford-Cambridge expressway, which is part of the Government’s roads strategy. He made clear that the provisional study—the interim report—was published in August and he will know that the final report is due to be published later this year. Inevitably, that will include considerations about this stretch of road and will give us the opportunity to think through what more can be done in a reasonably short time. I take the point made by the right hon. Member for Oxford East about 2020 and know that hon. Members, local authorities and others will want more urgent work. When we have that report, I am prepared to look, on the back of the round-table discussions, at what more urgent work could be committed to as part of the road investment strategy phase 1 and consistent with the Oxford-Cambridge expressway report.

However, I want to go further. The call has been made for a still more strategic piece of work—my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) described this as “a motorway”—and I think we need to think that through. I suspect that would be part of the road investment strategy as it moves into its second and third phases, because it requires a different scale of work, but none the less, the significance of the road is not lost on me. We may be able to look in the road investment strategy as it moves forward at that still more fundamental piece of work on this stretch of road.

Safety and congestion are the two issues that have been raised in this debate, and they relate closely to each other. A road that is congested does not only cause inconvenience to the local traffic, and hon. and right hon. Members will know that we are committed to a number of local schemes in Oxford. We are working with the LEP, which I emphasise is absolutely at the heart of making representations on this matter, and alongside local authorities to ease congestion around Oxford. However, the safety issues are there and further south on the road, in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage and beyond. Looking at the separate but related issues of safety and congestion requires the lateral, innovative thinking that I have tried to illustrate and outline in this brief response.

In summary, we will continue to work with all the interested parties concerned and continue to invest in the local schemes that ease congestion around Oxford; I agree to the round-table, open-ended meeting of the kind that I described to seek views from all those who know and care about this road; I am happy to review safety on the road—there are criteria for that, but I have never been a man who is constrained by criteria imposed by others, as you know, Mr Chope. I am prepared to say that I have made the decision and announce now that I will institute that safety review. I am also prepared to look at further technological change to improve safety on the road; happy to consider what can be done in the road investment strategy in its first phase to mitigate some of the risks associated with this route; and prepared to consider what more strategic changes might be made at a later stage of the road investment strategy as it moves to phases 2 and 3.

I thank my right hon. Friend for drawing these matters to my attention once again. I hope he feels that the debate has been worthwhile in pressing a Minister who is not reluctant to use these kind of debates to reconsider Government thinking, and in pressing this Minister to take action necessary not only to avoid the tragedies that I mentioned, in amplifying my right hon. Friend’s words of sympathy at the outset, but to improve the wellbeing of the people in this part of our country.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.