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South Middlesbrough: Traffic Congestion

Volume 632: debated on Wednesday 6 December 2017

I beg to move,

That this House has considered traffic congestion in south Middlesbrough.

It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to debate the Marton crawl. Contrary to what people might think, at the time of year when “Strictly Come Dancing” is all over the news, that is not our local equivalent of the Lambeth walk or the Harlem shake. It is the name that has been awarded over decades to the two-mile stretch of the A172 that runs due south from James Cook University Hospital to the top of Dixons Bank in Marton, Middlesbrough. It comprises Marton Road, Stokesley Road and Dixons Bank, and is the traffic bottleneck to end all bottlenecks. It is the source of misery for thousands of my constituents every day.

The A172 is the principal route in and out of Middlesbrough town centre from the south of the town, and it serves almost all the wards in the Middlesbrough South section of my constituency—Nunthorpe, Marton West, Marton East, Stainton and Thornton, Hemlington, Ladgate and Coulby Newham, as well as the small towns and villages of East Cleveland, for which Middlesbrough is the nearest urban centre, and the place where many residents work. The route is also used by people coming in from places such as Great Ayton and Stokesley, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak), where the same logic applies.

I propose to take the Minister on a virtual journey along the Marton crawl, so that he can picture the situation for himself. The A172 is largely a single-track road, with some short exceptions where it widens to two lanes. Heading out of town the congestion really starts to bite outside the excellent James Cook Hospital. That is a 1,024-bed major tertiary referral hospital, which houses the regional major trauma centre. As can be imagined, it is a scene of well-nigh constant activity, with ambulances racing to and from A&E and thousands of vehicles carrying staff, patients and visitors to and from the car parks. Middlesbrough Council estimates that approximately a quarter of all the traffic on the Marton crawl relates to the hospital in some way. The junction where cars pull in and out of the hospital site is the first point where traffic starts to build up, and the second follows a few hundred metres on, where the A172 crosses the east-west axis of Ladgate Lane.

After passing over that junction, the road runs up the side of the busy Stewart Park, the treasured green space that houses the Captain Cook Birthplace Museum and the exciting new Askham Bryan College, which I opened earlier this autumn. By that point the traffic is properly nose to tail. I know it well, because I grew up just beyond Stewart Park on the Grove, in Marton. Since 1984 I have spent more time sitting in that section of the crawl than I have any wish to think about. Passing Marton cricket club on the right, traffic next comes to the old Marton hotel and country club, which, sadly, closed in October.

I will stop the metaphorical car here, and get out for a moment. The country club site is a big one; the hotel was large and sprawling, and accompanied by a sizeable car and coach park. It would be a prime target for housing developers. I want to repeat here what I told Middlesbrough Council in a letter last month: that it would be unthinkable for new homes there to be approved until the Marton crawl is resolved. New houses are the last thing that residents want at the country club site, and should any such plans be put forward I will oppose them fiercely. One of the main reasons is that the moment someone leaves the country club, they hit the slip road on to the main dual carriageway running out to the coast and Teesport, the A174. It is an immensely busy interchange, particularly at rush hour, and cars often back up right down the slip road as they attempt to get on to the A172 and the crawl itself. The fact that vehicles sometimes end up tailing back almost on to the Parkway, a 70-mph road, is a safety risk and suggests how congested the Marton crawl is at that point.

At that point, a journey may well have taken plenty long enough, but the worst pinch point is yet to come. It comes in the form of Captain Cook Primary School and the adjacent Marton Shops, a 1960s shopping parade that houses lots of well loved local stores. Traffic parking for the school drop-off and pick-up, and queuing to enter the shops, forms a huge blockage serving to inflame the entire route. Once that is escaped, the final leg of the crawl winds up Dixons Bank to the A172’s crossroads with Stainton Way in front of the popular Southern Cross pub. That junction was redesigned, badly, a few years ago, to replace the existing roundabout. The roundabout seemed to allow traffic to move more freely. The current lights, with only one lane heading south, are not helping the situation. Only once someone is over the crossroads do they escape, out towards the countryside. However, of course they know that they will face the same set of problems in reverse when they head back into Middlesbrough.

That is the reason why I have campaigned since before my election for action to be taken to tackle the Marton crawl. Local people agree. This summer I received more than 800 replies, representing more than 1,000 people, to the survey I ran on how the crawl affects their lives. More than half of those responding said they spend up to 20 minutes on a typical day caught in the crawl, and a third said they spend half an hour or more. My constituent Anthony Hopson used a powerful article in the Evening Gazette to describe a particularly nightmarish journey in September:

“As a resident of Marton I am well used to the misery of the Marton crawl…I caught an early morning bus from the Southern Cross into Middlesbrough; the bus that was already 10 minutes late…took 30 minutes to travel the length of one bus stop from the Southern Cross to Marton Shops and another 30 minutes to get to James Cook Hospital.

In all a journey scheduled to take about 20 minutes lasted well over an hour and 20 minutes”.

Mr Hopson continued:

“I believe one lady was due at Middlesbrough Court at 8.45am. Had the bus been on time she would have been half an hour early. Instead she was at least half an hour late.

A gentleman was so worried that he photographed the queue of traffic in front of us to show his employer.

The misery of bus passengers and the many hundreds of car drivers…and the loss of productivity can only be imagined.”

He commented:

“It would be interesting to know the level of air pollution along Marton Road—where there are two primary schools, at least one care home and our major hospital—due to the never-ending stop start traffic.”

Mr Hopson speaks for many of us.

The frustration that people feel is so great because the problem has been developing for such a long time. A bypass scheme, known locally as the “Marton motorway”, was first mooted as far back as the 1960s, shortly after my grandparents moved to Middlesbrough. The route was proposed to run parallel to the railway from Longlands to Swans Corner in Nunthorpe, spanning land that falls within both the Middlesbrough and Redcar and Cleveland council areas. It was never developed and the Nunthorpe end of it has recently been rendered undeliverable by the building of new homes. That amounts to an unforgivable multigenerational failure of town planning by two councils, characterised by the inability to find a common way forward in the interest of local people and a lack of political willpower to drive a solution through.

In 2002, Middlesbrough’s controversial then Mayor, Ray Mallon, announced that he would solve the problem—and how could Robocop fall short?—but he was never able to deliver on that promise. Many people doubt that the Marton crawl will ever, or can ever, be gripped. After so many decades and so many false dawns, I understand why. The problem is worsening every year because so much new housing is being added in the south of Middlesbrough. It has long been seen as a very attractive place to live, with easy access to the beautiful north Yorkshire and east Cleveland countryside. I should declare an interest here in that my family and I are house-hunting in Nunthorpe at the moment—new developments have been added at an extraordinary rate in recent years.

I will be clear: those new developments are largely very handsome and bring much-needed council tax revenue into the town. However, in their pursuit of additional council tax, both my local councils, particularly Middlesbrough, have essentially ignored the impact of all that new housing on our local services and, most seriously, on our road network. I know that part of Middlesbrough better than I know almost anywhere in the world, and I can state definitively that the traffic has never been worse in my lifetime than it is today. That blind approach to permitting development regardless of the consequences is irresponsible and must stop until our roads are fit for purpose.

With all that in mind, it is beyond timely that the Government have announced their new £1 billion-a-year fund to improve or replace A roads across England. I warmly welcome the announcement, just as I welcome the word that the Secretary of State will be visiting my constituency on Friday to see the problem for himself. The departmental and ministerial team could not have been more helpful in addressing the Marton crawl, and I want the record to show how much their support is appreciated, not only by me, but by thousands of people in Middlesbrough.

While it is right that the Government are committed to delivering major transport projects of transformational national significance, great economic and social benefits can also be unlocked by resolving local road problems, and Ministers understand that. I would be grateful if the Minister, in his reply, would set out when applications to the new fund will open, what criteria will be used to assess their merits, what information local authorities will be asked to supply and when applicants will find out whether they have been successful. I would also appreciate it if he would agree to meet me and a delegation from Middlesbrough Council in the new year, so they can set out the plans in detail.

Those plans are in the process of being finalised. I am grateful to the officers of the council for the hard work they are devoting to drawing them up, just as I am encouraged by the way in which the council’s political leadership is now working with me on a cross-party basis to promote them. The plans include a series of redesigned junctions, as well as a new relief road from the Longlands roundabout to Ladgate Lane, which will cut out a key stretch of the crawl past the hospital and allow a second point of access to the rear of the hospital complex, which I believe will make a great deal of sense.

It is important that those plans carry the maximum level of community support. We will only have one shot at getting this right. Quite reasonably, it is an issue that arouses strong feelings, particularly where planning is concerned. I want to thank everybody who joined me at the packed Marton West Community Council a few weeks ago, and I know there will be a large turnout at the meeting this Friday night at Nunthorpe Methodist church, where I will provide an update on the latest news.

One of the key debates is over the planned redesign of the Southern Cross junction, the first element of reform proposals that has been brought forward for public consultation. Concerns have been raised about aspects of those plans, in particular whether they will simply displace some of the current traffic congestion into Coulby Newham, and whether homes on Dixons Bank will be blighted by access difficulties or by the removal of trees screening properties where the road will be widened.

I pay tribute to Marton West councillor Chris Hobson, who is chairing the Marton crawl steering group. Together with other local councillors, she is providing a strong voice for those affected by the proposed changes. I stand ready to raise issues with the council, and I want a solution that recognises the legitimate concerns of affected residents. With that in mind, I emphasise to Middlesbrough Council that, in the words of our EU negotiations, “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”. Proposals should not be brought forward piecemeal, but as part of an overarching solution that can be presented to the Middlesbrough public and the Government in turn. Only if the Council brings forward a package in the round can we assess properly how the different component parts will impact the Marton crawl and interact with each other.

This is a good chance to emphasise that I believe public transport should form an integrated part of the solution. That obviously includes buses, but it is also well worth considering a park-and-ride scheme in conjunction with Northern Rail, given that the railway runs right through south Middlesbrough on its way to the main train station. Middlesbrough is unusual in being an urban conurbation where commuter and light rail is used so comparatively little. An imaginative solution would find a way forward. That would require co-operation across the local authority boundary into Redcar and Cleveland, which would be the only viable site for a park and ride, but the prize seems well worth seeking and I am ready to play my part in delivering it.

This debate has been a welcome opportunity to talk about the situation in Middlesbrough, and I am grateful for the opportunity to bring it to Parliament. My constituents have been waiting almost 50 years for a comprehensive package of improvements to be delivered. The Government’s new fund represents a suitably golden opportunity to prove that Ministers are listening, and that this Government will act where so many others have only talked. Working together with both central and local government, I am determined to do everything I can to mitigate the Marton crawl, strengthen my home town’s economy and make life a little bit easier for so many local people. If politics is the art of the possible, those goals seem distinctly achievable, and few matter more to me.

I look forward to hearing the Minister’s reply, and hope to have the opportunity to sit down with him and his officials again in the new year.

What a delight it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I want to place it on the record that I am an admirer of my right hon. Friend, or rather my hon. Friend—he is not yet right hon., but I am sure it is only a matter of time. It is wonderful to see him as—I think I am right in saying—the first Conservative Member of Parliament ever in his constituency, and the first for a long time in Middlesbrough. It is also a delight to have him speak today with the intelligence, energy and advocacy he has brought to his job. I congratulate him on that and on the powerful speech he has made.

It is a slight shame, if I may say so, that there are no Opposition Members here in this debate, no other Members of Parliament for the region and no one from the Opposition Front Bench. These are locally important issues, and my hon. Friend’s speech speaks powerfully not just to his constituency, but to the needs of the city and region as a whole. I congratulate him on that, and I think his words deserve a wider hearing. I am sure they get a wider hearing in his own council, neighbouring councils and the combined authorities, but they deserve a wider hearing from his fellow MPs.

My hon. Friend has been tireless in raising awareness of the Marton crawl, and I know he will be discussing it with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State when he visits the Tees Valley on Friday, as part of a properly choreographed process of putting the matter on the Government’s radar screen. I would also be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and a delegation of local councillors and officials in the new year, so that we can discuss some of the propositions he has made today, some of the schemes the Government are bringing forward and how those things can be brought together.

Transport, as my hon. Friend knows, is enormously valuable not merely to the Tees Valley, but to the whole of the north and the country as a whole. It is an important priority of this Government, and we agree with local partners that good transport infrastructure is essential to economic growth and social development. That is why we are investing so heavily in transport infrastructure across the north, with precisely that goal of opening up bottlenecks and delivering sustained economic growth. I hope, just as my hon. Friend gave a virtual tour of his constituency with regard to the Marton crawl, I may be allowed to give a virtual tour of Government policy in this area before looking at specific ways in which we may be able to help him in his constituency.

The Government are committed to creating a northern powerhouse, rebalancing the economy and supporting the north in its economic and transport aspirations. That is part of the long-term goals we have set ourselves, and it is one that is widely shared across the country, certainly across the north of England. We are investing £13 billion in transport in the north precisely to advance that agenda and to connect the region, so that there can be greater pooling of strength and greater economic development.

To that end, we have created Transport for the North to develop and drive forward the transport plans that are central to local needs, and we are taking legislation through Parliament, as my hon. Friend will be aware, that should see Transport for the North established as the first of the statutory sub-national transport bodies from 1 April 2018, with a key role in advising Government on the north’s priorities for rail and road investment.

The Tees Valley is a key part of the northern powerhouse and has a major contribution to make in building a stronger economy. It is a region of 660,000 people, a renowned industrial centre with major global companies such as ConocoPhillips, Huntsman, Mitsubishi and others operating there. Of course, through the devolution deal, we now have Ben Houchen in place as the first directly elected Mayor of Tees Valley, with more autonomy and control to drive forward the economic transformation as a whole that the area needs.

Getting the right road infrastructure in place will be a crucial part of that transformation. I am taking another step in my virtual tour, as we zero in on the road transport needs of the local economy. That is why the Government are investing record amounts of money in improving and maintaining highways across the country, to help motorists. That includes £15 billion on our strategic road network and, crucially, £5 billion for local schemes through the local growth fund historically. That is designed to improve growth, support communities and the wider economy and inhibit the effects of the congestion that comes with economic development.

Much of that funding is not ring-fenced, and therefore it is for local authorities to determine how best to use it, based on their needs and priorities. In the current spending review period, we have allocated a total of £6.1 billion to local highways maintenance between 2015 and 2021, and £1.5 billion through the integrated transport block for capital investment in smaller transport improvement projects. For the Tees Valley, that funding is worth about £14 million a year. As it forms part of the combined authority’s single capital pot agreed in the devolution deal, there is flexibility to use the funding in the most effective way to meet the area’s needs. I am sure that the Mayor and councils will reflect on my hon. Friend’s speech as they think about the different pots of money they can bring together to create an integrated plan, of which he has so eloquently spoken.

The Government have also supported transport improvements through local growth funding provided to the Tees Valley local enterprise partnership, through the three growth deals. That includes such projects as providing access to the Central Park enterprise zone in Darlington, making improvements to the Teesside Park and A66 interchange, and dualling Ingleby Way and Myton Way, with further schemes in development.

The Government have recognised the importance of good connectivity and accessibility to improving productivity by providing additional funding through the national productivity investment fund, for all the reasons we have described. The first £185 million of that fund was allocated to local highway authorities by formula in the present financial year, so that work on the ground could be started quickly. Within Tees Valley, it was agreed that the funding would be used to improve the area’s key route network, by delivering local interventions on the A66 and its connecting routes to improve the strategic connection between the A1(M) and Teesport. The Government allocated a further £244 million through a competitive bidding round. In Tees Valley, that has supported three schemes, with funding of more than £8 million, including £3 million to Middlesbrough Council for the A66 and A171 cargo fleet roundabout scheme to improve access to the port, and £2 million for Redcar and Cleveland Council to remove a congestion bottleneck at the A171 Swans Corner roundabout in my hon. Friend’s constituency.

The Government recognise that local areas can have strategic priorities that require funding beyond the scope of their local growth fund allocations to deliver. We are getting closer to the nub—the central roundabout, if I can put it that way—of my hon. Friend’s speech. That is why we set up our large local majors programme to enable local areas to develop and bring forward proposals for very large schemes. In Tees Valley, we have provided development funding for the combined authority to work up business cases for two of its strategic road schemes: the north Darlington bypass, to provide a better route to the A1 and release land for housing; and a second Tees crossing, to relieve congestion on both the A19 and the local road network. Those are likely to be very large schemes, so we will need to see rigorous business cases—I emphasise that they need to be rigorous—from the combined authority before considering whether they are able to proceed.

It is not just local roads that require investment. We are taking action on the strategic road network as well. The present road investment strategy outlines how we are investing in the strategic road network until 2021. In total, we are investing something like £15 billion in more than 100 major schemes, and that significant investment is being used to develop major new schemes, as well as to support asset renewal and maintenance.

We are taking a much longer-term approach to the acknowledgment, understanding and maintenance of our assets, and that is reflected in all the investments we make. Within Highways England’s Yorkshire and north-east area, which includes the Tees Valley, we are investing £1.4 billion in new road schemes. That includes a major new scheme on the A19 in the Tees Valley—the Norton to Wynyard scheme—that will benefit local residents and businesses by relieving congestion and improving journey times. Both carriageways will be widened to provide three traffic lanes, and the replacement of the road surface is designed to reduce road traffic noise. The scheme will promote local growth and allow new developments to be brought forward in the Tees Valley area. The scheme will complement two earlier Highways Agency pinch-point schemes at the Wolviston interchange and the A174 Parkway junction on the A19, and will smooth the way along the entire route. The Norton to Wynyard scheme is currently under development and is still on track to meet the committed start-of-works date of March 2020.

As my hon. Friend said, a very important part of this is sustainable and public transport. That needs to be a crucial part of the way that not just Middlesbrough but all our cities and potentially rural areas think about the change to a genuinely multi-modal transport system of the 21st century. I want to talk about that in some more detail and the priority we place on encouraging people to get out of their cars and take the train or bus, and to cycle or walk.

I was pleased to learn that the Department has provided funding for the new station at James Cook Hospital on the Marton Road, as my hon. Friend acknowledged, which opened in 2015. We also provided £37 million towards the Tees Valley bus network scheme—an innovative package of bus lanes, junction improvements and improved passenger information systems that was also completed in 2015. More recently, the combined authority has taken forward a programme of schemes using local growth funding to support public transport, cycling and walking. Last year, the Department awarded the combined authority £3.3 million for its “Connect Tees Valley” project, to increase the number of children travelling sustainably to school. We are providing technical support to help the authority to develop a local cycling and walking infrastructure plan. Through those initiatives, I hope that people will be encouraged to consider other options for travelling into Middlesbrough and across the region.

I hope I have reassured my hon. Friend that the Government are supporting the growth of the Tees Valley by providing investment to improve connectivity across the area and beyond. We continue to bring forward new initiatives that may address some of the problems he has described. In the Budget the week before last, the Chancellor announced a new £1.7 billion fund to improve intra-city transport with projects that drive productivity by improving connectivity, reducing congestion and using new mobility services and technology. The transforming cities fund is part of our commitment to place cities and city regions at the heart of the industrial strategy. Half of the funding is being allocated to the six combined authorities with elected metro Mayors on a per capita basis. That means that Tees Valley will receive £59 million over the four years between 2018-19 and 2021-22. We are aiming to say more about the fund shortly, but the intention is that it will empower the Mayor to take strategic decisions about the interventions he wants, very much along the lines that my hon. Friend described.

My hon. Friend mentioned the major road network. As the Government announced in the transport investment strategy, we have accepted the case made in the Rees Jeffreys report of October 2016 to give special recognition to the most strategically important local authority roads. The major road network will receive dedicated funding from the national roads fund. We will consult on our proposals for the creation of the MRN before the end of this year. The consultation will consider all the questions that my hon. Friend raised, such as how we define the MRN, how we plan for investment in it, how schemes are brought forward for funding and the timetable.

It is too early to say whether the routes we have discussed today would be eligible for MRN funding, but I urge my hon. Friend and all those who support the powerful agenda for change in transport in south Middlesbrough that he has advocated to put forward their views through the consultation process and to continue to make the case with all the force he has brought to the debate and the wider initiative. I hope I have been able to demonstrate the Government’s commitment to improving connectivity, and I thank my hon. Friend for his energetic and timely intervention.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.