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A14 Cambridge-Huntingdon Upgrade

Volume 645: debated on Thursday 19 July 2018

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mims Davies.)

I am grateful for the opportunity to consider in the House the very important issue of the problems caused by the diversions implemented during the A14 Cambridge to Huntingdon upgrade. This really matters to my constituents. One has contacted me today to say they have moved house because of the upset, and another emailed me this morning promising to tune in to this debate from where they are hiking in the Arctic circle; I hope it does not disappoint.

This road upgrade is important and long overdue. It is managed by Highways England, which I was pleased to meet some weeks ago when I went on site to discuss these issues. Anyone driving along the A14 at the moment, albeit often in a queue, cannot fail to be impressed by the scale of the works. Given that regular users have often been in queues over many years, and that there have been too many accidents and delays, most are agreed that the works are essential, and that, despite the current misery being caused, there will be substantial benefits. Let me also say at the outset that at my meeting with Highways England I was impressed by the knowledge and dedication of the many people involved; it is a huge and complicated operation, and everyone wants it to go well.

The purpose of this debate, however, is to highlight the unintended consequences for many who are affected during the construction, and to question whether enough is being done to mitigate those consequences. In my view, my constituents are paying a very heavy price in terms of their current quality of life to possibly improve the lives of others in the future. That is not fair, and I trust the Minister will hear that message loud and clear, and offer not just sympathy and kind words—which I am sure she will—but real action to stop the misery currently being endured.

The existing A14 trunk road between Cambridge and Huntingdon is well known for congestion and delays, and around 85,000 vehicles use this stretch of the A14 every day, many more than the road was originally designed to take. Around a quarter of this traffic comprises heavy goods vehicles, well above the national average for this type of road, and this adds to the need for an upgrade. It is a key east-west freight route—freight which many of us believe would be better off on the railways, but that is a debate for another day.

I will start by running through the history of this upgrade. The A14 has a chequered history over the Cambridge to Huntingdon section, with plans to upgrade going through various announcements, cancellations and re-announcements. I pay tribute to John Bridge of the Cambridgeshire chambers of commerce, who has devoted years of his life to campaigning for these improvements; indeed, there probably should be a bridge named after him. And I will now give an abridged account of what has happened.

Proposals were first made to widen the A14 between Bar Hill and Huntingdon in the late 1980s and were reviewed in 1998 as part of the Cambridge to Huntingdon multi-modal study, or CHUMMS. For many years, CHUMMS became a part of many of our lives. In 2005, the Highways Agency, as it then was, unveiled plans for widening the road from Fen Drayton to Fen Ditton, with the route unveiled in March 2007. This was originally planned to be completed and in use by 2016—what a wonderful thought—and the cost at that time was between £690 million and £1.2 billion, a far cry from the £2 billion-plus that we are now having to pay. Around this time, the Labour Government of the day also approved the guided bus route, designed to relieve some of the pressure on the road. It was controversial, not least because it was only guided until it met city-centre congestion;. It is the longest guided busway in the world but has cost much more than anticipated, although it has taken some of the strain and is now very heavily used.

When the coalition Government came to power in 2010, the scheme was duly cancelled by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Administration. After much lobbying, we then had an interesting diversion when local councils were urged to make contributions from their declining funds, which the ever-helpful Liberal Democrat administration in Cambridge declined to do. David Cameron then famously told BBC “Look East”—I think he was speaking to Andrew Sinclair at the time—that the scheme would not be built unless the A14 became a toll road, but, like a number of things David Cameron said, it did not turn out quite as planned, as his suggestion provoked a furious backlash across eastern England.

There was further prevarication, before the scheme was officially cancelled—until a new version was developed the following year. In November 2012, the scheme was reported to be back in action, and it was mentioned in the June 2013 spending review. In May 2016, the then Transport Secretary, the right hon. Member for Derbyshire Dales (Sir Patrick McLoughlin), approved it, and it is now due for completion in March 2021, by which time the country might well look rather different.

Those were the funding sagas that we dealt with. At the same time, various planning objections were lodged, which added further delays, but the scheme is clearly essential, and the Huntingdon flyover is now in a serious state of disrepair, so it was clear that something had to be done. However, this means that it is now much more expensive than it would have been in 2010, and many more years of misery have been endured since then. It is clearly a relief that the scheme is finally under way, but it is unacceptable that people in Cambridge are being made to suffer because of problems with the diversion, particularly through this long hot summer. Of course, many people outside the city are also suffering, particularly in the surrounding villages, but I will focus my remarks on my constituents who have made their experiences and feelings very clear.

This upgrade, although necessary, is unrelenting, with Highways England telling me that overnight road closures will continue five nights a week until September. Highways England’s official overnight diversion strategy adds 30 or more miles to the journeys of those driving lorries across the country, taking them along a strategic diversion route that includes the M11, the A505 and the A11 back to junction 36 on the A14, so it is unsurprising that some drivers choose to short-cut through Cambridge, along Kings Hedges Road, Milton Road, Victoria Road, Newmarket Road, Histon Road and Huntingdon Road.

However, this short-cut is unacceptable as it disrupts the lives of my constituents—to whom I am grateful for making me aware of the situation—particularly tireless local campaigners such as Doug Whyte and Elaine Gristwood, who recently presented me with a petition from local residents who are affected. This involves virtually every house along the route, and I in turn presented the petition to Highways England. They and residents on other routes have explained the effects of the diversions on our communities. Heavy goods vehicles are driving through small streets that are profoundly unsuited to heavy loads, such as Victoria Road, and it cannot be right that my constituents cannot sleep with their windows open owing to the noise, that children have had trouble sleeping through the racket on the nights before their exams, or that constituents have reported health problems, including one who got in touch to say that the increased fumes along Kings Hedges Road had had health implications for her husband, leading to asthma attacks. I also want to pay tribute to local Labour county councillors Jocelynne Scutt and Claire Richards, who have worked tirelessly with residents to try to find solutions to this problem.

I want to quote a few pieces of correspondence that I have received from constituents. One woman has told me:

“Adequate amounts of sleep are impossible with lorries thundering past every minute, and this is severely affecting my quality of life, mood, and effectiveness at work. My whole flat shakes every time an HGV goes past. It’s like a miniature earthquake, and I’m worried the building is not designed to deal with this kind of strain.”

Another has told me:

“Before the A14 closures I had laid down a brand new driveway for my property; this included laying down concrete for it. Due to the HGVs going down the road it has created cracks in my brand new driveway, and with the lorries going down the road frequently it will just get worse. So on top of not being able to have a peaceful night sleep, the house shaking causing things to break in the house, the outside of our house is also cracking.”

It is clear that the situation cannot go on. We need stronger disincentives for the HGVs that ignore the official diversion and hurtle through the city’s streets. Of course, I have considerable sympathy for the drivers who have a maximum number of hours that they can drive before legally needing breaks, and I understand the time pressures on them and their employers and the extra costs that long diversions bring, but the improvements in future journey times and fewer delays will help those hauliers. They will benefit in a way that my currently suffering constituents will not. Many of my constituents were initially forgiving of the disruption, accepting that it was part of the A14 upgrade, which they appreciate is vital.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mims Davies.)

A lack of information from Highways England about when and for how long the disruptions would last created a great sense of frustration for them. Information communication has improved a little throughout the process, but it could have been got right from the outset.

When the works began, the original problem was that the signage for the diversion was widely felt to be inadequate, and it was argued that drivers were failing to divert because they just did not understand the signs. The signage has been improved, but it should have been better from the beginning. Now that it has improved, it seems that too many drivers are just ignoring it, and those who choose to ignore these signs should face consequences.

I have so far not been particularly critical of those involved in the project, but I have to question why, months after it started, we have only now been promised data on how effective or not the diversions are. Anecdotally, I am told that residents are counting over 100 HGVs an hour in the middle of the night, and Doug Whyte contacted me this morning to say that he was being kept awake last night by heavy trucks passing every few minutes. Why should residents be doing the counting? On a £2 billion project, will the Minister tell me why Highways England is not collecting that data and making it available? I am told by the county council that an HGV counter has been installed on one road but not others, yet we still do not have that data—despite repeated requests. Only with that data can we tell whether improved signage has or has not had any impact.

Frankly, Highways England should have been able to predict the problems that we are seeing and should have established base data before it started and then monitored it, and I hope the Minister will explain why it did not do that. If she cannot, I will offer her a cynical view that I am hearing: no one cares unless local people kick up enough fuss to force others into action. Will the Minister please guarantee counters on all the affected roads, and will she promise to publish the data on a weekly basis? Does she have any of that data this afternoon? How many HGVs does she expect to be using Kings Hedges Road, Milton Road, Huntingdon Road, Victoria Road and other roads this evening? I hope she has an answer, because expecting Doug and Elaine to stay up all night counting trucks is really not good enough.

What else could be done? The county council has considered temporary traffic orders, but considering them is not enough. It needs to get on and do it to at least give some of these areas relief. What of enforcement and the role of the police? We know, sadly, that traffic policing has virtually disappeared under this Government, and that is backed up by the fact that Highways England offered to pay for more policing for the diversion. Even with that offer, however, it seems that there simply are not enough officers to make it a possibility. Even if we could get the enforcement in place, are the fines sufficient to act as a disincentive to those taking shortcuts? Perhaps we need to name and shame the hauliers who consistently break the rules. There is a whole range of things that could be done but, as it sometimes seems with this Government, there is so little action.

Beyond all that, there is the wider issue of the complexity of local governance and the mix of authorities with responsibility for the project. Highways England is responsible for national roads and motorways, the Conservative-run Cambridgeshire County Council is responsible for local roads, and the Conservative Mayor and combined authority have strategic transport powers. My sense is that those at the combined authority do not think it has anything to do with them, and the county council does not have the resources necessary to give the project the attention it deserves.

Even more dispiriting is Highways England’s continuing failure to communicate properly. BBC Radio Cambridgeshire, in particular Dotty McLeod on the breakfast show, has kept residents informed and tried to explain what is happening, but Highways England consistently refuses to appear on the programme to respond. I pay tribute to journalists such as Jozef Hall and his colleagues for trying to pursue Highways England, but we have a problem when we have to resort to BBC journalists driving out in the middle of the night to find out what is going on because those responsible are refusing to answer questions.

The Minister will doubtless say that Highways England is an independent agency. Well, I say it was this Government who created that independence, and they did not absolve themselves of responsibility by so doing. It is public money, and there should be public accountability. I hope we can have an assurance from the Minister that, in future, Highways England will make itself available to answer questions on local media, just as local politicians have to.

My conclusion is that these problems could be resolved if there were the will and the resource to do it. I ask the Minister to intervene to end the misery. The suffering of the past few months cannot be undone, but it does not have to be extended. This project is in itself expensive, and, as I have said, it is more expensive now than it would have been if it had been completed years earlier, but for a fraction of the overall amount being spent the harm being done to my constituents could be mitigated. Signage, monitoring, TTOs, policing and proper governance are all key, and they should have been priorities from the start, but resourcing has made it all much more of a struggle.

I would like the Minister to commit now to properly resourcing a framework that means HGVs will follow the proper diversions. Drivers who do not, should be named, shamed and fined to protect the people of Cambridge who are currently left unprotected. I have been in conversation with Highways England for months, and it does not seem able to solve this problem. I have written to thousands of constituents to explain the situation and to ask for their views and experiences.

It is fundamentally unfair that our city’s roads will suffer damage and, more importantly, that the physical and mental health of my constituents will be affected owing to the Government’s neglecting to create the frameworks necessary to make sure that people follow the rules. I trust that the Minister will commit to sorting this out and that lessons will be learned from this sorry saga so that similar mistakes are not made on other schemes in the future.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) on securing this debate on the A14 Cambridge-Huntingdon upgrade, and on taking us all the way to the Arctic circle. He must have noticed, as you will have, Mr Deputy Speaker, that I am not my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), the Minister who has responsibility for roads, but I will do my best to respond to all the points that have been raised. Anything I am unable to cover will no doubt be addressed in writing.

The hon. Member for Cambridge diligently raised the concerns of his constituents about this subject and particularly the impact of road diversions through Cambridgeshire as a result of the scheme’s construction. He has continued to lobby behind the scenes, too, and he has commented on his meetings with Highways England to resolve the A14 diversions.

I will use this opportunity to outline what Highways England is doing to reduce the impact of the scheme’s road diversions on local residents. I will discuss those road diversions in some detail, but I begin by reminding hon. Members of the strategic reasons for the scheme and by providing an update on Highways England’s good progress in delivering these much needed road improvements.

In 2013, the Government committed to improving a 21-mile stretch of the A14 between Cambridge and Huntingdon, which the hon. Gentleman no doubt supports. This section of road is one of the busiest parts of the strategic road network between the midlands, East Anglia and the port of Felixstowe. It is vital in connecting businesses, communities and families across Cambridgeshire and beyond, and it is a crucial corridor for international freight. However, it is a long-standing congestion hotspot and an area of concern for local communities.

In delivering upgrades to the A14, Highways England and the Department for Transport have acknowledged that demand on the A14 is taking an increasing toll on both drivers and local residents. Commutes between Huntingdon and Cambridge are severely congested. Small villages on either side of the road suffer from increased traffic due to drivers rat-running to avoid traffic delays on the A14.

The existing A14 is not fit for purpose. In recognition of the problems, the A14 improvement works were included as a major project in the five-year road investment strategy that the Department published in December 2014. Local authorities and local enterprise partnerships have together committed £100 million towards the £1.5 billion cost of the scheme. That contribution will help to deliver a scheme that meets the needs of the strategic road network and local people. The scheme will provide benefits to road users and local communities by making the following improvements: 21 miles of new three-lane dual carriageway road; a new 450 metre viaduct; the removal of the existing unsightly viaduct in Huntingdon town centre; two new footbridges at Swavesey junction and Bar Hill; and more than 18 miles of routes suitable for walking, cycling and horseback riding.

The Government and the Department firmly believe that the scheme will create a positive legacy by connecting communities and unlocking regional and local economic growth, while combatting congestion and improving road safety in the area. The A14 upgrade will reduce community severance and relieve congestion on a critical part of the network, making travel and commuting easier, safer and more reliable. Increased capacity will result in fewer accidents on this stretch of road, and the inclusion of better designed grade-separated junctions will further improve safety. The scheme will combat congestion by separating strategic and local traffic. That is vital, as a 26% increase in traffic growth is predicted for the region by 2026, with Cambridgeshire’s employment forecast to grow by 16% between 2012 and 2031.

Changes to the old road will improve air quality and reduce traffic noise. Highways England has been taking significant steps to ensure that the environment and wildlife of the local area are protected throughout construction and, where possible, will benefit from the scheme. As part of the scheme, Highways England will be delivering 2.7 sq kms of new habitat for wildlife and, you will be interested to know, Mr Deputy Speaker, installing 240 bat boxes and a variety of bird boxes—I am glad that you approve. The scheme also provides an opportunity to improve conditions for walkers, cyclists and equestrians through new crossings. This will restore and build new links and pathways, which will better connect communities.

The scheme will help to create a positive legacy in Cambridgeshire, enabling residential and business developments in the area. To date, the scheme has created jobs during construction, with the new highways college in West Anglia being opened to give up to 200 local people the skills needed to get the road built. After the road opens, it will help to connect residents to employment opportunities. Having outlined the key strategic reasons for the scheme, I am pleased to report that Highways England is making good progress—about 50% is complete—and is on target to meet an open-for-traffic date in 2020. That is with the investment of £1.5 billion.

Let me turn to the specific subject of this debate. The hon. Gentleman has concerns that traffic diversions during the construction of the road are increasing noise and pollution for residents on and off the official diversion routes. I assure him that the Government and Highways England are committed to ensuring that the delivery of the scheme causes the minimum inconvenience to local residents. I believe that from September there will be a step change in diversions, which will lead to improvements.

The issue of lorries and other vehicles not following the recommended road diversions was raised, and Highways England has been working hard to develop measures that will help to reduce these impacts and encourage more drivers to use the preferred diversion routes. Highways England is working closely with Cambridgeshire County Council and partner organisations to minimise the impacts as much as possible. When closures are in place on the A14 between junction 36 at Nine Mile Hill and junction 31 at Girton, the strategic diversion route directs traffic south of Cambridge to use the M11, A505 and A11—those are two sides of a triangle. However, alternative routes are required for non-motorway traffic and for traffic travelling to local destinations when the strategic diversion would not be considered acceptable Those routes take traffic further into and around Cambridge city centre and include Kings Hedges Road, Newmarket Road and Milton Road.

Highways England has no powers to prevent road users, including those in HGVs, from taking other routes that they have a legal right to access as an alternative to the official strategic diversion route. Highways England is working proactively to encourage strategic traffic to follow the official diversion route, including by giving weekly briefings to regional media, parish councils and local organisations, as well as through posts on social media.

Highways England is working closely with all agencies. The dialogue commenced during the development consent order process, as part of which diversion routes were discussed and agreed. A project team meets the police and local authority at least once a month to discuss traffic management. There are more than 40 road signs, with some including instructions not to follow sat-nav systems, and up to 13 mobile variable-messaging signs. Overhead signs are in use further afield on the strategic road network.

The A14 project team is working with the Road Haulage Association and Freight Transport Association so that diversion information can be shared with their members. Highways England is working with Cambridgeshire County Council to implement speed signs and HGV counters to assess the additional numbers of HGVs that are using key routes when the A14 is closed. Cambridgeshire police is aware of the issues being raised and has agreed to check for non-compliance with speed or weight restrictions at key sensitive locations.

The hon. Gentleman asked about data. I assure him that the project team volunteered to introduce measures to tackle the magnitude of the problem. Between 20 June and 12 July, traffic counters recorded between four and 21 lorries per night above the normal levels experienced when road diversions are not in place. The data will be shared publicly on a weekly basis. The hon. Gentleman should have received an email update; if he did not, I will work with the Department to ensure that he receives weekly updates on the data, which he can share, should he wish.

In conclusion, I reaffirm the Government’s commitment to delivering the A14 upgrade on time and within budget. We must ensure that the delivery of such major road schemes puts local stakeholders’ concerns at the forefront of our work. I am confident that Highways England will deliver a scheme that meets the needs of strategic road network users and will minimise the disruption to local people.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.