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A40 in West Oxfordshire: Congestion

Volume 652: debated on Tuesday 8 January 2019

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

I am delighted to see the Minister in his place again as I bring the matter of West Oxfordshire’s roads before the House. I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise the issue of congestion on the A40, which is of enormous significance for those who travel on the road daily.

The A40 is one of the main trunk roads of this country and the main trunk road that travels through my constituency. Congestion is a particular concern between Witney and Oxford. There is a very good reason for my constituents’ concern over the congestion that they face, many on a daily basis. It is not just from the major market towns of Witney, Carterton and Eynsham, but from the surrounding villages. Between 23,000 and 32,000 vehicles currently use the section between Witney and Oxford each day, which is above the road’s capacity. During school term times, the average journey speed on the A40 between Cassington and Wolvercote in peak time is 17 mph, while on the worst days it can be as low as 10 mph.

The Oxfordshire strategic traffic model forecasts an increase in highway demand on the A40 between Witney and Oxford of between 70 and 140 movements per peak hour by 2031. Without improvements, that will lead to an even greater overcapacity on the road and increase the severity of the congestion that my constituents already suffer from. Peak journey times between Witney and Oxford could increase by about 15 minutes.

I have spoken of the major towns, but equally people living in towns and villages further afield, who may not even use the A40, are suffering the ill effects of the congestion on that road. For example, in Bladon, which is the village in which I live, we suffer from excessive traffic, particularly HGVs, which rat-run through our village on the A4095 to escape the congestion on the A40. Businesses across West Oxfordshire are shackled by the logjams on the A40 and I have lost count of the number of businesses that have said to me over the past two years that they could expand were it not for the barrier that the A40 presents because of the congestion on it.

The A40 is costing jobs and revenue. Because of the difficulties for people travelling in and out of West Oxfordshire, it is making recruitment for our NHS and our schools very difficult. The plain truth is that West Oxfordshire will never and can never reach its full potential until the congestion on the A40 is addressed.

Back in 2002, my predecessor remarked in this House that

“In west Oxfordshire, we have some of the best and brightest businesses in the country, but the gridlock on our main road is like a hand pressed against their windpipes. Business in west Oxfordshire must be allowed to breathe.”—[Official Report, 12 June 2002; Vol. 386, c.308WH.]

He was right and his words remain true today. I do not rise in this debate to complain. I rise to be a voice of optimism and not to speak of the past, but to champion the opportunities and to explain to the Minister—I am very grateful to him for listening—what it is we need for our area. There is, in truth, more optimism now than there has been for decades. Progress is being made. If we are ambitious and bold in the years ahead, we might just be able to get to grips with this issue.

I had the opportunity to be in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency through the armed forces parliamentary scheme. I have witnessed some of the problems he has on the roads in his constituency and I am very aware of the gridlock to which he refers. I am also very aware of the impact on the economic life of farming and the rural community. Does he feel that the changes he is proposing, and hoping that the Minister will respond to, will enable the rural life in his constituency to grow and have the economic life and strength it really needs?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that excellent intervention. He refers to two points to which I would like to draw attention. The life of rural communities is absolutely essential. I referred to the village in which I live, Bladon. It is a small village. It is one example of many villages which find that they are clogged up in turn because the A40 is so difficult.

Not just villages, but towns such as Cheltenham beyond Witney are affected. The situation at the moment is that the A40 is like a furred up artery. If we could just unclog that artery, it would be good for jobs, businesses, social mobility and all the things we want to see in Gloucestershire as well as Oxfordshire. Does my hon. Friend agree?

I could not agree more and I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. I tend to talk about the A40 in terms of Witney and West Oxfordshire, but we must not forget that the effects of the congestion on the road spill over into Gloucestershire and his constituency. [Interruption.] And of course I am reminded, from a sedentary position by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), that it affects the whole of Oxfordshire, not just West Oxfordshire.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does he agree that in Oxfordshire we are really getting behind the Government’s housing programme and going for growth? His area and mine repeatedly top the leader board for the number of new houses built. Does he agree that our road arteries are holding us back?

That is an excellent point. One point overrides all others—if there are to be new homes, the infrastructure must come with them. I will dwell on that a little more later, but my hon. Friend makes her point excellently.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) referred obliquely to Brize Norton. That is terribly important. The people who work at that Royal Air Force base come not necessarily from Carterton but from further afield—sometimes 50 or 100 miles away—because of the nature of service life. This issue affects the Royal Air Force’s functioning and efficiency, too, and we must address that.

There is no silver bullet for A40 congestion. We will require a combination of schemes from a variety of funding streams to tackle it. I will briefly cover some of the options and funding avenues, and ask for the Minister’s help in securing the funding we need.

First, the park and ride scheme, for which a public consultation has just closed, is Oxfordshire County Council’s most immediate project for A40 improvement. The intended funding stream for that is the Department for Transport’s local growth fund. There are plans to build a park and ride at Eynsham, together with an eastbound bus lane between Eynsham and the Duke’s Cut canal bridge near Wolvercote. Those proposals probably represent the biggest step forward on A40 congestion in a generation. They would bring real change and progress on an issue that affects the day-to-day lives of us all. We would see essential widening of the road and long-needed upgrades to public transport along the route. It would be a significant step—although perhaps not a conclusive one—in the right direction, and I will ask for the Minister’s help in securing funding. However, it may be that those proposals on their own do not offer a final fix and that no aspect of this scheme can be seen in isolation. Work may need to continue—

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this issue. On that theme, does he agree that part of the solution to any road congestion is improving the railways? Some while ago, I got funding for the doubling of the Cotswold line from Moreton to Evesham. Is it not now imperative that we get full doubling right through from Moreton-in-Marsh to Oxford? That would take a significant burden off the A40.

Absolutely—I could not agree more. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. There are two ways of addressing road congestion: increasing the flow of the road—the furred artery, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) referred to it—and taking cars off the road wherever possible. My hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) refers to redoubling the Cotswold line so we can have faster, more reliable and more frequent trains and take as many people off the A40 as possible. I feel particularly strongly about that—it is one of my pet projects—and I will refer to it again a little later.

The second aspect I would like to talk about is the Government’s housing infrastructure fund. One of the biggest causes for optimism at the moment is Oxfordshire County Council’s plan for road upgrades and the strong case it is making for a part of that £5 billion fund. I am delighted that it is making the most of that opportunity with a very strong bid for A40 upgrades, which it will submit later this year and no doubt will be highly competitive. I look forward to continuing to work with Oxfordshire County Council and neighbouring councils, and with the Government, to progress that bid.

The bid will seek to achieve upgrades for four strategic and interdependent road sections, including general roadway widening along critical sections of the A40 to complete the dualling from Witney to Eynsham, new bus lanes, additional cycle path links and—this is another thing I have campaigned for since being elected—a walking path to promote active travel between Eynsham and Oxford. The B4044 community path in particular is something I have campaigned for consistently since being elected. I want to take this opportunity to praise the hard work of campaigners and put on the record my full support for enabling people to cycle as much as possible—to get out of cars and to cycle from Eynsham into the centre of Oxford, as I was lucky enough to be able to do along the excellent A44 path from Bladon to Oxford when I worked in the centre of Oxford, and I am delighted that the B4044 community path is included in Oxfordshire County Council’s plan.

The bid is connected to delivery of the Oxfordshire-Cotswolds garden village, which will see 2,200 new homes built on the A40 corridor. This, along with further developments west of Eynsham and Witney, will put increased demand on the A40, and so the road’s capacity must be enhanced if we are to cope. I look to the Minister for his help in achieving this funding. I have always been clear that transport upgrades—improvements to bus, road and rail—need to happen before, not after, new homes are occupied to ensure that new development does not place an unacceptable burden on existing residents.

These schemes will also assist our area in delivering improved housing choice, affordability for residents and reasonable commuting time to their place of employment. They will attract high-value knowledge businesses to go alongside the leading businesses in West Oxfordshire I have already referred to, further enhancing the dynamism of our area. West Oxfordshire is an economically successful region, but this comes at a price, and that price is increased pressure on our existing infrastructure, less reliable connections and less resilience. The deficiencies in our current transport network must be addressed before we start to think about additional growth.

I fully support Oxford County Council’s efforts. I have no doubt it will submit a compelling bid that I sincerely and passionately hope will be successful, and I urge the Government to accept and support the bid. I am sure the Minister will offer his advice and advocacy to that very end.

In my last two or three points, I will refer to the major road network scheme, which, looking further into the future, I believe offers more promise of further A40 funding. I have campaigned for such a programme to ensure central Government funding for local major roads that fall outside the strategic road network, and I welcome the broad outline of the scheme. Considering the existing strategic road network together with major local authority roads is a welcome step, and providing a dedicated funding stream for the major road network will enable growth and development to be more effectively planned.

I well remember discussing this matter with the Transport Secretary—I am grateful to him for visiting—as we stood near Eynsham. He saw the congestion on the A40 for himself, and this scheme grew out of that visit. I explained how the A40 had been de-trunked in 2002 by the Labour Government and how that resulted in the road falling between the cracks, not receiving the significant central Government investment required to tackle the severe congestion on the road. The major road network proposals offer the potential of local authority-controlled roads being able to access central Government funding while not losing the important local democratic control provided by locally elected councillors.

I have submitted a consultation response on the MRN and was pleased to read the Government’s response published just before Christmas. I am greatly encouraged by it, and the MRN shows great promise, but we now need to see the rhetoric transformed into decisive action, such that we begin to tackle the congestion issues on roads such as the A40.

I ought briefly to mention the Oxford to Cambridge expressway project. I appreciate that it will be some time yet before construction starts, but it demonstrates how much the Government value Oxfordshire and its growth. It is a key area for business growth, and housing growth is expected as well, but if we are to accept, as the Government have done, that Oxfordshire is a key growth area for the UK, of paramount strategic and economic significance, there is no excuse for neglecting our infrastructure needs. It is all well and good building a new expressway but, if we are to deliver the economic growth envisaged, we must address our current infrastructure deficiencies, such as on the A40, which affects Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire, with urgency.

Either the Oxford-Cambridgeshire corridor is a national priority for economic growth, or it is not, and if it is, this must be reflected in the Government’s investment decisions, and those must help and benefit communities throughout the whole of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire and beyond.

Considerable growth is due to take place in Cheltenham, Gloucester, the Cotswolds and Oxfordshire. Does my hon. Friend agree that if we do not relieve congestion in what is a narrow throat, growth will be inhibited not only in Oxfordshire but in Gloucestershire, and further afield in Wales as well?

That is absolutely true. The focus tends to be on the Witney area, because that is where the A40 approaches the A44 and then joins the strategic network, but let us not forget the serious impact on communities further afield, such as the rural areas mentioned by the hon. Member for Strangford. I am thinking of the rest of Oxfordshire, of Cheltenham, and of rural communities elsewhere in Gloucestershire. This is a narrowing road that happens to reach a pinch point in my constituency, but affects the far wider areas represented by Members who have come to contribute to tonight’s debate.

I have spoken to representatives of businesses in Eagle Tower, in the centre of Cheltenham, which are struggling to recruit people because they cannot persuade them to travel from London. Whether the company is GE Aviation, Spirax-Sarco or GCHQ, better communications mean better recruitment and are better for the local economy.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that problem affects not just Cheltenham but my constituency. It affects Witney, Eynsham, Carterton and the Royal Air Force, which is also struggling to recruit people. Business is suffering, but so are our essential public services. I mentioned that only briefly at the beginning of my speech, but it is a major issue. Recruitment difficulties in the NHS and teaching are also affected by people’s inability to travel quickly in and out of the area where they need to be.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning public services. As he knows, because of what is, we hope, the temporary downgrade of Horton General hospital, people from both our constituencies need to gain access to essential public services in Oxford, which is very difficult to reach at times of peak traffic demand.

My hon. Friend is right, and I entirely support her campaign to ensure that our important services are outside the centre of Oxford whenever possible so that that journey is not necessary. However, sometimes it is, and the A40, like other major roads, is sometimes impassable owing to congestion that poses not just an obstacle to business and public services but, in some instances, a safety threat to residents. That is clearly unacceptable.

I want to make a couple of points before, very gratefully, I allow the Minister to respond. I have spent much of the debate discussing the investment that I want to see in direct upgrades on the A40, but we must not forget—I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds for his foreshadowing of the points that I now wish to make—the contribution to be made by West Oxfordshire’s railways in tackling A40 congestion. It is in everyone’s interests for fewer cars to use the A40 whenever possible, but we can see the modal shift that we need only if our railways can offer a feasible, practicable and reliable service as an alternative. If that is to happen, there is an urgent need for the remaining sections of the Cotswold line to be doubled, which would enable more frequent and more reliable trains to travel from Hanborough to Oxford.

I will continue to campaign for the reopening of the Cowley branch line for passengers, with a regular shuttle service to Hanborough, but if we improved bus and cycle links to and from Hanborough, we could create a public transport hub in West Oxfordshire, taking cars off the A40 and reducing congestion throughout our area. I want people to be able to leave their cars behind, and to use buses, trains and bikes whenever possible so that there is more room on the roads for those who must use cars. We need to build a truly integrated transport network in West Oxfordshire that will meet the needs of our area and enable residents and businesses to thrive in the years ahead.

For decades, congestion on the A40 has been one of the biggest issues facing West Oxfordshire, and I am determined to tackle it. We are moving in the right direction, with opportunities for investment from a number of central Government funds, so there is more cause for optimism than there has been for decades, but there is still much work to do if we are to deliver the improvements that are needed. Let me stress to the Minister that, as we have heard from everyone who has spoken in the debate, this is not just a matter of minor inconvenience for us; it is a blight on the lives of commuters, and a millstone around the necks of our businesses. It is vital that we work towards, and ultimately achieve, a final fix for the A40, because only then can West Oxfordshire, and the surrounding areas, achieve their full potential.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) on securing the debate and welcome the opportunity to speak about the A40 west of Oxford, although, unfortunately, such has been the Periclean—indeed Demosthenic—quality of his oratory that he has left me nine minutes of a 30-minute debate in which to respond. He and other colleagues raised many issues that it would be nice to touch on, so in a way it is a pity that there is not more time for the Government to give the account he seeks.

I understand the great importance of this road in the area and to the local people who regularly use it. It will be no secret to hon. Members that the A40 can experience congestion—at times severe congestion. It should be said that the chief glory of the road is that it leads to Herefordshire. I was astounded that my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) neglected to make that point when sketching the gap between Gloucestershire and Wales, thereby ignoring much—almost all—of what is of value in this.

There are considerable growth ambitions for the west of Oxford along this corridor and the debate is therefore timely. The county has a fast-growing and successful economy that contributes some £21 billion per year to national output. It competes well on a global stage as a centre of science and innovation, but infrastructure constraints there, as elsewhere across the country, are a barrier to housing development and job creation. That was why in November 2017 the Government announced that Oxfordshire would receive up to £215 million of new funding to support its ambition to plan for, and to support the delivery of, 100,000 homes by 2031. That is alongside a commitment to adopt an Oxfordshire-wide statutory joint plan by that year. This ambitious and comprehensive investment programme is designed to deliver sustainable development and growth, with a focus on the amenity, quality and liveability of the area and on affordable housing.

On 12 September 2018, the first of the planning flexibilities agreed as part of the deal was enacted by written ministerial statement. This has amended land supply policies for Oxfordshire, and the Government look forward to the county developing its joint statutory spatial plan, making use of these new flexibilities.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Witney acknowledged, the majority of local transport improvement schemes are funded through the local growth fund—it is not entirely a Department for Transport scheme. We are providing some £6.7 billion to that fund over the six years from 2015-16 to 2020-21. Funding also comes through local enterprise partnerships, with some 600 transport schemes being funded across England.

There is also considerable planned investment on the A40 through the local growth fund. The Oxford science transit scheme has been allocated £35 million of the fund to support the expansion of the integrated public transport system west of Oxford, including the provision of bus priority and of a 1,000-space park and ride at Eynsham, to which my hon. Friend referred. We hope that this will deliver major enhancements to the strategic route, connecting centres of innovation and economic growth. I understand that the county council aims to have the park and ride and bus lane open for use by April 2021. Improvements to public transport should provide a viable alternative to private car use and, as my hon. Friend rightly said, a substantial modal shift would help to address congestion and would also be of enormous public value in others ways. This scheme and other current and planned projects will provide congestion relief in the short to medium term along the A40. Of course, there is also a £5.9 million local growth fund commitment to the Oxford North project, a package of measures to improve transport in the north of the city and to provide a new research space and new homes.

There are also wider aspirations to tackle congestion in the longer term. As my hon. Friend pointed out, a consultation has recently closed on plans for the first phase of these improvements, and my officials continue to work closely with Oxfordshire County Council to take the project forward.

The North Cotswold line is not strictly within the terms of this debate, but it has been raised and I am pleased to discuss it quickly. As with the road, its chief glory is that it leads to Herefordshire, so I have a certain stake in this issue, and of course colleagues representing constituencies along the line would like to see faster and more frequent services. Any proposals must be supported by a robust business case in accordance with the rail network enhancements pipeline. The Department will continue to provide advice to Lord Faulkner’s taskforce, which has been established to develop a vision for the route between Worcester and Oxford—and, ultimately, of course to Herefordshire—and to develop proposals.

On the housing side, the autumn Budget provided an extra £500 million for the housing infrastructure fund, bringing the total funding available to £5.5 billion. In March 2018, the Government announced the areas that are being taken forward through co-development, where the Government work with local authorities to further develop their proposals. Oxfordshire is one of the designated areas for co-development. The Department works closely with other Departments and local partners to take forward these proposals. Final funding awards for the proposals will be determined by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government following the assessment of detailed business plans. I understand that Oxfordshire County Council intends to submit its own proposals early this year.

My hon. Friend has raised the issue of maintenance and potholes on many occasions, and indeed he secured a debate on the subject in July last year. As he will know, the Government have since allocated a further £420 million of new money for local highways maintenance —not necessarily entirely as a result of that debate. That means an additional £7.4 million of funding for local roads in Oxfordshire, which adds to existing committed funding sources totalling some £28.2 million for the county.

My hon. Friend rightly mentioned the major road network. Oxford does have a section of the A40 that is eligible for the local roads network, in that it fits the criteria that we have set for that. It is now for local partners to gather evidence that demonstrates which improvements are priorities for their respective areas, and to bid for support. This is a major new Government initiative to create a package of support for schemes that are eligible along the future major road network. It therefore provides an opportunity across the country, not just in Oxfordshire. The Oxford to Cambridge expressway has also been raised, and my hon. Friend will know that considerable investment is being made in that area to improve transport connectivity and growth not just across Oxfordshire and the region, but for the benefit of the UK as a whole.

I think that my hon. Friend will recognise from this quick canter through the various pots of money and opportunities available that his county has done well and that if the bids can pass muster in this very competitive process, they will stand every chance of an attractive outcome. He knows that a series of bids have been placed, or are due to be placed, in front of the Government for those different pots, and I urge him, his county council and local partners to continue to build robust and compelling cases that can demonstrate to the Government that investment in key infrastructure is well worth while and will deliver the key targets that they have specified, along with benefits for current users and future growth and success.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.