Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Wendy Morton.)
I am grateful to the House for allowing me to raise the important issue of the Oxford to Cambridge expressway, which is of grave concern to my constituents. I would like to start by giving my sincere thanks to the Minister for his commitment to engage both with me and my constituents. He very graciously accepted my invitation to visit Botley to see for himself how our community would be affected. I am very grateful, and so are they. I hope he sees today as an extension of that visit by putting what was said in our private meeting on the record and into the public domain.
In September, the Government announced their preferred corridor for the Oxford to Cambridge expressway. That corridor covers many different potential routes, every one of which would have a significant impact on my constituents. The level and tone of the responses I have received highlights the importance of meaningful consultation at every stage. Failure to do so, I am sorry to say, has already raised people’s suspicions and elicited some strong opposition to the proposals. For example, Lucy, who lives in Botley, sums up the feelings of many when she says:
“I am concerned that there has so far been no”
“public consultation. I feel residents only have part of the story so far, and this is very worrying.”
Residents have had no say on this proposal overall, as to whether they agree with the stated objectives of the scheme, whether they believe it is an effective way to achieve those objectives, or whether there are more effective ways to spend taxpayers’ money. Many have told me that the case for this scheme is simply not strong enough, and that there are other objectives that should be met. Indeed, many have pointed out that there are different objectives within different parts of Government that are contradictory. The scheme, which is proposed by Highways England, is based on the need for a more rapid route for freight lorries to travel between southern and western ports and eastern and northern destinations. At the same time, the National Infrastructure Commission argues that the road is there to help build a million more homes. Yet several residents point out that surely the massive level of commuter traffic that would also be coming on to the road would get in the way of the freight lorry movements, and vice versa. How these aspects are being joined up is, as yet, unclear. Roland and Jackie express the common feeling that the last thing Oxfordshire needs is more traffic when they say:
“This expressway is not needed. Oxford is full. It cannot take any more traffic. Long traffic jams are a regular way of life for us all. The prospect of beautiful South Oxfordshire being massacred by this vanity project is heart breaking.”
It is very unclear what the knock-on effect of the traffic generated by the expressway will be. Every single one of these routes will, in turn, affect different parts of the community. I would now like to focus on that.
I hear what the hon. Lady is saying on this matter. I would like to pay some tribute to the Liberal Democrats, because this project started life in 2015 in a Department for Transport paper that was signed off by Baroness Kramer and Norman Baker, as well as Conservative Ministers. But does she accept the point of view of the Labour council in Oxford that this is a way of reducing the traffic that goes round Oxford?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. I will deal with that point later, but no, I do not.
If the expressway is routed round the north of Oxford, there is likely to be a negative effect on the already heavily congested road network around Kidlington, Yarnton and Begbroke. Some investment is already planned to try to improve congestion on the A40, as was mentioned earlier this week, but probably not enough to cope with the existing problem, let alone the additional housing developments already planned. As far as I am aware, the potential impact of the expressway has not yet been looked at in relation to that.
The route will also run close to several important ecological sites. My constituent Judy, who lives in Kidlington and is an ecological consultant and wildlife expert, says:
“I have studied and loved the wildlife areas in the path of the Expressway, especially Cothill Fen, Wytham Woods and Oxford Meadows for many years. All these wildlife areas of national and international importance are potentially at risk of damage from the Expressway. Either by direct damage”—
which is obvious—
“or by damaging effects of air pollution from increased traffic or things like hydrology change, noise or light pollution. These areas are our irreplaceable natural heritage and need to be preserved intact for future generations.”
It is worth noting that Wytham Woods is one of the most studied woodland areas in the world.
If the expressway utilises the A34 west of Oxford, that is likely to lead to homes being demolished, a worsening of the already poor air quality around Botley, and impact on the Commonwealth war graves that are close to local schools—the Minister knows that well, because we had a walkabout and he saw it for himself. The expressway will also—indeed, it already does—impact on house prices. While shopping at the butchers recently, I met a gentleman who was concerned that the spectre of the expressway was having a negative effect on his ability to sell his house, and he desperately wanted to move. In our meeting, the Minister and Highways England seemed sympathetic to those arguments, not least because demolishing so many houses in an area that needs more houses, not fewer, seems nonsensical, and would be extremely expensive.
The hon. Lady mentions environmental factors, which I agree are important. Does she agree that the impact on the environment could be minimised and mitigated if we use existing roads, and upgrade and utilise existing sections, rather than routes that involve virgin grassland?
I do not rule out the use of existing roads, but where the proposed route would impact on a community as directly as it would in Botley, it should be ruled out. Again I ask the Minister to do that today, because that particular section is horrific, and if we do not rule it out, the wider impacts felt not only there but in other nearby communities could be massive. Sophie from Abingdon contacted me on that point. She strongly opposes the plan because of air pollution in the Wootton area. Jane from Botley repeats concerns about what will happen to schools and says:
“I regularly walk on Westminster Way which runs parallel to the A34 and frequently find the fumes so strong that I have to cover my face and change my route.”
As an asthmatic she sometimes finds that she cannot even walk near the A34 as it is now.
Villages, including South Hinksey and Wytham, currently have direct access to the A34, and residents in those communities are worried about what will happen to that access. South Hinksey is already dealing with the start of the Oxford flood alleviation scheme, which will cause chaos to access to the village. The expressway could be an even bigger scheme, and I wonder whether that has been taken into account.
On the final option, if the expressway is routed to the south of Oxford it will have to go through the green belt, bringing a large amount of additional traffic to an already congested Oxford ring road and the A34 south of Oxford. That stretch of the A34 is already at capacity and has regular gridlocks. Any incident on the A34, however minor, leads to a rapid build-up of traffic, and long tailbacks result in commuters using local towns and villages as rat runs just to get out. We should not make that problem worse in the long run by including an expressway.
I would love the Department to focus on delivering the long-awaited A34 safety review, and I would be extraordinarily grateful for an update on that project, which has been promised for months. I also believe that long-promised and overdue investment in upgrading the Lodge Hill junction must be finished before we can assess how to handle extra traffic on the A34. Will the Minister keep pushing the county council to press on with that project, because there have been yet more delays?
It is not clear whether dealing with the many potential impacts of the expressway has been fully costed, or whether those impacts will be left as problems for local communities to sort out after it has been completed. Many of my constituents argue that the value-for-money and environmental impact of the expressway scheme as a whole should be tested actively against other options. Sophie, again, said:
“I would like to see a plan to reduce congestion in the area, as I feel it is at an all-time high. I would like to see this plan focus on public transport improvements, particularly rail transport and cycle infrastructure.”
We know that that is happening to an extent, but it could be so much more if we reinvested that money.
As we know, the expressway follows a route similar to east-west rail. However, as plans for the expressway have been worked up, the plans for east-west rail have been downgraded. In particular, plans for electrification have been dropped. A growing list of other rail schemes in and linking to Oxfordshire have been delayed or not delivered—the electrification of the line between Didcot and Oxford has been delayed; Oxford commuters look with envy at the quieter, more comfortable trains serving Didcot and Reading; and plans for the expansion of the very overcrowded Oxford station have taken years to make progress.
With the right approach, not only could the capacity and quality of rail travel be improved, but much better facilities could be provided for cyclists, as has already happened in Cambridge. Other rail projects, which would cost much less than the expressway, include reopening the station at Grove, on which there is cross-party endeavour; introducing passenger trains through to Cowley; and upgrading facilities at Radley and Culham. All those projects could tie in better with the local cycling network. I am grateful to the Minister for debating with me in the House on a previous occasion the recent report by Andrew Gilligan, which sets out a clear and coherent strategy for investment that could transform Oxford and surrounding communities by making them cycle-friendly. All those things together would cost a tiny fraction of the expressway.
Crucially, there is a huge amount of peer-reviewed evidence showing that when Governments choose to invest money in additional road capacity, although in the short term there may well be an alleviation effect, the long-term impact is more traffic, more pollution and higher carbon dioxide emissions, at a time when we should be bearing down on all those things. However, when Governments choose to invest in public transport, the result is the opposite. At the very least, the Government should have given equal consideration to all the other approaches first before making this decision. If they are looking to achieve the best long-term value for taxpayers’ money and are committed to switching from the car to other forms of transport, this is their chance.
In conclusion, I share my residents’ deep concern that this Conservative Government are forcing an expressway on our area without fully consulting people about their premise. I am sorry to say that, to add insult to injury, Conservative MPs in Oxfordshire have lobbied the Minister to use the existing road, and I am concerned that that includes Botley. I would love clarification that that was not part of the lobbying effort and that Members did not ask for Botley to be bulldozed. If that were the case, I would let the Minister know, and, as I am sure he is aware, I will not let that or any other part of the scheme drop.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) for ending a long week with a little digestif on a topic we have discussed in different ways over a considerable period. I congratulate her on securing the debate, which is the latest in a sequence of public discussions we have had about rail and road links, and other forms of transport, in Oxfordshire.
As the hon. Lady kindly acknowledged, I know from my visit to her constituency last year that there is very strong interest in the proposals for this road, and particularly in what they may mean for Botley. I thought her speech was going terribly well until she introduced a rather unnecessary party political note at the end. The fact is that I get lobbied by Members of Parliament from around Oxfordshire of every political stamp, and she is quite prominent among them. She should be grateful for that, and delighted. As my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) mentioned, this project originated in proposals by the coalition Government, which had Liberal Democrat support. We do not know quite where the Labour party is on the issue, but I have no doubt that, if it reflects on the project, it will see that it is of national as well as local significance.
I will of course turn to the hon. Lady’s questions about route design, but it is important to be clear about the wider issue of why the Government believe it is important to fill the “missing link”, as it has been called, between the M40 at Oxford and the M1 at Milton Keynes and to develop other road enhancements around Oxford. The arc between Oxford and Cambridge is a nationally—conceivably even globally—significant project. Two of the region’s universities are ranked in the global top four, and it is internationally competitive in attracting investment in a whole range of areas of science and technology. It has key industry concentrations in areas such as IT, life sciences, automotive engineering and professional services. We believe that, with the right package of interventions and investment, there is a further transformational opportunity to amplify the position of the arc, the cities that it links and the space in between as a world-leading academic and industrial powerhouse.
It must, however, be acknowledged that, statistically, Oxford and Cambridge are two of the least affordable places to live in the UK, with house prices double the national average. The hon. Lady was coy about whether she wanted house prices to go up or down, and it would have been interesting to know which it was. If they go up, that will benefit her constituents who own houses, but if she wants them to go down, she shares the Government’s view that more housing would be a good idea, and that steers her in the direction of the housing associated with this project and with east-west rail.
According to analysis by the National Infrastructure Commission, a shortage of housing presents a fundamental risk to the continued success of the area—and, of course, there is a wider shortage in the country. The commission estimates that taking action in the area could unlock more than 1 million new jobs and increase economic output by £163 billion a year. Those are enormous and, as I have said, potentially transformational numbers. Let me put the scale of that growth in context: £163 billion is roughly equivalent to an economy the size of Scotland’s. Even without such transformational growth, traffic growth of up to 40% by 2035 is forecast in the region and threatens to seize up the existing road infrastructure. The hon. Lady was right to raise traffic concerns—I absolutely agree with her about that—but separating strategic from local traffic, which is one of the goals of this project, may help to ease the congestion.
The Government are taking action through a commitment to investment in two infrastructure projects which will, we hope, transform the ability of local people and businesses to get about. Our investment in both east-west rail and the Oxford-Cambridge expressway will unlock economic growth and new housing. In particular, the expressway is expected to reduce journey times between Oxford and Cambridge by up to 40 minutes. Some have argued that we should build only one of those routes, but the Government disagree. Both road and rail have important roles to play, and they have different uses. They provide choice for users and competition, and they avoid overcrowding on unimproved networks.
As the hon. Lady said, some have also argued that we should redirect our investment to other parts of England to support economic growth, jobs and housing elsewhere. As she will know, no Government have taken that priority more seriously than this one. That is why we are investing in road, rail, active transport and other transport modes to support the goal of national and, indeed, rebalanced economic growth at rates not seen for a generation.
At the time when we announced that we would back the expressway, we also announced the dualling of the A66 across the Pennines and our commitment to improving the M60 around Manchester. Those are both very significant projects.
I apologise for having missed the first few minutes of the debate.
Although Wycombe is not affected by this route, other parts of Buckinghamshire including Milton Keynes will be, as will my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Government who live along it. My hon. Friend has talked of transformational growth, and of both economic and housing growth. Can he reassure me that he will consult Members of Parliament who are currently in the Government—or, indeed, in the Chair—about their views on the project, and will ensure that our new unitary authority is fully involved as it develops?
As you and other colleagues will know, Mr Speaker, it is terribly important to be aware that no road can be built without consultation, and the scale of this road requires a consultation of commensurate scale and depth. A great deal of informal consultation has already been undertaken by Highways England and by the Government, and we expect it to continue.
As the House will be aware, we have been making substantial investments across the country. We have invested in dual carriageway links between Basingstoke and Taunton on the A303 and on the A30 through Cornwall, and in the motorway route between Newcastle and London.
Let me now turn to the question of the route for the expressway and its design. Last September the Government announced the preferred corridor for the expressway, central corridor B, with options to pass east or west—or, as one might see it, north or south—of Oxford. The preferred corridor was chosen following extensive engagement with local authorities, MPs and interested parties including local environmental groups. It broadly aligns with east-west rail, making it easier for people to choose between different modes of transport, improving competitiveness between the two modes and reducing car dependency for existing and new communities.
It is important for the House to be aware that we have not ruled out any options at this stage. That is a preferred route. We do not make prejudgments about decisions as to the extent to which existing roads are upgraded versus new routes constructed. We have not prejudged any decisions about the number of lanes, junctions, or other features of the road.
If this a preferred route, does that mean the ruling out of Otmoor is not absolute, or is it?
As I have said, we have not made prejudgments. Our strong preference is not to cross Otmoor. We have therefore selected options that do not do that; we have given that very clear signal. But it is important to say that we are still at a relatively early stage of the process, and our preferred routes are just that, and are subject to further discussion, consultation and review. The Government and Highways England need to do serious further analytical work to develop, design and route options that are workable for communities and the environment, that facilitate freight movements, and that ease people’s travel for work and leisure.
As has been mentioned, there are considerable constraints of many different kinds in relation to Oxford, and those are part of the wider process of evaluation. I recognise that this will be particularly important for the hon. Lady’s constituents in Botley, as it is for those of other colleagues in the region who are affected both directly and indirectly. Their concerns expressed to her about the possibility of widening the A34 and the potential impacts on safety and emissions were made very clear to me when I visited the area—and walked around it, as the hon. Lady said—as they have been again today by her.
Local feedback is an important part of this process and has already influenced it. As has been said, the preferred corridor avoids Otmoor precisely because it has been widely recognised as an area of particular environmental significance. The Government wish to develop the scheme overall in a way that is sensitive to the natural, built and historic environment, and all those factors will be in play. Those considerations have played a central role in selecting the preferred corridor so far, and a full environmental assessment will be undertaken as part of the route development. More widely, the Department will continue to listen to interested parties of every stamp and from every quarter of the compass as it develops route options for public consultation later this year.
There will be a full consultation on route options to help shape the design so that it meets the needs of local people and businesses and the country as a whole. Indeed, the Department has commissioned England’s Economic Heartland, the sub-national transport body that comprises local council leaders across the region, to undertake a connectivity study in parallel with the work we are doing. That study will look at how the expressway can deliver wide-ranging benefits to parts of the country outside the immediate vicinity of the corridor and will go some way towards addressing the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker).
All this design and analytical work will lead to a public consultation on possible routes later this year, when people will be able to have their say on route options, as well as the overarching case for the scheme. A further public consultation will be held on the design of the preferred route.
The expressway is due for delivery in 2030. By that time much work will have been undertaken on Oxfordshire’s transport infrastructure. The hon. Lady touched on some of that. East-west rail will be one of the country’s most strategically important rail projects, reinstating a rail link between Oxford and Cambridge. The Government reconfirmed our commitment to that project at the autumn Budget, and it is on schedule for delivery by the mid-2020s. Highways England is developing a series of safety enhancement projects for the A34; the hon. Lady asked about that. The work is currently at feasibility stage and interactions with the different expressway route options are being assessed. On the A34 Lodge Hill interchange improvements, Oxfordshire County Council is leading discussions with Highways England and the Government to develop a suitable scheme that meets local needs.
We of course recognise the importance of walking and cycling. I do so at least as much as any Member of Parliament, as I cycle to and from this building every day of the working week. We note the recommendations of the Gilligan review, which the hon. Lady and I have discussed. Local authorities can channel investment for cycling and walking from local funds and from the relevant national funding streams, of which there have been a plethora of late, including the local growth fund, the future high streets fund announced in the last Budget and the housing infrastructure fund that will come in later this year. There are also the Highways England designated funds in this road investment strategy and in the next period, and the clean air fund.
I conclude by assuring Members of this House that there will be ample opportunity for them and their constituents to express their views and to shape decisions about the expressway in a way that preserves and safeguards value for future generations.
Question put and agreed to.