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A14 Cambridge-Huntingdon Upgrade

Volume 659: debated on Thursday 9 May 2019

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

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for allowing the House the opportunity again to consider the very important issue of the A14 Cambridge to Huntingdon upgrade; the diversions that those works have required; and, I am afraid, the misery that those diversions have caused to so many of my constituents. It is sad to have to follow such an uplifting debate about John Smith with one on an issue such as this.

To those who follow Adjournment debates closely, this topic may feel somewhat familiar because last July I was standing in this very place holding a debate with almost exactly the same title. To paraphrase the Prime Minister, nothing has changed. That is because, frankly, the problems outlined almost a year ago have not been rectified and, I am afraid, the misery continues. But one thing has changed—one positive thing. I am delighted that, whereas last year the Minister was not available, today he is. That means that we are able to continue our very regular dialogue, which is usually conducted through the Transport Committee.

It is very tempting just to re-read my speech from last July, where I outlined the history of the project and praised those such as John Bridge from the chamber of commerce who have done so much to secure the project, as well as Doug Whyte and Elaine Gristwood, and Councillors Claire Richards and Jocelynne Scutt, who have done so much to continue to highlight the problems faced by residents and constituents. I also praised those involved in what is a fantastic project: David Bray and his entire team from Highways England—the construction workers, civil engineers and project managers. It is a truly impressive project.

There is no doubt that the upgrade is absolutely vital because the existing A14 trunk road between Cambridge and Huntingdon is notorious for congestion and delays. About 85,000 vehicles use this stretch of the A14 every day—many more than the road was originally designed to take. About a quarter of those vehicles are heavy goods vehicles—well above the national average for this type of road, adding to the need for an upgrade.

There have been some hugely impressive innovations involved in this project. Only this week, I read in The Cambridge News about the self-driving truck—a massive truck—deployed to speed up the works. Some of the bridge installations have been quite astonishing, truly impressive and watched in fascination. It is a deeply impressive engineering endeavour but, sadly, managing the disruption caused to local residents has been much less successful. I am here not to berate Highways England, or even the Conservative county council, under-resourced as it is, because that is a wider issue, but to raise the disruption that this project has caused to residents in my city of Cambridge and the surrounding villages.

Let me go into more detail about the problem. The road closures caused by these works have resulted in an official diversion strategy of overnight closures from Highways England that adds about 30 miles to the journeys of those driving lorryloads 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. Given that it is such a lengthy diversion, it is unsurprising that some drivers choose to shortcut through Cambridge along King’s Hedges Road, Milton Road, Victoria Road, Newmarket Road, Histon Road and Huntingdon Road. The overnight road closures that began to cause trucks to drive through the city’s small roads started about a year ago and, I am afraid, have been unrelenting from the beginning. A year on, my constituents still face grim traffic, sleepless nights and even damage to their property. In the debate last year, the Minister’s colleague promised what she called a “step change in diversions” in September. My first specific question to the Minister today is to ask what happened to that step change and what we can expect over the next few months.

The shortcuts through the city disrupt the lives of those who live in and around my city. Roads inappropriate for HGVs are used. One, Victoria Road, already has a weight limit, which could be extended on a temporary basis to other similarly inappropriate streets, or to an even wider area still. Labour County Councillors Jocelynne Scutt and Claire Richards, and their officers, have been working hard to ameliorate the problem, working on a range of measures such as replacing pothole lids with new ones to make them quieter, looking at some of the weight and speed restrictions on certain roads, and maximising signage.

However, the problem is that it is ultimately completely inappropriate to have hundreds of HGVs thundering along residential roads through the city at night. I have heard, in some cases on many occasions, from exhausted constituents regarding the huge noise disturbances on the roads that I have mentioned. I know that neighbouring MPs have heard the same from residents in villages such as Swavesey, Histon and Impington, where, I am told, houses shake from the HGVs’ impact and people are similarly kept up all night by the noise.

In the city of Cambridge, one constituent told me:

“We had many trucks rattling down Victoria Road again from around 4 am (or earlier) until at least 5 am this morning, badly disrupting sleep… Does this mean that, yet again, the drivers can simply ignore the signage—and the law—when they choose? Is anything more being done about this issue?”

That is precisely the problem. There is no effective mechanism that any authority seems to be able to use to combat the issue and I will return to that point.

Constituents have also told me about serious road traffic congestion problems. One wrote to me saying that it has

“come to something when you’ve got to queue to get out of your own drive at 4.30am to go to work and the lorries are backed up.”

To most of us, that seems a quite extraordinary situation, but that is what people are facing—traffic queues in the middle of the night. It is playing havoc with the lives of hard-working people in and around the city, destroying their sleep and their routines. It is also causing significant damage to infrastructure—which is ironic, as it is a result of other infrastructure improvements—because local roads are just not designed for this type of traffic. I was told by my constituent and local campaigner Doug Whyte:

“There are already pot-holes and crumbling road surfaces on the roads that have been used by the lorries.”

Another constituent pointed out that the council’s current programme of road improvements will turn out to be

“a total waste of our money, as it will all be churned up by the HGVs again”.

The mismanagement of the diversions will affect the work by councils to improve their local areas, while costing taxpayers extra money.

The damage is not only to public infrastructure and property. My constituent Elaine Gristwood explained to the A14 team:

“We have noticed over the last few months that we have cracking to all the ceilings in our house which were not there prior to these closures. As reported to yourselves last year with the HGVs coming down Kings Hedges Road the whole house shakes and we are sure this is what has caused the cracking to these ceilings. It now makes us wonder how much more damage is going to occur due to this diversion, and how many other houses along this route are affected. We would like to know how we can claim compensation for these issues caused by this diversion.”

She was told:

“Whilst we sympathise with your concerns about the damage to your property, I’m afraid there’s no grounds for a claim”.

Where can Elaine and other residents go from here?

That is the human misery and infrastructure damage caused as an unintended consequence. The question I would like to address is, what can be done? One of the key points I raised last year was the accuracy of data. We can all agree that there will inevitably be disruption with any project like this, and my constituents understand and appreciate that. The question is, how much is reasonable? To make any rational judgment, the most basic element is at least having data on how many traffic movements are being generated.

In the debate last July, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani), told us:

“Highways England is working with Cambridgeshire County Council to implement… HGV counters”—[Official Report, 19 July 2018; Vol. 645, c. 698.]

That is fine, but she went on to quote figures for nights when closures were taking place that seemed to be surprisingly—in fact, suspiciously—low. I have been pursuing that since last July and, astonishingly, we still cannot get accurate and reliable data, despite the well-intended promises made by the Minister that evening.

Anecdotally, I am told that residents are counting from 50 to more than 100 HGVs an hour in the middle of the night. When I looked at the data from the counter that was sent to me following the debate, the numbers were tiny by comparison. To my astonishment, the data also seemed to be telling us that there were virtually no vehicle movements during the daytime, but anyone who knows Cambridge knows that traffic is frequently gridlocked at that point. Quite frankly, the data was wrong. Last year I asked, somewhat rhetorically, whether the Government think it is more efficient for residents to stay up through the night counting the vehicles manually or to rely on BBC news reporters to do the same. If we have the technology to move a bridge, surely we can install at least a camera and count the number of vehicle movements. This is a woeful failure, and I hope we can have an assurance from the Minister today that at least the data issues will be resolved, so that we can have a rational discussion based on evidence.

That brings me to a bigger problem. This huge and impressive £2 billion project is being spoiled, because our public services around the project are now so fragmented and under-resourced that they are unable to do what would be necessary to make diversions work. The main problem is that, with so many authorities potentially involved, it is unclear who leads or takes responsibility. We have a combined authority, which has strategic responsibilities. We have a woefully under-resourced county council, which has responsibility for local roads. We have a metro mayor and a police and crime commissioner. We have the local police and we have Highways England. Local residents ask, “Who’s in charge?”—maybe the Minister can tell us.

When residents first came to me with this problem, I went to the council, which then directed me to Highways England, which then referred me to the Department for Transport and the police. We have so many different agencies involved and, frankly, they do not communicate properly and clearly with each other, let alone with the public. When I ask what should be a relatively simple question, such as “Why can’t these diversions be properly enforced?” no one can in the end give me a clear answer that does not end up blaming one of the other partners. No one is prepared to take the lead and no one is prepared to push for solutions. This is very frustrating for me and local councillors but, most importantly, it leaves residents in the lurch.

This is not just an issue for this project. When talking to others elsewhere in the country, I have been told that similar problems have emerged in other major schemes and diversions. The county council does have some potential powers and we have talked about those with the council—traffic regulation orders, weight limits and so on—and it is true that there are complexities in distinguishing genuinely local traffic from freight passing through, but the basic problem is that ignoring a 30-mile diversion is a perfectly rational thing to do if there are no consequences.

That is the policy point that I would like the Minister to focus on for the future: how we provide a disincentive for people to take the short cut. I have to say that, with cameras, automatic number plate recognition and all the modern technologies available to us, it does seem to me to be perfectly possible to come up with a solution. Put crudely, if it costs lorries more to take the short cut, they will stop doing it, but it does need the Government to get a grip. The local agencies have neither the powers nor the resources to make it happen.

As we have tried to come up with local solutions, we have hit persistent obstacles—not least the lack of resources in local policing to enforce any mechanism that could be put in place. Sadly, as I think we all know, traffic policing has virtually disappeared. That is backed up by the fact that Highways England actually offered to pay for more policing to enforce the diversion. When it did so, however, it transpired that there simply are not enough police officers available for the force to spare, regardless of the offer from Highways England to pay for them.

When I spoke to the police and crime commissioner’s office, I got a factually accurate, if rather depressingly defeatist, account of basically why it could not do anything. I was told that

“it is currently an ongoing issue that the Constabulary have had to deal with...surrounding the A14 upgrade. The diversion routes are clearly signposted, however, they are not enforceable and drivers cannot be made to follow these routes. There is currently nothing to stop HGV’S using Huntingdon Road and Histon Road to bypass the ongoing overnight closures as there is no weight limit in place. Victoria Road however is subject to a 7.5 tonne weight limit between the hours of 23:00 and 07:00.”

That was it. Basically the message is: nothing we can do. Frankly, that is simply not good enough, which is why I am rather looking forward to discussing further with the Minister some of the ideas I am proposing in a meeting that we have scheduled for next week.

To conclude, I have some questions for the Minister. How long will the current closures really go on for? How are we going to get accurate data, as the A14 team themselves have accepted that the current numbers are incorrect? How will he ensure that the diversions are managed properly, that my residents can sleep at night and that their houses and roads are not damaged at their expense? Just for good measure, is there any chance of convincing his Cabinet colleagues to stop running down the public services that are so essential for supporting big infrastructure projects such as this?

I will leave the Minister with a final image. In December last year, the local press reported on Barbara Placido, who woke up in her home one morning to find that an articulated lorry had torn through a small garden wall and crashed into the corner of her house. This was actually the second time that it had happened and it was in the heart of Cambridge; it is a lovely line of houses overlooking Jesus Green. I am sure the Minister knows Cambridge well. What on earth was that lorry doing there? She told the Cambridge News:

“We’re not being protected on our streets. It is really disheartening.”

This gets to the crux of the matter: there is no protection for residents between the myriad different agencies involved in this project.

The A14 upgrade should be a regional improvement and a showcase of UK civil engineering, which it is. However, it has also become a nightmare for motorists and passengers stuck in grim traffic queues, too often a headache for people finding regular journeys taking far longer than expected and, as I have outlined, a misery for residents in Cambridge and the surrounding areas. I hope the Minister will be able to outline how he will improve things.

In the debate last July, I invited the Minister to commit properly to resourcing a framework to ensure that HGV drivers follow the proper diversions. In my view, those who do not should be named, shamed, and fined to protect the people of Cambridge—or whichever area is under pressure—who currently lack protection. But guess what? Nothing has changed. A year on, can the Minister persuade me that we will not be having the same debate this time next year? Indeed, I have an inkling that, by later in the year, some things will have changed, hopefully for the better.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) on securing this debate about the A14 Cambridge to Huntingdon upgrade. He is a genial although troublingly probing inquisitor on the Transport Committee, and it is always a great pleasure to discuss these issues with him. I look forward to this being the first half of a little two-step, with the second half at our meeting next week. In an Adjournment debate last summer, he diligently raised his constituents’ concerns, particularly about the impact of road diversions through Cambridgeshire as a result of the A14 scheme. He need not repeat his speech—I am glad he did not—because I have read it with care and attention. I was not able to attend that debate, but I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani), who responded in my stead.

I wish to use this opportunity to outline what Highways England has done, and is continuing to do, to reduce the impact of the scheme’s road diversions on local residents. Inevitably, much of that will revisit issues already discussed in the previous debate. It is important to be clear that this is a genuinely difficult issue for reasons I will come to, and we do not need conspiracy theories or worries about overlapping or underlapping jurisdictions to recognise the genuine difficulty of this situation.

I will come on to discuss the road diversions in some detail, but let me remind the hon. Gentleman of some of the strategic reasons for the scheme and provide an update on Highways England’s progress in delivering it. As he and any local resident or traveller in that part of the world will know, The Cambridge to Huntingdon section is one of the busiest parts of the strategic road network between the midlands and East Anglia and the port of Felixstowe. It is vital to connecting businesses, communities and families across Cambridgeshire and beyond, and a crucial corridor for international freight. It is also a long-standing congestion hotspot and an area of concern for the communities around it.

In delivering upgrades to the A14, Highways England and my Department acknowledged that the demand placed on it was taking an increasing toll on drivers and local residents. Commutes between Huntingdon and Cambridge were severely congested, and small villages on either side of the road suffered from increased traffic caused by drivers rat-running to avoid traffic delays on the A14. The scheme was drawn up in recognition of those concerns and in an attempt to alleviate them. That is why the A14 improvement works were included as a major project in the Department’s five-year road investment strategy, which was published in December 2014. In a measure of how important the scheme was locally, local authorities and local enterprise partnerships committed £100 million towards the total £1.5 billion cost. That contribution will help to deliver a scheme that meets the needs of the strategic road network and local people.

The benefits to local road users and communities include 21 miles of new three-lane dual carriageway road—that was mentioned in the debate last year—a new 750-metre viaduct; the removal of the existing unsightly viaduct in Huntingdon town centre; two new footbridges at Swavesey junction and Bar Hill; and—this is the bit I really like—more than 18 miles of routes that are suitable for walking, cycling and horse-riding. The goal, which we believe the scheme will achieve, is to create a positive legacy that ties communities together, unlocks regional and local economic growth, combats congestion and improves road safety. Relieving congestion will make travel, particularly commuting, easier, safer and more reliable. We hope the scheme, along with better design, will improve road safety.

The scheme separates strategic and local traffic, which will help to reduce congestion. It has been designed to accommodate the expected significant growth in the area over the next 15 years or so. This will be vital if the scheme’s benefits are to continue. I understand we are looking at a 26% growth in traffic. Cambridgeshire’s employment alone is forecast to grow by 16% between 2012 and 2031. We hope there will also be improvements to air quality and a reduction in traffic noise. Highways England never undertakes any scheme without paying careful attention to the environment and local wildlife. The scheme will deliver nearly 700 hectares of new habitat for wildlife and 18 new wildlife habitat creation areas, and hundreds bat boxes and a variety of bird boxes will be installed. All of that adds up to a highly attractive and important scheme that creates a positive legacy for the residents and businesses of Cambridgeshire.

The scheme has also created jobs through the new Highways College in west Anglia, which was opened to give up to 200 local people the skills needed to get the road built. Highways England is making good progress on the scheme. It is within budget and on target to meet an open-for-traffic date in 2020, as outlined in the road investment strategy, although it would be nice to think that it will be possible to take some of the diversions off before the end of that period. That is certainly the aspiration, but the open-for-traffic date at the end of 2020 is the stipulated date.

Turning to the hon. Gentleman’s specific concerns about noise and disruption for residents on and off the official diversion routes caused by the scheme’s construction, as he knows the Government and Highways England are focused on ensuring that the delivery of the scheme causes the minimum inconvenience to local residents, while recognising that some inconvenience is inevitable in a scheme of this magnitude. Since the issue was raised of HGVs, lorries and other vehicles not following the recommended road diversions, Highways England has been working hard to develop measures that will help to lessen those impacts and encourage more drivers to use the preferred diversion routes. As he noted, it is working closely with Cambridgeshire County Council and partner organisations to minimise the impact where possible.

When closures are in place on the A14 between junction 36 and junction 31, the strategic diversion route directs traffic south of Cambridge on what, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, is a substantial detour. The trouble is that alternative routes are required for non-motorway traffic. This is where we get into the genuine complexity of the issue. There is non-motorway traffic and local traffic travelling to local destinations, where the strategic diversion would be considered irrelevant or not acceptable. Those routes take traffic further into and around Cambridge city centre and include, as he mentioned, Kings Hedges Road, Newmarket Road and Milton Road.

Highways England has no powers to prevent road users, including HGVs, taking other routes they have a legal right to use as an alternative to the official strategic diversion. As the hon. Gentleman knows, traffic is like water—it tends to flow down the channels of least resistance. Blocking traffic on some local roads inevitably diverts it on to other local roads, and that creates complexity for the scheme. Highways England is working actively to keep strategic traffic—we are talking about a very small percentage of thousands and thousands of journeys every day—following official diversion routes. This includes giving weekly briefings to regional media, parish councils and local organisations, and posts on social media. There are also over 40 roadside signs, some including instructions not to follow sat-nav systems, up to 13 mobile variable messaging signs, and the use of overhead signs further afield on the strategic road network. Works have also been resequenced to resolve technical challenges involving utilities and drainage. The A14 project team are working with the Road Haulage Association and Freight Transport Association so that diversion information can be shared with their members too.

Like the hon. Gentleman, I am concerned about a possible mismatch between the data reported by Highways England and the on-the-ground data and experience of his constituents. Following the previous debate, Highways England was asked to take a look at this. As he knows, it is working with Cambridgeshire County Council to implement speed signs and HGV counters and, as he recognised, it has offered to pay some of the enforcement costs, but it has also taken the trouble to check the calibration of the counters. If there is still a mismatch and the calibration shows a much smaller number—say 20 to 30 vehicles during some hours of the night on some roads, rather than the large build-ups that his constituents are recording—we will have to get to the bottom that. We will be happy to share the data—next week, I hope—and look through that in more detail.

I need hardly say that Cambridgeshire police are also aware of the issues raised and have agreed to check for non-compliance with speed or weight restrictions at key sensitive locations. That is important. Such measures are not necessarily resource intensive, if they are focused and if the effect is to create a sense of uncertainty or concern, which can have a powerful deterrent effect on regular abusers of the traffic system. That said, for operational reasons, this is not always possible, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

The overall commitment to deliver the A14 upgrade on time and within budget remains, but the scheme has been created to ensure that wherever possible local stakeholders’ concerns are at the forefront of the work. The trouble is that in many cases for a period some of the distress felt historically in the villages has been transmuted to the centre of the city, which is unfortunate, but the A14 will in due course serve a wider goal. As I have said, the diversion routes may be required until the open-for-traffic date, programmed for 2020, but the hope is that they will not be.

The traffic data collected by Highways England and residents is a fraction of the many thousands of the HGVs that use the A14 every day, and Highways England is working with Cambridge City Council to improve the weight limit signage, which is also an important part of this. It has assured me that the matter of traffic on diversion routes for subsequent schemes, such as the A428, will be considered in the early stages of the planning process. If that is one tangible result of the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, it will have been a valuable one. I thank him for raising this issue.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.