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Road Connectivity: Teesside to Scotland

Volume 697: debated on Wednesday 16 June 2021

I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice to support the new hybrid arrangements. Timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate. There are also suspensions between each debate.

I remind Members participating physically and virtually that they must arrive for the start of debates in Westminster Hall. Members are expected to remain for the entire debate. We have no Members participating virtually, so I do not need to say the next bit. Members attending physically, however, should clean their spaces before they use them and as they leave the room. I remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the A68 and road connectivity from Teesside to Scotland.

Left behind, ignored, forgotten, neglected, overlooked, the rust belt—those are the synonymous phrases often used to describe the communities that make up the towns and villages for whom the A68 is their key artery. There are many different descriptions but, politically speaking, the phrase I heard most often is that Labour had taken their community and their vote for granted forever. I am sure that that is felt on the streets of the towns and villages not only of North West Durham, from Crook to Castleside, from Willington to Wearhead, but of my neighbours in Bishop Auckland, Sedgefield and Darlington.

Running from Darlington through Sedgefield to Bishop Auckland, up through my constituency, before dropping into Northumberland and over the Scottish border, the constituencies along the A68 have names synonymous with new Labour—Tony Blair, Alan Milburn, Hilary Armstrong—seats referred to as the red wall, now the blue wall. However, that is a mythical construct of political scientists and commentators. The A68 is very much real-world hardcore, a real rather than a metaphorical construction. The A68 is now the blue road.

The Prime Minister, on his visit to Sedgefield in December 2019, following the general election, understood that: the pencil hovering over the ballot paper before breaking the voting habit of generations. I want the people of the north-east to know that I will repay their trust—and trust is the key word. The Prime Minister had recognised that the trust between their previous MPs and their constituents had been broken. We can see why around the A68.

I have with me the County Durham plan of 1951—thanks to the Library of the House of Commons, which was able to source it for me from a research library. It was produced the year after my constituency of North West Durham was created. In it, my constituency had three railway lines to Consett alone, along with others to the south, and new plans for roads and bypasses, including on the A68. When I was elected, the big improvements on the A68, including the Toft Hill bypass, marked in 1951, still had not been done. Seventy years on, it still has not. Seven decades on, there are now no railway lines or stations at all in my constituency. The road improvements have not been done. Is it any surprise that people felt that trust had been broken?

In that time, we switched the rest of our railway network from coal to diesel and, increasingly, electric. Seventy years ago, Winston Churchill was Prime Minister. We had not even had the Suez crisis. The treaty of Rome was still a glint in the eye of European leaders. King George VI was on the throne. Labour have, for 70 years, taken North West Durham, much of the rest of the north-east of England, the north of England, Wales, Scotland and the midlands for granted. Only last month, in County Durham we saw Labour finally lose control of the council after 102 years. Things are changing.

I am pleased to say that, with the restoring your railway funding, I have submitted plans for enhanced cycling and walking, better disabled access and examination of options for a new public transport route between Consett and the Tyne. In the south of my constituency, alongside my hon. Friends the Members for Bishop Auckland (Dehenna Davison), for Darlington (Peter Gibson) and for Sedgefield (Paul Howell), backed up by Ben Houchen, the Mayor of Tees Valley, I am leading the support for the new restoring your railway bid for the Darlington and Durham dales railway line.

When I was elected, the Shotley Bridge Community Hospital, which a couple of decades ago was a maternity hospital, was going to be rebuilt with no beds—a hospital with no beds. Thanks to the campaign, I have now ensured that we will get 16 beds, which is double the number in the current facility.

I am campaigning for bus routes to Weardale and Burnhope, to bring those physical connections back to cut-off communities. I am campaigning for broadband for places such as Muggleswick and Maiden Law, so that they have the connections that will allow our businesses to compete and individuals to connect in the 21st century.

What we have not yet seen enough movement on is the A68. For the communities of Crook and Weardale to be able to make the most of the opportunities being created in Teesside—from the freeport to the excellent new jobs coming at the Treasury and other Departments—the Toft Hill bypass and the Darlington bypass need to be prioritised. At firms such as Elddis Transport, a fourth generation family firm run by Nigel Cook, whom I met recently, drivers are still having to make difficult journeys on an A68 suitable for previous generations.

For people in Castleside, it is clear that the long-term siting of a major road through the centre of their village is no longer an option. It is time for the A68 to be put on the strategic road network because it is an arterial route. It carries a far greater proportion of its traffic as heavy goods vehicles than most other roads in a similar category. It is the third route to Scotland between the M1 and the A1.

Whether it is upgrading the A1 or the east coast main line or getting the Leamside line up and running, we north MPs here today are all supportive, and are all backing each other up. The A68 is the clear next step. We want our communities to be able to thrive and for our local private sectors not to be hemmed in, so that good jobs can be created and, in turn, help fund our great public services.

Our communities are already seeing the difference Conservative MPs make. In his speech in Sedgefield, the Prime Minister said:

“Our country has now embarked on a wonderful new adventure and we are going to recover our national self-confidence… and we are going to do things differently and better.”

Seventy years on from the initial plans, it is now time to do things better. It is time to cement the foundations and the economic bonds and to enhance those community ties with a road like the A68, which is strategically so important, to help unite our Union.

Order. It may help if I set out the timings for this 60-minute debate. The Front-Bench speeches will take 20 minutes in total, and therefore wind-ups will begin at roughly 5.30 pm. That is better news than I indicated previously. Colleagues do not have to take their full time, but each speech can now be between seven and 10 minutes.

It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship today, Sir Gary, and to be called to speak in today’s debate, which has been so ably led by my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden). He has been a tireless campaigner for infrastructure in the north. I congratulate him on securing this important debate.

Improving connectivity in areas that have been left behind for too long must be central to our goal of levelling up. The A68 is not just a central artery of northern transport infrastructure and connectivity. While it links Darlington with Edinburgh, more than 128 miles away, it is also vital to our cultural connectivity, linking the communities of Darlington, Sedgefield, Bishop Auckland and Hexham.

At its southern tip in the heart of my constituency, the A68 provides access to the A1(M) at junction 58. Much of the northbound traffic has to snake its way through residential areas such as Cockerton and Faverdale, causing congestion and emissions. Much of the traffic could be directed on to the A1 at junction 57, if it only had a northbound entry slip road.

At the northern end of my constituency, our outer ring road is incomplete. The A1(M) and the A66, which was recently awarded long overdue upgrading, form three quarters of the ring road, but the section between Great Burdon and junction 59 of the A1(M) does not exist. Although the entirety of the route falls in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Paul Howell), he knows the benefits it will have for Darlington.

The missing section causes traffic to snake through residential parts of north Darlington such as Whinfield and Harrowgate Hill, causing congestion and emissions. My campaign for this long overdue piece of infrastructure is essential to the success of the County Durham economy and its connectivity, and will be key to accessing our new freeport located throughout the Tees valley. Delivering the bypass will be the last piece in our ring road jigsaw. My two key asks for road infrastructure feed into the improvements to the A68 itself and access to it.

Over the past 18 months, the Government have committed to revolutionising the north-east by giving targeted money to make the biggest impact, from £105 million being invested in Darlington’s Bank Top station to £23.3 million being invested in Darlington through the towns fund, or the delivery of “Treasury North” and a freeport on Teesside, the Government are delivering on their levelling-up agenda. However, much more is needed to equal the investment that others have so heavily benefited from and to revitalise our road network, improve connectivity, reduce emissions and deliver on our region’s full potential.

As we build back better, seeking to cut congestion and the consequent waste emissions, road improvements must be central to our recovery. The new road will cut gridlock and the nightmare that has been caused to my constituents in Darlington. I know I am not alone in wanting to cut gridlock and reduce emissions for my constituents. My hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Dehenna Davison) is also campaigning for her own bypass on the A68 to cut gridlock and improve road safety at Toft Hill. Likewise, my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield is campaigning for rail improvements. Collectively, along with my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham, we are all campaigning for the reintroduction of services from Darlington to the Durham dales.

With the opening of the £4.8 billion levelling-up fund in March this year and the upcoming independent Union connectivity review, I look forward to working with my hon. Friends from across the region to explore the opportunities for investment that that will bring. I know, and the people of Darlington know, that the Government are serious about delivering on their ambitious levelling-up agenda, and I will continue to press the Government to deliver for the north-east.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden) on securing this important debate.

Colleagues will know that I regularly appear when the matter of regional connectivity and levelling up are pertinent to the debate, so here I am. Today I want to talk about how improving the A68 and connectivity from Durham and Teesside to Scotland is important in the levelling-up agenda.

A great deal of investment in transport infrastructure is needed to realise the Government’s levelling-up agenda. I have spoken in this place before about bus, coaches and trains strategies. All of those initiatives rely on adequate physical foundations being put in place. The A68 is currently not an adequate physical foundation. As it currently exists, the A68 is a single carriageway, save for two small sections where it meets larger roads such as the A1(M) and the A69. Ultimately, if someone gets stuck behind a slow driver and there is too much traffic, bottlenecking occurs and the whole journey speed is compromised and/or dangerous risks are taken. I know that all too well, as in a previous life I regularly commuted between Durham and Edinburgh. It is dangerous, and has been for many years.

Durham County Council has simply not given the road the work that it needs to be maintained or improved. As far back as 1951, it was suggested that a bypass be installed at Toft Hill, yet no move was made to erect it and ease congestion. The A68 is not just a regional road; it is nationally significant and an artery that requires investment and managing in that context. Although the A68 serves west County Durham in the main, the whole of the county would benefit from improvements to the road. To the south of my constituency, the A68 crosses the A1 close to Aycliffe business park, which has a great many businesses. The business park is deliberately located near the A1, which is a main commuter artery to London, but also to Newcastle and Scotland. Any blockage on the A1, however, means that my constituents and their businesses are wholly reliant on the A68. As the A1 is single-carriageway further north too, its own congestion problems can easily arise.

When it comes to congestion problems, there are significant issues in Darlington, as my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) just outlined, relating to the transport links between the A1(M) and Teesside with traffic from the north, and, in particular, from the 10,000-job industrial estate in Newton Aycliffe and the freeport scheduled in Teesside. The Darlington northern bypass, which is in my Sedgefield constituency but would massively impact on efficient connectivity and congestion, is another critical artery that needs delivery. Businesses such as Hitachi in Newton Aycliffe need to make significant diversions to avoid Darlington, which adds both cost and carbon to everything they do.

Should the A68 be better managed, my constituents would not rely on the A1 and would have much better road links to Scotland, for both tourist and commercial journeys, making northerly business ventures faster and more reliable. That would serve to make northern towns and cities better connected. I have already put my name to three bids to improve the rail transport in and around the constituency—namely Ferryhill, Leamside and the Durham dales line, which connects Bishop and Weardale, through Darlington, on the edge of my Sedgefield constituency.

Today, I am asserting that the road infrastructure must complement any improvements in rail, because currently County Durham is very car reliant. Out of 228,000 people found to work in County Durham, only 2,000 use the train to commute. Buses are slightly better at 13,000, but the car is the main mode of transport, with 164,000 people opting to use one to get to work.

Although I would clearly like to see a shift in the number of people using the railway, and we need to drive the “Bus Back Better” plans to get road infrastructure that is fit for purpose, the fact remains that there are many cars on the road in County Durham, and they need catering for. Those who own a car are reliant on it. Those without one find leaving the local area and expanding their opportunities very difficult. To realise their potential, people and businesses in south Durham and Teesside must be able to reach Scotland in a decent journey time in order to reach new markets and customers.

Infrastructure investment is undoubtedly a key economic driver, helping both the national economy and regional and county economies attract and retain businesses and jobs. This investment has been acknowledged to be needed most critically away from London and the south-east. The Government’s industrial strategy states that the UK has a greater disparity in regional productivity than other European countries, which in turn causes disparity regionally in people’s pay, opportunities and life chances.

Nationally, it is recognised that our transport infra- structure needs to support UK business growth, not only in terms of supporting the movement of people and goods but in respect of providing more efficient means of transport and reducing journey times, which is precisely what we are discussing today. It is therefore imperative that improvements be made on these roads in the north-east as the Government deliver on their commitment to level up and improve the micro-economies and opportunities in the north of the country. Taking ownership and delivering critical arteries is fundamental, and I ask the Minister to keep this at the top of his agenda.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary.

My hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden) and I have many things in common and many common interests, but the one that really united us from the get-go—it was not pints of lager anywhere near the Red Lion—was in fact our passion for the A68 and our joint commitment to making it the monolithic structure it should be: a proper road that is part of the strategic road network. I have been working with him since we were elected to try to make that happen, and the campaign continues. I see the Minister’s ears pricking up. I hope he has heard us, but we will continue remind him until it is done.

In a past life, before I became a Member of this place, I used to drive the A68 every day to go to work, from High Etherley, just near Toft Hill—hon. Members will hear me mention it a few times, so I thought I would get started early—right up towards Annfield Plain. Every day, I faced absolute torment trying to drive through Toft Hill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) mentioned the disaster when the A68 goes right through those residential zones, the congestion and the issues it causes for local residents and their quality of life. As a commuter, it used to add 15 to 20 minutes on to my journey time to drive a mile-long stretch. It was absolutely disastrous and something has to be done about it.

During the general election, I went out around Toft Hill and High Etherley with some surveys and asked local residents about the key concern on their mind. Universally, across the board, the issue that came back on 90% of all surveys from those who did bother to respond, was building the bypass in Toft Hill finally.

We have heard today from all three of my colleagues from the County Durham area—my hon. Friends the Members for North West Durham, for Darlington and for Sedgefield—about how the Toft Hill bypass was in and promised by the County Durham plan back in 1951. We are 70 years down the line and it has still not been delivered. It is an absolute disgrace, but I have some good news, which will come up later in this speech.

Residents told me in the survey that they wanted a bypass. The local parish council has been campaigning fiercely for a bypass for decades. My predecessor even presented a petition to this place in 2018, calling for a bypass to be built, and yet it was not done. I made building the Toft Hill bypass a key part of my general election pledges. It was one of my five pledges and I have worked on it non-stop since I was elected.

The issues for residents of Toft Hill and Etherley are vast. It is not just cars whizzing by; it is parking on both sides of the street, heavy goods vehicles and other heavy vehicles trying to get through, right next to a primary school that is just feet away from the road, with a school crossing. The congestion can be absolutely crippling. The road safety aspect cannot be understated. A few years ago, one of my constituents, as was raised by my predecessor, was sitting at home in her living room when a van came speeding down the road, ran straight into her living room and completely destroyed her property. She was out of her home for months waiting for it to rebuilt. That shows just how much of a road safety priority it is to get the Toft Hill bypass built.

The local parish council has been pushing for this for years. I have only been in post for a year and a half, but I have been non-stop nagging the Transport Secretary and basically anyone else who will listen about this bypass. In the national scheme of things, it may seem small and insignificant, but for residents of Toft Hill, High Etherley and the surrounding areas it is absolutely crucial. I have raised it with the council and the director of regeneration, Amy Harhoff, at our very first meeting. She asked me what my local priorities were and I think she expected me to talk about all sorts of job creation measures, which we got on to later, but the very first thing I raised was the Toft Hill bypass. I told her that, working with her in partnership, that was the key project I wanted to get completed in my first term as a Member of Parliament.

I raised it with the chief exec of the council, who I think is absolutely sick of hearing me utter the words “Toft Hill bypass”, but he has been fantastic in helping me to facilitate the campaign. I have also raised it with Government, the Transport Secretary, the Leader of the House, in the Chamber and privately with countless Ministers, including the Communities Secretary and the Chancellor. I really hope they are listening, because this is crucial for Toft Hill.

We had our local elections a few short months ago and I am delighted to say that, going from one Conservative and one Labour ward, we took the ward in which Toft Hill sits, with two Conservative councillors, and one of their key election pledges was getting the Toft Hill bypass built. The good news that I promised earlier is that, thanks to the incredibly hard work of Amy Harhoff and Dave Wafer at Durham County Council, and countless other officers and campaigners from Toft Hill parish council and Etherley parish council, we now have a bid that will be going in to the levelling-up fund in the next few days calling for the bypass finally to be built. We have a plan and are asking the Government for the money, so Minister, please tell me you are listening and please put a good word in for me with the powers that be.

Finally, after decades of inaction and, I am afraid to say, of Labour promising and not delivering, I hope, after 18 months in this place, to get some good news and get the Toft Hill bypass approved and delivered in my first term as an MP.

I know West Auckland residents of in my constituency are concerned about the proposed bypass. They want a bigger bypass that would go past both Toft Hill and West Auckland. We believe that was discussed in earlier plans, 20 or 30 years ago—I think before I was born. I think there are concerns that the bypass will bring new congestion into West Auckland. I want to reassure any residents of West Auckland that that will not be the case. It will be the same traffic that is already coming into the village. There will be no worsening. I certainly agree with local residents, however, that the next phase has to be completing the bypass around West Auckland. Unfortunately, given the amount of time we had for the levelling-up fund bid, the hoops we have to jump through and the amount of funding available, it is not possible at this stage.

I hope he will forgive me but I say to the Transport Secretary—I hope he is listening—that I am coming to you at the moment for the Toft Hill bypass, but as soon as the ink is dry I will be nagging you once more for the next bypass, the West Auckland bypass. I hope that local residents of West Auckland hear me loud and clear when I say that that will be my next major transport priority. Mum always said, “If you don’t ask, you don’t get,” so I figured I would throw it in early.

I am delighted that we have had this debate on the importance of the A68, and that I have had the opportunity to discuss the importance of completing the Toft Hill bypass. The levelling-up bid will be going in this week, and I hope that any Ministers present and any who happen to be reading Hansard in the middle of the night this evening will take that bid on board, and grant us the bypass for which local residents have been calling for so long.

I thank the hon. Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden) for having secured today’s debate and for raising some very fair concerns about the A68. Having driven up and down it several times in the past, I can certainly attest to sometimes being caught behind slow-moving vehicles. The connections between Teesside and Scotland are critical, and as a Scottish MP I am not going to comment on the details of what needs to be done by way of road improvements for the south. Those improvements would undoubtedly benefit my constituents as they travel southwards, but there are clearly others in the room far more qualified than me to discuss the details of issues in their own constituencies. However, I certainly understand the need to improve connectivity and the importance of an arterial route to boost economic growth for the south—I know most Members here would refer to it as the north, but it is the south—and to help folk get out to our marvellous country more easily.

These days, in terms of traffic flow the A68 border route plays second fiddle to the A1 in the east and the M6 and M74 in the west, but it is a central route. It remains one of the most beautiful and important routes between our nations, not least the section through my own Midlothian constituency, where it terminates—not Edinburgh but Midlothian: a wee technical point for locals. It might not be the most timely or efficient route, but it makes for a beautiful, hilly, dramatic meander through Northumberland’s forests into the historic border town of Jedburgh and up that way to our finest of counties, Midlothian. The border itself is worthy of a pit stop and picnic—that is if drivers do not take time out for a toastie at the Camien Cafe, which I understand is the last café in England, and a fine pit stop.

The A68 is, of course, a route steeped in history, passed by many a king, a queen, and a border reiver over the centuries. Portions of it follow the Roman road, Dere Street, and it takes us to the site of the largest outpost of the Roman empire north of Hadrian’s Wall, the Trimontium fort near Melrose. It was established around 80 AD, and for most of its existence it was the main forward base for the continued yet unsuccessful attempts by Rome to invade and occupy Scotland. Drivers who were lucky enough to have been on the A68 last Friday might have spotted yet another relic, with legendary Hollywood actor Harrison Ford on site making the latest “Indiana Jones” film in the shadow of the Leaderfoot viaduct.

Of course, the A68 lost much of the bustle in my part of the world when the Dalkeith bypass opened in 2008. This took custom from one of the famous coaching inns serving the route, the Old Meal Market, which had many a tale to tell of hauntings and highwayman. The A68 also lost its final run into the city of Edinburgh: it now finishes at the city bypass, the A720. Incidentally, if we are looking at other priorities for investment, that would be right at the top of my list, although that is a matter for another day and, dare I say, another Parliament.

Historical importance is one thing, but we also have to recognise the historical underspend there has been on this creaking network, particularly in the north. We are playing catch-up in so many areas, and lots of improvements are needed to cut the risk of accidents and make the A68 a much safer route for all who use it. Indeed, many of those points have already been made by other Members in this debate. The hilly parts of the route make it all the more challenging to maintain and improve, and just last year we were very lucky that there was not a major accident when thunderstorms and heavy rain caused the A68 to collapse at the Fala embankment, near the town of Pathhead in my constituency. I have huge respect for the massive effort that went in, and for the speedy and efficient repairs carried out by the engineers at BEAR Scotland, who managed to get the route back up and running in a phenomenally short period of time. Having visited the site and seen the extent of the damage after the incident, I was astonished when the timeline they had presented was actually achieved—all credit to them.

I am genuinely supportive of calls for improvements to the A68 and better connectivity with all our friends, trading partners and neighbours across the border. We are no longer supposed to be living in the dark ages of Tory-rule diktat, however, and it is important that decisions on cross-border road improvements are taken with full respect for the democratically elected Governments of each nation. For that reason, I have some difficulty with the Union connectivity review, which assesses transport connectivity between nations of the United Kingdom in a unilateral fashion.

The Scottish Government have robust evidence and the insight to make better informed decisions on transport spending and priorities in Scotland. As I mentioned, we have already had a Dalkeith bypass approved, and it did not take us 70 years to achieve that—it took devolution. The focus needs to be on projects to improve lives, boost the economy, support communities, and work towards net zero. That is how the Scottish Government are planning Scotland’s future transport infrastructure investment. They are doing so much through the second strategic transport projects review, not the Union connectivity review.

Sadly, that review was established without meaningful discussion with the devolved Administrations, and it seems like another attempt to directly encroach into areas in which funding should be devolved. Existing joint working groups of the Scottish and UK Governments, such as on the border growth deal, are far more meaningful frameworks for bilateral relationships between the two Governments. As Friday’s match will no doubt show, the rivalries between Scotland and England can be fierce, but they can also be the best of friends, and it is important that we can engage constructively when it matters. A bit of respect must be shown on both sides.

I am proud that Scotland will show solidarity with England on Friday by taking the knee against racism. Similarly, I hope that our Governments can engage meaningfully over mutually beneficial projects, such as road infrastructure connectivity, through proper channels. I offer a friendly warning to the UK Government that any attempt to undermine the Scottish Government and to claw back powers that have already been devolved will be strongly resisted and—dare I say?—they will be sent homeward to think again.

It is, as always, a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Gary. I congratulate the hon. Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden) on securing the debate. I very much look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say in response to so many of his colleagues’ passionate pleas for investment in their constituencies, so I do not intend to speak for too long.

It is incredibly important that we improve connectivity between the UK’s regions and nations. That should be absolutely at the heart of Government policy, whether in the south-west of England, where the seat I represent is, or in the north-east. I was slightly baffled by some of what the hon. Gentleman said about the 1951 county plan. I was not quite around in those days, but I am pretty sure that there was an election that year that was won by the Conservatives, and that in the 70 years since then, as much as I wish it were not so, the Conservatives have won far more elections than Labour—they were in Government for 46 years out of 70, by my rough calculations.

The things about which the hon. Gentleman spoke—investment in roads and rail, and he mentioned a local hospital and broadband—are by and large the responsibility of national Government. They are certainly reliant on central Government funding. I am not quite sure, then, why he is pointing the finger. Well, I am sure. I know why he is pointing the finger at a Labour-led council rather than the Government, but that does not reflect the true picture of why the area has not received the investment it needs.

I do not think it very helpful to dwell on that point. We should focus more on what we have in common than on what divides us, as my very sadly missed colleague Jo Cox would have said. We all have a desire to improve transport links to reduce congestion and to improve road safety, and I hope that we also share a commitment to environmental objectives. That is not to say that the Labour party would oppose all the road provisions, but we very much want to see them within the framework of tackling air pollution and reducing carbon emissions.

We had a debate in this room this morning on the much-awaited and long-delayed transport decarbonisation plan. I made the point that the Government are committed to that huge £27 billion-worth of spending on road infrastructure but the Transport Secretary ignored the advice of his civil servants to carry out an environmental impact assessment. It is not my role to take a view on what local projects are needed. That is for locally elected representatives, and I would not want them to do that in my patch. However, I hope that we measure things against the impact on the natural environment and overall contribution to getting to net zero, because that cannot be done just by a shift to electric vehicles. We have to discourage road travel and give people alternatives, whether that is investment in rail or buses, as has been mentioned, or other means.

There is also something to be said about spending on basic road maintenance, the budget for which has been slashed. There is now a £11 billion backlog for pothole repairs. Those sorts of things really matter to people in the villages that Members have talked about. [Interruption.] I thought the Minister was leaving—when I mentioned potholes, he put on his jacket and I thought he had had enough and was off. Those things really matter to local people, as well as flagship new bypasses.

On the A68, I am not familiar with that part of the world, although I did once go for a night out at Trimdon Colliery social club in the constituency of the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Paul Howell), so I may have travelled on that road. Needless to say, it was when the then local Member of Parliament was also the Prime Minister and I was a constituency member of Labour’s national policy forum. We had a night out and I remember that lots of pies were delivered, which, being vegan, I could not eat, and then we went down the chip shop. Phil Wilson, the former MP for Sedgefield, delights in saying that the shop still talks about these strange out-of-towners and southerners descending on Trimdon Colliery chip shop, asking what the chips were cooked in. But I digress. Actually, I looked at a map and noticed that Toft Hill is very close to Barnard Castle, which is the other interesting fact I have to share about the area.

On the issue of road safety, I spoke to my Teesside colleagues, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham), who said that the A68 is well known for the number of blind summits on route, and the statistics show that it is one of the most dangerous A roads in Britain, with an accident rate of 2.7 for every 1 million vehicles. I would welcome the Minster setting out what can be done to tackle that issue. People do not want to be stuck in the queues that the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Dehenna Davison) spoke about, but road safety is absolutely imperative.

I will conclude by saying again that we all want to see investment and levelling up, no matter where we represent. The Government could do more, however, including by making rail affordable and creating the rail connectivity that we do not have. I am sure my former colleague Andrew Burnham in Greater Manchester bends Ministers’ ears very frequently—perhaps even more often than the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland. We all want to see improvements, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

It is pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary, and to respond to the debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden) on securing this debate on a topic that I know is very close to his heart and to those of all who have spoken today about the vital route connecting communities through County Durham, Northumbria and onwards to Scotland.

Like many, this year I will have a staycation rather than a vacation. I already have it booked in Durham and in Scotland, so I look forward to sampling for myself the A68 and the picnics and cafés in what is a very beautiful part of the world.

Will the Minister consider a trip to Barnard Castle to view the delights that our wonderful market town has to offer?

I will consider such a kind invitation. I look forward to viewing the local sights and sampling the hospitality, and Barnard Castle or the A68 may be on the list.

To complement that offer, the chip shop next to Trimdon Colliery, otherwise known as Deaf Hill, is also somewhere the Minister could not miss.

I will bear that in mind.

Some colleagues may not be aware that, while I firmly hail from the north-west of England, my family on my father’s side come very firmly from the north-east of England. My father grew up in Shildon, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Dehenna Davison). My grandmother was from Ferryhill—

In my hon. Friend’s constituency. My grandfather worked as a bus driver in Darlington, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson). So I have connections and many family members living across the north-east of England. I am delighted to have listened to the speeches from my colleagues in the north-east, who represent that part of the world so well.

As has been said, the A68 is not a strategic road, and therefore decisions will be reserved to the local highways authorities it passes through. But I assure Members that the Department for Transport works constructively with all partners to ensure that our road infrastructure is fit for purpose and funded appropriately, investing in a road network that maximises economic growth and supports thriving local communities.

To that end, the Government are wholeheartedly committed to delivering on their vision of levelling up the British economy and strengthening the bonds of our Union. Improved transport connectivity is fundamental to that vision, unlocking the economic potential of the northern powerhouse, building back better following this awful pandemic, and ensuring that the north of England plays a key role in a resurgent UK economy. That is why my Department, led by the Secretary of State, who is also the Cabinet Minister responsible for the northern powerhouse, is at the forefront of making this vision a reality.

Since 2010, more than £29 billion has been invested in transport infrastructure in the north, but at the Department for Transport we want to go further and faster. Levelling up all parts of the United Kingdom is at the centre of the Government’s agenda, with a White Paper in development, led by the Prime Minister himself. Transport will be a fundamental part of that vision. While the White Paper is being developed, we are already making strides on investment and strengthening the voice of the north. Significant progress has already been made: over 60% of the north of England is now covered by metro Mayors, offering a strong voice to the people, as well as access to new funding opportunities, particularly for transport.

As part of the devolution deal for the Tees Valley Combined Authority, £126 million was secured, including local growth funds, an investment fund and local transport funding, and there is more to come. The intercity transport settlements announced in the 2020 budget will deliver £4.2 billion to mayoral city regions over the next five years, from 2022-23. That is on top of the £4.8 billion levelling-up fund, underlining our commitment to a robust UK economy firing on all cylinders and maximising economic opportunities for all parts of the country.

The levelling-up fund can be used to support projects such as the A68, so I am delighted to hear that a bid is going in, and I look forward to seeing that bid alongside what I am sure will be many other bids from across the country. That funding will help to level up the region, supporting Mayors who have the powers and the ambition to help their city regions prosper. Indeed, the Government welcome the hard work of the Mayor of Tees Valley, Ben Houchen, who has worked constructively with the Department on a range of transport initiatives, from securing the future of Teesside International airport to delivering improvements to Darlington and Middlesbrough stations and accelerating upgrades to a range of road projects. The Government look forward to receiving proposals from other local authorities in the north-east for a new devolution deal, establishing a Mayor with additional transport powers for the area.

With the right investment, the north-east of England can truly be the cornerstone of a thriving northern powerhouse. Tees Valley received £76 million from the transforming cities fund to improve intercity connectivity. The restoring your railways initiative, which was mentioned by a number of Members, has seen a new station secured for Ferryhill. My hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham should be commended for his work on campaigning for the opening of the Weardale line and the Consett-Tyne rail link. But we should not forget the basics, either. Over £80 million will be spent across the north-east to support highways maintenance, pothole repairs and local transport measures, through 2021-22, meaning smoother, safer and more reliable journeys for not just motorists but bus passengers and cyclists.

We should not consider the north-east of England in isolation. We want the regions to be joined up, with strong north-south connections, especially to Scotland, enabling unencumbered movement of people and goods between our nations. When we work together UK-wide, we are safer, stronger and more prosperous. Together, we are better able to tackle the big problems, from defending our borders and fighting national security threats, to delivering the furlough scheme or the world-beating vaccination roll-out.

The Government are already taking huge strides to strengthen our Union and level up every single part of the country. We are determined to build back better in a way that brings every corner of the UK closer together, making it easier to reach friends, family and businesses from different parts of the UK. I must admit, as the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) mentioned, that our close bonds of friendship with those north of the border may be tested somewhat for 90 minutes on Friday, but, whatever the result, that will not shake the Government’s commitment to strengthen the Union.

We are working to ensure that the institutions of the United Kingdom are used in a way that benefits everybody from Aberdeen to Aylesbury, from Belfast to Brecon. The independent Union connectivity review is key to realising these ambitions. I hear what the hon. Member for Midlothian says, and I can assure him that we intend to work collaboratively and in partnership with the Scottish Government to ensure that the proposals that are brought forward by Sir Peter are ones that we can all get behind and support.

While we eagerly await Sir Peter’s review, the Government are far from resting on our laurels. We are acting now to strengthen the links between England and Scotland. The borderlands growth deal will realise a new era of regeneration opportunity, as we build back better from the pandemic, bringing £452 million of fresh investment into the borderlands area, driving economic growth and strengthening cross-border links.

Making stronger links between Scotland and England a reality requires investment and delivery on the ground. Roads such as the A68 are the lifeblood of the north-east’s economy, and fundamental to getting people and goods to Scotland. That is why the Department is investing £700 million in the strategic road network in the north-east between 2020 and 2025.

I am sure that my hon. Friends from the Tees Valley will share my joy that the A19 is one of the chief recipients of the road investment in the region, with up to £70 million secured to upgrade that road. We are also improving the A69 Bridge End junction in Hexham, to reduce congestion and improve journey times and safety for all road users. The scheme will improve connectivity within the region, including some journeys that use both the A68 and the A69.

The energy we are devoting to delivering transformative transport projects now is matched by our ambitions for further improvements in the future. The Department is starting work to develop the third road investment strategy, known as RIS3, which will set Highways England’s objectives and funding for the period 2025 to 2030. RIS3 decision making will be underpinned by a strong evidence base that will be assessed over the next couple of years. We want to understand people’s priorities for the strategic road network over the RIS3 period and beyond, recognising that people will have a variety of views, whether as road users or as neighbours to the network.

Highways England has a central role to play in this evidence-gathering process. It has recently written to key stakeholders, including parliamentarians, mayors and local authorities across the country, inviting them to get involved in its work to refresh our route strategies. Route strategies assess the current performance and future pressures on every part of the strategic network, identifying the priority locations for future improvements. They are one of the principal ways for people to inform our decisions for RIS3, and I encourage colleagues here today to get involved and to reiterate the points they have all made about the significance of the A68.

In the meantime, we are getting on with improvements, such as investing in the A1. In recent years, we have extended motorway conditions along the A1 to Newcastle, so there is a continuous motorway link south, all the way through the midlands and to London, for the first time. We are extending the dual carriageway northwards to Ellingham, with work planned to start next year. A total of 13 miles of road will be upgraded between Morpeth, Felton, Alnwick and Ellingham. As we develop our next road investment strategy, we will consider the case for further work improving the road onward to Berwick-upon-Tweed.

However, our attention should not focus just on those schemes that have commanded the largest price tags. As many of my hon. Friends have done today, we must also shine a spotlight on the smaller schemes, which nevertheless are of huge importance to local communities and businesses. That is why I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland, who, ever since her election, has been pressing hard for the Toft Hill bypass. As the road in question, the A68, is a local road, it is for Durham County Council to promote such a scheme. I advise her to maintain her pressure on the county council, but I will certainly look with interest at the bid that is coming in as part of the levelling-up fund and is supported by the council.

Other local schemes also need consideration. My hon. Friend the Member for Darlington talked eloquently about the Darlington northern bypass. I fully appreciate the benefits that the scheme could bring in bringing better connectivity between Newton Aycliffe and Tees Valley, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his campaigning on this issue. I know that my noble Friend Baroness Vere, the Roads Minister, would be happy to meet him, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Paul Howell), to discuss the scheme.

As important as these local connections are in the region, we should recognise that Tees Valley can play a real role in the global economy as well. That is why I was pleased to see Teesside announced at the Budget as one of the eight successful freeport bids in England. That will establish the region as a national hub for international trade, innovation and commerce, while regenerating our local communities. Freeports will play a significant role in boosting trade, attracting inward investment and driving productivity across the UK. That will level up communities through increased employment opportunities. That is more important than ever as we begin the recovery from the ongoing economic crisis that we have been left in by covid-19.

I am grateful to all my colleagues for today’s very insightful debate. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham welcomes the updates that I have provided, which make it clear that the Department and the Government at large are committed to levelling up transport infrastructure in the north and strengthening the bonds of our Union.

As every other hon. Member has said today, it is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. Thank you for everything that you have done for us today.

I say to my hon. Friend the Minister, as bids have been made by my fellow County Durham and Darlington colleagues for a visit during your break, that you are more than welcome to pop along with me to Frosterley fish bar or Craven’s in Wolsingham. They are two of my favourites, although I have to say to the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) that they do specialise in frying their stuff in beef dripping, so I do not think it would tick her box, unfortunately.

I welcome the support from the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) for general transport schemes. I just hope that he still supports the schemes we are proposing after Friday—whatever happens. I would also just like to point out that there are some parts of my constituency in which we could refer to Scotland as being part of the south, because we do go quite a way north, really, on the other side of the country.

I welcome the hon. Member for Bristol East and thank her for some of the points she mentioned. I am also, obviously, grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Darlington (Peter Gibson), for Bishop Auckland (Dehenna Davison) and for Sedgefield (Paul Howell), who have raised really important issues, particularly on the need for road infrastructure to be there in order for our bus infrastructure to come and to support that as well. In particular, my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland raised issues about road safety and how important that is. Perhaps now we should share our second passion, aside from the A68, and go and have a pint of lager somewhere.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the A68 and road connectivity from Teesside to Scotland.

Sitting adjourned.