I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Winnington Bridge corridor proposal.
It is a real pleasure to have you in the Chair, Mrs Murray, overseeing this vital debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for taking the time to hear the concerns of the constituents of Tatton as well as those of a neighbouring constituency, Weaver Vale, about Winnington bridge and the urgent need for it to be upgraded. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) for being here today to support this debate and this campaign.
This is the new battle of Winnington bridge. The original one, often described as the last battle of the civil war, took place on 19 August 1659 and resulted in a win for the Government. Today I hope to elicit a win for the constituents of Tatton and the surrounding areas, and that there will be no need for much of a battle. Rather, I hope the Government will see common sense and common purpose and support the levelling-up bid to allow the upgrade of, and improvements to, this bridge.
As history points out, Winnington bridge, which crosses the River Weaver, has been a vital piece of infrastructure for many a year, and it remains so. In fact, its importance only grows, and it now carries the A533 trunk road between Northwich and Barnton. That is a major route, yet it is served only by a single-lane swing bridge. To cross the bridge, three lanes of traffic are funnelled down into one lane, which then allows people to cross the bridge single file, one way. I will repeat that, as most people cannot quite believe it: three lanes are funnelled into one for a single-file crossing.
The current bridge was built in 1908 to enable passage from one side of the river to the other and to allow use of the waterway below, allowing growth of the area’s developing chemical industry. This crossing was deemed to be so important in developing both Cheshire’s and Northwich’s economy that a “newfangled” swing bridge was constructed; it was one of the early electronically operated ones. I am sure the Minister will agree that a lot has changed since 1908 and that what was deemed state of the art back then, in an area surrounded by fields and with only a few houses, is far from what is needed in 2022 and certainly does not cater for heavy goods vehicle lorries and the mass movement of cars. That traffic now serves a thriving business area and local communities, and keeps increasing in this most sought-after part of the country.
The bridge has needed replacing for many years, and the levelling-up agenda and the levelling-up fund now allow the issue to be addressed. Cheshire West and Chester Council has identified Winnington bridge as the single most important piece of transport infrastructure for the area and has submitted a bid to the levelling-up fund—the deadline for bids was meant to be tomorrow, but I hear that it has now been extended. Please let the record show that I am pledging my support for that bid—one that the Government need to support and get behind too.
The project will include a new road bridge across the River Weaver, conversion of the existing single-track bridge, as a cycle-and-pedestrian-only option, and the undertaking of three junction improvements between the bridge and Northwich town centre to create a corridor scheme to fully address the congestion issues and create a cycle link from Barnton and Anderton through to Northwich town centre amenities and national cycle network route 5, thereby serving the residents of the villages of Barnton, Anderton with Marbury, Comberbach and Little Leigh.
The current bridge is an unsuitable crossing now and in the long term. The bridge is a prime crossing point for residents, the number of whom, in the last 10 years, has grown exponentially because of the 1,200 new homes built around the bridge. That number is only set to grow further, with an extra 473 new build homes having been approved or already having existing valid planning permission. On top of that, another 1,555 are proposed on the Winnington Works site. That means that there will be thousands of new residents in the local area, who will be using the bridge every day to get to work, school and the local amenities on either side of it.
The increase in cars on the road and commuters in those new houses will only worsen the already long queues and increase the emissions in the area. So bad is the annual wear and tear on the bridge that approximately £1 million to £2 million is spent every five years to retain it in its current state. Such has been the traffic use of late—it only keeps increasing—that in summer 2020 essential bridge maintenance costing approximately £980,000 was required to replace deteriorating parts of the 110-year-old bridge to ensure that it can continue to operate. A heavy goods vehicle traffic ban on the bridge to reduce the load is not feasible, as it serves as a vital artery for a successful industrial estate in Barnton.
We need a permanent solution now, as maintaining the bridge is not only costly but disruptive. A constituent has reported that congestion at peak times is ridiculous. The condition of local roads due to construction traffic is of lunar standards. We are constantly battling poorly planned roadworks, and it is impossible for a person to see a doctor when they are ill.
I cannot emphasise enough how much this problem has affected local people on so many levels, and it is only getting worse as more houses are built without a second thought to the existing community. Repeated closures for repairs cause significant congestion on top of the already long delays. Worried residents write to me saying they fear for their lives. Lives can be lost due to the extra time that emergency services take to navigate around the road closures. One constituent said:
“I was on ‘Battle’ Bridge”—
as it is now known—
“when an ambulance was trying to get through to Barnton. This was totally impossible. Because of the three-way permanent lights at the foot of Soot Hill, this was blocked completely.”
My constituents are rightly worried about the impact on local life. I hope the Minister will agree to speak to the whole Levelling-up team to ensure they are fully aware of the multitude of problems associated with this out-of-date, totally unsuitable, unworkable old bridge.
I thank the right hon. Lady, my constituency neighbour, for giving way, and I commend her for her excellent and impassioned speech. This issue is a great example of how Parliament works at its best; we are two neighbouring parliamentarians who do not share each other’s political points of view most of the time, but we both strongly back this excellent scheme. As she says, this bridge will unlock many opportunities. Not only will it improve connectivity—I know that, like me, she has been stuck in that traffic for many hours, as have our residents—but it is a pathway to building more than 1,900 houses, and it will draw in about £40 million of investment from Tata Chemicals Europe, safeguarding nearly 400 construction jobs for the future. This is probably one of the best levelling-up applications that Ministers and the Department will receive, and it has cross-party support. It has to happen, and it genuinely will level up people and infrastructure.
I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman, my constituency neighbour. On the extra congestion, something else that we need to bear in mind with the current cost of living crisis and the rise in fuel prices is that people are anxious that they will be left sitting in a car with the engine ticking over, going nowhere, for long periods of time, which is costly, wasteful and bad for the environment. Something has to be done. Building a two-lane road bridge, with the adjacent grade II listed bridge converted into a pedestrian and cycle bridge, is the best option, as evidenced by the feasibility study carried out by Cheshire West and Chester Council.
Other vital projects hinge on the Winnington bridge, as the hon. Gentleman alluded to. The Winnington Works in Northwich is a proposal to redevelop the brownfield site there—the old Tata Chemicals building—for a mixed-use development comprising approximately 1,500 new homes, with employment opportunities, public open space and a primary school, along with a range of other community facilities. This is just the type of project that we want to see the Government delivering in our area—one that takes a holistic approach to housing. However, the project relies on crossing the bridge with heavy building materials, demolition equipment and supplies to get the development going. We cannot build it or let people live there because they would not be able to get into or out of their new homes.
My constituents are rightly worried about further development where they live without this vital piece of infrastructure. They have said,
“I’m sure the developer will produce snazzy plans and glossy magazines for a terrific new housing estate, but they can’t build new roads or bridges that will be needed to get to and from those homes. Northwich and the surrounding areas have contributed its fair share of new housing developments”
and there will be many more, but we cannot have them
“without innovative solutions”
to the transport issues we face. There we have it: broken promises from developers and previous officials are leading to an infrastructure crisis.
There are so many benefits to the project being done that people on all sides are supporting it, as my constituency neighbour the hon. Member for Weaver Vale said. That includes the council, which estimates that the work could create an extra £16 million a year for Northwich in additional spend in the local shops and services and create 300 new jobs, with up to 2,000 more jobs being created during the construction phase. The Canal & River Trust would also be delighted with the upgraded bridge. Property developers will have a chance to invest in the local area. Residents will have improved roads and cycle lanes, safer routes for the emergency services and public health services, and cleaner air and less congestion. The opening of the corridor would change the daily lives of those in Anderton, Barton and the surrounding areas of Northwich and deliver part of the Government’s levelling-up agenda.
If the Government are truly determined to deliver the levelling-up agenda to all parts of the country, there could be no better place to invest and deliver it than in the construction of a new Winnington bridge. I therefore ask the Government to support the bid, just as I am doing.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray.
As a civil engineer, nothing gives me greater pleasure than the opportunity to hear a speech about a bridge. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Esther McVey) for raising this important issue. I would like to put on the record, because the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) is present, my appreciation for the great work that he did as a shadow Minister. I was disappointed to see him step down from that role, but am delighted to see him here for this debate and look forward to working with him in future.
I want to celebrate my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton and her tireless work and campaigning for Tatton, on not only Winnington bridge but wider investment across her constituency. It is clear from her speech that she deeply understands the rich history and present needs of the community in Tatton. Her continued interest and engagement in representing the needs of her constituents, which is exemplified through her numerous written questions and debates in Parliament, is nothing short of remarkable. The Government’s central mission is to level up the United Kingdom by spreading opportunity more equally throughout the country and bringing left-behind communities up to the level of the more prosperous ones. I am delighted to have the opportunity to set out our ambitious plans to address that, ensure the success of the whole country and realise the potential of every place and person across the UK.
We have already made good progress towards levelling up through initiatives such as rolling out gigabit broadband, introducing a fairer school funding formula, opening freeports, increasing the national living wage, recruiting more police officers and creating local mayors with powers devolved from Westminster. However, as Members will agree, we must go further. That is where the levelling-up White Paper comes in to build on the billions of pounds already invested in local areas over the past few years—funding that has benefited places across the United Kingdom, including my right hon. Friend’s constituency of Tatton. It is our plan to reverse this country’s striking geographical inequalities and radically improve the United Kingdom.
Through a mission-based approach, the White Paper will boost productivity, pay, jobs and living standards by growing the private sector, especially in those places where it is lagging. The White Paper will also promote a more equal spread of opportunities and public services, especially in those places where they are weakest. Perhaps most importantly, the paper will help to ensure a sense of community, pride and belonging in local places by empowering local leaders to drive that work forward.
Although the strategy is set, I know that Members are interested in what it really means for their local places and communities. I am proud that my Department will deliver the £2.6 billion UK shared prosperity fund, which will trailblaze a new approach to investment and the empowerment of local communities to level up and build pride in their place. The fund is a central pillar of our ambitious levelling-up agenda and a significant component of its support for places across the UK. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will be pleased that Cheshire West and Chester was allocated almost £13 million of funding through the UK shared prosperity fund, with more than £13 million also allocated to Cheshire East.
Importantly, new initiatives announced in the White Paper will build on the success of a wide array of funding schemes that are already in progress. Through programmes such as the levelling-up fund, which has been raised today, the Government are already providing crucial capital investment in local infrastructure throughout the United Kingdom. To help the Government to maximise the benefits of this vast funding landscape, we will also set out a plan to reduce the unnecessary proliferation of individual funding pots and streamline our bidding processes. Through that work on funding simplification, we will also promote robust monitoring and evaluation while ensuring investment tailored to local institutional landscapes.
Let me talk in more detail about the levelling-up fund and touch on what the Government have already been doing to level up local places and invest in communities. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton called this debate to discuss that funding, through which we are investing in infrastructure that improves everyday life for residents across the UK. The second round of funding will look to build on the success of round 1, which saw £1.7 billion awarded to 105 successful projects throughout the UK. That included £232 million awarded to 12 successful projects in the north-west of England—the highest funding award for any English region in the first round of the fund.
We recognise that community pride, such as that in Winnington bridge, is incredibly important. That is why the levelling-up fund is focused on regenerating town centres and high streets, upgrading local transport and investing in cultural and heritage assets. I know that Members and their constituents are interested in those themes, which are a key part of the levelling-up agenda.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that Department for Transport investment in the constituencies of Tatton and Weaver Vale—and wider Cheshire and Warrington—has been considerable, with more than £470 million allocated in recent years. The DFT has provided considerable support, and that includes £192 million invested in widening the A556 between the M56 and M6, including a bypass around Mere. The Department is also delivering a smart motorway between junction 16 for Stoke and junction 19 for Knutsford in Cheshire.
Cheshire has also benefitted from significant funding to improve local rail infrastructure, including up to £50,000 for the restoring your railway ideas fund round 3 —a catchy title—to develop an early-stage proposal to reinstate passenger rail links between Middlewich and Gadbrook Park. A successful bid was also submitted in round 2 of the restoring your railway fund for a new station at Beeston castle and Tarporley.
Those are just a few examples of how the Government are investing in the wider area. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that in Cheshire we are well on the way to levelling up transport infrastructure and improving the experience of residents and visitors alike.
I continuously say this in the House, but it was only a year or so ago that part of Northwich station collapsed. We are still waiting for things to move forward, so there is not too much of a rosy picture on transport.
As the right hon. Member for Tatton said, the development would be on the brown belt. Without the bridge, there cannot be any development, so no bridge means no development—that would be our approach as local Members of Parliament and councillors. The bridge would really open up opportunities for the Government, the people and the local MPs.
I completely respect the hon. Member for the passion with which he conveys his case. I hope he will understand that, as a Minister in the Department, it would be completely inappropriate for me to suggest or indicate support for the bid, which, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton mentioned, has not been submitted because we are waiting for the portal to be opened.
In recent years our towns and high streets have faced a number of significant challenges to growth, which covid-19 has exacerbated further. These are places at the heart of our communities and local economies, creating jobs, nurturing small businesses and injecting billions of pounds into our economy. Our £3.6 billion towns fund has harnessed the economic success of towns and high streets throughout the country, levelling up opportunity to ensure that everyone can contribute to, and benefit from, economic growth. As my right hon. Friend will be aware, more than £69 million of the towns fund has been committed across Cheshire via the Crewe and Warrington town deals and several successful bids into the future high street fund competition.
As Members may know, the levelling-up fund is competitive, with funding distributed to places across the UK on the basis of successful project selection. I know that many places, including Winnington Bridge, are preparing applications to the fund ahead of the launch of round 2. As my right hon. Friend outlined, local investment has the power to change local lives by creating jobs and further investment for places. The aim of the competitive funding is to empower local areas to identify and bring forward genuine local priorities. It will fund projects prepared in collaboration with local stakeholders that have clear benefits to the local community and are aligned with a broader local economic strategy.
I hope my right hon. Friend will understand that I will not be able to discuss the bid during the period of competition. As Members may be aware, the launch of the application portal for round 2 has been delayed, and work is ongoing to launch it as soon as possible. We will ensure that applicants have sufficient time to upload their bids. In the interim, a full suite of support materials has been published to help places to develop high-quality bids.
I again extend my thanks to my right hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Weaver Vale for contributing to the debate. I and the Minister for Levelling Up, The Union and Constitution, my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Neil O’Brien), look forward to working closely with them and their communities as we deliver the ambitions of the levelling-up White Paper and deliver capital investment in the places that need it most.
Question put and agreed to.