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A75 Euro Route: Upgrade

Volume 635: debated on Wednesday 31 January 2018

[Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the upgrade of the A75 Euro route in Scotland.

It is a pleasure to lead my first Westminster Hall debate under your chairmanship, Mr Betts.

I was elected to this place last June. In my manifesto, I pledged to campaign for more investment in Dumfries and Galloway’s infrastructure, with a particular focus on our roads. No road is more in need of urgent attention than the A75 Euro route, a 95-mile-long stretch of road from Stranraer to Gretna that links the south-west of Scotland to the M74 and M6 and thereby the rest of the United Kingdom. This trunk road is a key artery of Dumfries and Galloway’s local economy, and I fear that if we do not see a sustained programme of upgrades to the A75 in the near future it will have a detrimental social and economic effect, something my constituency can ill afford.

In addition to its critical importance to the economy of Dumfries and Galloway, the A75 is of serious concern to businesses in Northern Ireland, given that 45% of Northern Ireland’s trade with the rest of the United Kingdom transits through Loch Ryan in the west of my constituency. Halfway up Loch Ryan is the port of Cairnryan, home to two international ferry companies that operate ferries to and from Belfast and Larne. It is a route of strategic economic importance and a major hub for freight and tourism, with over 9,000 sailings per annum carrying 1.7 million passengers, 415,000 cars and 410,000 freight units.

Depending on their destination, vehicles will use either the A77 or the A75 when ferries dock, and because of the road conditions that can often cause frustration for convoys and drivers—something I can attest to.

My hon. Friend mentioned the ports in Loch Ryan, of which there are two. They are extremely busy and getting busier year on year, but does he agree that there has been little or no investment in the road infrastructure leaving those ports? The road infrastructure in general is badly neglected, but the A75, an extremely busy route for the ferry ports, needs investment and has been neglected over the past 10 or 20 years.

The A77 Euro route to the north of Cairnryan runs through my hon. Friend’s constituency. I both agree and disagree with him: I completely agree that those roads need a lot more money spent on them, but I disagree that they are getting busier. Part of the problem is that they are not getting busier because, as I will come on to in my speech, we are losing hauliers’ business down to Dublin and across to Holyhead and other ports.

Going back to my point about frustration for convoys and drivers, being stuck behind a fleet of lorries on the A75 is not a pleasant experience. The A75 is predominantly a single carriageway road with very limited overtaking opportunities. Poor roads to and from the ports are putting them at an extreme disadvantage and in turn threatening jobs and livelihoods that depend on those ports. Last November, I met representatives from Stena Line, which has invested over £100 million to provide Scotland with a first-class new port facility at Cairnryan. P&O has also invested a lot in its terminal and in its vessels. The investment those companies have made has not been matched with vital road and rail development to help the ports remain attractive and competitive. Frankly, if such private investment is not supported, that is a disincentive for future investment.

The message could not be clearer. If we continue on the current trajectory of neglecting the A75, the consequences could be grave. The warning signs are already in place. Unfortunately for us, while we continue to talk among ourselves about the need to act, Northern Ireland has stepped up a gear and ensured that its road connections are keeping pace with economic development. That has resulted in a growing number of Northern Irish hauliers diverting their traffic flows to sail from Dublin; in all honesty, who can blame them?

Other UK ports, such as Heysham, Holyhead and Liverpool, are gearing up for the future and the increasing traffic flows of freight and tourism resulting from investment in the surrounding roads, whereas Cairnryan is in clear danger of being left behind. An easy, quick win would be for the Scottish Government to increase the speed for vehicles over 7.5 tonnes on the A75. At the moment they are restricted to 40 mph, but that could be lifted to 50 mph, which in turn would shorten the travel times that hauliers have to face.

However, it is not only ferry companies, visitors and hauliers on whom the condition of the A75 is having an effect. Local people in my constituency who travel the road on a regular basis are just as, if not more, frustrated. I commend the efforts of those involved with campaigning to improve the roads. Both Dual the A75 and the A77 Action Group, which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant), have been active campaigners on the issue and have argued their case strongly at every opportunity.

It would be remiss of me not to recognise that there have been some improvements to the A75 in recent years, and they are welcome, but they have not gone far enough and they are just a sticking-plaster solution to a much wider problem. Since 2007, more money has been spent on maintenance issues than on capital investment.

I am pleased that the Scottish Government have commissioned a study to look at the rationale for improving road, rail, public transport and active travel on key strategic corridors in Scotland, including the A75. I look forward to the initial findings of that study being published later this year, and I understand that the outcomes will be fed into a second strategic transport projects review. The Scottish Government have said they recognise the importance of the A75 to the strategic transport network, to the economy of south-west Scotland and to the rest of the country, and I hope they come up with the money to demonstrate it, starting with bypasses for Springholm and Crocketford. Those two villages have been making the case to be bypassed for years, and they are in desperate need of it.

As seems de rigueur in this place at the moment, Mr Betts, I am going to bring the debate on to the subject of Brexit—but, you will be relieved to hear, only briefly. As preparations continue for Britain to leave the European Union, it is important that our economy is firing on all cylinders and ready to embrace the opportunities and rise to the challenges that we will face. It is more important than ever that our road network is able to cope with the demands of a post-Brexit economy, and that means investing in every region of our country. In Dumfries and Galloway, I want an A75 that is not only fit for the future, but one that makes the port of Cairnryan the most attractive port for the transport of goods to and from Northern Ireland, a vital partner in trade and tourism.

I apologise for my late arrival due to the fact that I was at another meeting. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate and on his efforts to highlight this important issue. He knows that, for our part in Northern Ireland, we regard it as an extremely important issue for the Northern Irish economy. We have had a number of meetings recently and our party leader is meeting representatives from the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and other constituencies in Scotland to discuss the matter further. He has our full support, both in his own constituency in Scotland and from a Northern Ireland perspective.

The right hon. Gentleman’s support is very much appreciated.

To conclude, it could be argued that this is a matter for the Scottish Government, since transport is devolved, but at a UK level it is an important arterial Euro route that connects my constituency to the rest of the United Kingdom. Furthermore, as we continue discussions on the exciting borderlands growth deal initiative, I hope that investment in the A75 forms part of the final terms of that agreement. That is something I will continue to call for.

I am delighted that the Transport Secretary has accepted my invitation to visit Dumfries and Galloway to travel the A75 himself later this year. That is also an invitation I extend to the Secretary of State for Scotland. The road in questions runs through part of his constituency, and I know that he, like me, is all too familiar with the issues that I have raised.

I should also put on the record the fact that I appreciate the support of our neighbours across the water. As one Northern Irish politician put it, “Scotland’s loss is our loss too”. If we were to lose those ports at Cairnryan because they cannot compete with those to the south, that would be a great loss for all of us.

I want all businesses to have the greatest opportunity to make a positive contribution to UK plc as we leave the EU, but I fear that the deficit of investment in the A75 Euroroute, and the port of Cairnryan’s difficulties with that, will mean that it becomes more and more marginalised as an even greater volume of freight is lost to the central corridor ports. We cannot and must not let that happen. There is an urgent need for upgrades to the A75, and I look forward to hearing what the UK Government can offer.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I have had a double whammy of introductions today, answering my first session of oral questions in the Chamber and replying to my first debate as Minister in Westminster Hall. It has been a busy old day.

I begin by thanking and praising my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Jack) for securing the debate to fight for this road in his constituency. He has clearly been a great advocate for his constituency in his short time in the House, and I know that this debate is important to him and his constituents. He is clearly at the beginning of a campaign that he put in his manifesto for election to the House, so I have no doubt that we are going to hear a lot more about this in future.

I recognise that the A75 is a vital economic artery that runs the length of my hon. Friend’s constituency of Dumfries and Galloway, from the historic town of Dumfries in the east to the town of Stranraer in the west. Transport links are important in all our constituencies, but they are absolutely key in rural areas, underpinning local economies and communities. Those links support important sectors, such as agriculture and fisheries, which are the foundation of Scotland’s thriving food and drinks industry. I am sure we have all enjoyed the tastes and drinks of that great nation. They are also the lifeblood of the vibrant tourism industry in south-west Scotland. Many of my constituents enjoy great holidays in that area, although they often complain about the time it takes to get there.

Those links also make it possible for hard-working people to access job opportunities across a wide region, which is crucial if we are to be successful in rebalancing the economy, as the Government are keen to do. My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) is therefore quite right to talk about the amount of investment that may or may not have happened over the past 10 or 20 years. Those links also link vital transport infrastructure, such as our coastal ports, to Scotland’s main road network.

With all that in mind, I am grateful for the chance to respond to the debate regarding the upgrading of the A75 in Scotland. I know that that is a priority issue for my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway, and he has previously raised it with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport. He is of course right to recognise the importance of trunk roads like the A75 and, indeed, the A77, which runs down from Glasgow, through his constituency and by the ferry terminals of Cairnryan.

I am aware of recent calls from the Freight Transport Association for the Government to prioritise infrastructure investment in that area, which it reports handles about 45% of Northern Ireland’s trade with the rest of the UK. The contribution from the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds) brought that to our attention.

Research carried out in 2016 estimated that the Scottish trunk road network as a whole contributes around £1.38 billion in gross value added to the Scottish economy. The same research estimated that the network also generates employment for 31,000 people, which is no mean feat. That is certainly recognised by stakeholders in my hon. Friend’s constituency and across the borderlands region.

As a result of the work of the Scotland Office on the borderlands growth deal, proposals for upgrade work for strategic road connections, such as the A75, are among the key asks. I am aware of safety concerns raised by many local groups, such as Dual the A75, which has petitioned the Scottish Parliament on the issue. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland has tasked the local government partners to that growth deal to consult and engage further with all local stakeholders across the region to develop the projects. We are expecting significant progress on that by April.

The UK Government fully recognise the social and economic importance of improving connectivity and enabling investment across all parts of the country. Our investment and support for schemes such as UK city deals in Scotland, as well as the UK Government’s industrial strategy, demonstrate our commitment to help to support the Scottish economy and deliver for people in all parts of Scotland.

Ultimately, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway has mentioned, road investment in Scotland is a devolved matter, and the need to regenerate the A75 is something the Scottish Government will need to deliver on. The A75 is the responsibility of Scottish Government Ministers and is managed by Transport Scotland, and its maintenance is carried out by Scotland Transerv. I am sure Scottish Government Ministers will note the points made today.

I was pleased to hear that my hon. Friend’s invitation for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport to visit his constituency was accepted; there is nothing more effective in getting investment for a piece of road than getting the Secretary of State to travel along it. I wish him well with that. I will most certainly pass on his invitation to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland to visit and see the issues for himself.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend. He is clearly fighting passionately for his constituency. He made a strong case on the importance of this road and the investment that it needs. If we are to secure those decent links, particularly between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, especially as we start to leave the European Union, this is something that really needs to be addressed. I sincerely hope that Scottish Government Ministers listen to the points that my hon. Friend made. I know he will be vociferous in making sure that they continue to be made in future.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.