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Orwell Bridge Closures during High Winds

Volume 685: debated on Thursday 3 December 2020

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

This is the second Adjournment debate that I have held since being elected as the Member of Parliament for Ipswich. The first time, I raised the issue of orthopaedic services at Ipswich Hospital. This time, I raise probably the No. 1 transport issue that faces our town and is of great importance to my constituents. I hope that this time around we can get a more positive outcome than we did after the first Adjournment debate.

The Orwell bridge, constructed between 1979 and 1982 and opened in December 1982, is architecturally a magnificent construction, iconic through the area and of great significance and importance. But the problem with the Orwell bridge has been the number of closures that have taken place, particularly since 2013. I remember vividly when I was shown around the former Odeon cinema in Ipswich, now the home of Hope church, and was guided up to the roof. It was quite a bleak winter’s day and it was quite windy. I went to the top of the roof and I thought, “Isn’t that a remarkable view of the Orwell bridge?” And then all of a sudden, this wonderful view turned to concern as we thought, “Does this mean the bridge needs to close because it’s windy?”

Since 2013, we have seen the Orwell bridge close approximately 20 times. Earlier today, I spoke to Ipswich Central, our local business improvement district, and it feels as though each day’s closure costs the local economy around £1 million. Approximately 6,000 of my constituents are either directly or indirectly employed by the port of Felixstowe, which, as the Minister will know, is the country’s busiest and most significant sea container port. Many of them work in businesses. Many of them run their own businesses to do with distribution and logistics, and they depend upon the Orwell bridge being open to survive and to thrive.

That is the problem that we have today: so often during the winter period, particularly between November and March, with January and February the worst two months, we have seen the bridge close, and the reality is that when the bridge closes, our town grinds to a halt. All the local traffic—whether it is a mum waking up in the morning to take her kids to school on the other side of town, someone looking to get to work on the other side of town, someone looking to get to a GP or dental appointment, or our very important freight traffic that needs to get across the bridge—instead goes through town centre. The economic impact of that, as well as the destruction of the day-to-day lives of my constituents, should not be underestimated.

Having spoken to many constituents who have lived with this issue for many years, it seems as though it has only really been for the past five to six years that the closures of Orwell bridge have been a significant issue. I imagine that that is probably because of a change in safety regulations, which are of course something that we need to take into account and to take very seriously. I am not being cavalier—clearly, there are concerns about traffic going across the Orwell bridge in high winds, and that is something that should be taken into consideration—but it is rather frustrating that it took until autumn 2018 for any serious attempt to be made to look into the devastating impact that bridge closures have been having on the local economy and the lives of many of my constituents.

This is where I turn to the national impact. Yes, this is a local issue—bridge closures impact my constituency; they impact the businesses in my constituency and my constituents—but, also, the Minister will be acutely aware of the importance of the port and the local infrastructure that serves the port to the national economy, which includes the north of England. Many of the exporters and importers rely upon goods coming into the port of Felixstowe and then travelling freely and efficiently to where they need to be.

This is a time when our local economy is looking to recover from the impact of covid-19, when we are leaving the European Union and when we are looking to have a positive future in which we can hopefully increase activity at the port of Felixstowe. On another occasion, I will talk about my support for the idea of the port of Felixstowe becoming a free port, in connection with the port in Harwich and the huge economic potential of the area and how it could be transformed by that free port. However, I will not be distracted by that important issue.

As we look to recover from covid and as we look to the winter months ahead, the last thing we need is another winter dominated by closures of the bridge. We do not want that. We believed that it would not be the case, but right now we are looking at another winter of experiencing more bridge closures. Highways England is responsible for managing and maintaining Orwell bridge, and my view is that it has taken far too long to take the issue seriously and has not treated it with the urgency required.

In autumn 2018, Highways England commissioned an aerodynamic study of the issue to come up with recommendations for what might be done to prevent the Orwell bridge closing when the wind speeds are over 50 mph. This report was meant to take nine months and it took 15 months. There was no explanation for why it took 15 months—there was no sense of urgency.

I remember sitting down with Highways England about a month after I was elected, in January in Portcullis House, and I was promised that a new 40 mph speed limit would be in place on the bridge before winter 2020-21. I was looked in the eye and told, “Your constituents will not have to experience another winter period with these closures”. Yet here we are, in December, and the speed limit has not been introduced and we are expecting it not to be introduced until the end of March—that is, the end of the winter period, not the start. The reality is that my constituents are looking at another winter with more bridge closures, more disruption and more damage to our local economy at exactly the point when we really do not need that added challenge.

When I was promised in January 2020 that these measures would be in place ahead of this winter, I understandably doubted whether this would be the case, after the delay with the production of the aerodynamics report. I was informed in the summer that Highways England had to carry out some wind tunnel validation work, to make sure that if it introduced a 40 mph speed limit on the bridge, it would be safe for traffic still to go across the bridge. Highways England had to work with City, University of London—using its wind tunnel—to complete the validation work.

I was told that the university had closed the wind tunnel, so I wrote to the vice-chancellor and said, “Will you reopen the wind tunnel, so that this work can go ahead?” and the wind tunnel reopened. The university explained to me that actually the delay was not caused by a decision not to reopen the wind tunnel, but by the delay in Highways England signing the agreement for this work to be carried out. At last, the tunnel was reopened and the work continued. I raised it in this place at Transport questions with the Secretary of State for Transport, who said he was expecting the wind tunnel validation work to be on his desk at the end of September. It was not on his desk at the end of September. It was delayed, just like everything else that Highways England has been involved in in relation to this vitally important issue.

So why do I stand here today? I stand here today to ask the Government to stress to Highways England the huge importance of resolving this issue as soon as possible and introducing the new speed limit to enable the bridge to stay open during periods of high winds, so that our economy can keep moving and the lives of my constituents are not disrupted to the extent that they have been time and time again.

Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of meeting the roads Minister, Baroness Vere, who will be communicating with Highways England. I urge the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson), to add his voice to that clarion call to get moving. There is a big difference between the start of the winter period and the end, and the reality is that my constituents are looking at another winter period of potentially multiple closures. We are where we are, and one way or another, this situation will be sorted out in the not-too-distant future. But if that speed limit could be introduced at the end of January or in early February, it could make all the difference. It might seem like only a couple of months, but it could be the difference between my constituents having to experience two or three extra bridge closures.

I bang on about this bridge quite a lot. In fact, a couple of my colleagues know me for this bridge. I published quite a dramatic video recently on social video, with music in the background and the bridge behind me—on a windy day, might I add, and a wet day. I did a survey over the summer. I knew that the Orwell bridge was the No. 1 transport issue facing the town that I have the honour of representing, but I was struck by the survey responses. In Ravenswood—a new development, and one of the areas most impacted by bridge closures—96% of those who responded to the survey, out of about 1,000 people, said that it severely impacts their lives when the bridge closes. In Chantry, the figure was 80%. What many of my constituents find most frustrating is the lack of accountability. They feel as though Highways England is ultimately a bureaucratic, distant organisation that does not answer to anyone and, frankly, does not care when the bridge closes. Perhaps that would explain the lack of urgency and importance that it has attached to this.

When we add the six-month delay in the aerodynamics report to the five-month delay in implementing the report’s recommendations, we are looking at a delay of about a year. What is the cost to UK plc and the local economy that I represent of that delay? The sad reality is that when the bridge has closed in the past and it is estimated that each day of closure costs the local economy £1 million, it is not Highways England that pays the price for bad performance. It has been my constituents who have paid the price for Highways England’s broken promises and bad performance, and local businesses that have paid the price for its broken promises and bad performance.

I urge the Government to work with me to challenge Highways England and ask it to be more ambitious, to approach this with the urgency required and to do better than the end of March, because every week, every month, can make a difference. We need the new speed limit in place, so we can turn our backs on the constant closures of the Orwell bridge.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) for securing this important debate. The Minister for roads, Baroness Vere, is unable to take part in the debate and therefore it is my pleasure to respond on behalf of the Government.

My hon. Friend has raised this issue with the Minister for roads directly and I know that he is actively engaged with it, particularly through his involvement with the Ipswich transport taskforce. The issue of closures of the Orwell bridge in his constituency is not new and has been causing concern for his constituents for several years. As he pointed out, there have been 20 closures of this critical piece of infrastructure since 2013, with the average time that the bridge has been closed being four to five hours. In several instances, however, the closures have been well in excess of that average. The closures can and do cause havoc on the surrounding Ipswich roads, and the Government have, through Highways England, been pressing for the situation to be resolved.

My hon. Friend will be well aware of the work that has been undertaken by Highways England in recent months and I am pleased to say that progress is being made to change the speed restrictions on the bridge. This will allow the bridge to remain open in winds that would ordinarily have meant that it would shut. The work that Highways England has done, despite the difficulties of 2020, has meant that this issue, while still a problem today, is one that we expect to see improve significantly in the very near future.

I am aware that this has not been the swift, smooth ride that either Highways England or my hon. Friend expected when the process began. The closure of City University’s wind tunnel in response to the covid outbreak and the initial lockdown meant that there was an extension to the expected timetable. I acknowledge his concern that he will not see the speed restrictions implemented until early in the new year, having expected to see them in place for the winter season. Nevertheless, I am pleased that he was able to have a constructive meeting with the roads Minister and Highways England, and I am equally pleased that Highways England expects to be ready to introduce the new speed limit as soon as possible in 2021.

Highways England has always ensured that safety has remained, as my hon. Friend would agree it should, at the forefront of its work. It has engaged with a range of stakeholders, including the port of Felixstowe, the Met Office and Suffolk County Council. These engagements have helped to improve its forecasting for when the bridge will be closed as well as its communications with residents and businesses when the decision to close the bridge is being considered. Highways England has also made significant efforts to improve the diversion signage in the area. As well as that, Highways England has worked with academics to model options that would allow the bridge to remain open in higher winds than is currently the case.

My hon. Friend will be aware that Highways England is now engaged in taking forward the option to reduce speed limits from 60 mph to 40 mph for all vehicles using the bridge. In doing so, there are a number of steps that it needs to take. The first was the publication of the permanent traffic regulation order, which I am pleased to see was published on 13 November and will close in mid-December. This is a key part of the process in ensuring that all those affected by the change to the speed limit will have the chance to comment.

Following the closure of the permanent traffic regulation order, which Highways England does not expect to be contested, will be the delivery and installation of the new signs. Installation of the signs is a significant engineering undertaking. The weight and size of the signs is a significant factor to consider. They cannot compromise the structural integrity of what is a complex 40-year-old structure and they need to be able to withstand the weather conditions experienced on the bridge. Nevertheless, as my hon. Friend will be aware, this is an undertaking that Highways England is well prepared for. It expects, once design details and preparation works are complete, that the signs will be delivered and that installation will take place in January.

The last, essential step focuses on speed enforcement. There is no use having a speed limit if it is unenforceable, and Highways England has been closely engaged with the local police force to ensure that the right cameras are in place to enforce the new speed limit. My hon. Friend will be aware that this will be a new set of average speed cameras on the bridge.

What this means for my hon. Friend and his constituents is that the closures that have blighted the Orwell bridge and caused gridlock on the route and around Ipswich will be significantly reduced. Indeed, I am pleased to say that as a result of its work, Highways England expects to reduce the number of closures by as much as 80%. The work that it has done has been instrumental in getting us to a point where it will be possible to keep the Orwell bridge open in higher winds than has been the case in the past. The 20 closures since 2013 have been a real problem for the local community, as he explained, causing gridlock on surrounding roads, so I am pleased that the recent publication of the permanent traffic regulation order signals that an end is in sight.

None of this would have been possible without the tireless campaigning of my hon. Friend, who has been absolutely relentless in campaigning on this issue. More work is yet to be done. However, with the designs and the preparation work, as well as the delivery of the plans expected in January, I am confident that he and his constituents will rapidly see a huge reduction in the number of times the Orwell bridge is closed to traffic in the future.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.