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A1: Peterborough to Blyth

Volume 706: debated on Tuesday 11 January 2022

I remind Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when not speaking in the debate, in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission, and that they are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test before coming on to the estate. Please give each other plenty of room when seated and when entering and leaving the Chamber. I will call Alicia Kearns to move the motion. I will then call Gareth Davies to make a short speech, and the Minister to respond. As is the convention for 30-minute debates, there will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the safety of the A1 between Peterborough and Blyth.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. The A1 is not fit for purpose. I am not saying that for dramatic effect; that is the case, and it is why we are here today. The A1 is failing us as a critical artery for our country and a critical piece of national infrastructure. Ultimately, it is failing the people of Rutland and Melton. We are tired of heartbreaking accidents and severe delays.

It is between Peterborough and Blyth where the road is most grievously failing our communities. That 72-mile stretch serves 1.9 million people, and the issues are numerous. We have substandard junctions; dangerous right-turn movements across the carriageway; safety issues, including accident blackspots all along the corridor; a lack of alternative routes during closures; severe congestion hotspots, which often lead to queuing on the carriageway; a large number of local junctions and small service areas with extremely poor merging, which I drive through every single week as I go to and from my constituency; and slip roads made of just a handful of metres.

Critically, there is also a lack of safety technology, including CCTV and even SOS telephones, along this section of the road, so those in danger are unable to get the help that they need. As a result, the rate of fatal collisions on this section of the A1 is significantly higher than the strategic road network average for an A road dual carriageway. Over the past five years, 27 deaths have been recorded, and there have been 201 closures—more than one a fortnight. The average clear-up and therefore closure time for an incident is five hours, although more recently the road has been closed for over 10 hours at a time. That is not just an inconvenience for our communities; it is an issue of strategic importance for our economy and our country.

There is only one meaningful solution: to upgrade this section of the A1 to a three-lane motorway standard. Over the Christmas gooch, I was looking at how that would benefit the Government and our country. Forecasts by Midlands Connect found that improvements to the corridor would deliver over £138 million in benefits to the region and the wider economy. The A1 is vital for moving freight across the whole UK. It connects businesses with major ports on the east coast such as Felixstowe, Grimsby, Immingham and—via the M25—Dover, and it unites us as a country, from London to Edinburgh.

At the northern end of the corridor lies Associated British Ports’ Humber port complex, handling £75 billion of goods per annum and forming a vital part of British and international supply chains. By investing in the functioning of the road and improving the reliability of journey times, we can grow our world-leading logistics sector and improve our supply chain resilience. The UK’s logistics sector is clustered all along the A1, and is heavily reliant on good connectivity and high road standards to operate cost-effectively. Heavy goods vehicles make up 25% of all vehicles that use the corridor. That is more than the national average of 12%, so it is more than double the typical trunk road.

I am incredibly proud, as all my colleagues will know, of the reputation of the east midlands for food, drink and agricultural products. We have the largest concentration of food manufacturing, storage and distribution in the whole of England. Positioned at the heart of a supply chain worth over £4 billion, the people of Rutland, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire and Cambridgeshire grow over 15% of the UK’s food. Investing in those vital upgrades to the A1 will reduce costs to the agri-food sector, speed things up, get people moving, give businesses the confidence to grow, and encourage a greater amount of onshoring in sectors such as agriculture along the corridor. It would also allow local authorities to be more strategic in the east midlands in how they use available land.

Those upgrades are all the more necessary when we consider that the east midlands has long been stifled by under-investment in critical infrastructure. Despite our amazing potential, spending per head on transport for the last 20 years has been 60% less than the UK average. In 2020-21, the east midlands received the lowest spending per head in the entire country—the lowest for any region. If we were funded at a level equivalent to the UK average, we would have an extra £1 billion a year to spend on transport in the east midlands, which would revolutionise our entire area.

The state of the A1 is not just endangering our residents but holding back growth in the counties of Rutland and Leicestershire, and across the country. How can we deliver more goods and boost growth across the UK when this vital artery is constantly choked by delays and accidents? I ask the Minister to support Highways England to deliver a modernisation programme with urgent safety improvements within the road investment strategy 2, or RIS2, period. The closure of substandard junctions, the provision of a concrete central barrier and better active traffic management would improve road safety considerably.

As chair of the A1 MPs working group, I ask the Minister to work with all my colleagues, many of whom were unable to come today—two have valiantly turned up—to help us upgrade the A1 in the long term to a three-lane, motorway-standard road all the way from Peterborough to Blyth. My neighbours and I are united on this issue, our councils are united on this issue and this is precisely the kind of long-term infrastructure project that will generate growth as we recover from covid.

Levelling up the A1 can be a flagship programme for this Government, because it perfectly encapsulates the levelling-up agenda. It will level up our transport options, level up the safety of our communities, level up opportunity for our businesses, level up connectivity across our nation, level up opportunities to export and level up the east midlands, which, for too long, has not seen the investment it deserves.

I thank my neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) for securing this debate on one of the top issues that has plagued my area for many years. Since my selection in July 2019, it has probably been one of the top three issues I hear about on doorsteps whenever I am out and about. It is important to my constituents not just because the A1 is a key arterial strategic road for my constituency, but because it is a key arterial road for our entire country. As my hon. Friend pointed out, there are incredible economic benefits to seeing improvements on this road. I want to focus on two aspects that are very specific to Grantham and Stamford.

There are clearly issues, as my hon. Friend has said. Almost daily, there are news reports that there has been a bump, a scrape or a serious accident. That has a knock-on impact on our villages, causing congestion and diverting valuable Lincolnshire Police resource away from fighting crime. People just want to get around the place—they want to get to work; they want to get to school—safely and without delay.

Last June, I conducted a survey of Colsterworth village, which is right on the edge of the A1. The message from constituents was clear: all of them felt unsafe, but they were very clear about two issues that they would like fixed. First, we have some of the shortest slip roads in the country. Secondly, we have deathtrap crossovers that are an absolute nightmare when there are long vehicles trying to cross four lanes on a 70-mile-an-hour road. That is not to say that we should not be ambitious and look in the long term to create a three-lane A1(M) on my stretch of the A1, but my constituents were clear that they want action now on what are, frankly, pretty minor improvements.

Who is responsible? It is not actually Ministers—Ministers have provided significant funding to National Highways, which is the body responsible. There are two funding pots of note—RIS2 funding, which my hon. Friend mentioned, of £27 billion or thereabouts for strategic road improvements over a long period, such as those my hon. Friend mentioned; and the £936 million designated funds pot. That funding pot is critical to what we are talking about today, as it is specifically for safety and congestion measures, to tackle things like the crossovers and the length of slip roads.

Significant funding has been given to National Highways, and it is the internal bureaucracy of that organisation that is holding up the safety improvements that the people of Grantham and Stamford really want and need. I ask two things of the Minister today. It cannot be right that National Highways applies the same internal process to approve small funding amounts for minor improvements as for multibillion-pound upgrades to the A1. Different processes are needed for the different types of upgrades we are talking about, specific to the designated fund pot. It is crackers that there is a blanket process, despite massive changes and deliverable timelines for the improvements.

Secondly, could there be a threshold that Government can apply to National Highways to say that, if it is about bumps and scrapes and closing crossovers and slipovers, we can have an expedited process as part of designated funds? I urge the Minister to look at National Highways and its internal bureaucracy, because that is what is causing the most angst to my constituents.

It is my pleasure to support my hon. Friends the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) and the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Gareth Davies) in today’s debate. I first raised this issue in a debate here in 2017, when my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) was the Transport Secretary. It is one that has bedevilled our three counties for many years. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton said, the A1 is one of the most important arterial routes in the east midlands and the whole country, and has been since it was built in Roman times. In recent years, it has become heavily congested and the site of accidents and fatalities significantly above the national average.

The debate I first held on this issue, shortly after I was elected, followed a spate of fatalities, including, notably, a constituent of the former Member for Grantham, whose current MP sits beside me, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford.

I want to raise three issues. First, I support the proposition that our part of the A1 should in time become a motorway. It does not make sense that this key arterial route, through an important part of the midlands, connecting a number of cities and ports, is not a motorway. Secondly, I emphasise the point that, because of its history, a number of the slip roads on to the A1 from villages and towns that we have the pleasure of representing, are very short. That leaves them in a dangerous position, leading to constant accidents, delays and, sadly, fatalities. I strongly urge the Minister to consider instructing the Highways Agency to conduct the kind of work that has been discussed, to ensure that those slip roads are safe, and that the short-term improvements required are done as quickly as possible.

Thirdly, and most importantly for me as MP for Newark, I urge the Minister to take forward as quickly as possible the major investment in the dualling of the A46, which brings with it a major upgrade of the interchange between that road and the A1 around Newark. That will ensure that the dangerous slip roads there are made safe, making a big difference to the level of congestion. It is at that set of interchanges and slip roads that so many accidents and delays occur.

This is my specific question to the Minister. When will she be able to publish the final route of that new dualling of the A46? We have been working closely with the Highways Agency as it prepares those plans, and it has promised to do so within weeks. It would be extremely welcome for my constituents if she could do that this month, then we can analyse those plans and comment as they proceed to a public inquiry. If that major investment is made, we will see the first fruits of the campaign to improve safety on the A1.

It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I would like to start by commending my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns), not just for this debate but for founding and chairing the working group of MPs to improve the A1. We have heard today how important and historic the A1 is, particularly for the midlands. We have also heard eloquently described how vital the midlands are, particularly the east midlands, for the UK and its prosperity.

It is a pleasure to respond to the points raised during today’s debate, and I am grateful that the debate was secured as it gives me an opportunity to provide an update on some of the priorities in the short term. I have also heard loud and clear from Members today about the long-term aim of full motorway status. I am not the roads Minister, but I know that the roads Minister in the other place, Baroness Vere of Norbiton, is very willing to meet with Members to discuss this in more detail. She will also be keen to discuss some of the challenges that I have heard regarding National Highways, and the bureaucracy that has been referred to, the expediting request and a proportionality request for schemes to be treated in different ways. I will endeavour to make sure that meeting does happen.

The A1 is one of the country’s vital north-south links; it plays such an important part in the way that people and goods move around the country. I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick), through his previous role as communities Secretary, understands the importance of good infrastructure and roads for the prosperity of our communities. It was good to hear him speak on this important matter for his constituency.

Between 2020 and 2025 we are spending £24 billion on the strategic road network. The core principle in the road investment strategy is to create exactly what has been called for today: a road network that is safe, reliable and efficient for everyone, and sets a long term strategic vision. I commend the A1 working group for aligning with that aspiration, because transport connectivity is not just local and regional—it is important for the whole of the United Kingdom. The Government are aware of the economic case for upgrading the road network for the entirety of the UK and its economy.

Investment in our strategic road network is focused on the network as a whole, and how various roads interact to provide a reliable network for all users. Some of the schemes we are committed to will have a positive impact on the A1 around the east midlands, and enhance the experience of road users. Those road improvements will provide better links to the A1 and improve the resilience of the network, while boosting business productivity and economic growth by providing a much more reliable road network and improved local access. I have heard much today about the right turns; I understand that that is part of the key priorities in the short to medium term. The reliability of journey times on the strategic road network is particularly important for all road users. While road users recognise that incidents happen, they also expect them to be cleared as soon as possible, and the frequency of incidents to be minimised.

National Highways regularly undertakes route safety studies across the network; the most recent study of the A1 in the midlands was conducted in September 2020. This included a review of the personal injuries, collisions and casualties recorded on this part of the network. As well as fulfilling an important monitoring purpose, the information is used to identify potential sites for safety improvement schemes. National Highways is also looking at 14 more potential safety schemes between Peterborough and Blyth.

I have remembered something that I did not include in my speech. My hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley (Ian Levy) could not be here today because he is dealing with a matter in his constituency. He wanted me to relay his concerns on this as well.

I thank my hon. Friend for relaying that. My hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley (Ian Levy) spoke to me earlier this week ahead of this debate. I know he would like to be here because this is a debate about the area between Peterborough and Blyth, which I know he is incredibly passionate about and works hard to improve. He and I have had that conversation, and I expect that he will want to join the meeting with Baroness Vere.

I briefly talked about the 40 more potential safety schemes between Peterborough and Blyth, which include the junctions near Colsterworth, Little Ponton, Barrowby and North Muskham, among others. I firmly believe that good transport is a catalyst for enterprise and growth. Better connectivity means greater economic opportunity and all the benefits that that brings to communities.

I acknowledge that the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton is passionate about investment in the east midlands, so I want to turn to some of our wider plans for transport in the region, in addition to the work on the A1. She referred to levelling up and to the benefit that the UK appreciates from the east midlands, mentioning the fantastic food economy that is flourishing in the area. Levelling up all parts of our United Kingdom is at the centre of the Government’s agenda and as we build back better from the pandemic, we will publish our levelling-up White Paper setting out new and bold policy interventions, giving local control to drive economic recovery. Transport is key to that, and that has been explained by Members today. The Government understand and are prioritising that.

We are investing in transport across the east midlands: in its cities, towns, villages and everywhere in between. We are investing in the key local roads that people and businesses rely on, providing £50 million towards the recently opened Lincoln eastern bypass. Through the levelling-up fund, another £50 million has been allocated for access roads to the South Derby growth zone and Infinity Garden Village. In Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire, we are supporting the county councils to trial on-demand bus services, improving connections for people in rural and suburban areas. We are seeing investment from the transforming cities fund start to take shape. It includes a brilliant new e-bike hire scheme in Leicester, as well as plans for an iconic new foot and cycle bridge over the River Trent in Nottingham.

We believe, and I know Members here believe, that better transport connectivity will create new and exciting opportunities for all places, helping them realise their full potential. As we look to the future, we have taken significant steps in planning future improvements to the National Highways network. We have just finished the formal evidence-gathering phase of the third round of route strategies, which are an important input alongside strategic studies, informing decisions about investment on the strategic road network beyond 2025. My right hon. Friend the Member for Newark asked a specific question on the timeframe, and I will endeavour to write to him with that answer.

National Highways will publish the results of the route strategies in its strategic road network initial report later this year. Shortly after that, the Department for Transport will then consult on the SRN initial report and proposals for the draft road investment strategy. I am excited by the potential of the east midlands, particularly given the ambition of MPs, as we have heard today, and bodies such as Transport for the East Midlands and Midlands Connect, working alongside national partners. The way in which my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton consistently and effectively campaigns for her area is testament to the benefits we are going to see in the east midlands.

I will finish by reaffirming my thanks to colleagues for this insightful debate. I hope my hon. Friend is satisfied by my responses and the meeting that she will be able to have with the roads Minister to discuss the matters in more detail, and possibly with National Highways as well, as it is a critical delivery partner. I hope I have made it clear that we recognise the vital importance of not just the A1 but the entirety of the strategic road network and the wider needs of the east midlands. I thank colleagues for their enthusiasm for the east midlands and their effective campaigning for better transport connectivity.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.