George Freeman secures Debate in Parliament to highlight the need to upgrade the A47

George Freeman secured a Debate in Parliament on behalf of the A47 Alliance to highlight the need for a major upgrade of the A47 in which he outlines the work done locally putting together a business case for infrastructure investment in the A47 and highlighting the importance of this key strategic trunk route to the local and national economy.

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George Freeman (Mid Norfolk) (Con): The A47 is a strategic route of national and regional importance to the East Anglian and the Norfolk economies. I am delighted to have an opportunity to raise the subject in the House, and to encourage and thank the Minister for his support for the work of all the Norfolk Members and others in the region; highlight the importance of the proposed works to our local economy and the national economy; and seek further reassurance from the Minister on some of the points on which he reassured me when we met before Christmas.

Let me first thank the Minister and his colleagues in the Department for Transport for their encouragement. Last summer we went to see the Minister’s predecessor as roads Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), who told us that historically the road had not been supported by the regional development agency and that we had our work cut out to make the case. The Government’s approach now is to invite local parties to set out a clear business plan for roads, and to make the case that Government investment will be more than matched by significant co-investment along the route.

I am delighted to say that the county council, New Anglia—the local enterprise partnership—and all the local Members of Parliament and business organisations came together to produce a report that set out exactly what the Government had asked for: a business plan for the route entitled “A47—Gateway to Growth”. I am delighted that that document was so well received by the Government, and grateful to the Minister and his officials for their support for it.

Mr Henry Bellingham (North West Norfolk) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate, and I am delighted that he has supported the Minister, who has taken a great interest in the issue. We in west Norfolk were delighted by the Minister’s recent announcement that we would indeed be given the Middleton crossing for which we had been pushing for a long time. Does my hon. Friend agree that the A47 really does need more dualling to ensure that Norfolk fulfils its full potential? He may be aware that the White Paper “Roads for Prosperity”—published in 1988, before he was born—recommended that the entire road should be dualled. After all those years, we really must make more progress.

George Freeman: My hon. Friend has made a powerful and important point, to which I am sure the Minister will want to respond.

I have initiated this debate in order to highlight the key strategic importance of this route to our economy, to raise its profile nationally and to build the momentum of the important campaign and the work that is taking place locally. The road is of key strategic importance to our region and our nation, but it is also a dangerous route for those who use and cross it. I believe, and I know that the other local Members believe, that it could act as a catalyst, enabling East Anglia to become a genuine centre for innovation and enterprise focused on the greater Norwich economy. I hope that the Minister will provide further reassurance this evening that the Government will make the route a priority in the next round of funding, will look kindly on my request for pinch-point funds, and will view sympathetically my concern about some of the bottlenecks that need particularly urgent attention because they have the greatest potential to unlock growth.

Mr Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): My hon. Friend raised the issue of safety. My constituents are lucky, in that the section of the A47 that is immediately to the north of them, in both the east and the west, is the bit that is immediately south of Norwich, which is dualled. As my hon. Friend knows, however, the road stops being dualled very slightly to the west of that. People whom I have employed in my office for years knew people—often they were at school with them—who were killed in accidents on that extremely dangerous stretch just to the west of the point at which the dualling ceases. Does my hon. Friend agree that of all the various considerations, safety should be one of the foremost in the Minister’s mind?

George Freeman: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. He is absolutely right that one of the most dangerous things about this road now is its intermittent dualling. In both of our constituencies, some of the most lethal sections are those where the road goes from dualled to undualled. Every month we hear of terrible injuries and deaths on the road.

This campaign has the full support not only of the county council and the local enterprise partnership, but of all my fellow Norfolk MPs, and I thank them for their leadership and support. On this, as on other infrastructure issues, we are “Norfolk united.” A number of colleagues are unable to speak in the debate. In particular, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), who is now rightly on the Front Bench as Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. He has played a key role in highlighting the Acle straight and the Vauxhall roundabout, and in making our case powerfully to Ministers and helping to organise the two meetings we have had. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), who also holds a Front-Bench post, as Under-Secretary of State for Education, and is unable to be here tonight. She has made clear her support for the A47 as a major route.

Across Norfolk we have for many years waited in vain for infrastructure funding. It is well recognised that this coalition Government have done more in the last two or three years for infrastructure in Norfolk than have successive Governments over previous decades. We have finally had success on the A11. Those of us who use that road, which is still a bottleneck, can now see the bulldozers laying the foundations for the dualling that will be done by 2015.

Simon Wright (Norwich South) (LD): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I hope many of the important A47 junction improvements adjacent to my constituency, such as those on to the A11, the A140 and on to Longwater, will be made available through local developer contributions, freeing up land capacity to support thousands of new jobs in Norwich. Does he agree, however, that the city will become even more attractive to investors when harder-to-fund schemes between Great Yarmouth and Norwich out to King’s Lynn and the west become deliverable, too?

George Freeman: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, which serves to remind me that the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Miss Smith), who could not be present tonight and who is also muted by virtue of being on the Front Bench, has asked me to pass on this comment:

“The A47 is an important road for Norwich businesses and households. I support the campaign for its improvement because it will bring more jobs to the city and around the county.”

Norfolk has waited for infrastructure improvements for a long time, and now, like the No. 11 bus, many have come at once: the A11 is being dualled; there is substantial investment in our rail network as a result of our putting together our Anglian rail prospectus; and the Government are funding fast broadband. All of that comes not before time, because our county is ready to rise and meet the challenge of a rebalanced economy. With the necessary infrastructure in place, we will be able to do so.

The A47 is now the most pressing and urgent infrastructure issue in our county. It is the blocked artery that runs across it from east to west, linking our economy to the midlands and allowing goods to be moved in and out. We have major ports of international significance on our east coast, and in and around Great Yarmouth there is an increasingly significant energy cluster. It is lamentable that this road was not prioritised by the RDA, and many of us may wonder why on earth not.

My personal interest is obvious. The A47 runs right through the middle of my Mid Norfolk constituency and, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) has highlighted, its intermittent dualling presents great dangers to all its users and to those in the rural economy who seek not to use the A47, but to cross it, whether on bicycle, horse or tractor. I know from my own experiences of cycling the route before the last election just how dangerous it is. At this point I should like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson), who recently drove the route in a union flag-bedecked Mini from east to west to highlight its importance.

My other interest in this issue is as the Government’s adviser on life sciences. I have talked before in this Chamber about the potential of the Norwich research park, an increasingly globally recognised centre of science and research in three of the most exciting global markets: food, medicine and energy. Its companies pioneer some of the most exciting science in the country, such as the blight-resistant potato and the Lotus car I recently saw that is fuelled by biofuels created from agricultural waste.

Norwich is a centre of life sciences, but it sits out deep in the last county not to be connected properly to the national trunk road system, and with no non-stop links through to the rail network. It is a county that desperately needs infrastructure if it is to be allowed to play its part in the Government’s mission to rebalance our economy.

The truth is that this is a trans-European route of economic significance that has been neglected for far too long. The lack of connectivity and poor development is holding back the whole Norfolk economy. With investment in our infrastructure, we can spread growth around and reduce the amount that we in government have to spend on welfare and on tackling the problems of social and economic exclusion that flow from poor infrastructure.

The opportunity is significant. As the business plan makes clear, with a programme of targeted improvements we can transform the 105 miles of the A47 into a truly strategic national and international link, linking our region to central and northern Europe and to the midlands and the north of England, and linking our regional clusters—Cambridge, Norwich, Yarmouth and Ipswich—of innovation and science and new business growth. As the business plan makes clear, over the 20 years for which it sets out the programme of work, we have the potential to generate 10,000 jobs, to increase the economic output of our county by £390 million a year, to attract private investment worth more than £800 million, to recruit an extra 500 investment-related jobs and to cut journey times by 30 minutes, delivering savings of £42 million to road users. These are significant numbers, and they are not, Mr Deputy Speaker, you will be pleased to know, plucked out of the air but put together by professional consultants and officials at the county council and the LEP who constructed the business case. Of course, these works will also dramatically improve safety for users and for those crossing the route.

Importantly, the document sets out a series of regional benefits across the route. In King’s Lynn, in the west, where the focus is on regeneration, the plan envisages 750 new jobs, £15 million of private investment and 400 new dwellings.

Mr Bellingham: I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning King’s Lynn. Obviously, Norwich has the most phenomenal potential and is going to move forward, and King’s Lynn wants to do the same. If King’s Lynn is connected to Norwich by an improved A47, it will really be a part of that economic regeneration. That is why this is so important not just for links to the rest of the country, but within Norfolk itself.

George Freeman: My hon. Friend is a passionate and effective advocate for King’s Lynn and that area, and he has done extraordinary work in putting it on the map, both through rail and now through road. He makes an excellent point: by connecting these centres, we not only improve the national economy but help to tackle problems of exclusion and deprivation locally.

The business plan makes clear the economic benefits in Norwich: 5,000 jobs, £240 million in additional private investment and an extra 2,500 dwellings. For Great Yarmouth—represented admirably by the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth, who has to sit silent on the Front Bench and listen to me describe the benefits in his own constituency; the figures are 3,865 jobs, £227 million in private investment, and 200 dwellings.

It is not least for that reason that the business plan has had such support from the local business community. Richard Marks, managing director of John Lewis in Norwich, said:

“Norwich is growing its reputation as a retail destination…we support the proposals which will help improve communication across the county”.

Matthew Jones, chief operating officer of Norwich research park, said:

“The NRP fully supports the plans for improving the A47 which are essential to achieving the huge potential of the park to drive economic growth and development of the greater Norwich area”.

Phil Gadd, contracts director at Norwich airport, said:

“The world can fly to Norwich. However, it cannot access the region. We need to improve the A47”

as a strategic gateway. The chairman of the Mid Norfolk branch of the Federation of Small Businesses said:

“I regularly use the A47, if I could just save 15 minutes every day and everyone else using the A47 could do the same, that equates to thousands of hours every year.”

Mr Bacon: My hon. Friend mentioned the Norwich research park, which is in my constituency and has the largest concentration, as he will know, of plant and food scientists in Europe, and possibly the world. He will also know that the Government have put money into improvements at the research park, which is extremely welcome. However, does he agree that the value of that taxpayer investment will be deflated to some extent if the connection that we want to see between Norwich and the cluster of expertise there and elsewhere, in centres such as Cambridge, cannot be improved?

George Freeman: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. It would be madness for the Government, having recognised the potential of our region—and the NRP as the jewel in the crown of the Norfolk innovation economy—in terms of making improvements to the A11, rail and broadband, and of creating and helping to support a cluster of new businesses and growth, to then hold that back by allowing the A47, the clogged artery of Norfolk, to constrict and constrain growth. We know that if we cannot get the goods in and out and if we cannot get quickly the talent, the goods and the people we need in to the middle of Norwich—to the Norwich research park, which sits on the edge of his constituency and mine—the investment that the Government have already made will not deliver its full potential. With this artery unclogged, we will be able to make that money work properly.

The Minister gave us huge reassurance when we met before Christmas. I was delighted, as we all were, to hear him say that the Government are funding three route-based strategies in the current financial year to upgrade key routes across the country: the A1 in Newcastle, the M62 and the A12. We were told that those three strategies being undertaken by the Highways Agency will inform funding decisions to be made in the next Government spending review period from 2015 onwards. He made it extremely clear to us that he was obviously not able, at that time, to give us any clear commitment or guarantees on funding, but he did acknowledge that the case we made was very powerful and said that he would look carefully at it. He said:

“I’m convinced this could be the 4th or 5th scheme to put into this route-based strategy process.”

I am hoping that he will now reassure us that his convictions have been only strengthened by what he has heard tonight.

I have talked to the county council and the New Anglia LEP, and they have highlighted that we have an excellent opportunity now to bring forward elements of the programme through the Government’s pinch-point programme for trunk roads. A number of the more modest schemes proposed along the route would seem to fit the criteria, and I hope that the Minister will be able to give a little reassurance that we are pushing at an open door here. In particular, I am thinking here of the A47 Acle straight ditch relocation scheme, the details of which I will spare the House, although I will happily provide them to him and his officials after the debate, if that would be helpful; the junctions of the James Paget hospital, Beacon park roundabout and Bridge road with the A12 at Great Yarmouth; the A149 Asda junction in Great Yarmouth; and the A47 and B1108 junction at Norwich.

Although support for those schemes would be hugely welcome, the criteria mean that the highest priority and most-needed measures to stimulate housing and jobs growth are not within the scope of the current funding, as they are too large. We wanted to take the opportunity to highlight a number of projects tonight, and they are as follows: a third river crossing in Great Yarmouth; improvements at the A47 Vauxhall roundabout in Great Yarmouth; the A47 Easton to North Tuddenham dualling; the Acle straight dualling to North Burlingham; the Thickthorn interchange; the A47 Longwater junction; and improvements to the A47 Hardwick junction.

As the business case shows, local partners have been active in seeking local contributions towards those schemes. However, the scale of investment is such that Government support will be essential for us to be able to secure an overall funding package. We would all welcome any advice from the Minister as to how best we might be able to access such support.

In response to the presentation of the business case before Christmas, the Minister was very clear, telling us:

“The A47 campaign had put together a very powerful and well constructed argument. They have moved substantially forward from where they were two years ago. They have the local authorities, MPs and the local enterprise partnership all working together. I certainly recognise that the A47 is a corridor of strategic importance, and I think I did give them hope there is going to be progress on this project.”

I want to close by thanking the Minister for his diligence, his commitment to this project and his encouragement for the work that we are doing. I ask him to take this opportunity tonight to reassure us that we are pushing at an open door and to give us as much hope as he can that this blocked artery will quickly be unblocked, for the benefit of the nation.

5.19 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Stephen Hammond): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman)on securing the debate. I know that the paucity of people in the Public Gallery has nothing to do with the power of his case; I am sure that it is more the thought of the Minister replying.

My hon. Friend raised with me, the Department and the Highways Agency the subject of future improvements to the A47 along with a number of other hon. Members, some of whom are in the Chamber tonight. They include my hon. Friends the Members for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), for Norwich North (Miss Smith), for Norwich South (Simon Wright), for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham) and for Broadland (Mr Simpson). Tonight we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk. I met him recently and was delighted to do what we could at Middleton, and I also heard what he had to say when he made the case for King’s Lynn. Of course, I also heard the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) about the Norwich research park, and it will not be lost.

I recently met my hon. Friends to discuss future proposals to improve the A47 so they know I take a great interest in the subject. I appreciate that it is important for the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk, those of my other hon. Friends and the economic growth of the whole region. Before I discuss the A47 specifically, it is probably worth making the point that the Government regard infrastructure as a top priority. We set out in the coalition agreement a commitment to a low-carbon transport infrastructure as an essential element of building a dynamic and entrepreneurial economy. We reiterated the importance of investment in economic growth, including in the strategic and local road networks.

The A47 is part of the strategic road network, which is worth about £100 billion and covers some 4,350 miles of motorway and all-purpose trunk roads. The fact that we recognise the importance of its maintenance and enhancement can be seen through the history of this Government’s spending. In the 2010 spending review, we announced the investment of £1.4 billion in starting 14 major road schemes. In the 2011 autumn statement we identified for accelerated delivery two Highways Agency major road schemes and introduced six more schemes, making eight in total, and we allocated £1 billion of new investment to tackle areas of congestion. In the 2012 autumn statement, the Chancellor announced additional capital investment in this Parliament that would enable four further new major Highways Agency schemes to be introduced as well as making moneys available for pinch-point schemes in the strategic and local road networks.

Within the current spending review period, we will spend £1.8 billion on local authority major schemes. They will deliver significant improvements to local road networks and public transport across the country. My hon. Friends will recognise that one of those is the Norwich northern distributor road, and I hope they acknowledge the money that will go into that project.

It is important to recognise that our investment commitment is not only in the major schemes. Importantly, the Chancellor announced in his 2012 autumn statement the provision of a further £100 million of capital expenditure to undertake pinch-point schemes on the strategic network. From my point of view and, I hope, that of my hon. Friends, the most important announcement was the £170 million for a new fund for the local authority network to allow the authorities to consider the possibilities for schemes that would unlock congestion and sponsor economic growth.

I am sure that my hon. Friends will acknowledge our announcement last October about two pinch-point schemes on the A47—at the Honingham roundabout and at the junction between the A1 and the A47 at Peterborough. The Highways Agency is involved in delivering those beneficial schemes and they will both be delivered by the end of the spending round, by which I mean March 2015. I hope that my hon. Friends will recognise and welcome that short-term investment.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk for setting out both the context and the need for future improvements to the A47. As he and other hon. Friends will know, and as he acknowledged, I met a number of them in December to discuss the proposals put forward by the A47 Alliance in its “Gateway to Growth” prospectus. I am happy to reiterate what an excellent document that was. It showed how local and regional interests had combined, in stark contrast to what we had seen under previous Governments. Members of Parliament and representatives from county and district councils had come together and worked closely together to set out the case for future investment. They make that case more powerfully if they do so in a joined-up, coherent fashion.

I recognise what that prospectus says. It is a targeted programme of improvements to the strategic road network. It details about 15 specific individual schemes, with five related to the Highways Agency network and a range of other proposals. I could, if my hon. Friends wish, detail all 15 schemes now, but I know that they will have read that document and have it close to them all the time. I will therefore not detail all those schemes, but they are exciting and they would generate growth, unlock housing and be good for road safety. They tick all the boxes.

The partners in the A47 Alliance have secured funding for some of these propositions already , and they are confident that they can go further and secure delivery locally. I recognise the case being made. The A47 is part of the strategic road network. Sections around Peterborough, Lynn and Norwich are all dual carriageway standard. Some elements of it are not. There have been previous and significant improvements to the A47, but it is fair to make the point that the previous Government curtailed a number of improvements that would have helped Norfolk: the Acle straight, the Blofield to North Burlingham dualling, the North Tuddenham to Easton and the East Wynch-Middleton bypasses all seemed to go the way of so many regional plans throughout the country—

Mr Bacon: The A140 was the same.

Stephen Hammond: Indeed—much talked about but seldom delivered. It is worth putting it on the record that the A47 Alliance rightly puts those proposals back into the package. They would be of great benefit.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk rightly recognises that we are developing route-based strategies as a way of analysis. Three are already being trialled. In considering major future enhancements to the network, we are looking to local authorities, local enterprise partnerships and other interested parties, including academic institutions and councils, to work together to assess the potential of their region by addressing not only the transport problems that they face, but the economic growth that would be unleashed if those transport problems and congestion were resolved.

It is right, as I stated in December and am happy to reaffirm this evening, that excellent work has been done by the A47 Alliance. That is ideally placed to be considered one of the earliest route-based strategies in the forthcoming programme, and I hope that it will be among the first one or two after the three that we are currently considering.

I conclude by thanking my hon. Friend for yet again making the case. I recognise absolutely the importance of the A47 and the economic improvements that it could bring. I am convinced that East Anglia is not a Cinderella region. I made that point when I was with my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk at the start of works for the A11 dualling. The interest from colleagues here on a Thursday evening shows how powerfully they are making the case for their constituencies, sometimes purposefully from the Back Benches and sometimes a little more mutedly by my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth.

George Freeman: He is not normally that quiet.

Stephen Hammond: He is this evening, but the force of his advocacy for his constituents is recognised.

I recognise the importance of the A47 and I am glad that we have yet again been able to air its importance this evening.

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