George Freeman backs case for A47 investment

Speaking in a Parliamentary debate on the upgrade of the A47, George Freeman highlights the importance of investment in the route for the local economy and the Cambridge-Norwich corridor and he also highlights the safety benefits to road users.

George Freeman (Mid Norfolk) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and to follow my hon. Friends. It is a pleasure to be here today with colleagues from across the whole route—from Suffolk on the coast right across to Peterborough. The A47 is a key economic route of strategic national priority, spanning three counties—an economy artery into the heart of the eastern region. I hope that the strength of that case comes across this morning.

I want to acknowledge that this is the culmination of a very long campaign. I am something of a young whippersnapper joining it. It has been going on for many years. Senior colleagues have been on the case for a very long time. On behalf of colleagues, I want to express our thanks to the Minister and to his predecessor. We have had strong support in the past three years. Successive Roads Ministers have come to visit the area. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer have come and expressed support, and we want to support the work that the Department is doing on the strategic, whole-route basis of looking at roads and their strategic economic priority. It is something of a scandal that this route was never even highlighted by the old regional development agency as a key economic route. I hope that that case is clearly heard.

I want to highlight three key arguments. The region is an economic powerhouse in driving the rebalanced economy, but the A47 is a blocked artery to the region. I want to make a special case for the Cambridge-Norwich corridor and the A47-A11 junction, which my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich South (Simon Wright) has talked about and which is a potential congestion hotspot that will hold back our region. I also want to touch on the safety aspects, not least in the Dereham to Swaffham section in my constituency.

The Government have rightly placed a lot of emphasis on rebalancing our economy to get us out of the appalling debt legacy that we have faced. As colleagues have mentioned, East Anglia is second only to the City of London as a net contributor to the Treasury. The truth is that we have been woefully ignored over successive decades when it comes to investment in infrastructure. We have been treated as a rural backwater for commuters, pensioners and farmers rather than as an economic powerhouse. In fact, however, if we look at offshore energy, biomedical, clean tech, engineering, food and agriculture, and tourism, we see that the region has so much more to give, but it is being held back.

The Government’s planned investment in rail, road and broadband has the potential to unlock something really significant: a rural renaissance and a new model of growth. No longer will millions of people be condemned to stand like cattle in over-filled trains, or to sit behind the steering wheels of cars on congested roads; they will be able to be productive closer to home in converted farm buildings, in villages to which life has returned and in thriving towns. Not only will the economy grow but people will enjoy a better quality of life. That is why I have talked about the region as a new California. With such investment and with the Minister’s support for the key route of the A47, I believe that we can do more than simply deliver growth; we can deliver sustainable growth for the good of future generations. The housing demand in the region is testament to that quality of life. In my constituency, Wymondham and Attleborough are both getting thousands of new homes, as is Norwich. There are tens of thousands of new homes coming into the area, which will increase pressure on the A47.

I want to touch on the unique case of our science and innovation economy. The Government have rightly put a new emphasis on the new economy and on laying the foundations for long-term economic growth. Norwich and Norfolk are seen as rural economies, but we have the Formula 1 cluster, which includes the Lotus research and development headquarters in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) and the Hethel engineering centre, the home of Caterham Cars. As we have heard, 2,500 research scientists are based at the Norwich research park, which is Europe’s biggest integrated life science cluster. It is only 40 miles down the road from Cambridge, and the Cambridge-Norwich innovation corridor is becoming increasingly nationally recognised. Last year with Lord Sainsbury, the chancellor of Cambridge university and a major investor in science innovation in Norwich and Cambridge, I launched the Norwich-Cambridge research partnership. The Government last year launched an agritech strategy for 21st century agricultural technology, and investment is flowing into the NRP and down the Norwich-Cambridge corridor as a result.

We have plans for an international food hub on the A47 just outside Norwich, which will link our agricultural college, the city college and our agricultural community to science on the research park and to our food and tourism industries. Yesterday, I met the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, which has major investments going into an enterprise hub and a new food and medicine institute. One of the most exciting things happening in the life sciences is the merger of food and medicine to create a new generation of functional foods known as nutraceuticals. Norwich and the Norwich research park leads Cambridge in that field; in fact, it is a global centre of excellence. If we can plug it into the regional economy and to Cambridge, and if we can plug that innovation corridor into our wider economy, in the next 20 or 30 years we will be able to do for that sector what Cambridge has done for medicine. That is a national—nay, international—priority, and the A47 is holding it back. If we are not careful, the junction of the A11 and the A47 will become not a gateway to that nirvana of growth but a congestion blackspot that holds it back.

I know that time is short, and I want to conclude by talking about safety. As colleagues have mentioned, for many of our constituents, for whom tomorrow’s economy might seem a long way off, the real issue is those who are condemned to sit in traffic jams and witness near misses every day caused by intermittent dualling. In my rural constituency, there are people on horseback, on bicycles, in three-wheeled cars and on motorbikes. People cross the road to go from village to village. To get to a post office, a pub or a business meeting, they have to cross a national route. Intermittent dualling results in people driving fast to overtake in sections where they can do so, and then slowing down. The A47 is a very dangerous route. Last year, when we had our first Adjournment debate on the matter, there were nine fatal accidents in only a few months. There is a long history of high rates of accidents and fatalities on the road.

I particularly want to highlight the Dereham to Swaffham section, which, for reasons that I cannot understand, does not seem to have been properly recognised in the feasibility study. Will the Minister look specifically at that matter? I know that my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) stands with me on that, even though she could not be here this morning. We are concerned about the omission of that section from the feasibility study.

We seek a national strategic commitment from the Government to full dualling of the A47, as one of the top six routes nationally. We are realistic, and we know that the bulldozers will not start tomorrow and the whole thing will not be done in one go. Such a commitment would, however, unlock the planning and investment blight that is holding back our area. There is serious doubt in the minds of potential investors that the work will be done, and if we can remove that doubt we will deliver growth.

We do not ask what the Government can do for us; we ask the Minister to give us the tools to enable us to demonstrate what we can do for our country. We do not want a handout. We want to get away from handouts. We want a way in and a way out to unlock the sustainable growth that will allow our region to do so much more for our country. I hope that the power of that message comes across not only from Norfolk but from the whole of our region. The A47 is a key economic national route and we urge the Government to recognise it as such.

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