Priti calls for transport investment for Essex

Published: 6th March 2019 - 3:17 pm Category: General News Local News

Witham MP Priti Patel held a debate in Parliament today [6 March 2019] on transport infrastructure in Essex. During the debate she highlighted to the Government the importance to the economy of investing in new infrastructure in Essex. Priti spoke of the need to end the delays to the A12 widening scheme, the benefits of the A120 dualling scheme and the need to invest in the Great Eastern Main Line. In response the Roads Minister explained that the Government will work to help resolve the delays with the A12 but stressed that they were not the cause of the problems. Priti said:

“The delays with the A12 widening scheme are unacceptable and the Minister has today confirmed that their hands are tied until Colchester Borough Council sort out the mess they have made of their development plan. This situation needs resolving as we are in a position where we are being told that the road cannot progress until the housing plans are approved and the housing plans cannot progress until the road is approved. This impasse cannot continue and I am pleased that the Minister recognised this problem and I will be working with him and others to get this resolved.”

“I was also delighted to draw attention to the benefits that dualling the A120 and investing in the Great Eastern Main Line will bring. Our economy in Essex is vibrant, dynamic and entrepreneurial and if we receive investment in new infrastructure we can create more jobs and growth.”

Cllr Kevin Bentley, Deputy Leader of Essex County Council and Cabinet Member for Infrastructure, said:

“I am grateful to Priti for championing the County and raising the importance of the Government committing to investing in new transport infrastructure for Essex. It was heartening to learn that the Minister is taking an interest in our County’s infrastructure and listened to the case that was put forward. I will be working with Priti and the Government to do what I can to address the delays with the A12 widening scheme as the delays cannot continue. We will also continue our work to put forward a strong and robust case for the dualling of the A120.”

Transport Infrastructure: Essex

06 March 2019

9.30 am

Priti Patel (Witham) (Con)

I beg to move,

That this House has considered transport infrastructure in Essex.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Stringer. I am grateful to Mr Speaker for having granted this debate, and to his office for having worked with me, as they understood the background to why this debate has been called. I also put on the record my thanks to two colleagues, my hon. Friends the Members for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) and for Colchester (Will Quince), for joining and supporting today’s debate. There is a great deal of interest in this issue not just from constituents across the county of Essex, but from colleagues and representatives from Essex County Council, who have joined us today.

Transport infrastructure across Essex is an issue of major importance. As the Minister knows, I have secured a number of Adjournment debates on the topic and asked one or two parliamentary questions about it. I suspect that in his office and his Department, there might be some filing cabinets containing much correspondence on a number of issues, and about Essex in particular. I have no doubt that, when being briefed by officials for this debate, he had a peek into those filing cabinets and so is well prepared to deal with the questions and issues that will come up.

The debate is about emphasising the need to progress infrastructure across the county of Essex, and addressing some of the serious questions that need answering about how we do so. Before going into details about specific transportation schemes across Essex and projects that need to be progressed, it is important to give the Minister an overview of the economy of Essex. That will demonstrate why investment in transport infrastructure—which naturally brings a return on investment back to the county and to the country—matters so much, and why we need Government support and intervention to ensure that we keep Essex moving and have the right factors and catalysts driving those projects.

The economy of the county of Essex, including the unitary authorities of Southend-on-Sea and Thurrock, is dynamic and innovative. The House has constantly heard that where Essex leads, others follow; that is because we are a county of entrepreneurs, who have seen our county throughout the good times and the bad. I think all Members present who represent Essex have seen some of those good times and bad times. Over the past decade there has been a 25% increase in the number of enterprises across Essex. In 2010, when I became a Member of Parliament, that number stood at 61,540. By 2018 it had risen to 77,365. That is a phenomenal level of growth, and I do not think anybody can say it has just happened automatically; it has happened because of the dynamic nature of our county, and because of the risk takers and entrepreneurs who believe in the county of Essex and seek to invest in it. It has also happened despite our crumbling, inadequate and poor infrastructure, so we can speculate on how much more investment Essex would have seen if we had received infrastructure investment as well.

We have highly skilled firms in Essex. We are fortunate enough to have business groups, including the brilliant Essex chamber of commerce, which champions many businesses across a range of sectors. The Minister will be aware of an organisation that I established and chair, the Essex Business, Transport and Infrastructure Forum—it is a mouthful, so we call it EBTIF. When I established it, we worked with business and the Essex chamber of commerce to engage directly with the Government to highlight the importance of infrastructure investment in our great county, which will be a recurring theme in this debate, and certainly in my remarks today.

The Essex chamber of commerce has an outstanding record. It is proactive, both in mobilising business and in engaging Government. Just this week we met the Housing Minister to speak about transport and housing. We also met the Secretary of State for Transport in the past month, which I am going to come on to when I talk about specific schemes. I invite the Minister to come to one of EBTIF’s meetings and to visit our county, to sit in our traffic jams and see our infrastructure so that he will appreciate the nature of the challenge across the county, even more than he already does from the filing cabinets full of correspondence.

Of course, it is not only individuals who depend on our transport sector, but businesses and everyone else. Essex has a strong advanced manufacturing and engineering sector that employs over 50,000 people in over 4,200 companies. We are host to a range of household names across the constituencies of all right hon. and hon. Members present, including BAE Systems, Teledyne e2v, Fläkt Woods in Colchester, and Crittall in Witham. We have a high-tech cluster; we specialise in life sciences, renewable energies, aerospace, defence, security, biotech, digitech—you name it, we have it going on.

We also have a vibrant agricultural and food production sector. In the county of Essex, farming alone is worth over £400 million to our economy and employs over 8,000 people. We have the famous Wilkin & Sons, Wicks Manor, and Shaken Udder Milkshakes, which is based in my constituency. All those businesses are testaments to Essex. If the Minister would like some more statistics, I can tell him that we produce every year enough wheat to make 1.3 billion loaves of bread, enough barley to make 280 million pints of beer, and 150 million eggs. We also grow outdoor vegetables on 5,000 acres of land, so roads and transport are important to us.

On top of that, we are attracting more and more businesses and professionals across the finance and insurance sectors; we have 66,000 professionals in Essex, so it is important that we continue to grow and support them. We have a dynamic academic and educational sector, with Writtle University College, Anglia Ruskin University and the University of Essex—my former university—with its knowledge gateway. It is an outstanding university with a first-class international reputation.

We have so much going on in the areas of multi-modality connectivity and logistics. We have over 1,000 acres of port-adjacent, tri-modally connected logistics and distribution sites, which are the backbone of our economy, and we are connected by road, rail, sea and air to global markets. We have four major seaports—London Gateway, Tilbury, Harwich and Purfleet—with a fifth major port, Felixstowe, just over the border in Suffolk. There are also six port-side rail freight terminals and three key tri-modal logistic sites at London Gateway and the London distribution park. Of course, we also have our airports: Stansted, which is the UK’s third largest air freight hub by capacity, and Southend airport. Those airports are not just growing, but experiencing considerable passenger growth and, in the case of Stansted, benefiting from private sector investment to the tune of £600 million. Essex is also connected to Heathrow, Gatwick and Luton airports through our connections to the infamous M25.

However, we need to ensure that our roads keep traffic moving. One statistic says it all: it is not surprising to learn that Essex is the local authority with the second-highest traffic level in the country, with 9.68 billion vehicle miles in 2017 alone. That is 2 billion miles more than in 1997, and if the unitary authorities of Thurrock and Southend-on-Sea are included, the greater Essex area has the highest traffic level by distance, with 11.2 billion miles. To put that into perspective, it is equivalent to the distance from Earth to interstellar space, so it is fair to say that we in Essex spend a lot of our time on the roads.

Despite Essex’s strategic location, the importance of ports, airports, roads and rail, and the work of our businesses and local authorities—I pay tribute to my colleagues in Essex County Council, who have put Essex’s transport infrastructure at the heart of their policy making and the representations they bring to Westminster through us, their Members of Parliament—our transport infrastructure, especially our roads, is at capacity. Our roads have reached their limits and it is beyond a joke.

It is important that we grow and take strategic advantage of our location and boost our global trade links—of course it is—but there has to be a recognition in Government that we are being held back by key parts of our strategic infrastructure that are no longer fit for purpose. They need new and urgent investment to boost the economy not only of Essex, but of the country.

Mr Mark Francois (Rayleigh and Wickford) (Con)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this important debate, which is very important to the people of Essex. She is absolutely right to highlight the infrastructure challenges we face, particularly on our road network. She is right to say that Essex County Council, and in particular Councillor Kevin Bentley—he is the deputy leader and looks after infrastructure for the county—have been struggling manfully in trying to cope with all this. The Minister must understand that our main arterial routes—the A13, the A127 and the A12—are bursting at the seams. The Government want more house building in south Essex and the rest of the county. I make it plain to the Minister that he has to pay for the infrastructure if he wants those houses built. If the Government will not come up with the money, for instance to make the A127 the M127, they can forget their housing targets.

Graham Stringer (in the Chair)

I remind Members that, although this is not a well-attended debate, interventions should be short, brief and to the point.

Priti Patel

I thank my right hon. Friend for those remarks. He is right on a number of points. First, Essex County Council and my colleague Councillor Kevin Bentley, the deputy leader and cabinet member for infrastructure, have been ensuring that we lean in—I think that is the right term—with the advocacy that has been brought to this place and the Government. My right hon. Friend’s point about roads and housing is timely, because I am just about to speak about key schemes and the whole issue of where the pressure points are.

A number of important projects and schemes need to be backed by the Government and progressed to ease the pressure on infrastructure. The costs of investing in the schemes will be paid back. We can work out the return on investment and the number of jobs that will be created through the investment and the subsequent tax receipts. Dynamic modelling facilitates and enables that.

I want to focus on two particular schemes for important strategic roads in the east of England that traverse the Witham constituency. I think we could all write books on both roads—history books, I dare say. There is a long history of delays and congestion, but their futures are linked. They are also connected to the potential future housing and development growth plans around mid-Essex and the Witham constituency. The delays caused by congestion are worse than inconvenient; they have a devastating impact on local communities and the economy. An additional half-hour delay every day for some of our great logistics businesses can mean a loss of tens of thousands of pounds a year. We hear that all the time as Members of Parliament, but it is no good just sitting and agreeing with my constituents and businesses; we need to put our foot on the gas and do something.

In debates on Brexit, the future relationship, supply chains and border checks, we need to ensure that we also look at how our inadequate infrastructure is hindering basic supply chains in our county and in the country as a whole. The delays caused by traffic and congestion on key strategic roads could be far more damaging to our economy, particularly in Essex, because of the infrastructure. The case for investment in the A12 and the A120 is compelling and has been recognised, but there are some major barriers, and that is what I want to focus on.

Back in the 2014 autumn statement, the Government announced their commitment to invest in and support the widening of the A12 between junction 19 at the Boreham interchange and junction 25 at Marks Tey. It was part of a major announcement that we all welcomed on a number of strategic road upgrades for the east of England. The work was described as an investment to

“begin phase 1 of a major upgrade to the A12, with the addition of a third lane between Chelmsford and Colchester”.

That decision was long-awaited and welcomed by everyone: commuters, businesses and our local authorities. It also opened up the prospect of further widening north of Marks Tey in later phases. It was rightly a phased scheme.

I think all Members here travel on the A12—I travel on that stretch every week. We all see the problems, the congestion and the need to expand capacity. Highways England has stated that

“the road is almost past its capacity. Motorists regularly experience major delays at peak times. Up to 90,000 vehicles travel between junction 19 and 25 every day. Forecasts reveal that the traffic on the A12 will exceed capacity by 2038. Congestion will increase if nothing is done to address this problem.”

Three fatal collisions and 12 serious accidents were identified in a five-year period. Concerns were raised about the eight junctions on this stretch, with problems including

“below standard slip roads and capacity problems which can result in tailbacks.”

The condition of the road is also poor, so a comprehensive widening scheme offers a chance to improve the surface of the road. The widening scheme also comes with the prospect of altering junctions to better suit local needs and alleviate pressures on local roads. For example, a new junction by Kelvedon to better connect to roads into Tiptree has the prospect of alleviating congestion and traffic through Kelvedon and Feering. That part of Essex had been neglected and ignored for too long, so we need to crack on with developing the widening scheme. It was prioritised to get it started in the first road investment strategy, or RIS1.

A range of stakeholder engagement took place. I give credit to Highways England for how it worked with us at the time. There were many events where it looked at options through route alignment. Engagement took place with parish—I sat with parish councils—district, borough and county councils, as well as the business community and local residents. It all seemed to be going well. There was consensus on the approach being taken by Highways England. With Braintree District Council and Colchester Borough Council in the process of updating their local plans, there was supposed to be integrated working and engagement to ensure that the widening scheme and local plans complemented each other—that speaks to the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) made about housing—and did not compromise one another. Throughout stakeholder meetings the issue was raised and it was thought that the work between Highways England and the councils would ensure a smooth process and collaboration and joint working would naturally maximise the benefits of the widening scheme. That all made sense.

After that work, Highways England went out to public consultation in early 2017, presenting four options to the public. Option 1 was to widen across the current route alignment. Option 2 was to widen the western side on the current route with a new alignment from just before junction 22 to junction 25. Option 3 was a realignment between junctions 22 and 23. Option 4 was a realignment between junctions 23 and 25. The consultation process was a massive exercise with more than 18,000 people attending public exhibitions and more than 900 responses received. It was backed by our local councils, which raised no objections to the consultation or the options put forward at the time.

The outcome was due a year later in early 2018, when Highways England was scheduled to announce its preferred route alignment. That would have enabled further consultation to take place, a development consent order to commence and diggers to go into the ground in 2020. In fact, the position and timetable were made clear to me in an email from Highways England on 29 September 2017. The email gave an update on the consultation, stating that

“key issues were raised relating to other major developments in the area, environmental impacts, non-motorised user service provision and safety related issues. The independent analysis of the responses received, as well as a Report on Public Consultation will be published when a preferred route is announced.”

The email went on to reference the importance of giving careful consideration to

“emerging and proposed major developments”.

Highways England said that it had

“decided to extend our options selection assessment and expect to announce the preferred route this coming winter.”

It then went on to confirm the timescale, stating:

“Following the preferred route announcement, we will undertake detailed engagement with all affected landowners and hold a further consultation, giving local communities and other stakeholders a second chance to have their say. This consultation is likely to be held in spring 2018 and will include detailed plans of a preferred route…Despite extending our options assessment, the first phase of construction is still anticipated to start in 2020.”

In October 2017, the Minister wrote to advise me that owing to a review of RIS1 and some resequencing of schemes, there could be a three to six-month delay to the scheme. I questioned that and the Minister confirmed that,

“the recently announced optimisation of the Road Investment Strategy relates to the start of works and does not impact on the decision about the route. I want to reassure you that the Government and Highways England’s strong commitment to this scheme remains. While the start of construction will get delayed by 3-6 months as part of Highways England’s plans to reduce disruption for road users and businesses, Highway England will work with you and other local partners to ensure that any impacts are minimised.”

At the end of 2017, therefore, the position with the A12 widening scheme was that an announcement and further consultation on the preferred route were to start shortly, with construction likely to start in 2020, probably later in the year owing to some resequencing work. There was no indication from the Government or Highways England of the bombshell that was about to knock the scheme off course.

Two years after the consultation was completed, we are no further forward with this key scheme, so we have to ask where is the delay and where has it gone wrong? We know that Colchester Borough Council made a last-minute change to its housing and development plans: plans that had been in the making for years were abruptly changed. They redrew on the map the garden settlement community proposals in a way that completely blew apart the options in the A12 consultation, adding costs to the scheme and pushing the scheme back into RIS2. It has profound consequences for strategic investment across the region. It pushes back opportunities to widen the A12 north of Marks Tey, and it has an impact on the A120 dualling scheme, which I will come on to shortly. It also means that the A12 widening scheme could take place at the same time as the construction of the lower Thames crossing, putting pressure on construction costs and supply chains. That means adding congestion to the county.

I do not want to go over the past, in particular the local development plans, but constituents living in the vicinity of the A12 and the proposed realignments from the 2017 consultation are in limbo, creating too much uncertainty. According to my postbag, people cannot decide whether to sell their homes or move. Huge inconvenience has been caused by the local plan triggering a chain of events. We need to look at the whole issue. We cannot progress the road until we have the housing scheme in place. In fact, the Minister for Housing was in touch with me in September last year. He also referred to the delays and said the issue,

“highlights the need for greater certainty of the funding and feasibility of these two schemes”,

in relation to housing.

A written parliamentary answer from the Department in January this year stated,

“The Department for Transport and Highways England have been considering how best to take forward the A12 scheme, in the light of concerns raised by the Planning Inspector in June 2018 regarding the proposed Garden Community at Marks Tey and its interaction with the A12 scheme.”

The situation is now becoming absurd. The roads will not progress until the housing and development plans have progressed, but those plans will not progress until the roads have progressed. What has happened? We need answers now. What about the principle of alignment and integrated working? The matter must be addressed sooner rather than later.

I have specific questions for the Minister. At what point will the Government step in to take control of the A12 scheme and work with local authorities to provide the leadership that they need to drive the matter forward? When will the Government, the Department for Transport, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, and the Treasury make a decision on progressing the scheme if the local plan is subject to delay? How much longer will we have to wait? Will the Minister ensure that, as a matter of urgency, Highways England brings forward a proposed route alignment that is future-proofed so that housing proposals can evolve around it? We cannot continue to wait.

What assessment have the Government made of the economic impact of the delays, which bring additional costs, and of the impact on other strategic road schemes such as the A120 dualling scheme? What work is being done to support my constituents who live so close to the A12 that they are stuck? They are unable to sell their properties or even determine their futures. They are victims of the failure to get the scheme going.

Does the Minister recognise that the delays to the A12 widening scheme between junctions 19 and 25 are causing delays to widen the A12 north of junction 25, which local people in the county need to see? I want to be part of the solution and we all need to come together, so will the Minister agree to set up a working group that is led by me and brings together Highways England, his Department, MHCLG, the Treasury, our colleagues at Essex County Council, the business community and other stakeholders to get on top of the widening scheme, as well as the A120 proposal? We cannot run the risk of this issue moving into RIS3. The delays are phenomenal and have an enormous impact, which brings me on to the A120, a road of strategic importance not only to the county, but to our country.

The A120 is a strategic economic corridor that cannot be underestimated. The Minister and all Members in the debate today know the history of the single carriageway. The stretch between Braintree and Marks Tey is 12 miles long and is regarded as one of the most dangerous in the country. There is a litany of safety issues. It has been a death trap. Last week I met two parish councils, Bradwell and Stisted, that have highlighted the road safety concerns constantly. We have campaigners, including Save Lives Not Time, whose campaign has been phenomenal, working with the local community to actually do something to reduce speed along the A120.

The road needs to be dualled and it needs to meet the increased capacity. It has been 10 years since the previous Labour Government abandoned proposals to dual the A120. Endless studies have been undertaken, and I pay tribute to my colleagues at Essex County Council who have been instrumental in driving proposals and leading them forward with me and other MPs.

A report from Atkins in 2008 stated:

“The A120…currently constrained by the capacity of the single carriageway section…between Braintree and the A12…is congested and suffers traffic delays.”

Traffic delays result in pollution. They are caused by accidents and have an incredible impact. Evidence from 2005 demonstrated that an estimated 25,000 vehicles used that stretch of road every single day. In 2010, around 14% of traffic—one in seven vehicles—is accounted for by HGVs, compared with an average of 6% across Essex. Had the scheme been progressed 10 years ago, we would have a road that is fit for purpose. We would have integrated roads connecting with the A12. We would have a better and more resilient local road network. The evidence is compelling: the road must be dualled. To be fair, we have all made the case for years and years.

Essex County Council has worked very closely with Highways England. Work was led on developing a scheme and holding a consultation by the county council. It worked with Highways England throughout to ensure that there was a strong and robust case. Options went out for consultation at the same time as the A12 consultation, with a view to securing agreement from the Government to put the A120 dualling scheme into RIS2 and sequence construction on both schemes to maximise the benefits, while reducing the impact that comes from major highway improvements.

The Minister knows about the favoured route, option D from the consultation, which was brought forward by Essex County Council. It has a benefit to cost ratio of 4.5, which is important because it scores far higher than any major projects the Government have invested in. It will help to unlock 20,000 jobs and support housing growth by perhaps as many as 32,000 new dwellings, if needed. The improvements in journey time and reliability are valued at about £48 million, with £350 million of benefit to freight traffic. The overall costed journey time savings could total £1.2 billion. Safety will be improved. Congestion through villages will be reduced, with Silver End set to experience 59% less traffic, Cressing 44% less and Bradwell 43% less. According to the proposals, construction will take around three years and will support about 500 construction jobs.

In total, the scheme can add £2.2 billion in gross value added to the local economy at a cost of £550 million. Few schemes are as attractive as this one. The Minister knows it is one of the best prepared business cases for RIS2 because of the evidence contained in it. The feasibility work was supported by Government funding, for which I thank the Government and the Minister, after lobbying by myself and others to put the project forward. That case has been made consistently.

The Government have committed to dualling the scheme; we now need the backing, Minister. We need to ensure that there are no contradictions between the Department, Highways England or local authorities. I would welcome an update from the Minister on the timetable for submissions for RIS2 and on the decision making. It is pivotal to securing the road, and strengthening our infrastructure across the county. The A12 and the A120 need to be sequential.

I would welcome an assurance from the Minister that the delays to the A12 widening scheme will not hamper or hinder in any way the proposals for the A120 dualling scheme to be included in RIS2. With the road currently operating beyond belief in terms of capacity, people need certainty. We are looking for a fresh impetus so that we can recalibrate both schemes and take a stronger, fresh approach to secure the Government’s national mission to build more new homes. There is a willingness in our county to be resilient and to ensure that we do everything that we can.

I have a few other points to make, and then I will give colleagues time to speak. There are other roads across Essex. The lower Thames crossing will provide a vital link connecting Essex and Kent. I would welcome a progress report from the Minister on that scheme, and on whether there will be connectivity. We are all about connectivity and joined-up, integrated working. We must ensure that the schemes are delivered on time and progress on time, and that Essex County Council is supported in the right way in the work that it needs to do to achieve that integrated approach across the county, so that all road schemes are progressed in the right way. My colleagues will speak about other roads. I think it is fair to say that road investment is pivotal, not just for Essex County Council but for the Government in terms of delivering for the county of Essex.

I will turn to a different modality: rail. I thank the Department for Transport and the Rail Minister for the amount of time that he has spent with me recently. As the Government have recognised, the Great Eastern main line and the West Anglia main line are poor relations to other parts of the rail network. I am chair of the Great Eastern main line taskforce, which was established back in 2013. The then Chancellor of the Exchequer supported the establishment of the taskforce to look at the strategic rail needs of the region. We have been an instrumental voice in putting business cases to the Government. The first business case that went to the Government in 2013 secured some important outcomes, off the back of a very robust rail prospectus that colleagues and I worked towards.

We released a package of investments that were linked to a new franchise, including new rolling stock and timetable changes. The package amounted to £4.5 billion in gross value added to the region’s economy, meaning thousands of new jobs. We are now interested in moving the scheme forward, and are working with the Government on the new process by submitting a revised and updated rail prospectus. We intend to restate the economic benefits, which can of course be multiplied. A multiplier effect in rail can be complemented by a multiplier effect in road investment; I argue that the two must almost be coterminous.

We will clearly restate what investment in the Great Eastern main line should look like, and that it should be focused on as a national economic priority. I know that it is not in the Minister’s portfolio, but I would welcome an update on a number of project schemes for which we are seeking commitments and support, including the introduction of a passing loop in the vicinity of Witham, the redoubling of Haughley junction, improvements to the Trowse swing bridge, resignalling south of Chelmsford, and Liverpool Street station improvements.

Combined, those key investments will increase capacity on the network and, importantly for all rail users, reduce delays. There are some long-awaited new developments, including Beaulieu Park railway station—or, as some call it, Chelmsford parkway—which will support new housing growth. A three-track or four-track option with additional platforms would serve to future-proof the line and to increase capacity.

We also need investment in infrastructure to implement digital railway technology for the Great Eastern main line, and to bring in the new 15-minute Delay Repay system, along with new technology to help commuters claim compensation for poor and delayed services, which have resulted in a lack of investment in the past. I know that we are getting close to an announcement on Delay Repay 15. The Minister might be limited in what he can say, because of commercial terms, but any signal that he can give regarding the direction of travel would be greatly welcome, including any improvements on the Witham to Braintree branch line.

I will draw to a close, as I have spoken for a considerable time and there are other speakers. From my perspective as a Member of Parliament for an Essex constituency, the chair of the Great Eastern main line taskforce, someone who has led the Essex Business, Transport and Infrastructure Forum, and someone who has worked—I think it is fair to say—quite diligently with my colleagues at Essex County Council, our deputy leader, Councillor Kevin Bentley, and all Members across Essex, there is a severe need for investment. The business cases have been made consistently to the Department and to various Ministers, including the Minister who is present today.

We are not shy as a county. I am proud of our diligence and our ability to understand economics, business and a return on investment. Essex is a net contributor to Her Majesty’s Treasury, and has been for a number of years—from the days when entrepreneurs sought to move to Essex. Our rail line has been under-invested in. The Minister knows the case for the A12 and the A120. I urge him to clarify the position on the development of both schemes. We cannot have further delay, or contradictions between what the Department says and what Highways England says.

We need an integrated way of working that involves Essex County Council, Highways England, the Department, and myself and other colleagues, so that we are all facing in the right direction and can deliver the economic benefits of jobs and housing, which we all want. It is important that the Government send a strong message to the county of Essex, investors, commuters, businesses, constituents and our local authorities, to say that we will work with them and support them to ensure that, as we say constantly, where Essex leads others will follow.

10.07 am

James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend East) (Con)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) on securing the debate and making an excellent case. I have great admiration for her work in chairing the Essex Business, Transport and Infrastructure Forum, which I find invaluable in bringing together stakeholders across the whole county. Although I, of course, have a parochial interest in Rochford and Southend East, like my right hon. Friend I attended the University of Essex, and follow issues in that area in great detail. No doubt we will hear more from that neck of the woods soon.

Minister, if this were legislation, I would suggest a very simple amendment: delete “A” and insert “M”. I refer, of course, to the A127. We want it to be a motorway. When I say “we”, I do not mean me, or a collection of a few random individuals; the whole of Essex wants it to be a motorway. In November 2018, a group came together—the south Essex A127 taskforce—led by Councillor Mike Steptoe, who is both of Essex County Council and deputy leader of Rochford Council. That group included Essex, Southend, Thurrock, Rochford, Basildon, Castle Point, Brentwood, Chelmsford, Malden, Havering, Transport for London and Highways England. Anyone who knows anything about transport and local politics will know that to get that number of local authority leaders and chief executives in one room agreeing anything is absolutely amazing. They want improvements to the A127.

The A127 carries more than 75,000 people every day. It is the lifeblood not only to the end of the road—almost literally where I live, in Thorpe Bay—but throughout Southend, Shoeburyness and across the corridor, into London. Rather like the c2c line, it is a pipeline of money and prosperity for the area. I am asking for just a small change—a little letter. I am sure the Minister will be able to manage something along those lines.

I have five more detailed asks. We would like the A127 widened, so that it would be at least three lanes along its length. We would like a consistent speed—at the moment, there is bit of stop/start and differential speed limits. We would like the road to be made a trunk road, part of the strategic network. At one point, the Government had a strong case against that because it just goes out to Southend, but now we have London Southend airport—an international airport that has grown massively, with more than 1 million passenger movements and flights to more than 30 destinations. From a transport perspective, that in itself makes Southend a strategic asset for the country, and on that basis alone the road should be trunked.

Fourthly, we need to make sure that all incremental improvements to the A127 do not stand in the way of a future motorway—developments such as the Fairglen interchange between the A130 and the A127 need to be motorway-proof. Finally, I am not a great negotiator, but just in case the Minister cannot offer me the small change of letter, perhaps he might go for another small change and call it the A127(M), while we wait for the full motorway in a few years’ time.

10.11 am

Will Quince (Colchester) (Con)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I echo the comments congratulating my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) on securing this important and timely debate. I want to focus my remarks on Colchester, but will touch on a number of the different routes that she has already referenced. It has been a pleasure to serve with her on the Great Eastern main line taskforce, where we have made huge progress, although there is a lot of work still to do, and on the A120 and A12 campaigns.

Colchester is not only Britain’s oldest recorded town, but the fastest-growing town in the country, which it has been for some time. We have had tens of thousands of homes built without the adequate infrastructure to support that. Anybody who has visited Colchester, at peak times in particular, will have seen that there is considerable congestion and regular gridlock. Essex County Council, under the leadership of Councillor Kevin Bentley, is doing its best and there are some significant schemes under way in Colchester, but anybody in Colchester knows that that is not enough, and we need to secure further investment from the Government to keep our town moving.

Colchester has considerable potential: we have unbelievable links because of our location; we are central, for road, rail, air and sea; we are 50 minutes from the City of London, 30 minutes from Harwich international port and 45 minutes from London Stansted airport; we are the small and medium-sized enterprise capital of East Anglia; and we have around 600 creative and digital businesses, and that figure is growing almost by the day.

To unlock our town’s business and economic growth potential, we have to ensure that it does not regularly grind to a halt, as it sadly does at the moment. For that, we need significant infrastructure investment. I want to focus on the large-scale infrastructure projects of the A12, the A120 and the Great Eastern main line, but we should not forget local transport infrastructure too.

The Government want Colchester Borough Council to build around 1,000 homes every year, and so far it has been hugely successful in that endeavour, building more than double of any other district or borough in the county of Essex. For that to be facilitated and for it to work—many in Colchester would question whether we should be building so much—the Government have to provide adequate transport infrastructure funding along with it. As a result, housing infrastructure fund bids are very important, and it is essential that the Government look favourably on those from our borough.

One example is the East of Colchester garden settlement plan. The garden settlement plan is not an uncontroversial programme in Essex, but the garden settlement to the east of Colchester is probably the less controversial of the two. It can work only if we secure funding for a new link road between the A133 and the A120, together with a rapid transport scheme to get people in and out of Colchester, because that will unlock the congestion on the Ipswich Road through Highwoods, St John’s and St Anne’s. That is the only way that the scheme can work, and I ask the Minister to look on it favourably.

My focus today is on the main projects—the A12, the A120 and the Great Eastern main line. While my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham was taking a sabbatical in the Cabinet, I stepped up and took on the chairmanship of the Great Eastern main line taskforce. Tens of thousands of commuters in and around my constituency use our station—certainly 15,000, and perhaps 20,000—and any one of those commuters will know that the Great Eastern main line is operating at capacity between Colchester and London. Given the growth pressure and the housing that the Government expect Essex to deliver, that is not sustainable.

We need infrastructure investment on the Great Eastern main line, and on projects already mentioned by my right hon. Friend—the Bow junction remodelling; the loops between Shenfield and Witham, probably the most important in enabling capacity on the line; the loops south of Colchester; the Haughley junction doubling; and, of course, the digital railway.

I sat on the Transport Committee with you, Mr Stringer, and we looked at the digital railway and the opportunity there to increase capacity by up to 40%. I was disappointed that we were not included as part of the initial pilot, despite the lobbying of every single MP on our line for the Great Eastern main line to be part of the digital railway pilot. I know Greater Anglia, our rail operating company, is looking into other options, but I implore the Government to look at this seriously, as capacity is a major issue and we know that the digital railway is an opportunity to unlock it. We have a brand-new fleet of trains on order, the first of which arrive this year. The equipment is therefore built into those trains already, and it is essential that we get the signalling right. Investment by the Government will unlock huge capacity on our line and, dare I say, enable the housing growth that the Government want to see.

That is part of why we must address capacity, but also, our commuters are not getting value for money. At peak times, they are very often standing. My Colchester commuters pay in excess of £5,000 a year for a season ticket, just to get to and from work. We must ensure that we deliver value for money for them.

My right hon. Friend touched on Delay Repay; I know it is not hugely relevant to the debate, so I will touch on it only briefly. We were promised that it would be delivered within weeks of the Adjournment debate a few weeks ago, so I push the Department for Transport to make that announcement as soon as possible. The eyes of rail users across north Essex and the wider region are certainly on the Department.

I very much welcome the new trains, but they are only part of the jigsaw. They will inevitably lead to fewer delays because we will have fewer train breakdowns and issues, but the Network Rail piece is equally important. I welcome the £2 billion Network Rail settlement, but I ask the Minister to make sure that it is delivered on time and that it is kept under close consideration, because we have to ensure the full jigsaw—the new trains along with signalling and track work—so that we are not suffering the delays we so frequently experience at the moment.

As my right hon. Friend mentioned, the A120 is one of the most important east-to-west roads in Essex, between Braintree and the A12. It is little more than a country lane on many parts of that route. Anybody who has tried to get between Braintree and Colchester and got stuck behind a caravan or a crash will know that people can be waiting there for a considerable period.

The A120 is the only single carriageway road in England connecting a major international airport with a major international seaport. As my right hon. Friend mentioned, the dualling was cancelled under the last Labour Government. Heaven forbid that we have another Labour Government in the near future, but would it not be a huge wasted opportunity if, 10 years on from the cancellation of the previous scheme, some future Labour Government, just as we got round to delivering it, cancelled it all over again? I implore the Minister to get on with this and to make sure that A120 dualling is part of the road investment strategy, RIS2. That is absolutely vital. As eloquently and passionately put by my right hon. Friend, the reason is that the A120 is heavily over capacity.

Around 25,000 vehicles use that single-track road every single day—15% of them are heavy goods vehicles—and traffic volume is set to increase further year on year. Some 24% of the road is regularly congested. For five hours a day, journeys are delayed in both directions. For six hours a day, sections of the road carry more vehicles than it was built for.

As my right hon. Friend pointed out, we have an increasing collision trend, which should worry us all. There is a high rate of serious casualties compared with the national average for a single carriageway trunk road. Even if we park all those issues, which are compelling enough reasons to upgrade the A120, we have the even more compelling ground of economic growth. Essex County Council’s favoured option would see a benefit-cost ratio—my right hon. Friend has already pointed this out, but it is well worth repeating—of 4.5, which means that it would deliver £4.5 million-worth of benefits for every £1 million spent, including unlocking up to 20,000 jobs and £2.2 billion in gross value added to the local economy. It is important to note that this option has wide support from businesses, local authorities, parliamentarians and business leaders. In mid and north Essex, we very much sing with one voice in calling on the Government to invest and ensure that we see that scheme as part of RIS2.

The A12 is another road that is hugely important—it is an artery through Essex. It is already approaching capacity, with the flow-to-capacity ratio on the two-lane sections well over tolerable limits: typically, it is between 70% and 90% in peak hours. From the many tweets I receive from my constituents, I know how many times they get stuck on that road. RIS1 identifies the whole route for upgrading to a three lane standard throughout, starting with the section between junction 19 at Boreham in Chelmsford and junction 25 at Marks Tey in Colchester.

We desperately want the Government to announce preferred route status for that section in RIS1. We accepted a short delay; when the Minister sent us the letter, we met him immediately afterwards and were told that it would be a delay of three to six months, which has drifted somewhat. We wanted that delivered as part of RIS1. Ideally, we then wanted the north of junction 25 on the A12 to be delivered as part of RIS2. That is absolutely vital to our county.

I want Highways England to look at my plan for a new junction at Lexden between junctions 26 and 28, because junction 27 has no southbound exit. There has been much growth in Stanway—mostly housing, but also the huge retail development at Tollgate. That is at junction 26. Likewise, at junction 28, we have future plans for the northern gateway—a huge leisure development. Those junctions will become more and more congested, so my plan for a new junction southbound on the A12 deserves serious consideration. I hope I can meet the Minister to discuss that further.

I have reiterated the points made by my right hon. Friend, but they are so important to our county and my town of Colchester. I want to emphasise that there is huge potential to unlock economic growth across Essex and in my home town of Colchester, but we need investment in our transport infrastructure to realise that potential.

10.23 am

Rachael Maskell (York Central) (Lab/Co-op)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I welcome this morning’s debate and the case made by the right hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel) and the hon. Members for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) and for Colchester (Will Quince), who are all rightly standing up for their constituents in making the case for future transport investment. They have highlighted the A12, A120, A127—perhaps I should say M127—junction enhancements and the Great Eastern main line.

The Minister and I have debated transport infrastructure in the past 24 hours, not just focusing on Essex but looking across the country. Getting a national perspective is really important when we look at the microcosm of Essex and the opportunities the county offers. Both the Government and the Opposition see investment in the future of infrastructure as crucial, and it is something to which we are deeply committed. We are committed to transport infrastructure investment because we are committed to widening and unleashing the opportunities for the economy in Essex and across the country, and to ensuring that we get the connectivity right for the future.

Although right hon. and hon. Members have extolled the economic opportunities for their areas and discussed the housing developments that are putting pressure on the infrastructure, which is clearly under severe pressure and needs to be redressed, I urge the Minister to take a more strategic view of how we develop our transport infrastructure. The reality is that we need to plan not just for the next decade or two, but for the long term. Today we are living off our Victorian railway infrastructure, which has lasted for nearly 200 years, but we need a greater vision for how we want to drive infrastructure forward. Instead of hearing a list of pleas—I hear them very loudly—it is really important that we look more strategically at how and where we want to develop our economy, then mesh that with the housing demands across our country and ensure that there is good connectivity between economic opportunity and housing. We need to hardwire that into the infrastructure in order to meet those demands in future.

I heard the frustration of the right hon. Member for Witham when she asked which Department is leading—is it Housing or Transport? It is right to have interdependency, but there needs to be leadership in driving this forward. It is also important to draw together the necessary spatial planning between economic growth and housing, and we therefore need to ensure that transport is hardwired into all spatial planning in future.

As we look to the longer term and beyond the current crisis, we really need to think about infrastructure that will last in the long term. To be kind to the Government, the unfortunate way they handled RIS1 and CP5 highlights that this is still short-term thinking. Although we saw an improvement in year-on-year funding, moving to control periods or the RIS process has meant that we are still talking about short-term cycles of investment. The Rail Delivery Group has highlighted the damaging impact that short-term cycles of funding has created, particularly on the issue of skills—having to create skills, believing we are driving down one path of development of infrastructure, then seeing the cancellations and having to lay off those skills. That adds 30% to the costs for the industry—a premium that, frankly, we could be investing elsewhere.

It is really important that we heed what the sector is saying about planning, which is why Labour is very focused on long-term planning and rolling the money forward to ensure that there are sustained periods of funding. We very much hope that the Williams report will coincide with what we and the industry are saying: it is about removing the cliff edges from different control periods as we move forward on funding. If we can achieve that, we will be able to plan for the long term rather than just the short term. There are real benefits to looking at the infrastructure required to build sustainability for the long term.

The economic opportunity of Essex and the surrounding area is important because of the ports and airports connectivity. We therefore need to hardwire in the freight routes. We need to take one in seven lorries off the road and put them on to lines to ensure that they have priority. We must also ensure that we have the passenger infrastructure in place for the future, which is really important. I urge the Minister and right hon. and hon. Members to think more widely about the opportunities that can be delivered—particularly by rail, but also by light rail, which is being developed across different conurbations. We must certainly not focus only on urban areas; it must stretch into the surrounding rural areas. Great opportunities could be realised if we make serious investment in the longer term. Labour will certainly prioritise that in government.

As we move forward, we must embrace the modern technology that is available to us. I share the right hon. Lady’s disappointment that we have not embraced the opportunity of digital rail. We have heard evidence about its capacity benefits, but we are miles behind. Essex is leading in electronics—it is a major part of its economy—so it surely makes sense to bring digital rail into the region. Other countries are far more advanced than us and do not understand our delays and why we are just tiptoeing forward into digital rail. I share those concerns.

I urge the Minister, as I did yesterday, to justify the scale of the road building programme. Hon. Members will obviously make the case for their own areas, but 50,000 people die each year in the UK as a result of air pollution, so we must address emissions seriously. It is concerning that the carbon footprint of the transport sector, which accounts for 30% of emissions, is increasing. We need a 15% reduction year on year just to reach our Paris commitments, but of course that will not be enough to prevent the catastrophic global impact and the impact here at home.

The Minister will say that the Government are planning to remove diesel vehicles by 2040, but in 41 years’ time more than 1 million people in our country will have died prematurely. That national crisis should be on the front pages of our newspapers daily until the Government address the issue. To date, I have not heard how they are planning to do so with the road building programme. Yesterday he said that I was rude to call it catastrophic, but the damage it is causing is indeed deeply catastrophic. I ask him to reflect more on the impact it is having. We are talking about lives being lost.

I hear right hon. and hon. Members’ pleas, but I urge them to think about the impact on the environment of these road building schemes. We know from the evidence that, with induced capacity, we will be having the same debate in 20 years’ time. I therefore encourage them to think bigger about the infrastructure they want in Essex.

I want to highlight the opportunities for other modes of transport. Some 80% of journeys are local, so we could see a modal shift into active travel. We have not heard about cycling and walking today, but that infrastructure is important. Fantastic work has been done in Manchester, but it is important to extend that beyond the local vicinity. I ask the Minister why the Highways England budget for building infrastructure for cycling and walking along highways has been underspent. We really need to focus on active travel, so that seems like another missed opportunity by the Minister.

We have a real opportunity to invest in our infrastructure and our country, and to develop skills for the future. We have a skills crisis across the sector. I again ask the Minister to address that issue and ensure that, when bids come forward, we invest in jobs in transport construction so that we have the right skills in place. Although the Government are rightly focusing on unlocking the opportunity of electric vehicles, the investment in the infrastructure to support them is woeful. That does not give confidence to the manufacturers whose production will be driven by the infrastructure. I again ask the Minister to have a laser focus on ensuring that we get the infrastructure right for a future generation of electric vehicles.

10.34 am

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Jesse Norman)

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. This has been a very interesting debate. Of course, the focus has rightly been on Essex infrastructure, but I am grateful to the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) for raising some other issues, and of course I will discuss them all.

Above all, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) not only on securing the debate, but on her Churchillian 37-minute speech. That is a new record for me in a Westminster Hall debate. It was very wide-ranging and interesting. She has been absolutely tireless in pressing the claims of not merely her constituency but Essex as a county. She gives indefatigability a bad name. If it were not for our relentless desire to maintain efficiency in the Department for Transport, we would have Patel SWAT teams scrambling every time she moves, and cross-modal engagement klaxons going off every time we heard something. If we did that, we would hear an awful lot of noise, because she has been very active in this area.

I am also aware of the work that my right hon. Friend has done elsewhere—my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) touched on this—not just as head of the Great Eastern main line taskforce but as chair of the Essex Business, Transport and Infrastructure Forum, highlighting the importance of infrastructure in building sustainable local communities and strong local economies. That is all extremely welcome.

My right hon. Friend rightly focused on the natural, physical and human endowments that Essex has as a county. It has a very strong local economy and a resident population of 1.5 million-odd people. It has as very entrepreneurial spirit and workforce, and the growing economy reflects that. It is a very exciting place to do business, and that is tremendous. That has drawn on and created a need for transport connectivity.

The nationally important M11 and M25, which colleagues did not mention, and the A12 and A120 run through the county, and there are major local roads, including the A13, the A27—my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East was very eloquent on that topic—the A100 and the A414. Rail connections ensure that the county remains tightly linked to London, with three main lines, the London underground to Upminster and branch lines serving more than 55 stations. It would be wrong not to mention its international gateway of Stansted and Southend, which is growing very rapidly, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham mentioned. Harwich provides nationally important sea connections to Holland and Denmark. There are also Tilbury and the new London Gateway port. It is a very exciting place.

My right hon. Friend mentioned Essex’s agricultural strength. It cannot quite match the astonishing range, diversity and depth of my county of Herefordshire, but it is right up there. As I am sure she will agree, the transport network is not just of critical importance to the economic growth and development of Essex, but of national significance. It is an important piece of infrastructure in its wider economic growth and development benefits across the country.

Let me touch on the issues that my right hon. Friend raised in some depth. She is right to focus on the importance of infrastructure. We have recognised that and have invested in the strategic road network, which is critical to delivering that growth. In December 2014 the Government launched the first road investment strategy, which outlined how more than £15 billion is to be invested in our strategic roads between 2015 and 2021. That is the biggest upgrade to strategic roads in a generation, and it will be exceeded in RIS2 from 2025, which is of the scale of £25 billion.

The hon. Member for York Central rightly drew attention to the importance of combating emissions. We have a very strong air quality strategy and have launched an enormous amount of work not just on emissions but on decarbonisation. We have a lot of work about to come out shortly on future mobility, electric vehicles and the like. It includes not just cars, but the full panoply of electric vehicles that are transforming our streets.

It is important to recognise that some road building is vital, and it would be a poor Minister who did not recognise both that and the validity of claims for road building in counties, not merely as an economic and housing enabler, but as an investment in skills, supply chains and businesses, and one that will prepare us for a green future with electric and, in due course, autonomous vehicles.

Rachael Maskell

Will the Minister give way?

Jesse Norman

I have so much to get through in only 10 minutes. I will be delighted to come back to the hon. Lady when I mention her remarks later in my speech, but I will make the important point that we must recognise balance and that, even by her lights of supporting skills and reducing emissions in the longer term, this is actually an enlightened policy. Much of it is about maintenance—autonomous vehicles will require high-quality roads—and that process cannot begin too soon. RIS1 and RIS2 place a very high emphasis on maintenance.

To zero-in on Essex, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham pointed out that the first road investment strategy includes the widening of the A12 between junction 19 at Chelmsford and junction 25 at Marks Tey, where it currently joins the A120. Delivery of that scheme remains a top priority for my Department, as it is an important strategic route for continued economic prosperity across the region. She also highlighted the delays that have affected the scheme. I will not get into the causation, and she has been very delicate in hinting at causation without specifically stating it. As she knows, there was an initial re-profiling delay, but the fundamental delay was not at all of the Government’s making. Local priorities have changed and we are seeking to accommodate those changes. I will respond to her specific questions—we owe her that as she was kind enough to share them in advance—but I can assure the Chamber that we understand the frustration felt by local communities that works will not begin by March 2020 as was originally proposed. We very much understand that.

We have been considering how best to take forward the A12 scheme in the light of the interaction with the proposed garden community in Marks Tey, as my right hon. Friend touched on. That interdependency was of course raised by the Planning Inspectorate, which examined those housing proposals in June 2018. We believe—as I think she does—that it is important to find the right long-term solution for the local community and to support delivery of the proposed housing at Marks Tey, which would mean the delivery of up to 24,000 much-needed homes.

Highways England is working with partners in Government, local planning authorities and promoters of the new housing development. The next step is for Highways England to consult on the revised route options for the A12 between junctions 24 and 25. The route options will have regard to the housing proposals and—we hope—ensure that the improvements are right for those who use the A12 now and in the future. In the light of the recent delays, Highways England’s latest delivery plan, which was published in July 2018, proposes that works for the A12 begin in the second road investment period, from 2020 to 2025. I wish that were otherwise, but we have had our hand forced somewhat and are scrambling to make the best of the situation.

As I am sure my right hon. Friend will also know, Essex has ambitious plans for housing delivery. The housing White Paper set out the Government’s wider vision to address issues such as unaffordable housing and the provision of proper transport infrastructure, and the Department works closely with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government in that area. My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince) mentioned housing infrastructure fund bids. They are a crucial part of Essex’s further development, and I say good luck to any hon. Member in the Chamber. Trying to tie in the response to those housing bids with local and strategic transport links is part of the importance of our wider strategic approach, unlocking new housing developments with good transport connections in places where people want to live. Essex is delivering that kind of substantial housing growth in major sites such as Braintree, Chelmsford and Marks Tey, which are critical to meet housing demand. Of course, we recognise the centrality of transport to making them happen.

Well planned, well designed and locally-led garden communities can play a vital role in helping to meet this country’s housing needs well into the future. That is why the Government recognise and have invested in the development of capacity towards 23 places across the country as part of our garden communities programme. We are pleased that Essex County Council has decided to further support North Essex Garden Communities by submitting a HIF bid. That has the potential to make an enormous difference, including by releasing funding that ensures that the proposed A12 improvements can accommodate and allow access to the garden communities at Marks Tey, subject to further public consultation.

There has been some concern that the delay to the A12 scheme will compromise the proposal to dual the A120 between Braintree and Marks Tey, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham mentioned. Essex County Council is developing that scheme for potential inclusion in the second road investment strategy. I can confirm that, from our perspective, the A12 delay does not affect or compromise consideration of the A120 scheme and that, although we cannot make announcements on the fly, I expect us to make a consolidated set of announcements on this area and others later in the year.

The A120 is recognised as an important route in the wider transport network, but currently the single-carriageway section between Braintree and the A12 near Colchester is regularly a bottleneck, as has been pointed out. The heavy traffic passing through the area is a burden on the local villages and towns. We have supported Essex County Council with a contribution of £4 million pounds to the development work for an affordable and deliverable improvement scheme for the A120. I thank the council and take my hat off to Councillor Kevin Bentley, who is sitting in the Public Gallery, for their excellent work in developing those proposals, including taking them through a non-statutory public consultation on a range of options.

The council’s favoured option for the A120 scheme, which was announced in June 2018, is supported by a strong analytical assessment and has gained the backing of both the public and the local business community. It forms the foundation for consideration of the scheme as a candidate in the competition for the bidding process of our second road investment strategy, which focuses on the period between 2020 and 2025 and has been subject to enormous competition, as colleagues will understand. It is in the nature of politics that everyone regards their own bid as the only one that the Government should ever meet and do so as a priority, and this debate has been no different. I remind colleagues that that can be said for every single Member of this House, and across all parties.

Submissions in favour of the A120 upgrade have been received but there was also support for the schemes that were originally included in RIS1 for development in RIS2, such as the A12 Colchester bypass widening that we discussed and the improvement of the A12-M25 to Chelmsford. They are all being considered for inclusion in RIS2, alongside other proposals from across the country.

Beyond the upgrades and improvement schemes, the Government continue to invest in essential maintenance of the road network. For the period 2018-19, £34.8 million was allocated for Essex road maintenance, with a further figure of almost £700,000 earmarked for pothole action funding in the area. Through the local growth fund, we have also allocated £15 million to the proposed £28.7 million improvements to the A127-A130 Fairglen interchange, which will improve traffic flow, journey times and road safety at an important local junction. Essex County Council is developing the final business case and, if the scheme is approved, work could start in the summer of 2020 and be completed in early 2022.

My right hon. Friend rightly mentioned the lower Thames crossing. If ever there were a scheme that underlined—contrary to the shadow Minister’s suggestions—the genuinely strategic nature of the investment that this country is making, that would be it, with between £4.4 billion and £6.2 billion-worth of investment to increase capacity by 70% for drivers crossing the Thames to the east of London. That investment is orientated absolutely towards the longer term. A Government preoccupied with the short term could not make an investment of that scale or magnitude, or with such a degree of planning. It will almost double the road capacity across the River Thames to the east of London. It is the largest single road investment project in the UK since the M25 was completed more than 30 years ago.

Obviously, there is a need for better road connectivity between Essex and Kent, and we believe that the benefits of the lower Thames crossing are clear. We expect it to have a positive impact on the major road network, contribute to a reduction in the number of vehicles using the Dartford crossing—releasing some of the pressure on it—and assist and support local communities.

The other strategic connection is of course rail. My right hon. Friend mentioned the importance to the Essex economy of the Great Eastern main line and the West Anglia main line. The Government recognise that and—again, contrary to the imputation that we are not being strategic—are pursuing the biggest railway modernisation programme since Victorian times, with investment continuing at record levels. That was announced by the Secretary of State within the final statement of funds available—approximately £47.9 billion will be spent during the period 2019 to 2024, which is a run rate of about £10 billion a year. That is an astonishing level of investment. Greater Anglia is committed, through the franchise, to delivering an entirely new train fleet, which will increase passenger capacity with new high-quality rolling stock. The first of 169 new trains are on course to enter service from the end of May 2019, with the full roll-out expected to be completed by the end of 2020. That £1.4 billion train replacement programme is the most significant investment in new trains for East Anglia.

I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the work done by the Great Eastern main line taskforce, chaired now by my right hon. Friend and previously by my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester. It is working to complete the study undertaken by Network Rail, which will help to prioritise future rail enhancements on the main line to meet predicted growth, and updates to a previous route study. My right hon. Friend mentioned a number of other rail schemes. If I may, I will refer those via officials to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), as he can respond in more detail to her questions.

The hon. Member for York Central asked if we would take a more strategic view. I refer her to the work we are doing on intermodal connectivity, the link between transport and housing and the longevity of the investment scheme. Let us not forget that there was no five-year investment programme before 2015. We are now preparing for a second five-year road investment scheme. We are extending that to major roads, and I hope that in due course we will extend it to a five-year investment scheme to support local authorities on local roads. We take these things very seriously. She mentioned light rail, and I am delighted that we announced a consultation on it a few weeks ago. I look forward to her contribution and those of many others. She rightly mentioned active travel, in which we have significantly improved investment since 2010, and I hope that will continue to do that.

On Highways England designated funds, RIS2 is not yet completed so it is too early to say that money has not been spent, but we welcome further bids from local authorities and other interested parties. I am taking steps to increase the availability of designated funds in future.

Rachael Maskell

I was referring to RIS1, not RIS2.

Jesse Norman

Yes; RIS1 has not yet completed so it is premature to suggest that the money has not been used.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East seductively enticed me towards a tiny change of one letter to another—a wafer-thin change. I am grateful to him for that. He pointed out the importance of widening for consistent speeds, with the impetus on re-trunking with a focus on the airport. I understand that, but the key question is whether either the A127 or the A13 should be trunked. Discussions are happening, or are about to happen, with local councils on that question. I can make no judgment on the merits of the case—that is a matter for official scrutiny and discussion—but I would have some worries about the potential environmental impact. It is important that there be a properly wide-ranging conversation, and we are engaging on that. If my hon. Friend wishes to discuss that further, I would be happy to meet him.

My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester rightly pointed out the importance of HIF bids and the centrality of the new link road between the A133 and the A120, which he has called for. I cannot comment on the road, but his emphasis on road safety is right. I have addressed many of the other issues he raised already. I would be delighted to meet him to talk about the A12. It is important that we adopt a strategic approach when we have such meetings, not least because there has been a lot of discussion with Essex MPs in any case on roads. We can have one-off meetings, but it is helpful to have them in the context of a wider strategic conversation.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Witham asked at what point a Government Minister will give leadership. I have explained that we are still reliant on a series of local decisions. I would be delighted to meet her to discuss the best way to take forward the A12 scheme. Once those housing proposals are settled, we will be in a much better place. Highways England, which works closely with Essex County Council and other district councils in promoting garden communities and developing the realignment options for the A12, is not in a position—neither are we—to commit now to a realignment of the A12. That is potentially a very significant additional cost, but may prove not to be needed in the event that the housing proposals do not go ahead. She is right to maintain the tempo and we will meet her on that, but we are reliant on decisions made locally. I understand that the council has agreed to undertake the work requested by the inspector; that is scheduled to be completed by June 2019, with a public consultation expected in autumn 2019. With luck, decisions on route alignment can be made in a co-ordinated fashion after that.

My right hon. Friend asked what assessment the Government may have made on the impact of the delays on the economy and on other strategic road schemes. We are acutely aware of the economic impact, which is why it is a priority for us to ensure that we get the right solution across all the considerations. The Government have made it clear that we are committed to strategic road schemes such as the A120 dualling and the delays. We also believe that the A12 scheme delays should not affect the prospects for the A120 proposal or compromise its consideration for inclusion in RIS2.

My right hon. Friend asked what has been done to support constituents who live close to the A12 and are unable to sell properties, and the victims of blight. I have massive sympathy for people in that situation—it goes with uncertainty about these decisions. We have not been the cause of that uncertainty. There are established rules about property and compensation for residents affected by major infrastructure proposals. They apply in this case, but I understand the human cost of the delay.

My right hon. Friend asked whether I recognised that the delays to the A12 widening scheme might delay plans to widen the A12 north of junction 25. The scheme to widen the A12 Colchester bypass was included along with the Chelmsford bypass in RIS1. These are being developed as potential candidates for RIS2, along with the proposed A120 scheme and other proposals across the country. We are determined to run a fair process on the merits, but the merits of Essex are considerable, so we hope they will be successful.

I recognise the importance of the county of Essex as a driver of growth and a source of much-needed housing. However, there are also further opportunities for the region to take advantage of Government funding and investment, such as the housing infrastructure fund, and I urge colleagues and Essex County Council to renew their excellent work in developing a robust, evidence-based case for the inclusion of their schemes in the second road investment strategy.

10.58 am

Priti Patel

I thank all colleagues for their contributions, and the Minister and his team for his very considered and detail response. I do not need to press him on anything in particular, but I thank him for the opportunity to meet and follow up with him on the need for a working group, to ensure that we stay on track and pursue the integrated way of working across the Department, Highways England, local authorities and Members of Parliament. There is a lot of work to do, and we are all committed to supporting each other to deliver for our communities and for the county of Essex.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered transport infrastructure in Essex.

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