HC Deb 09 July 1997 vol 297 cc895-901 12.30 pm
Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk)

I am pleased that, in this debate on an issue crucial to some of my constituents, I have been joined, for moral support, by several other Norfolk Members who share my interest in the strategic development of our roads in East Anglia.

Before I talk about Middleton, I shall set the scene by saying that East Anglia is the Cinderella of our road network: a Cinderella who has been forced into shoes that have been too tight, which have hurt her increasingly as she has grown. Our Cinderella of a region needs to grow, so that our prosperity equals that of other regions.

Cinderella is not dressed in the baubles of monster motorways. We are not looking to six-lane highways or bypasses to bypass the bypasses of the 1970s. East Anglia has not caught up with the 1960s and 1970s, and that is the underlying problem confronting people in Middleton. The lack of investment in our road network causes fatal injuries and damages the local economy; moreover, it could undermine the prosperity of our region.

Middleton is close to King's Lynn, which is the heart of my constituency. It has a large and broadly based manufacturing sector for a town of its size. Road communications are increasingly important factors when many businesses take decisions on expansion and contraction.

Although road improvements have been promised since the 1970s, they have not arrived. The managing director of a large and important local company said of King's Lynn: The current local road network does not make it. The A47 is slow. It is dangerous and it inhibits commuting. The result costs us money and it costs us high quality people. Our analysis indicates if we were to build today in the UK, it would not be in King's Lynn and road access is the No I reason … the A47 stays as it is, the questions will continue. That worries local people. Given the history of Government broken promises on the timing of improvements, we believe that our local economy in East Anglia has already been damaged.

We know that our ports of East Anglia are being prevented from fulfilling their potential by inadequate road links, and throughout the county—from King's Lynn, through Norwich to Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft—those road links are hurting. Cinderella is hurting. She is not looking for the richness of motorways, just dual carriageways—major arteries of the type that were routinely built in the 1970s. The A47 is obviously such a major artery.

I did not want to devote my speech to economic issues. This debate was triggered by yet another tragic accident on the A47, almost two weeks ago. The timing of that accident and its seriousness—there was yet another fatality—led me, as the new Member for the constituency, to study the history of the broken promises of a bypass for Middleton.

In doing so, I have been helped by several people. I have been pleased to have the personal support of Colin Skipper, who, as chairman of the parish council, has written to me at length and helped me to piece together a history of promises stretching back to the 1940s. He was especially helpful because he has campaigned on the issue for more than a decade. Eileen Sheridan, the local councillor, allowed me to piece together newspaper cuttings, which tell a sorry tale.

The Lynn News, which has campaigned on the issue, has correctly identified the mood of the people. I should be pleased to show the Minister pictures of the accident. We know that we have a new Government who need time to consider things, but we want to ensure that they have before them, as they consider what action to take, the information—

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North)

Does my hon. Friend agree that many accidents occur as holidaymakers return along that road from other parts of the country to the coast—Great Yarmouth, Hunstanton, Cromer and so on—and that the nature of the accidents there has been an increasing problem in the summer months?

Dr. Turner

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. One problem with our roads that the statistics do not show is the mix of the traffic, in which thundering lorries, caravans and vehicles driven by holidaymakers are mingled.

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney)

I admit that some of the thundering lorries that pass through Middleton are on their way to or from the port of Lowestoft, in my constituency.

It is disappointing that not one Opposition Member has deigned to attend the debate and listen to discussion of an important issue in an important part of the country—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Interventions must be very, very brief.

Mr. Blizzard

Thank you. Mr. Deputy Speaker. I just wanted to emphasise the strategic importance of the A47 to my constituency, which suffers from extremely high unemployment. The only possible reason why its unemployment is double or treble that in other parts of the region is the isolation resulting from the lack of adequate road and transport links.

Dr. Turner

My hon. Friend has made valid points.

I shall now move on to the history of Middleton, and concentrate on the immediate facts that led me to seek this debate.

The earliest campaign that I found recorded was mounted in 1946, when the Middleton vicar referred to the need for a bypass for the village. The reason is obvious to any visitor. The A47 cuts through the centre of the village. It divides much of the residential area from the social area. If one wants to go to the pub or the school, one must cross that road.

Twice a day, young children of all ages must cross that road, down which thunders the traffic on the way to the ports, as my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) said, the caravanners, and the travellers, who are sometimes slightly tired, for the route they travel is not easy, and their attention is not always what it should be. I understand why the people of Middleton wanted a bypass.

In June 1971, the Government announced that the A47 would be comprehensively improved. I have in my hand a document issued by the Department of the Environment in June 1974. It stated that the bypass was to be built, and asked the villagers which route they wanted it to take. Clearly, at the time of that consultation, the unsuitability of the road and the need for improvements to it were acknowledged. The villagers were told that the bypass would not be built until 1977, however.

In due course, that promise was delayed time and again, and was ultimately broken. Since then, there have been campaigns from time to time for a bypass to be built—often triggered by the sort of horrific accident that occurred again two weeks ago. One of the worst was in 1991, when another campaign was mounted following the death of the "village Gran", May Key. The vicar was quoted at the time as saying: We had all been thinking about a wedding, yet there we were standing in prayer in the middle of the road waiting for the ambulance and the police to arrive. The lady in question had been crossing the road to go to church for her grandson's wedding. She was a lovely Christian lady, and Gran to the whole village.

In the past 14 months, there have been six fatal accidents in the village. In March 1996, a lorry driver was killed in a head-on crash with a Volvo. In June 1996, two people were killed in a collision between a Sierra and a lorry. In April 1997, two pensioners returning home to the Wirral, possibly from their holidays, were killed when their Fiat Uno collided with a lorry—very possibly from Lowestoft. In June 1997, there was a multiple vehicle crash in which the driver of a Ford Transit was killed. That accident, involving four vehicles—I have the pictures with me—took place yards from the school crossing.

The villagers find it hard to understand why officials say that our accident statistics are not especially high. That must be because officials gather their statistics for rather longer stretches of road than the immediate environs of the village. Naturally the villagers believe that the number of accidents is wholly unacceptable; and that something must be done soon.

Three times in the past two weeks, I have visited the village. On the last occasion, I went to see the children arriving at the school. About 40 of them had to cross the road. While I was standing there, a Transit van travelling towards King's Lynn came to a rather sudden stop, because the driver had just spotted a left turn in the centre of the village, which presumably led where he wanted to go. He also had to stop suddenly because a young woman was crossing the road with a pram—so he could not just turn the corner.

Behind the Transit driver was an eight-axle lorry travelling at least as fast as the speed limit. It had to slam on its brakes, and all the rear wheels locked up. I stood with my heart in my mouth watching the lorry slide towards the Transit van. It was a bright summer's morn—thank goodness for that. I dread to think what would have happened if there had been a spot of rain on the road. The lorry would not have stopped in time, and I would have witness fatality No. 7. The lorry involved in the collision two weeks ago was carrying seven-tonne pipes—not the sort of load we would want to come off in an accident in the middle of a small village.

I therefore understand the villagers' complaints. They have written to the local media and to Ministers in recent times with a number of important things to say. For instance: Imagine the fear that goes through your mind as you struggle with a buggy and a walking toddler across such a road, and the dread that a parent has when their 10-year-old goes out to play with their friends who live on the other side of the road. Another lady wrote: The crossing patrol lady is there at school times and I must add what a brave lady she is. Nobody else would do it. I for one certainly would not.

I pay tribute this morning to Margaret Rye, who has been doing the job for eleven and a half years, and who takes her life in her hands each time she carries her lollipop sign out in front of those lorries. I am told that people have to wait for 10 minutes, when the traffic is at its heaviest on a Saturday morning in the summer, before being able to cross. In the hands of this lady have been the lives of 40 children every school day for eleven and a half years.

The Government must take my story into consideration when they conduct their roads review. We have been promised a fresh start. We have a new Government, so let us have a new look at the situation. Let us forget the history of the 1970s, and get it right in the 1990s, so that the bypass can be built, not talked about, in the next millennium.

By all means let Ministers take whatever time they need. Today I seek an assurance that the Middleton bypass, which was deleted altogether from the roads programme last year, will be reconsidered; and that Ministers will keep a fresh and open mind. In that way, Cinderella will eventually get to the ball clad in shoes that fit her, even if they are not in the highest fashion.

I know that we may have to wait a number of years. I do not want to hold out to the villagers a timetable which I know to be impossible. There will have to be time for planning, consultations and doing the job properly—we shall have to wait several more years. But the accident problem cannot wait.

I know that officials of the Highways Agency have expressed a willingness to look again at ways in which the safety of the villagers and of those who drive through their village can be enhanced. I trust that the Minister will ensure that that is done with sensible speed and care. Consultation will be required, but the outcome must be action, not words. I do not want ever to have to come back to this Chamber again following another tragic accident of the type which, two weeks ago, led me to seek this debate.

I thank the House for its patience, and I hope that the Minister will be able to acknowledge the two simple requests that I have made.

12.47 pm
The Minister for Transport in London (Ms Glenda Jackson)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner) on securing this debate, although I am sure the whole House will sympathise with the concerns that occasioned his seeking it. He has dealt in some depth with the problems faced by his constituents in the village of Middleton on the A47 trunk road.

The A47 is a significant inter-regional route between the midlands and East Anglia, highlighted by its classification as part of the trans-European road network connecting the heart of England to the east coast ports. At King's Lynn several major routes converge: the Al7 from the north and the A47 from the midlands; and, at the notorious Hardwick roundabout, the A149 to Hunstanton, the A47 to Norwich and the A10 to Cambridge and London.

The village of Middleton is a few miles east of the Hardwick roundabout on the A47 between King's Lynn and Swaffham. Clearly, a route linking Peterborough, Wisbech, King's Lynn, Norwich and Great Yarmouth is of considerable significance to the region. Many consider that high unemployment and poor economic prospects are at least partly due to the inadequate nature of the A47 as a major route serving a large, relatively remote area. In a recent Adjournment debate on transport in his constituency, my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) made that very point, as he did again today.

Considerable progress has been made in improving the A47 over the past four years. Nine road schemes, including six bypasses, have been opened. Of particular significance is the £80 million Norwich southern bypass, and, most recently in 1996, the Walpole highway and Tilney High End bypass opened in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk. More than £150 million has been invested in A47 improvements in Cambridgeshire and Norfolk in the past 10 years. That is considerable investment by my Department, indicating the importance attached to the route.

None the less, as my hon. Friend defined in historic detail, those seeking major improvements to the A47 had their hopes raised and then dashed by the previous Administration. In 1989, "Roads for Prosperity" announced a major expansion of the road-building programme, including full dualling of the A47, but, before most of those projects even reached the public consultation stage, reviews in 1994, 1995 and 1996 reduced the A47 programme to just two schemes: the Hardwick flyover and the Thorney bypass.

The process for the people of Middleton was made even worse by the two-stage cuts, in which the major dual carriageway improvement was replaced by a local Middleton and East Winch bypass, to which my hon. Friend referred frequently, only for that scheme to be withdrawn two years later. I well understand the frustration of the local community, expressed on their behalf by my hon. Friend.

On 19 June, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport announced the Government's proposals for a thorough review of the national road programme. Its objective will be to determine what role roads should play in an integrated transport policy. Unlike the position under the previous Administration, this review will not take place behind closed doors, looking on an ad hoc basis at what schemes could be added or deleted from any proposed programme.

We shall consult widely between July and October, and we intend to announce the results in the spring, thus giving the opportunity for communities, local authorities, businesses and transport and environmental groups to give careful thought to the role of the trunk road network and the type of improvements that should be made.

"East Anglia—Roads to Prosperity" and the A47 Alliance have already consistently lobbied for improvements to the A47, and will make a major contribution to the review. They see an improved A47 doing for the north of East Anglia what the A14 has done for the south. However, others consider that Norfolk's central attraction is not only its countryside, coast and broads but its remoteness from major roads and motorways—[Laughter.] My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney laughs. Given his perspective, I well understand his mirth.

One of the key issues from the review will be balancing the demands for trunk road improvements to aid economic development and regeneration with the pressures for extra environmental bypasses to communities such as Middleton. Resources for trunk roads will continue to be limited, and we will also look at the overall balance of transport spending under all headings. We need to find a co-ordinated approach to the provision of transport infrastructure that is sustainable in the long term.

My hon. Friend has already described the considerable worries of his constituents about the environmental problems caused by heavy traffic in Middleton and the even greater concerns—which he described in graphic and disturbing detail—about road safety following the recent series of fatal accidents. My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) highlighted the fact that those concerns are not exclusive to Middleton, given Norfolk's attractions for holiday makers, and the contingent increase in traffic on its roads.

The constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk are clear that a bypass is the only answer that can solve their problems. However, none of the recent schemes even reached public consultation stage, so there is no prospect of a bypass being built in the next few years, even if such a scheme were to be included in the Government's new trunk road programme.

Middleton lies on the 16-mile Hardwick-roundabout-to-Swaffham section of the A47. A local bypass for the village of Narborough opened in 1992, but the remainder of the road is unimproved single carriageway. Middleton lies transversely across the trunk road, with a built-up frontage of only 100 yards on the A47. The 40 mph speed limit in Middleton is considered appropriate, and is generally observed, following improvements to signing.

Traffic flows on that section of A47 are some 11,000 to 12,000 vehicles a day, with some 15 per cent. heavy goods vehicles. The A47 generally is renowned for delays behind heavy goods and agricultural vehicles. The accident rate over the whole section is typical for a rural A road of that type. However, that is of no comfort to my hon. Friend or his constituents. He has described the four fatal accidents on the A47 in Middleton, which occurred in the past two years. There appears to be no identifiable problem with the road that is causing those accidents.

The Government and the Highways Agency regard the safety of all road users as one of their highest priorities, and the agency monitors all accidents on the network to see if there are clusters where changes to signing, road layout or other safety measures could make the road safer. Although no local schemes are proposed on that section of A47 in 1997–8, the agency will continue to monitor the A47 closely to determine whether any effective improvements can be identified and brought forward in the future.

Over recent years, the Department has investigated safety in Middleton several times, and has implemented measures that have been identified as a result. The 40 mph speed limit has been extended twice; signing and markings have been improved; and kerbing has been raised. The 40 mph limit is generally complied with.

In January, officials from the Highways Agency met the parish council, police and others on site for an in-depth discussion about possible further measures and to examine ideas proposed by the parish council. It was agreed that the school crossing patrol—monitored, as my hon. Friend said, by a heroine—was located at the safest place to cross the A47, and a list of possible improvements, including improved visibility, flashing speed warning lights, village approach signs, textured surfaces, traffic lights, a footbridge and speed cameras, was considered. The village occupies a very short section of the A47, with properties adjacent to both sides, which limits the possibilities for improvement.

Although no improvements are currently proposed, the Highways Agency would be happy to have further discussions with the parish council about its concerns, and to look again at further ideas to improve safety.

My hon. Friend expressed the concerns of his constituents in Middleton about the environmental and safety problems caused by heavy traffic on the A47 through their village. The Government have embarked on a thorough review of the trunk road programme, and are consulting widely to ensure that the new programme makes a valuable contribution towards our integrated transport policy.

I can give no promises about the reinstatement of a bypass for Middleton and East Winch, although, as my hon. Friend is well aware, the Government have a particularly open mind. I can confirm, however, that the Highways Agency will continue to examine further safety schemes and monitor the situation on the A47, and to discuss ideas with the local community, so that, as my hon. Friend said, he never has to return to this House to give details of yet another fatal accident.