Priti Patel leads debate on transport infrastructure in Essex.

Priti Patel (Witham) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I am grateful to Mr Speaker for granting the debate.
 
This Government have a strong track record on infrastructure investment to support economic growth. Despite the difficult economic circumstances inherited from Labour, record amounts of funding are being spent on crucial infrastructure projects. Our railways are receiving the biggest investment since they were built in Victorian times. Superfast broadband is receiving investment so that it can be rolled out in rural areas. The Davies commission is examining options for our long-term aviation strategy. Importantly, and specific to this debate, our road network is being upgraded. I particularly welcome the recent investment from the Government in roads to address potholes. That includes the £4.4 million of new money for Essex announced last month.
 
That shows that this Government, with their commitment to economic growth, understand that infrastructure is not just something that public money is routinely spent on, but that it is important that available funds are spent strategically to maximise the benefits of every penny spent. That is the purpose of today’s debate, because for me, it is about making the case for strategic economic investment in infrastructure in Essex. In my view, modest infrastructure investment will yield enormous economic returns.
 
By way of background, Essex is a dynamic and innovative county of entrepreneurs, as the House has heard me say on several occasions. We have some 52,000 businesses, the overwhelming majority of which are small and medium-sized enterprises, which add some £30 billion in value to the UK economy. Those firms are relentless in supporting economic growth. Last year alone, they helped to create new jobs that took more than 10,000 people off benefits and returned them to work. We have world-famous brands ranging from Wilkin and Sons, Crittall Windows and Hayman, all of which export internationally. Supported by the outstanding Essex chamber of commerce, firms in Essex have added more than £300 million in export orders alone. All our businesses are desperate to export more and to do more business, but to do that, they need the right infrastructure improvements to be made. Those improvements will enable our businesses to support more jobs, growth and prosperity not only in the county, but across the country.
 
Those companies can lead the charge when it comes to the export-led recovery that we all speak about. I am sure, Mr Chope, you heard the Prime Minister say in the Commons Chamber a fortnight ago that
 
“where Essex leads, the rest of the country follows.”—[Official Report, 18 June 2014; Vol. 582, c. 1113.]
 
For us, despite the fact that we are experiencing tremendous population growth, those demands will always be there. Our population is among the fastest growing of any area in the east of England. We must be much more strategic about our infrastructure plans, how we work with our local authorities, upgrade our housing estimates and, importantly, plan to ensure that economic investment in our roads is strategic and in the right place.
 
The excellent Essex chamber of commerce, through the Essex business, transport and infrastructure forum, at which my hon. Friend the Minister has spoken, has been at the forefront of driving forward the campaign and economic arguments in favour of investment in our roads and infrastructure in Essex. The forum’s research and surveys of members have highlighted the economic costs of our outdated highways and, significantly, the cost of delays and congestion. Comments from businesses noted that some firms are losing £2,500 to £5,000 a week as a result of aggregated delays of one to two hours a week. Other firms have reported losing £50,000 a year because each employee loses an average of two hours a week as a result of congestion. One firm has summed up how much poor infrastructure is holding it back:
 
“Road congestion is the fundamental barrier to future growth for my business—in particular key junctions and the last mile to my premises.”
 
Put simply, congestion costs money, jobs and growth, so improving road infrastructure is important to our economic future because key road links provide access to important economic hubs. In Essex, those hubs are Stansted airport, Southend airport, the brilliant new DP World London Gateway port and logistics park, and other ports including Tilbury, Felixstowe and Harwich.
 
The infamous A120 is a vital economic corridor, and the 12-mile single carriageway stretch that runs through the north of my constituency between Marks Tey and Braintree is in need of investment. Not only has the road been identified as one of the 10 most dangerous in the country, but it is congested daily because of the single-carriageway sections. Such congestion, or gridlock, has caused several accidents, and there is a history of road fatalities. The road connects ports such as Harwich with Stansted airport and is used daily by more than 50% of the companies across Essex, particularly by freight trucks, but it is virtually at a standstill.
 
The previous Labour Government abandoned a proposed scheme to upgrade the A120, but I believe that we must work towards securing a new investment package to carry out the crucial upgrade works and dualling that are desperately needed. The Highways Agency route-based strategy, the South East local enterprise partnership “Growth Deal and Strategic Economic Plan” and Essex county council all support the dualling of the A120 as one of the county’s most pressing infrastructure priorities. That is because we all recognise that upgrading the A120 could add more than £1 billion to the UK economy. I hope that the Minister will give a commitment to working with the relevant public authorities, the local authorities and the Highways Agency to place the A120 in the national infrastructure plan and to develop a suitable scheme along with an investment package that will deliver the most appropriate and relevant upgrade to the A120. Ours is a country that manages to deliver major infrastructure projects such as Crossrail, on which work is still taking place, the Olympic games and many other schemes. It is time we undertook not only to dual the A120, but to look more strategically in our counties—including, of course, Essex—at our roads to ensure that the necessary improvements fast become a reality.
 
Other roads that need investment include the A12, which runs through the heart of my constituency and links my part of Essex to the M25 and London. The road is used by 80% of the county’s businesses, and the problems on it are insurmountable. They include poor road surfacing, the impact of diversions caused by shut-downs—those diversions come straight through Witham town and cause congestion and misery in my villages—and access to and from the A12 using single-carriageway roads. In my constituency, there are serious problems with traffic and congestion in Kelvedon, which is the main access from Tiptree to the A12 and the B1023. That has not been fully addressed by the route-based strategy, and I would like the Highways Agency to look again at options for the area.
 
In recent weeks, we have had accidents in Hatfield Peverel, and their impact on traffic and congestion on the A12 led the county council to suggest that new road markings and signage be installed. I hope that the Minister and the Highways Agency give those proposals some consideration, along with the many other proposals that have been suggested. I have written to the Minister, and he has been helpful in responding, on the question of improving road safety and reducing congestion.
 
Another road in the county, which is not in my constituency but is an important strategic link for businesses, is the A127. As the Southend arterial road, it connects the M25 to Basildon into Southend airport, which is experiencing tremendous growth in passenger numbers as a result of the private investment made by Southend airport. The road is being used, quite rightly, by the county’s businesses, and it is particularly useful to great exporters such as CNH UK. Essex county council and chamber of commerce have shown great initiative, and the Minister will be pleased to know that they have set up a taskforce to look at the A127. I am sure that recommendations will follow, which the Minister will be interested in considering.
 
The bête noire for businesses in Essex is the Dartford crossing. The Minister is well aware of my sentiments about the Dartford crossing and the daily congestion from which it suffers. I sat there on Friday night for two hours while three lanes were closed and nothing moved. That is a typical experience of the sort that many users endure daily. Delays at the crossing are causing economic chaos, which has a knock-on impact on our economy because of the business time that is lost. Congestion and the average performance reliability of the crossing are the worst of any major trunk road in the county. Regular users of the crossing experience seemingly endless delays—not of 20 or 30 minutes, but of more than an hour—and we all want action to be taken to reduce those delays. We are optimists, and we look positively towards the introduction of free flow, which we can only hope will transform the experience and get things moving. I would welcome an update from the Minister on free flow.
 
I would also welcome an update on the decision making timeline for the new Thames crossing, which is another important network road for my constituents and a big piece of work. Last December, option B was eliminated, and businesses are eager to know when the Government will decide whether to choose option A, which is to develop a new crossing on the existing site, or option C, which is to link the M2 near Rochester with the A13.
 
Gareth Johnson (Dartford) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and pay tribute to the work she is putting into Witham and the whole county. She has mentioned the congestion at the Dartford crossing. Does she understand my objections to option A, which is to have a crossing next to the existing Dartford crossing into Thurrock, because it would not provide an alternative for the motorist? We are expecting a garden city to be built in my constituency, with some 15,000 new homes; a proposal for a new Paramount theme park; and the expansion of the Bluewater shopping centre. Does she agree that an alternative for the motorist is essential, rather than simply extra capacity next to the existing crossing, which is all option A would offer?
 
Priti Patel: My hon. Friend makes some relevant points. We need a strategic network and we must ensure that the strategic work and planning are done in the right way so as to address the problems. We must also future-proof those routes so that they can meet future capacity needs and ease the constraints in relation to congestion. The Minister will recognise what we are saying, because improvements to the Essex-Kent road links are so vital. Of course, such improvements would act as a turbo charger for the economy in the east and south-east as a whole, but the roads are also vital links that are currently gridlocked. The lack of future-proofing of our infrastructure has caused a lot of the problems.
 
In addition to the roads issues that affect the county, which I could go on about, I would like to touch on some rail issues. The Minister knows that last autumn the Chancellor of the Exchequer established a rail taskforce for the great eastern main line. The taskforce, of which I am a member representing Essex, is examining the strategic improvements to infrastructure and services required to unlock the economic benefits for the east of England—estimated to be close to £4 billion—by delivering faster and more reliable rail services. Progress is being made. The new direct award franchise to 2016 will lead to the deep clean and refurbishment of rolling stock—things for which passengers have been crying out for years.
 
The new post post-2016 long-term franchise offers a great opportunity to get a better deal for commuters. I get correspondence from railway commuters every day, and they are desperate for the upgrade and for improvements to their commuting experience. I would welcome a brief update from the Minister about the progress on that. Rail users in my constituency are deeply unhappy. We have one opportunity to get things right, so we really must do so.
 
I want to make two final points. The first is on aviation. We have two incredible airports in Essex, both with ambitious plans to deliver new services to access new destinations. We obviously welcome the private investment going into those airports, which are creating new jobs and new growth. I encourage the Minister to look at ways to support those hubs, because they are economic gateways for trade, exports and investment. Of course, the road links to the airports must also be fit for purpose. My plea is for the Minister to look not just at Heathrow and Gatwick, but at Essex.
 
My final point is about how we can work at a local level to deliver investment and take a strategic approach to infrastructure. I am not sure whether this idea has been brought to the Minister’s attention and he does not have to respond here—he could perhaps take it away and consider it—but I would like him to look at county-based infrastructure delivery units that could help to map out developments. That way, all infrastructure developments—not just road and rail, but broadband and access to public services—would be planned in relation to where development was taking place or housing was earmarked. Ebbsfleet is a classic example of where extensive planning and work for new homes is going to take place.
 
We must ensure that our local authorities have an overview and think about the wider infrastructure needs—not just of communities, but of the county—and that they look at things from an economic point of view. I wonder whether those civil servants and Ministers who work on the development of the national infrastructure plan should have some kind of oversight too. Perhaps county infrastructure requirements could be looked at in conjunction with the local enterprise partnerships so that we could effectively future-proof infrastructure for coming generations. That way, every penny spent would give us greater bang for our buck, as well as greater leverage.
 
I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce the debate and look forward to the Minister’s response.
 
5.14 pm
 
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr Robert Goodwill): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) on securing this debate on transport infrastructure in Essex. I was in Essex only this morning visiting the Ford Motor Company’s engineering research plant, where 3,500 engineers work at the very cutting edge of technology in Essex.
 
Today’s debate is the second on the subject since 2012, and I praise my hon. Friend for her tenacity in continuing to highlight the importance of good transport infrastructure in building strong and sustainable local communities and a successful local economy. I am also well aware of the excellent work that she does in her role as chair of the Essex business, transport and infrastructure forum. Indeed, I remember her addressing a meeting of the forum with the Minister without Portfolio, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke). I heard some interesting points, many of which related to issues she has raised today.
 
The county of Essex has a resident population of just over 1.7 million and includes the unitary authorities of Southend and Thurrock. The county is rather fortunate to have a number of key transport connections. The nationally important M11, M25, A12 and A120 run through the county, as do major regional local roads, including the A13, A127, A130 and A414. Three main rail lines radiate from London, supplemented by a number of branch lines, serving more than 55 railway stations and, of course, the London underground extends to Upminster in the south of the county. The county also contains a number of international gateways, including Stansted and Southend airports—I have visited the former—and, of course, Harwich international sea port, which provides nationally important connections to Holland and Denmark. In addition, the port of Tilbury and the new London Gateway port development fall within the area. The port of Felixstowe is also nearby in neighbouring Suffolk.
 
Essex has a successful economy with an entrepreneurial work force, which makes the county an attractive place to live and do business. As my hon. Friend has highlighted this afternoon, the Essex transport network is critical to the performance of the local economy. Reliable connectivity enables Essex residents to have good access to jobs and allows local businesses access to the marketplace. The Government recognise that, which is why transport forms part of part of our long-term economic plan to ensure that our country’s infrastructure is improved and reliable.
 
On the Government’s commitment to infrastructure investment, we have already announced increased Government funding to deliver improvements to the strategic road network, targeted at supporting economic growth. Our commitment to deliver a step change in future investment in transport infrastructure was made clear by the Chancellor in his spending review statement last year. The Treasury’s command paper, “Investing in Britain’s future”, set out that the Government will invest more than £28 billion in enhancements and the maintenance of national and local roads. That includes £10.7 billion for major national road projects and £6 billion for the maintenance of strategic roads, including the resurfacing of 80% of the network.
 
In May 2012, the widening of 16 miles of the M25 between junctions 27 and 30 was completed. Junction 30 is a busy intersection of the M25 motorway with the A13 trunk road, and congestion is experienced during key parts of the day. The improvement of junction 30 of the M25 is key to the development of the wider Thames Gateway area, to facilitate future growth in housing and employment. The Prime Minister therefore announced in November 2012 that work would commence on improvements to the M25 at junction 30 in March 2015. The scheme will be able to accommodate whichever option is selected as the location of the lower Thames crossing.
 
To ease congestion and improve journey times at the Dartford-Thurrock river crossing, the Highways Agency is introducing Dart Charge, as we heard. Dart Charge makes greater use of technology and introduces new ways to pay the charge to use the crossing. From October 2014, the introduction of Dart Charge will remove the need for drivers to stop and pay at a barrier, helping to speed up journeys for everyone. Instead, several new ways to pay the charge will be available to customers using the crossing, including online, by phone, at certain retail outlets and by post. The introduction of Dart Charge requires significant changes to the existing road layout and infrastructure, including the removal of the plaza and payment booths to provide four open traffic lanes in each direction. The main construction works will start following the introduction of Dart Charge and are due to be completed in spring 2015. The works have been carefully planned to minimise disruption, and I plan to visit to see how the work is delivered.
 
The Dartford-Thurrock river crossing is a vital transport link, and the Government are committed to improving the crossing experience for the millions of people who use it every year. However, we all recognise that congestion on the crossing not only causes frustration for those who use it but has an impact on the economy. That is why the Government have made it clear that a new lower Thames crossing continues to be one of our top 40 priority projects. The Secretary of State for Transport stated last December that further advice is being obtained to assist in weighing up the relative merits of alternative location options, which are referred to as options A and C. 
 
Any decision must not be taken lightly, as we need to consider all the issues. That said, we hope to make a further announcement on the consideration of options A and C, and on the impact that Dart Charge may have on the existing crossing, in the very near future.
 
My hon. Friend the Member for Witham continues to make the case for the Government to commit funding for improvements to the Highways Agency network in Essex, and she and I met on 2 April to discuss the case for improvements to the A120.
 
Gareth Johnson: Before the Minister moves away from the lower Thames crossing, I welcome the planned introduction of a free-flow system, which is the most efficient and effective way to address the congestion that we have seen on the Dartford crossing since the bridge was built in 1991. I impress upon him the folly of building another Thames crossing next to the existing crossing, which is the so-called option A. If there were any difficulties on the M25, either in Essex or in Kent, they would simply lead to the same amount of congestion and possibly more congestion. Building a crossing further down the Thames estuary surely has to be the best alternative for motorists.
 
Mr Goodwill: My hon. Friend makes a point that my officials and I will continue to consider before a decision is made.
 
The Government’s national infrastructure plan sets out the details of the specific projects that the Department has committed to deliver. As part of that plan more than £28 billion is for road enhancements and maintenance. The specific schemes identified in the plan are able to be completed, or to begin construction, in the next Parliament. Proposals for improvements to the A120 east of Braintree, however, are not yet sufficiently developed to be included in the Highways Agency’s pipeline of future projects.
 
On future investment planning processes, my hon. Friend the Member for Witham will be aware that the Highways Agency is currently carrying out its route strategy process. Route strategies will provide a smarter approach to investment planning across the network and see greater collaboration with local stakeholders to determine the nature, need and timing of future investment that might be required on the network. I will be visiting the A47 in East Anglia on Friday.
 
A set of strategies are being developed for the entire national road network, with the A120 being considered in the east of England route strategy. The route strategies will be delivered in two stages. The first stage identified performance issues on routes, future challenges and growth opportunities, taking full account of local priorities and aspirations. Using that evidence base, the agency established and outlined operational and investment priorities for all routes on the strategic road network. The first stage is now complete and finalised evidence reports were published on 23 April.
 
The second stage will use that evidence to prioritise and take forward a programme of work to identify indicative solutions that will cover operational issues, maintenance and, if appropriate, road improvement schemes to inform future investment plans. I encourage my hon. Friend and relevant local stakeholders to engage with the Highways Agency’s route strategy process. The Highways Agency has also committed to starting work on a number of pinch point schemes to help reduce incident-related congestion on the A12 later this year.
 
Investment in transport infrastructure is important not only to strategic roads but to local transport. The Department has provided £63.5 million towards the A13-A130 Sadlers Farm junction improvements, which is a local major scheme promoted by Essex county council. The scheme is helping to reduce congestion and to facilitate the delivery of planned housing and job growth envisaged for the area. The main junction works, and works to the A13, were opened to traffic in time for the Olympics in July 2012, with the remaining works being completed in January 2013.
 
As part of that ongoing investment, the Government also announced plans to create a local growth fund from 2015 to 2016 that will be devolved to local enterprise partnerships and will incorporate all funding for local major transport schemes, including road schemes and schemes to enhance sustainable local transport. The fund has more than £6 billion of transport funding up to 2021. To secure part of that funding, the South East local enterprise partnership, which includes Essex, Thurrock and Southend as well as Kent, Medway and East Sussex, set out its growth priorities for the area in its strategic economic plan.
 
The plan includes the transport infrastructure that the LEP sees as necessary to deliver that growth, such as capacity improvements to the A127 and improvements to transport in towns such as Colchester and Chelmsford. The plan was submitted to the Government at the end of March and will be used to determine the funding that the LEP will receive. The plan and its transport interventions are currently being assessed by the Government.
 
No funding decisions have yet been made, but we expect to announce the outcomes before the summer recess. Government funding is not just about big schemes on strategic networks. In fact, smaller-scale investment can often make a big difference to our local communities. That is why this year we have granted Essex county council, Thurrock council and Southend-on-Sea borough council more than £37.9 million through highways maintenance and integrated transport block grant funding to allow them to maintain their local roads and invest in local transport improvements. Since March this year, we have also provided Essex county council with a further £3.1 million to help repair roads damaged by the wet winter, and two weeks ago, we announced that the councils will receive more than £4.8 million from the pothole fund announced in this year’s Budget, which is enough to repair more than 92,000 potholes.
 
I have a few brief comments on rail. From 2019, passengers from as far afield as Shenfield will benefit from the £15 billion Crossrail project, which will include brand new high-capacity trains, but Essex rail passengers can also expect shorter-term improvements. As part of its recently announced direct award, Abellio Greater Anglia has committed to a range of improvements to its network. Of significant interest to my hon. Friend and the people of Essex will be the commitment to undertake an internal refresh of the mark 3 rolling stock, which includes improvements to the internal look and feel of the coaches and the installation of at-seat power points, and so on. Abellio Greater Anglia hopes to make an announcement in the near future on the timing of those improvements.
 
I am also delighted to highlight the Department’s recent announcement of the awarding of the new Essex Thameside franchise to National Express. Key customer benefits of the new franchise include an additional fleet of 17 brand-new trains, which will provide an additional 4,800 seats—more than 25,000 additional seats every week for morning peak-time passengers—by the end of the contract.
 
I will draw to a close, as we are approaching the end of our time. I once again congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I have made it clear that the Government are committed and have set out plans to improve transport infrastructure in Essex as part of our long-term economic plan.
 
 

Surgery Dates

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To obtain an appointment please email [email protected] or phone 0207 219 3525.

May 18th Witham

May 29th Tiptree

A12/A120 Consultations

Strategic Road Network Consultations

There are two important consultations running at the moment on key strategic road infrastructure improvements - the A12 widening scheme and the upgrading of the A120. Priti has been campaigning to secure new investment in these roads and has welcomed the consultations taking place. Members of the public can review the proposals for the A12 and A120 at the weblinks below, attend consultation events, and respond to the consultation. Feel free to also contact Priti by email to: [email protected] with your views too.

Widening the A12

Upgrading the A120

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