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9 Jan 2001 : Column 202WH


12.59 pm

Mr. Neil Turner (Wigan): May I say at the start that I have the support of my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) and my hon. Friends the Members for Leigh (Mr. Cunliffe) and for Worsley (Mr. Lewis), whose constituencies are in the Wigan borough? My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Ms Kelly) will contribute to the debate, because the route also affects the Bolton borough.

The history of the A5225 goes back to the 1950s and a Lancashire development plan for the roads in the area. The plan included the M6, the M60, the M58, the M56 and a road called Route 225--which is how the A5225 got its name. It was designed to link the north Merseyside and Seaforth container docks via the M58 to the M6, then through the A5225 from junction 26 on the M6 to the M61, and thence to the primary route network through the M62 to Yorkshire and Humberside. At that time, it was seen as a northern relief route for the M62 and part of the primary route network.

Plans for the route made good progress, and in the 1990s reached the stage of being worked up into a proper design and presented to a public inquiry, which came out in favour of its being built. Unfortunately, it was lost in the reviews that happened periodically over the course of 18 years in which Mr. Boom and Mr. Bust came along to interrupt the necessary investments in our country.

Since then, the need for the route has not only persisted but been enhanced. I shall deal with the route in three broad aspects--first, its role as a regional link as part of the national primary route network; secondly, its importance as an economic regenerator for the region and sub-region; and thirdly, its significance in terms of the national, regional, sub-regional and local public transport infrastructure.

The Highways Agency is considering opportunities to improve the transport route network. As part of that process, the north-west steering group is examining several areas in the north-west region. Its current proposals state that

The proposals go on to suggest that there is a need to include

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I want to talk about economic regeneration. Not so long ago, when people thought of Wigan, they naturally thought of coal. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case. Once, thousands of people were involved directly and indirectly in the coal industry--now, about 150 people are indirectly involved through the design of coal-cutting equipment in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield. This is a classic case of an area that needs help to switch its economy from the overwhelmingly coal-based economy of the 1950s and earlier into the much broader-based economy that is required in the 21st century.

The coalfields task force that was established by the Government considered specific instances in which help could be given in regenerating such areas, and recommendation 20 of its report stated that the Government should consider how roads could play a part in that process. It highlighted seven roads, one of which was the A5225 regeneration road in Wigan. The task force clearly saw the road as a vital part of coalfields regeneration--in fact, it was the only one in the entire former Lancashire coalfield area that it mentioned. Recommendation 20 stated:

Indeed, that route was included for potential development in the local transport plan, which I shall discuss in a moment.

The areas of land that are available for development are enormous. However, they are locked in because of inadequate or non-existent access to the primary route network. The site of the former Pemberton colliery has been derelict for more than 20 years. It borders Pemberton itself, which is the most deprived area in the Wigan borough and one of the 200 most deprived wards in the country. There is also the Westwood power station site, which consists of 30 hectares, and the site at Kirkless, which also requires completion. Those sites are in the constituency of Makerfield, so I am unsure whether I or my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield should be discussing this issue. However, the economies of our two constituencies are so closely integrated that, if he is kicked, I limp. Of course, I am not suggesting that anyone should kick him.

Other areas could be opened up. To the north is the site of the former Turner and Newell asbestos factory, which consists of about 15 hectares. About 25 hectares at the former brickworks and opencast site at Gadbury

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could also be opened up for regeneration. Gadbury is one of only two former opencast sites in the entire country that have not been redeveloped properly because the organisation concerned has gone into liquidation. The second site is also in the Wigan borough, so it is incumbent on the Government to help to ensure that they are properly redeveloped.

In turning to transport issues, it would be as well to describe in a little detail the relevant areas of this former Lancashire coalfield area. It consists of a series of former pit villages and towns that are scattered throughout south Lancashire. When one looks at the map, they resemble a starfish: roads have spread from the town centre, and terraced housing has developed along them in linear form. The narrow roads wind between country areas and contain many terraced properties, so road widening is not possible. Moreover, because of the nature of terraced housing, local residents often have nowhere to park other than the road itself, which causes major congestion problems.

Wigan and Leigh are the two most densely populated areas in the Wigan borough, but there is no direct link between them. Because the six-mile route to Wigan along the A577 is so badly congested, I often drive to Leigh by taking the 10 or 12-mile diversion along the M6, the A580 and the Leigh bypass. We are talking about areas with substantial populations. Between Wigan and Leigh are the towns of Ince, Pemberton, Hindley, Atherton and Westhoughton, which have populations of 30,000 or 40,000. They are congested, and it takes a long time to travel between them. The obvious solution is to create a bus lane, but that cannot be done because of the narrowness of the road, the congestion caused by development along it, and the need for people to park.

What is the solution to the local transport problems? It is the Wigan integrated transport system, which collects together the existing railway stations in Wigan--the Wigan North West railway station, the west coast main line station and the Wallgate station, which serves the line to Southport--on one site, along with a new bus station and park and ride schemes. That scheme would have the support of Manchester international airport because it would allow through-ticketing on to the airline. It also has the support of the Greater Manchester passenger transport authority, Virgin and Cross Country trains and the bus operators.

The scheme is not simply a transport solution. It links into the point made earlier about economic regeneration of the area, including a £400 million development within Wigan town centre, a commercial development of up to 2 million sq ft. It is important for change in the local economy because we need the higher-value employment that would be attracted. Despite the fact that we have an excellent education authority, producing children who are better educated than the national average, the best leave to take jobs in other areas of the country. This commercial development will attract organisations into the area and, through the availability of better jobs, keep well-educated people within the borough, which, in turn, is important for regeneration.

The Government response to the north-west regional transport plan says:

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The need for the road is clear. It is already designed and has gone through a public inquiry, so those aspects will not need to be repeated, and we own the majority of the land and property that will be affected by it. It has a major regional road link, the support of the north-west regional development area and it would help to provide public transport solutions to both local and regional difficulties. It is difficult to envisage a scheme that would fulfil the Government's public transport solutions better than the Wigan integrated transport scheme. It links national rail, local bus and park and ride schemes and has immense public sector leverage. The developer has said that he will be willing to put in substantial funding for the A5225. As I said earlier, it also has the support of all the train and bus operators and of Manchester airport.

It would be a major regenerator for the local and sub-regional economy in former heartlands areas with mining communities. Both my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield and I represent areas with the longest continuing Labour representation in the House since 1906. That is the depth of the commitment of people in our area to the Labour party, and they would like some payback in the form of help for regeneration.

I should like the Minister to give the go-ahead for this route today, but I know that Christmas has gone and I am not likely to get that. We would, however, like protection of the route for at least two years while the various ongoing schemes that I have spoken about are completed, and a meeting with MPs and the local authorities affected before any decision is made, so that we can put further points to the Government if necessary.

If it is not to be a Highways Agency road, we would like it to be a local authority road, supported by either supplementary credit approvals or the local transport plan. Frankly, if this route is not protected it will be the end of WITS, and we shall be at our wits' end to understand it.

1.14 pm

Ms Ruth Kelly (Bolton, West): My hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Mr. Turner) has made a powerful case for the proposed A5225 road. I want to support his comments and to add some observations of my own. I shall not repeat his remarks concerning the potential benefits of economic regeneration, because it would primarily benefit the Wigan area, although there would of course be knock-on benefits for my constituency. Although most of the proposed route is in Wigan, it runs to the east of Westhoughton in my constituency. Indeed, the need to link the M6 and M61 with the new road was one of the first issues brought to my attention when I became the prospective parliamentary candidate for Bolton, West in 1996.

I shall discuss the potential transport benefits for Westhoughton and Bolton, West. As my hon. Friend pointed out, the scheme went to public inquiry in 1994.

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When the inspector reported in 1996, he concluded that it was clear from the traffic appraisal that the local network was approaching saturation and that unless a substantial improvement was implemented, traffic conditions and the environment along the A577 and A58 would become intolerable. He predicted that the new route would dramatically reduce traffic flow along the A577 and A58, and substantially reduce the number of accidents across the network. It was extremely disappointing that the then Secretary of State agreed with the inspector but ordered that no further work be done and that none of the side road orders be made. Later, he deleted the scheme from the trunk roads programme.

After a high-profile campaign by Wigan and Bolton councils, the then Secretary of State conceded that the route should be protected while private finance was sought. That protection is still in place, so planning applications along the route are automatically refused. The need for the road is even greater today. Traffic, especially in Westhoughton and along Park road, is, as the inspector predicted, intolerable. Since the inquiry took place, Westhoughton has experienced huge housing developments that have been accompanied by new cars. The volume of traffic generated by new housing has led to misery among the residents.

Save Westhoughton Act Now, an active and effective local campaigning group, has managed to halt new housing development, which demonstrates the strength of local feeling. In the Daisy Hill area there are problems with heavy goods vehicles driving past a primary school, which could be avoided if the new route were in place. The volume of pedestrian traffic along Park road has also increased significantly with the opening of a doctor's surgery and a supermarket. The new route could significantly improve pedestrian safety and the environment, while reducing congestion.

My hon. Friend made some powerful points about the new scheme's importance in terms of public transport. It is almost unique that the building of a road could lead to significant improvements in public transport infrastructure. The scheme would, for the first time, allow prioritised bus routes in the Bolton and Wigan areas, which is an important consideration.

While the route under consideration may not be as ambitious as the initial scheme, it could still significantly reduce congestion and help the residents of Westhoughton and Wigan. I, too, ask for continued protection for the route. In addition, I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to reconsider the need to inject public funds into the scheme to match the private sector contributions that have already been obtained. Perhaps he will agree to meet me, my hon. Friend, other hon. Members who are interested in the scheme and local councils, so that we can put our case to him.

1.19 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Chris Mullin ): I had intended to go into slightly more detail, but time permits me to cover only some of the points raised.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Mr. Turner) on securing the debate and thank him and my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West

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(Ms Kelly) for setting out the case so clearly. Integrated transport is a high priority for the Government and I am pleased to hear that it is treated seriously in Wigan and Bolton.

The long history of the A5225 goes back to 1949 and I could speak at length about it. My hon. Friends referred to the recommendation of the inspector in July 1996 when the scheme was given a longer-term categorisation because it was not considered to be of the highest priority within the national trunk roads programme. The previous Government then decided to withdraw the longer-term scheme from the programme in November 1996. In February 1997, AMEC proposed a modified version of the scheme using private finance. That was considered by the Government in 1997-98, when they concluded that the proposed M6 to M61 link was not of sufficient strategic national importance to merit inclusion in the core trunk road network. The Government invited Wigan and Bolton councils to consider whether they wanted to promote the AMEC proposals as part of their local authority transport plans.

The proposed scheme would be expensive. In 1994 it would have cost £117 million and it would cost a lot more today. I shall explain what has happened during the two and a half years since my noble Friend Lord Whitty wrote to the councils suggesting a local scheme. A bid for local transport plan funding was made for the final section of the Wigan town centre relief route, but the appraisal material presented was not sufficient to allow us to assess whether the scheme would pass the tests to determine eligibility for Government funding, nor was it clear what relationship, if any, it had to the proposed Wigan transport hub.

The Government are keen to work with the local authority to resolve any outstanding issues and to assist with the completion of a full scheme appraisal. To enable Ministers to consider the scheme in December for funding from the local transport planning reserve, we would expect a full appraisal to be submitted by July. I understand that the proposals for the Wigan transport hub interchange are still being discussed by the local

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authority and a developer. It is a large and ambitious programme and we look forward to receiving a planning application, which I understand has been some time in preparation.

The link road from Wigan to the M6 would incorporate the western section of the earlier A5225 bypass proposal--about one third of the complete route--and provide access to the proposed hub. The local authority must decide whether and how it wishes to promote the scheme. Officials from the Highways Agency, the Government office of the north-west and Wigan council have met to discuss the matter on several occasions. It will be for the relevant local authorities to decide how and whether to promote the A5225 scheme in full to aid regeneration of the whole corridor.

There is no suggestion that any part of the Wigan to M6 link should be a trunk road scheme and there are no firm proposals in the draft regional planning guidance, regional transport strategy or local transport plan for the construction of the A5225 in its entirety.

It is unfortunate that the situation has persisted for so long. It is two and a half years since Lord Whitty invited the councils to consider a local scheme. The route protection cannot be maintained indefinitely. The Highways Agency owns 67 properties on the route with an approximate resale value of £4.5 million. It has continued to bear the cost of maintaining that estate and of an increasing number of blight notices.

Ministers have ruled out the A5225 route forming part of the national strategic core trunk road network and the scheme is not in the Highways Agency's targeted programme of improvements. The initiative to pursue the scheme, in part or as a whole, rests squarely with Wigan and Bolton metropolitan borough councils. Time is running out. Officials at the Highways Agency and the Government office of the north-west will try to bring the matter to a satisfactory conclusion. I hope very much that the local authorities will be able to find a way forward, and I shall draw this debate and the points that have been made to the attention of my noble Friend Lord Whitty, the Minister responsible.

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