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Transport (Eastern Region)

11 am

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North): I am pleased to have this opportunity to put my concerns about transport in the eastern region to hon. Members and to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson). Several parliamentary colleagues from the region are present, and I hope that they will have an opportunity to make clear their concerns.

The eastern region is doubtless one of the most prosperous in the country: average incomes are high, unemployment is low and the quality of life is better than in many other parts of the country. The region is not, however, without its problems. It is disparate and incoherent, stretching from Watford to Walton-on-the-Naze and from Basildon to Blakeney Point. It has areas of high-tech, high-skill and high-income activity, but also pockets of deprivation, unemployment and economic stagnation. Transport links are crucial to overcoming such problems, particularly at the periphery.

The region is dominated by radial transport links that spread outwards from London. Some are quite fast and efficient, but others are badly affected by overcrowding and traffic congestion during peak periods. New investment and higher on-going investment are necessary for transport purposes. Major difficulties are involved in travelling from east to west across the region, and poor east-west links will feature strongly in our debate. It is easier and quicker to travel from Luton to Sheffield than from Luton to Lowestoft.

The region has several significant sea ports. That sector is growing, and sustainable expansion must be supported by improved transport access. There are five airports, including Stansted and our rapidly growing airport at Luton. Those key regional and national infrastructure assets depend crucially on efficient and convenient terrestrial transport links. Given the decline of manufacturing in my town of Luton and, most notably, the closure of Vauxhall in four months' time, the growth of employment at our airport will be vital for the town's prosperity. Transport will also play a critical role in the successful regeneration of the Thames gateway.

Six multi-modal studies are being carried out in the east of England, of which the London and south midlands study is the most significant for my constituency.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire): Before the hon. Gentleman leaves the subject of the benefits of better east-west links in the area that he and I represent, will he concede that one useful aspect of such links, which should have been in place many years ago, is that heavy goods vehicles would no longer thunder along roads and through villages and towns that were not designed to take them?

Mr. Hopkins : The hon. Gentleman is right. The problem is especially acute in my constituency because an east-west route takes heavy lorry traffic right through the middle of the town, which is wholly inappropriate.

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I hope that my colleagues will expand on how that problem affects their constituencies and the different parts of the region.

I turn now to the matters of most concern in my constituency and the sub-regions that surround Luton. The M1 motorway passes through my constituency and is regularly congested where it does so. I am delighted by the decision to erect acoustic barriers where it passes close to homes and schools in Luton, North. That will make a major contribution to the environment in which many of my constituents live. However, congestion on the M1 through Luton is caused as much by local commuting as by long-distance traffic. For example, a logical route from Dunstable to Luton airport and the car plants on the south side of Luton would use the M1 between junctions 11 and 10. Commuting between Milton Keynes and the Luton conurbation also pours local traffic on to the M1 in peak hours.

During peak hours, there is extreme congestion in Luton, and we move closer to gridlock year by year. New transport links must, therefore, pass through and around Luton and between the conurbations in our travel-to-work areas. The most urgent need is to develop the eastern corridor route in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran). Before the roads review during the previous Parliament, there was much talk of widening the M1 northbound. Wisely, that was rejected. I trust that the M1 widening north of junction 10 has now been firmly rejected for the long term.

However, that has made even more vital the development of Translink, the dedicated public transport corridor from Dunstable and Houghton Regis that passes through Luton to the airport and other areas of employment on the south side of the town. Sadly, local authorities have been deeply divided about the form of transport that should operate on the corridor. Luton borough council has proposed a guided busway, while South Bedfordshire council prefers a rail option. Heavy rail would be an inefficient and inappropriate use of the corridor, and I support the development of guided buses.

The Translink corridor is too valuable simply for local bus traffic. That is why I have proposed that a light railway or tramway be built along the whole length of the old single-track rail line from Bletchley through the Translink corridor in Luton and onwards to conurbations further east. I have spoken to a number of transport engineers, who say that it is feasible to combine a tramway and a guided busway on one corridor. With a tramway and a busway, the Translink corridor would be more easily financed and of immensely greater economic benefit to our sub-region. It should be extended from Bletchley to the centre of Milton Keynes, and follow the old single-track railway line all the way to the conurbation of Welwyn and Hatfield.

A significant advantage of a light railway scheme is that the corridor would permit two-way trams but only a single-track heavy rail service. Although Milton Keynes is just outside our region, it has an impact on traffic in the Luton area, and on the M1 and the A5.

A second and associated major improvement that is vital for our area would be to build the long-proposed northern ringroad around Luton from the A5 to the

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A505 Hitchin road to the east of Luton. I am not generally in favour of road building, but this is an exception. It would link up with the new M1 junction 11A north of Luton and provide an important link in a key east-west route across the region. It would take an enormous amount of through traffic off the narrow, residential roads in my constituency that are currently designated as a through route. That northern transport corridor has been protected for many years. It is time to develop it for future transport use. It is vital both locally and regionally and should be carefully designed and routed to minimise its impact on the local environment.

I must say something about rail. One of the casualties of the rail investment chaos of the last few years has been the Thameslink 2000 project. It should have been completed by now, but even the new track work seems to be years away from being started. As a rail commuter on that route for the past 32 years, I declare a personal interest. It is a vital project for the whole of the region, with the possibility of linking King's Lynn and Brighton at the extremes. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to use all his influence to bring forward the regional railway investment that we so desperately need, in particular that for the Thameslink 2000 project.

I should comment on buses before I conclude. The deregulation and privatisation carried out by Conservative Governments were a profound mistake, driven by a market dogma that was wholly misplaced in public services. Our bus services are not good enough. They are not subject to democratic control or proper regulation and follow cherry-picked routes where most profit can be made. They do not provide a comprehensive needs-driven network, thoroughly integrated with other forms of transport. I would like to see bus services back in public hands, operated by local authorities or regional public sector organisations. Such arrangements work wonderfully in Holland and elsewhere in Europe and could bring enormous benefits both to our region and to the country.

Will my hon. Friend the Minister use his influence to the maximum on our behalf to bring forward the vital transport investment that the eastern region needs? The Government will need to play a greater role in transport provision in the future. I do not expect him to give definite answers to all the issues raised in today's debate, but I would ask that he give them serious consideration.

I could say much more about transport in our region, but I must leave time for colleagues to have their say. The primary theme of today's debate is the promotion of better east-west transport links in the eastern region. I hope that my hon. Friend will take that message back to his Department.

11.9 am

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) on securing the debate, which covers the top priority issue in the eastern region.

I wish to make a number of general points about transport policy. First, it should not be cast in environmental terms alone; transport is too often discussed as if it were merely an environmental inconvenience, whereas it is also the engine of the economy. This country will not be competitive on the global stage and will not achieve the productivity that

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the Chancellor wants unless we fully recognise the importance of transport infrastructure to the economy. A better balance must be struck between economic and environmental factors in making transport decisions.

Secondly, we must beware of a one-size-fits-all transport policy. The balance between environmental and economic considerations will vary in different parts of the country, depending on local circumstances. An elderly lady living just outside Beccles, a market town with a population of 10,000 in my constituency, once wrote to me in trepidation saying that she might have to pay a congestion charge to drive into town, and begged for exemptions for pensioners if such a charge should be imposed. The message that we are putting out is, in some ways, far too simple.

Thirdly, the overall state of transport infrastructure in this country is poor, as it is suffering from decades of under-investment. The road and rail networks have never been comprehensively developed and are now patently inadequate for modern purposes, especially in the eastern region, as my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North said. The situation worsens the further east one goes, and one cannot venture further east than my constituency. The east-west links are bad, so coastal communities such as the one that I represent suffer the worst. Transport in East Anglia is all too often typified by large heavy goods vehicles trying to squeeze their way through villages and market towns, such as Beccles and Bungay, whose streets are narrow and full of historic buildings that shake as the trucks pass. Although those trucks may pass through villages for perfectly good economic reasons, nothing has been done to improve matters. Also typical is the experience of sitting in frustration in a line of vehicles following the ubiquitous tractor down an East Anglian road, whether it is an A road or a B road. What I have said must be set against the reality that people will not want to be less mobile under any future policy.

The Government's £180 billion 10-year plan for transport makes an impressive start in rectifying the problem. However, our planning system means that, all too often, large essential transport projects become bogged down and progress is painfully slow, so few people can plan ahead with confidence. As I travel the world, I see that we are falling behind other countries in developing modern transport systems.

We cannot continue like that. We must ensure that our transport policies meet the needs of the eastern region, while recognising that needs vary within that region, which stretches from the fringe of London to Britain's most easterly point. No single solution or policy will suit the whole of that diverse area.

The general principles to which I have referred are relevant in understanding the transport needs of my constituency. The long-standing problem in my area is unemployment, which reached 14 per cent. under the last Conservative Government and was 11.5 per cent. when I was elected in 1997. It now stands at 5 per cent., which is good news, but that percentage is still two or three times higher than that in much of East Anglia. The structural unemployment is still there, and one must ask why that is when our wage costs are low and our land is relatively cheap. We have excellent industrial relations and a pleasant working environment.

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The answer is location. Lowestoft, the main town in my constituency, is Britain's most easterly point. It is in a peripheral position, at the end of a peninsula—East Anglia may be rounded, but it is a peninsula. If one measures by journey time, East Anglia juts so far out into the North sea that it almost touches Holland. My constituency is not connected to the national network of dualled roads. One has to travel 45 miles south to Ipswich to pick it up that way, or 50 miles east to Bury St. Edmunds. We are not included on the national rail network map that one sees at stations and on trains. That is surprising, because we are the country's most easterly point, and I have taken the issue up with the rail authorities. I suppose that it is because only two branch lines come to Lowestoft. That fact speaks volumes.

Poor transport links put business in my area and the local economy at a disadvantage. Existing businesses do not have a level playing field and it is difficult to attract new businesses. All the signs are that businesses in Britain increasingly prefer a more central location. The Lowestoft area can become more central only if it has better transport links. Coastal unemployment is a national phenomenon. The league table of unemployment by travel-to-work areas shows that, in October 2001, the Lowestoft travel-to-work area had the 23rd highest unemployment in the country. Of the top 23 travel-to-work areas for unemployment, 19 are on the coast, and that is not just a freak result for October.

When a coastal community is not connected to the network, things get worse. There is a feeling among my constituents that things are unfair, and a perception that they missed out during the road-building era. Now we are often told that roads are not a good idea anyway and that our roads do not need upgrading. However, I wonder how many people in those places where relief roads and bypasses were built or key routes were upgraded feel that those roads should never have been built. My guess is that they are very pleased that they were.

The greatest irony of all in this is the reason for Lowestoft's very existence. The town's origins lie in its port. Ports integrate land and sea transport and the Government have given us an integrated transport policy, but Lowestoft's excellent low-cost port has to contend with not being integrated into the national road and rail network, even though the old railway lines run parallel to the docks. Efforts have been made to establish rail freight. We were even mentioned in the famous transport White Paper, but sadly, there have been too many obstacles to overcome to turn that into reality.

We need at least one good road link to the rest of the country. The A12 has been detrunked and, after the trunk roads review, the strategy appeared to be to dual the A11 to Norwich and then carry on the dualling to Great Yarmouth, which has the same unemployment problems as Lowestoft. That was probably not the best solution for Lowestoft, but at least it was a link, and we supported it. However, a group of consultants for the Highways Agency has produced a report that comes out against dualling the key part of the A47, which is a real setback. It has struck the wrong balance between environmental and economic considerations, and my

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hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright) will seek a special debate on the matter. I am surveying businesses in my constituency on road priorities. The communities on the east coast of East Anglia with long-standing unemployment cannot be left unconnected. We must have one good road link to the rest of the country.

Transport is such an important issue in my constituency that, unfortunately, the problems do not stop when one finally reaches Lowestoft. The A12 runs the length of the town, north to south, right through the town centre. The town is bisected from east to west by the inlet that forms the port, which crosses the A12 at a lift-up bridge. It is the only bridge in the town—one must go 2.5 miles further inland to find another. The bridge has a special place in this country's transport system. It is the most disruptive lift-up bridge in the country, with the highest number of lifts per day and the second highest traffic flow. Those factors combined disrupt more traffic than any other lift-up bridge. It must lift to enable the port to operate. We have lived with that state of affairs for decades, and for decades we have wanted another river crossing.

I am pleased that some progress is being made. We were delighted before Christmas last year to learn that the Government are providing £25 million for the south Lowestoft relief road. That is the best news that my constituency has received for years, and it comes after the completion of the northern spine road. If, eventually, we can link the two together with another bridge—what we in Lowestoft call "the third crossing"—Lowestoft's long-held dream will have materialised. In Lowestoft we do not talk about the second coming; we talk about the third crossing. Successive Ministers have stood on our bridge. We sometimes wish that it had lifted up and tipped them off, but the one who grants the new bridge will be immortalised by the people of Lowestoft.

11.20 am

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk): I join the hon. Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) in saying that the people of our area feel neglected compared with those of other parts of the country. Although the eastern region as a whole has done well economically, that economic benefit is concentrated more in the west of the region, around the Cambridge corridor, than in the east. When I went to Blackpool for my party's conference I found that I would save two hours by taking the train from Norwich to London and thence to Blackpool, instead of going direct from Norwich to Blackpool. That shows what neglect our area has suffered.

Further to the hon. Gentleman's remarks about Lowestoft, I have a good sense of how far east it is because when I was growing up in Worcestershire we used to visit my grandparents in Lowestoft. It was the most interminable journey that I ever had to undertake as a child. Points east in Norfolk as well as Suffolk are disconnected. The hon. Gentleman mentioned Great Yarmouth. We all look forward to the development of the Yarmouth outer harbour and the contribution that it will make to reviving the eastern part of East Anglia.

We are delighted that work on the section of the A11 from Roudham Heath to Attleborough is going ahead and that the Government have announced their

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preferred routes for the remainder. I understand that there will be one public inquiry to take account of both routes. That news highlights the problem of time scales. I am told that, if things go smoothly, the earliest that we can expect construction to start is 2005 and that dualling of the A11 will not be complete until 2007. That is six years—as long as it took to fight the second world war. There seems to be a wider policy point to be made about the length of time that planning inquiries take. However, we are grateful that progress is being made, albeit slowly.

What is the Government's current policy on bypasses? The residents of Long Stratton, in my constituency, are desperate for a bypass. I invite the Minister to visit Long Stratton to see what they put up with. The A140 from Norwich to Ipswich runs through the centre of that small town and 45,000 cars a day use it. That is wholly inappropriate. The problem has festered for years and we look forward to a rapid solution. The county council will consult on the issue next year and when the process is complete it will assemble a bid for a major project. I hope that the Government will look favourably on that when the time comes.

We should not forget the other kinds of transport that are available. Norwich airport, just outside my constituency, is a vital resource for the area, and for many people is much closer than flying from Stansted airport in the west of the eastern region. The national media sometimes do not bring out the difference between what is happening in the east of the eastern region and what is happening in the west of the region. I hope that the Government will bear in mind, especially in relation to the Cambridge to Huntingdon multi-modal study, the fact that economic development of the region requires better transport links in the east too.

The hon. Member for Waveney spoke about environmental links and striking the right balance. That relates to a more general point that environmental protection can be afforded only if there is wealth. It is not an accident that the poorest countries tend to have the least environmental protection. Greater economic prosperity means that we can better afford to enhance the environment.

11.25 am

Mr. Patrick Hall (Bedford): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) on securing the debate and on his wide-ranging consideration of several issues that affect the eastern region. I also endorse a key point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) about the importance of location and of transport and its influence on economic development. That applies to coastal regions, as we have heard, but it also applies to Bedford, which is nowhere near the coast.

Bedford has two or three wards that record some of the highest unemployment in the eastern region, and the reason for that is connected to transport. North-south links are congested, and east-west links are under-developed. I shall concentrate on east-west links, especially the east-west rail link. The aim of the project is to establish a modern rail route that connects Ipswich and Norwich through Cambridge, Bedford and Milton Keynes to Oxford and the west country. Much of that

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link requires existing track to be upgraded, and some of it, including a section east of Bedford and parts of the Bletchley-to-Oxford stretch, requires re-railing on former track bed.

The project is being promoted by a consortium—the East West Rail Consortium—that comprises 36 members, most of which are local authorities. The consortium has worked hard for several years to put together feasibility studies and business cases on the preferred route to get the scheme under way. It has raised funds to pay for that work. The East of England Development Agency is fully on board and strongly supports the project, which it regards as an integral part of delivering the region's economic development objectives.

The project will relieve pressure on the existing radial routes to London, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North referred, that are congested. It will also offer more choice to residents and businesses in the region, and will underpin the economic benefits associated with what is known as the Oxford to Cambridge technology arc, a concept that is being studied seriously by several people in the region. The idea is that development that concentrates especially on the Cambridge area could extend along corridors to the west towards Oxford, but also, I imagine, to the east.

I fully support the east-west rail link. It will be good for my constituency, and I want it implemented as soon as possible. The route will serve the heart of Bedford. It will re-open the service to the east, which British Rail closed in the early 1960s, and modernise the badly neglected cross-country service west to Bletchley. The route onwards to Oxford, which British Rail also closed in the 1960s, will be re-opened. Importantly, the east-west rail link would not just benefit east-west movements in the eastern region, but would relieve pressure in London and the London orbital area, and create all sorts of opportunities for freight and passenger movements using parts of the east-west rail link across the country. It would also connect with movements north and south from the west coast main line, the midland main line and the east coast main line.

It is intended that the project be delivered in three phases: a western phase west of Bedford, an eastern phase east of Cambridge and a central phase, including the missing link, from Bedford eastwards to the east coast main line, mostly along the former track bed of the Bedford to Cambridge railway.

A rail passenger partnership joint bid to the Strategic Rail Authority for improved services eastwards of Cambridge was made earlier in the year by the consortium and Anglia Railways. It was surprisingly successful, winning £10 million for improved services and new trains, which will come into service in about 18 months' time. The problem is the western section; two years' hard work in research and discussion led to the consortium, on the advice of the SRA, making a much-reduced bid, a concept that the SRA eventually rejected on the grounds that it was not ambitious enough. However, the revenue schemes associated with a smaller project were not sufficient to deliver the correct cost-benefit ratios to pay for the longer-term capital investment. The fact that a scheme was advanced on the advice of the SRA, which said, effectively, that that advice was not correct, has filled many associated with the project with anxiety about how to deal with the

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matter through the SRA in future. I hope that I am wrong, but it seems that although the SRA can handle simple projects involving a single franchise and train operating company, such as the successful and welcome scheme east of Cambridge, it has problems thinking strategically about more difficult concepts.

Mr. Hopkins : My hon. Friend may be aware of past railway investment projects, notably the east coast main line, where more elaborate and expensive proposals were rejected on Treasury advice. Over the years, the investment proved not to be effective and further work is now required for the future. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is better to get it right at the beginning and not to spoil the ship for a ha'p'orth of tar?

Mr. Hall : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Strategic thinking is all about looking ahead and investing for greater gain in the longer term, rather than short-term revenue, budget-led ways of looking at things. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary wants to break the old, narrow, finance-based thinking and look ahead, but that is difficult, as the SRA shows in many other cases, too.

The SRA's "Strategic Agenda" on the east-west rail link, which was published earlier this year, describes it as

which contradicts everything that the consortium has demonstrated in the past few years. It even goes on to state that the scheme has

thus dismissing, in the most cavalier manner, six years of work and analysis costing about £500,000, raised by the consortium. Can my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary confirm that the Government take the east-west rail project seriously and that they understand the strategic economic arguments underpinning the concept.

We all understand that the rail industry is facing financial difficulties, and not just because of events in the past few weeks. In recent years there has been an increasing lack of confidence in the industry to invest. Railtrack failed to maintain the existing network, never mind expanding and improving it. We must look ahead, beyond taking Railtrack into administration, to a positive, confident future for the rail industry. In that context, it is vital that the SRA becomes more reliable, business-like, professional and strategic. It needs more Government investment if it is to play its part in delivering the Government's transport plans, but it also desperately needs to be managed better and to deal with people in a straightforward and reliable manner.

I urge my hon. Friend to take on board my comments, which are offered in a positive way. I hope that he will tell me, perhaps today or later in writing, whether he is prepared to discuss with the Secretary of State the need to review the guidance issued to the SRA after the general election. I also ask my hon. Friend to ensure that

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nothing is done during the upgrades of the west coast and east coast main lines to jeopardise the east-west rail project, which will need to connect with and cross those main lines.

Another key matter is the rail industry's ability to invest. It was the Secretary of State's decision to put a stop to the 20-year franchise replacement process. In regard to east-west rail, that means that the consortium's train operating company partner has only a four-year financial horizon against which to assess a long-term investment project such as east-west rail. The fact that many franchises will have to be replaced soon after the next general election means that opportunities to deliver rail improvements in this Parliament will be missed. I cannot understand who will benefit from that—certainly not my constituents or people in other parts of the country, or the Government. I look forward to discussion on the issue.

We all know that life is full of problems but the problems encountered by the East West Rail Consortium in its bid for the western section of east-west rail has served to strengthen its will to succeed. That is pleasing, but if it is to be translated into positive action in the months and years ahead, it is crucial that the Government listen and that they support the project, directly and indirectly. I hear that we can have hope because there is talk—it may be only rumours—about means by which the project can be delivered. I refer particularly to the missing link east at Bedford: the section of track that was lifted in the 1970s after it was closed in the 1960s. That section is crucial to the delivery of the scheme as a whole and there is talk that that part of it could be delivered by the Government's special purpose vehicle.

I am not sure what a special purpose vehicle is. There is something attractive but mysterious about the idea. I have visions of a magical steam locomotive that will drive through and get everything built. However, tempting though that vision is, I do not think that Harry Potter, or east-west rail, will deliver the missing link. Ministers need to take action, possibly by waving a magic wand—that is up to them. Ministers, not Harry Potter, need to provide the motivation.

The consortium has looked at the important question of dealing with the missing link. With the agreement of the SRA some months ago, it advertised for an infrastructure partner to promote the development of that crucial section and Skanska Construction was selected by a competitive process. Skanska Construction is looking at route options, prior to the process laid down by the Transport and Works Act 1992, which will involve a public inquiry. It is also looking at interaction with the east cost main line upgrade plans in the Hitchin area and it is also investigating potential demand for services to Stansted and Luton airport. So we have the prospect of integrated transport and regional and national links.

With common sense and clear leadership—qualities that have not thus far been noticeable—we shall add to the improved services east of Cambridgeshire that are due to begin in October 2002. We could have new services from Bedford to the west of England by 2003 and—this could be called the full monty—the east-west rail link by 2006. How can my right hon. Friend resist such a temptation? I ask for his and his colleagues' support.

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11.40 am

Bob Spink (Castle Point): I crave your indulgence today, Mr. O'Hara, because this is my first opportunity to contribute to such a debate. I hope that you will bear with me.

The hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Hall) said that life is full of problems. Indeed it is and we certainly know about them in this place. Life is full also of opportunities, and I thank the hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) for providing the opportunity this morning to discuss some of the problems, so that we can find the solutions. He introduced the issue of transport in the east of England eloquently and thoughtfully, and I am grateful for the opportunity to add my little bit.

This has been an excellent debate, but so far it has focused on the north of the eastern region. I shall bring a balance, as I will talk about the south. I represent the interests of south-east Essex, in particular Castle Point and, more parochially, Canvey island. I see the Minister wincing a little. He is clearly not surprised to hear me utter the words Canvey island in this place; he has heard them many times and has shown great tolerance and understanding of our local problems.

Although south Essex is on the periphery of the East of England Development Agency region, we have not been overlooked. The agency has shown our problems great concern and understanding, and is prepared to invest £5 million in Canvey island to prepare about 50 acres of land for what is potentially an important employment-generating development. I will talk about that and the transport infrastructure that it will require. Without a strategic transport infrastructure in place, whatever the East of England Development Agency spends on Canvey island—to provide economic development land and the internal infrastructure—will be less effective.

The Thames gateway initiative is a great one and, providing that it can be made to work properly, should be welcomed. Transport will play a crucial role in the successful regeneration of the Thames gateway, and proposals are being prepared through the Thames Gateway South Essex Partnership. It will require early ministerial support and commitment and, having heard Lord Falconer's comments, I am sure that the commitment is there.

However, there is a problem with the co-operation between local councils. The Thames gateway initiative involves local councils joining together to help put in place a strategic infrastructure for the economic benefit of the whole region. The key problem for me as the Member for Castle Point is that Basildon council is not prepared to co-operate with Castle Point council on an infrastructure that will see the Canvey Island third access road go over some of Basildon's greenbelt land. That road will be necessary if the vision of the Thames gateway is to succeed. The vision sees the Basildon-Castle Point business hub as an important local hub, and that is how the Thames gateway is being sold. Without that third road for Canvey island, the vision will become a nightmare rather than a reality.

I am seeking talks with Basildon council and my council, particularly councillors Dave Wells and Ray Howard, to try to break this logjam with Basildon council. I find it a bit rich that a new town that is built on greenbelt and continually expands on greenbelt wants to

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stop us putting our little road in so that we can have a little bit of the action because it is greenbelt land. No residential houses in Basildon are involved in the Canvey island third road and some of the greenbelt is tip land. Those are arguments that we will have locally and I hope that we can find a way around the impasse with Basildon. I know that the Minister is aware of the problem. He has shown great patience in listening to us over the years and I hope that that will continue.

I turn from the third road link to Canvey island, which I shall take up with Basildon council, to an important and more imminent local scheme: the extension to Roscommon way. There is some opposition from the residents of Western esplanade where the new road will join, but that always happens when there is a development. Generally the people of Canvey island see the benefit of this extension or southern relief road as it is being called. It is seen as an important opportunity for Canvey island.

The scheme has positive benefits across a range of integrated transport objectives, but its main benefits relate to two key issues. The first is employment and regeneration. The scheme will facilitate development opportunities and generate local jobs in the Thames gateway, which nationally is the number one priority area for economic regeneration. The second issue relates to transport and safety. By improving the island's distributor road system, the scheme will enable further improvements in safety and passenger transport to be made elsewhere on the island. In particular, the scheme will improve access to the eastern end of the island and provide much needed relief to Long road, which runs right down the middle of the island.

A key point to remember in looking at the potential benefits of the scheme is its role for the future of the island, which has a population of about 45,000 and is an important part of my constituency. In promoting the scheme, the county council, led by Councillor Ron Williams, who is a well-known advocate of integrated transport in Essex, recognises that its immediate impact on transport may not be as great as competing schemes. For that reason, the funding for the full £9.1 million cost of the road scheme is not being sought. The aim will be a form of private-public partnership. However, the long-term benefits to the island of securing this infrastructure improvement, effectively at a public cost of about £4.7 million, are considered to represent extremely good value for money.

Turning now to the detailed case for employment and regeneration, lack of local employment is a major problem on the island. In the borough only 38 per cent. of jobs are met locally. Putting the available land to use is expected to create a further 1,500 much-needed jobs. The East of England Development Agency has an 18-month plan for the preparation of the £5 million Northwick road site. The Thames gateway strategy identifies Canvey island as being one of the major sites for development and job creation. This 50 acre Northwick road site maximises the use of brownfield land. Accessibility to sites in Canvey will be improved by the new Roscommon way infrastructure, which is a key part of the proposed integrated infrastructure improvements for the island.

Canvey island needs support or it will become physically, economically and socially isolated from the mainland. Regeneration will also give the island a

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greater sense of purpose, helping it to be a place where people contribute to their local community and which contributes to the wider economy. I trust that the Minister has heard all that.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. David Jamieson): I certainly have.

Bob Spink : Again. I am grateful to the Minister for listening carefully. There is a strong case for the scheme, on the basis that it is a prerequisite for, and will facilitate, further improvements that fit within the broader aims of an integrated transport policy for the whole region.

11.50 am

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington): First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) on securing the debate and setting out imaginative proposals. The Translink idea of tram and bus is certainly worth pursuing.

The debate has been informative. There has, of course, been special pleading. The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) asked for a little road to be built on the green belt. There was some not so discreet special pleading from the hon. Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard), who offered the Minister immortality if he delivered the third crossing.

The hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) referred to interminably long journeys through the region to see his grandparents. I hope that he was not suggesting that the countryside in the area was boring—I am not sure what he was driving at.

The hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Hall) was right to bring Harry Potter into the debate, because he stands a much better chance than the Government of achieving an integrated transport policy. Using broomsticks would certainly be an effective way of getting away from congestion, and they could use the new facilities at terminal 5 if that is announced later today.

Hon. Members have made interesting contributions. As they have outlined, the eastern region is quite prosperous. It has a population of 5.5 million and is one of the fastest growing areas in the United Kingdom, with one of the lowest recorded crime rates in England. Unemployment levels across the region as a whole are 3.3 per cent., which is well below the national average.

The East of England Development Agency is seeking to promote a number of key themes to 2010. One of the six key aims is for the region to become more outward looking, and Members have explained why the region feels isolated in many respects. If the development agency is to achieve that objective, transport in the area must be improved.

Many Members have outlined ways in which the transport system could be improved. I think that we all agree that the main transport problems have been caused over many years by neglect, a significant lack of investment in the road and rail networks and a lack of capacity. There are problems getting into Liverpool Street station, for instance, because of bottlenecks. In particular, there is a lack of east to west transport links, on which the hon. Member for Bedford focused.

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The road network includes the A14, A12, A47 and A11, most of which are already dual carriageway or part dual carriageway. However, they are struggling with capacity. As the hon. Member for Luton, North explained, apart from the M1 and the M11, motorway links are poor in the eastern region.

The Government announced on Friday that the A11 will be dualled, but cited 2005 as the earliest completion date. Will the Minister tell us the most realistic, rather than the earliest, completion date?

The A14 takes most of the freight coming out of Felixstowe. Currently, 40 per cent. of the UK's freight comes into that port, and only 20 per cent. leaves Felixstowe by rail. If we are going to move freight off roads and on to railways, we must significantly improve rail links in the port area. The section of the A14 road from Cambridge to Huntingdon is one of the busiest and most dangerous in Europe.

A multi-modal study for that area has been completed and I hope that it emphasises improving rail links for freight. The Felixstowe to Nuneaton line needs improvement to achieve that. The line needs a basic change in the loading gauge to enable bigger, wider trains to carry large freight containers. That would affect bridges, which would need to be raised, and further electrification along the line would be needed. Will the Minister comment on the likelihood of making those improvements?

We must also consider passenger services. Decent passenger rail services would provide an alternative to the A14 for people travelling from Ipswich to Cambridge. At the moment, that service is very limited: only nine trains run each day and if anyone needs to travel quickly, the journey by rail takes about an hour and a half, but the trip by road takes only 40 minutes. If we wish to see more people using the rail network, we must improve train speed.

The hon. Member for Bedford referred to British Rail closing lines in the 1960s. The Oxford to Cambridge line was closed in 1968 by Barbara Castle, so in that case British Rail closed a line on behalf of a Labour Government. I hope that many lines will be reopened. Some have called for the reopening of the Cambridge to St. Ives line, but I understand that funding has not been forthcoming. I hope that the Minister will confirm that rail schemes are not disadvantaged when decisions are taken on the promotion of such schemes as opposed to road schemes, which seem regularly to get the go-ahead.

Many towns in the area are suffering from traffic congestion, although there have been success stories. The Cambridge park-and-ride scheme has been successful. Does the Minister believe, as the hon. Member for Luton, North mentioned, that there is a role for tram systems in smaller towns with populations of 100,000 or less? Will the Government provide guidance on such schemes to those towns?

Hon. Members will know that Stansted airport wants to increase its capacity from 15 million to 25 million passengers a year. Stansted has also called for a standby runway, which has caused local concern as some fear that it may be converted into a full runway. Has the Minister had any recent discussions on that and does he support such a proposal? Stansted airport is in a strong position: it has good public transport links to London, with trains every 15 minutes. However, the services

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going north are not nearly as good; for example, the service from Liverpool through Peterborough and Cambridge is a one-train-per-hour service and is extremely unreliable. Work must be done if we are to make greater use of public transport to access airports. That is increasingly a source of concern, particularly with respect to the terminal 5 announcement.

The public transport links to Luton airport are not good. In fact, I will be meeting with a representative from Luton airport tomorrow. Are there any plans in the pipeline for a decent rail link in addition to the bus service?

Mr. Hopkins : The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the link to the station. That link, between the new mainline station and the airport, is the problem. Translink might provide a link—certainly in my scheme—with a tramway that would go directly from the station to the airport departure area. That is part of my suggestion.

Tom Brake : I thank the hon. Gentleman for that helpful clarification about a way to solve that integration problem.

It is clear that transport infrastructure is at breaking point, not just in the eastern region but across the country. I hope that the Minister can explain the impact of the 10-year transport plan in the eastern region. How many extra miles of railway line will have been constructed by the end of the process? What effect will the plan have on the roads network? The Minister is frowning; he does not like my questions. None the less, I hope that he will respond. I thought that a purpose of Adjournment debates was to raise questions, but the Minister shakes his head.

We need guidance from the Minister about what the 10-year transport plan, which is the Government's key method of delivering improvements and integration, will mean for the region. Hon. Members have described the isolation that is felt in parts of the eastern region because of the relatively poor transport links with London and with the north and west of the country. The Minister's response will, no doubt, clarify whether the situation is likely to change.

12.3 pm

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire): First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) on securing the debate, which has been wide-ranging and good. Many questions have been posed to the Minister, and I hope to allow him sufficient time to answer as many as he can.

The hon. Member for Luton, North began by describing our region as disparate and incoherent. I thought for a moment that he said "desperate"; I will accept "disparate". I throw at the Minister the fact that one of his colleagues thinks that the region does not have an obvious cohesive entity, yet the Government are pressing ahead with regional government for an area that is, apparently, disparate and incoherent.

Mr. Hopkins : The point is that a transport link would make it more coherent.

Mr. Moss : I do not disagree with that.

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The hon. Gentleman said that the situation in our region results from the radial routes that come out of London. That key problem affects the important east-west links about which many hon. Members spoke and with which I shall deal in a little more detail.

Mr. Blizzard : Hon. Members, including the hon. Gentleman, rightly focus on east-west links and have spoken about the "radial" pattern. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that in the north-east region, where I come from, even the radial links tend to peter out some 40 or 50 miles before they reach us?

Mr. Moss : I agree, but the A11, which is a key link into his region, is being dualled. It is long overdue, but represents an important radial link from south to north.

The hon. Member for Luton, North spoke about the importance of ports such as Felixstowe and Harwich—the London gateway and east port. Luton and Stansted are the pre-eminent airports in the region. If those are to expand—and there is every sign that they will—we must focus on improving access. The hon. Gentleman spoke about congestion on the M1, and I would also mention the M11. The dual system north of Stansted airport is inadequate and long tailbacks often arise where it joins the A11. That problem should be examined immediately; we should not wait for the expansion at Stansted mentioned by the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake).

I shall start at the macro level and later examine the micro detail, particularly with respect to my constituency in the north of the region. Six multi-modal studies on the roads have been undertaken: the London orbit, London to south midlands, London to Ipswich, Cambridge to Huntingdon, Norwich to Great Yarmouth and Norwich to Peterborough. The hon. Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) mentioned the Norwich to Great Yarmouth route and the hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Hall) mentioned the London to south midlands route.

Mr. Blizzard : May I put a correction on the record? The hon. Gentleman referred to the Norwich to Great Yarmouth study as multi-modal, as did the briefing paper produced by the East of England Development Agency. However, a road-based study was requested. Will the Minister explain why what was ordered as a road-based study turned out to be a multi-modal study?

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): Order. The hon. Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) is trying to involve the Minister, but his intervention should be addressed to the Opposition spokesman.

Mr. Moss : Thank you for your guidance, Mr. Winterton. I am used to being a conduit for questions that hon. Members forgot to ask the Minister when they were on their feet.

On this occasion, it would be remiss not to thank the Minister personally for his recent announcement about the Thorney bypass on the A47. It has now moved on to its next stage and I know that the Minister has taken a keen interest in it. Thorney is probably the only village on a trunk road in the United Kingdom that has not yet had a bypass. The congestion there every morning and evening is huge, so the bypass is long overdue.

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The problems do not stop at Thorney. The Eye bypass, which seems almost like a three carriageway road in design terms, is only a single carriageway. Two recent fatalities have involved motorcyclists, so I ask the Minister to examine the design and configuration of the road, which is inherently dangerous. The congestion around the periphery of Peterborough due to travel-to-work traffic is also huge, so the Eye bypass should—in conformity with the original intention—be upgraded to dual carriageway. The problem is that the Department bought insufficient land to achieve that.

I want to correct the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington, who said that most of the A47 was dualled. In fact, most of that road in the eastern region is not dualled, even though it is a key east-west route linking Yarmouth and Lowestoft to Norwich, King's Lynn and Peterborough. A multi-modal study is being undertaken, but does the Minister know when it will be published? Can we can expect a sensible dualling programme for the whole of that road? It is presently dualled piecemeal, which leads to all sorts of problems.

Another problem that has raised its head in the eastern region is the Government's policy of detrunking some roads, including the A10 from north of Cambridge to King's Lynn and the A12 between Ipswich and Lowestoft. It is simply an excuse for the Government to offload blame for failing roads. Once the roads are detrunked, they can say that the problem is no longer theirs but one for local authorities. The only way that those roads can be improved to beat the congestion problem is for the Government to make sufficient funds available through local transport grants to county councils and other bodies—

Mr. Jamieson indicated assent.

Mr. Moss : The Minister is saying that they have, but that is not so in every case. Unless it is done, some of our historic trunk roads—they are important arterial routes—will continue to decline.

Several hon. Members have touched on the importance of the rail network in our region. In particular, I refer to the east-west rail route—the hon. Member for Bedford asked the Minister about that—and the Felixstowe and Harwich to Nuneaton freight route, which is considered by EEDA to be a high priority. The recent decisions taken by the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions have thrown rail investment into chaos. It will cost more to pay the companies involved in receivership than it would have cost to pay Railtrack as originally envisaged.

Why are the Government not prepared to grant long-term extensions to some of the key franchises, especially the Great North Eastern Railway, which goes through the western part of our region and I believe runs an excellent service from Peterborough to London? The service has much improved since privatisation, but investment will grind to halt if the Government are not prepared to allow a long-term extension to its franchise. Without it, no company will make the necessary investment.

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Many of the important and strategic rail links in the region are not yet electrified. The section from Peterborough to March in my constituency and on to Ely and Cambridge is a priority. It is difficult to link the various services; for instance, the trains that serve Stansted airport and Liverpool cannot be electric-powered because of the gap in electrification.

Many towns and cities in the eastern region have difficulty with the Government's policy on congestion charging. Councils are closing car parks in city centres and increasing parking fees. In Ipswich, car parking costs are set to increase by a massive 43 per cent. Have the Government given any thought to the future success of many local businesses in the city centres? That policy works only if there is alternative transport into city centres—in most instances, a bus service. All too often, bus services in our region are in chaos. For example, in Suffolk in 1994-95, public transport subsidies were £630,979, but by 1999 they had risen by a measly 0.3 per cent. In the current year, the county council subsidy for local bus contracts is only £636,000.

Ipswich is particularly badly served. It has poor bus services, which are frequently the subject of letters to the local press. One local paper, the Evening Star, has run a campaign to

The key problem seems to have been the withdrawal of services because of a lack of funding. One might have expected the Government, wedded as they are to the idea of public transport, to seek to do something, either directly or indirectly through the borough and county councils. However, that is not the case in Ipswich. Through the Urban Bus Challenge, Ipswich Buses recently applied for a grant to improve late-night services and to increase to every 10 minutes the frequency of an out-of-town service to a village called Whitton. That would have been a great help to commuters and would have taken cars off the road, but both proposals were turned down. Thus a local Labour-controlled borough council, with a policy on congestion charging to get cars off the road in the city centre, turned down sensible applications by a local bus service to improve quality and timing.

The problem stems from the Government's policy, set out in the Transport Act 2000, to re-establish the failed bus monopolies of the past. The Government seem to want to dictate terms to local bus services through local councils, via "quality contracts". Given that that is opposed by the bus industry and is neither popular nor welcome, it is not likely to lead to the improved services that both the Government and we would want.

Bus passenger usage is still declining in rural areas in the eastern region and the Government seem uninterested in doing anything to address that decline. A report by the Institute for Public Policy Research in February 2001 revealed that the Labour party's 10-year plan envisages a decline in bus services outside London.

Mr. Blizzard : Did the hon. Gentleman receive yesterday a large report from the Countryside Agency, which found that the number of parishes that now benefit from a bus service has increased markedly since the Government came to power?

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Mr. Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): Order. Before the hon. Gentleman answers, let me say that the Minister requires a minimum of 10 minutes to reply to the debate. I hope that interventions will now cease.

Mr. Moss : Thank you, Mr. Winterton. I think that that was the third or fourth intervention by the hon. Member for Waveney, who has, I see, lost weight recently. Perhaps he has taken his bicycle or the pedestrian paths in Waveney to achieve that. I was going to wind up in any case.

We have had a useful debate and the Minister has many questions to answer, of which he might manage only a small number. I congratulate the hon. Member for Luton, North on securing the debate.

12.18 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. David Jamieson): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) on securing the debate and on putting his well-presented and carefully argued case so briefly. Brief points are often the best made. He raised a number of important issues and I shall try to address them. If I do not cover all of them, I shall write to him. Early in his speech, he welcomed the new acoustic barriers on the M1 where it passes through his constituency. I know how important that is to people in the area. He will have noted that our 10-year plan dealt with noise from motorways and other trunk roads.

Hon. Members mentioned the Milton Keynes to Hatfield light rail link. I shall discuss some of their specific points, and then deal with more general ones if there is time. As my hon. Friend knows, the light rail link is a matter for the London and south midlands multi-modal studies, which are examining east-west road and rail routes between the M25 and the A14 and will be completed in 2002.

I noted my hon. Friend's disappointment at the delay to Thameslink 2000, which is probably shared by many in my Department. He will know, however, that the public inquiry is now complete, and we expect the inspector's report soon. We cannot second-guess what it will say, but we share my hon. Friend's optimism that the project will go ahead as soon as possible.

My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) rightly described transport as the engine of the economy and said that the region was rather rounded. The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) rather unkindly referred to the rounded regions of my hon. Friend's persona. None the less, my hon. Friend made some important points, particularly about the careful balance that we must strike between the environment and transport needs, although I suspect that he erred more in one direction than the other.

My hon. Friend also mentioned a lady from Beccles, and I can assure her that congestion charging is unlikely to be imposed on small towns. He welcomed the money from the 10-year transport plan. I should tell him and my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North that we are using the plan as the engine of the economy to bring prosperity and employment to areas that suffer difficulties. If it does not achieve those aims, we shall not have succeeded in our ambitions.

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The hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) mentioned bypasses, but we receive requests for many more than funding would allow. Our general theme is improvement in the quality of people's lives, reducing congestion on roads and, sometimes, reducing noise and pollution. We take those in order of priority. The hon. Gentleman will know that, on a recent visit to the constituency of the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard), we examined certain improvements to, and bypasses on, the A11, to which other hon. Members have referred.

Mr. Bacon : If Thorny is the only village in the United Kingdom on a trunk road that does not have a bypass, that is only because the A140 has been detrunked, and Long Stratton, which has the A140 running through it, is still desperate for a bypass. The fact remains that congestion in Long Stratton is unacceptable, and something must be done.

Mr. Jamieson : The hon. Gentleman's comments are well made.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mr. Hall) welcomed some of the improvements that have been made on the east-west rail line. I assure him that we consider it important and are anxious that the matters that he raised are seriously examined. The SRA considered the scheme but felt that the economic case had not been entirely made. My hon. Friend's points were well made, however, and we shall ensure that they are conveyed forcefully to those who deliberate on the matter.

My hon. Friend and the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire discussed the length of franchises, which we have carefully examined. Some people have asked whether two-year franchises are long enough. We must assess the state of the infrastructure to make a realistic long-term assessment of the franchise, but that is sometimes difficult given the current circumstances. To avoid delay, therefore, we are pressing on with two-year franchises. If appropriate, there will be longer-term franchises, but there is no blueprint. Different franchises are under different pressures, so we shall follow no specific model; we shall simply consider what will deliver best in the long term for railway customers.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bedford asked whether short franchises could inhibit franchisees from acquiring new rolling stock. Section 54 of the Railways Act 1993 ensures that purchased rolling stock can be moved on to a new franchisee if the company that has the franchise changes.

I was delighted to see the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) back in debate, as he was regularly between 1992 and 1997. There was a brief interregnum at the wishes of the electorate. He bet me a tenner that he would have a bigger majority than me in 1997, but I have never collected it. Perhaps at some stage—

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): Order. The Minister will agree that all Members of the House of Commons are honourable gentlemen and ladies.

Mr. Jamieson : I am sure of that, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will honour his commitment. Among the many good points that he made about his

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constituency was one about the Roscommon way on Canvey island. He will be aware of the Essex county council local transport plan bid, on which the decision will be announced next month.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome—perhaps he did not have time to mention it—the substantial extra funding that has come to local authorities through local transport plans. It must be welcomed by all hon. Members. In some cases, funding under local transport plans has increased two or three fold. Opposition Members do not always mention that fact when talking about their constituencies, but I keep a list in case they forget and their memories occasionally need jogging. Some of the benefits that he sees will have come from that funding, which we made available.

My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney tried to tempt me to Lowestoft. It would be my first coming to Lowestoft, but he said it would be greater than the second coming if there were a third bridge. I can think of no higher accolade than to be immortalised by the people of Lowestoft. He posed a question to the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire—I like my questions to go by that route, as it gives me time to think—about the road-based study for the A47, which although not multi-modal does not preclude other forms of transport such as rail.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), or at least the person who writes his speeches for him, because they always contain lots of questions. He said that I frowned at one stage, but I was doing so only because I was counting all the questions that he had piled up. He asked what we intended to deliver in the 10-year plan for the region. In broad terms, the plan will provide extra road improvements along the lines that hon. Members have mentioned, such as bypasses and dualling of roads, including the A11, which I visited recently. Some of our plans to modernise the railway system are under way. We shall cut casualties on the roads and reduce pollution. The eastern region will receive a substantial cut of the £180 billion available under the 10-year transport plan.

In a recent debate in this Chamber, the hon. Gentleman was challenged by the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) about Liberal Democrat plans for extra spending on transport. I would take him more seriously had he not said that there were none and that any extra money—that famous penny—would be spent on education. We like his lists, but we do not take them terribly seriously because they cannot be achieved.

I want to let the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire, who mentioned buses, off the hook. The date of 26 October 1986 should be firmly in his mind, because it was then that the Tory Government deregulated bus services. That was when the decline in many rural areas began. The Labour Government supplied the extra funding that is providing rural bus services.

The debate has been very wide and, as always, I have had a brief time in which to deal with the valuable points that hon. Members have made. However, I shall endeavour, in correspondence, to deal with those as necessary.

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