A120 (Colchester)

4.15 pm

 

Mr Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) (Con): I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to debate this issue and thank the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), for being present to reply.
The A120 is a major economic artery in north Essex. Its route follows the old Roman road of Stane street from Standon in Hertfordshire, through Colchester and on to Harwich. Today, it is the vital trunk route from the M11 and Stansted airport to the port of Harwich. Its importance nationally, regionally and locally was recognised when the Department for Transport published a route-based strategy for the A12 and the A120 earlier this year. The route supports the national and regional economy by providing the link from London and the south-east to the ports of Harwich and Felixstowe and on to Europe. Locally, it is used as a commuter route, serving the growing towns of Chelmsford, Colchester and Ipswich.
The road will also be functioning above capacity by 2021, and will struggle to keep up with demand if the large amount of growth proposed for the towns and cities along it is built. A significant level of growth is planned along the route in terms of jobs and houses. The key areas are around Chelmsford and Colchester, but the port of Harwich is also expected to expand.
Despite all that, the A120 is not designated as part of the core network, which prevents the road from qualifying for access to the £13 billion pot of funding in the European Union’s trans-European network fund—if we are going to pay into it, we may as well get our money out of it. There is no excuse for that; it is the only road in the UK connecting a major port to a major airport.
Improvements to the road were the subject of a section 106 agreement that was included in the Bathside bay planning application for the development of a five-berth container port at the Harwich International port. The development, however, is on hold due to the downturn in world trade, so the improvements suggested in the section 106 agreement, which would have addressed the failings I am about to discuss, will not happen in the foreseeable future. Improvements cannot be left any longer, and certainly cannot remain dependent on future developments and planning applications.
The key safety concerns must be addressed. In particular, the stretch spanning the three junctions of Harwich Road, Pellens Corner and Park Road is extremely dangerous. At each of the junctions, traffic turning right must cross the central reservation and oncoming traffic, which is travelling at the national speed limit of 70 mph. The geography—the ground rises, and there is a bend towards the Pellens Corner junction—makes it extremely difficult to judge the speed of oncoming traffic. Derek Hambling, the manager of local bus company Cedric Coaches, whose drivers use the junction every day, comments:
“I have seen many near misses where cars have been edging out to see past my bus as I wait to turn right towards Elmstead and have made traffic on the A120 swerve to miss them.”
Following a spate of accidents, works were carried out in February and April 2012 with the aim of making
those junctions safe—I am grateful to the Highways Agency for its efforts. The overwhelming response from members of the public who use the junctions, however, was that the changes did not make the junctions any safer. In fact, drivers found that the new road markings made the junctions harder to navigate and even more dangerous. I speak from my own experience, because it is possible to lose the sense of where one is in the junction on a dark and rainy night, even if only driving down the A120.
Mr Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): I am listening to my hon. Friend with great interest, in particular as he discusses accidents that can happen. The focus of his interest is the eastern section of the A120, but, west of there and still on the A120, between Braintree and Marks Tey, there are two other accident points. One is at the turning of Bradwell village, where I live, where numerous accidents happen, and a bit further along at the junction between—
Martin Caton (in the Chair): Order. The intervention is rather long.
Mr Newmark: Does my hon. Friend agree that more investment is needed on the A120 west of Colchester as well as east of it?
Mr Jenkin: The three junctions I mentioned raise questions about the safety management of many similar junctions on the trunk road and motorway network: are they given sufficient priority? If as many injuries occurred on the railways or in the aviation industry as occur on our roads, far more money would be spent on that, and a far higher priority would be given to it than is given to these accident black spots. That is the point that I think my hon. Friend wants me to make about the junctions he discussed.
Fortunately, we have not had any fatalities at the three junctions since the works were completed—perhaps that is a benefit of the changes—but there has been a steady stream of serious collisions, often resulting in severe injuries, proving that that stretch of road remains extremely unsafe. We have been lucky. During the 12 months since the junctions were improved, there have been 10 incidents, nearly seven times the accident rate that would be expected statistically speaking. Prior to the junction improvements, the accident rate was 6.3 per 12 months, or 4.6 times the average expected statistically. The junctions were already dangerous, and may now be even more dangerous. Those figures again bear out Derek Hamblin’s observation:
“It is much more dangerous than it was before the changes.”
The Highways Agency accepts that more needs to be done to improve safety on this stretch of the A120, and I am extremely grateful for its responsiveness. However, it carried out a further safety audit which gave rise to its proposal to close the gaps in the central reservation so that drivers would no longer be able to turn right off the A120 across the path of the oncoming traffic. That will stop accidents at the location, but it is not a practical or safe solution.
First, it will significantly increase many local journey times, including those for emergency vehicles responding to call-outs. Scheduled public bus services will be affected, and adding half an hour to a local bus journey is not unforeseen. There is no doubt that it will damage the local economy. Nigel Dyson, vice-chairman of Little Bentley parish council, commented:
“Since 2005 we have been fighting to stop the deaths on the A120 and get a solution”
but
“we are really no closer to doing this, and just to plunge our villages into chaos is not the solution.”
We must be mindful of the problems that that would cause for local businesses. Steve Wilcox, chairman of Little Bromley parish council, pointed out:
“The impact on local businesses will be significant. There are a number of businesses in Little Bromley”—
and in other villages—
“which operate on small margins, relying on deliveries or visiting trade. The pub trade, which is already struggling, would be dealt a serious blow putting them at risk in the village and the surrounding areas…The closure of these crossovers will affect a great many communities within Tendring, particularly the small rural ones struggling to thrive. Communities as far away as Clacton, Walton, Frinton and Harwich will also be affected.”
A local pub landlord told me:
“The closure of the access from the A120 to Little Bromley from Harwich, Clacton and surrounding villages will have a devastating effect on the future of the pub. As well as being a locals’ pub over 50% of our customers currently travel from these areas.”
That closure will put traffic back on to local back roads, with the attendant safety risks, and this is the point I want to concentrate on. One local couple said:
“There have been too many injuries and too many deaths over the past ten years, please do not relocate these accident black spots on to our country lanes.”
Many of the back roads and country lanes are very narrow and totally unsuited to a volume of commuter or bus traffic.
A long-term solution is needed. Ideally, it will include a roundabout to cater for two junctions, and closure of the third junction. This proposal is supported by Cedric Coaches, and the Highways Agency describes it as
“a viable long term option”.
However, the money must be found. There is an economic case for it at local and regional levels, given the importance of the road and the junctions to the local economy; but most importantly there is a strong case based on the improved safety that it would bring to the junctions, which they have lacked for so long.
In the meantime, interim measures are needed. The preservation of life and avoidance of more accidents is paramount. I recognise the pressure on the Highways Agency to act, but I share the overwhelming view expressed by local residents that closing the gaps in the central reservation cannot be the long-term solution. Peter Halliday, leader of Tendring district council, states:
“Whilst we acknowledge the safety issues that present themselves to road users at these junctions, the compounding of rural isolation their closure would cause is unacceptable for our district. In particular those residents and businesses that rely on two way access onto the A120 and those that simply need to cross the road to go about their daily routine. We simply cannot understand why, as is the case in other locations, speed reduction measures can’t be put in place to reduce the regularity and severity of collisions and free unfettered access to the major trunk road be maintained.”
Priti Patel (Witham) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he agree that, central to his premise regarding the required safety improvements to the east of the A120, is the need for much more strategic and long-term thinking, and to explore making that part of the A120 an economic corridor that will bring substantial benefits to all, including many of the rural villages along that stretch of the road?
Mr Jenkin: I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for her intervention because she reinforces my earlier point about the huge economic importance of this route and emphasises its potential. However, the burden of my point today is what needs to be done now. The issue cannot wait for the long term and a strategic decision to be worked out and implemented: it must be addressed now, particularly given that it has been brought to a head by the threat of closing the junctions.
Steve Wilcox of Little Bromley parish council agrees that in this case:
“The correct, immediate, action is to impose a 40mph speed limit, enforced by speed cameras, and to rectify the dangerously misleading road markings which fail to indicate the correct priorities and the poorly marked traffic islands. The junctions should be then dealt with by providing a suitable designed traffic roundabout as a matter of utmost priority.”
I have argued that, instead of closing the gaps, there should be a reduced speed limit, coupled with enforcement using average-speed cameras. Speed is part of the safety problem. A seven-day speed audit in 2011 showed that between the Park road and Bentley road junctions more than 40% of vehicles were exceeding the speed limit, and that did not include heavy vehicles, which are subject to a lower speed limit and may well have been exceeding their own speed limit, but not 70 mph. Needless to say, that makes the junctions more dangerous and accidents far more serious. In four of the six accidents at the Harwich road junction since the works on the junction,
“failure to judge the other person’s path or speed”
was cited as a likely contributory factor. Correcting excessive speed would make it easier for drivers to make those judgments. The Highways Agency safety audit report recognised that a reduction in the severity of collisions
“could be achieved through reducing the speeds on the A120 by implementing a reduced speed limit and enforcing with speed cameras to ensure compliance.”
Reducing traffic speed would reduce the severity of accidents. Fortunately, the decision to close the gaps has been put off for a month or so, so that alternatives can be considered following public opposition to the proposal. I am grateful for that. We cannot have further delay while we wait for yet another safety audit to determine which is the best way to resolve this ongoing problem. Funding must be found for a roundabout at Pellens corner, and in the meantime more immediate short-term measures must be taken, preferably an enforced speed limit reduction.
The only argument against average speed cameras appears to be the cost, but I am afraid that that is not good enough. A 40 mph speed limit would undoubtedly save lives and money. The same cannot be said for the proposed gap closures. Some lanes around the A120 are hardly wide enough for a school bus, and there are blind corners, blind driveways, no footpaths and there is no speed limit enforcement. That is not a practical or safe solution, which closing the gaps would require us to adopt.
We need a roundabout as soon as possible. In the interim, the only practical solution is average-speed cameras. In a letter to me today, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), who has responsibility for roads, makes no reference to a lower speed limit and enforcement measures. I am disappointed by that. Please will the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes, who is at least the Minister for traffic management, take that very clear message back to his colleague in the Department.
4.30 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Norman Baker): I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) on securing this debate on safety on the A120 east of Colchester. I know that he has rightly been campaigning for a long time on the issue and that he is concerned about the safety record of the road. I recognise his continuing concern, hence his raising the importance of the subject for his constituents, local businesses and the local economy this afternoon.
I am aware that my hon. Friend has written to the Highways Agency and has asked parliamentary questions on the subject, and that he recently met my ministerial colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), to discuss modifications to the road layout at Harwich Road, Park Road and Pellens Corner junctions completed in April 2012, as well as the continuing safety problems, which he referred to, and what might be done to tackle them. I understand that my ministerial colleague wrote to my hon. Friend recently to provide an update, as he confirmed.
Before I respond to the specific points that my hon. Friend raised, it is perhaps worth taking the opportunity to set out the Government’s position on road safety. It remains a top priority for the Department. We have a good record, but we are not complacent, and we are determined to improve on it. The Secretary of State has made that a priority since assuming office at the Department. We are determined to improve by training and testing drivers more effectively, by raising awareness of road safety generally, by enforcing the law, and by investing in our roads to make alterations to improve safety when the road itself is a problem.
The Government’s strategic framework for road safety sets out our vision for achieving that objective. It is supported by the Highways Agency’s commitment to make further safety improvements to reduce casualties on the strategic road network. The network is the Government’s largest single asset, currently valued at about £100 billion and comprising approximately 4,350 miles of motorways and all-purpose trunk roads. The Government recognises the importance of transport infrastructure to support the economy, and we have already announced increased levels of Government funding to deliver improvements targeted at supporting economic growth. At the 2010 spending review, we began investing £1.4 billion in starting 14 major road schemes over the spending review period, with another £900 million to complete existing schemes.
About £1 billion of new investment was allocated in the 2011 autumn statement to tackling areas of congestion and improving the national road network. In the 2012 autumn statement, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced additional capital investment in this Parliament that would enable construction to begin on further schemes and others to be accelerated. Those proposals will make an early contribution to stimulating economic growth.
The Chancellor also announced in his 2012 autumn statement the provision of a further £100 million of capital expenditure in this spending review period to undertake further pinch point schemes, bringing the total fund to £317 million in that period. That includes a £0.28 million pinch point scheme to widen Galleys Corner roundabout south of Braintree. Two other schemes were suggested for pinch point funding by the local enterprise partnership. One was at Earls Colne, which unfortunately did not, in our estimation, offer value for money. The other was at the junctions that are the subject of this debate, but it was unable to be taken forward from that funding source, as it was considered unlikely to be delivered by March 2015 because of deliverability risks that were due to land requirements. I will perhaps come back to that point.
I want to skip to the main points that my hon. Friend raised, and if I have time, I will come back to the comments that I have been invited to make about route-based strategies. Although they are interesting, they are perhaps less germane to my hon. Friend and the matters that he has raised directly this afternoon, which I take very seriously.
I have said that the Government recognises safety as a top priority. I share my hon. Friend’s deep concern and recognise his continued campaign for improvements at the junctions. Although the overall average accident rate for the A120 east of Colchester is less than the national average, the rate varies, with that for junctions generally higher than on the rest of the route. The collision risk at those particular junctions is significantly higher than one would expect. That is not acceptable, and I fully acknowledge that improvements are necessary.
It is regrettable that the modifications completed in April 2012, although generally delivering a small reduction in speeds and an improvement in speed limit observation, have not been successful, based on current evidence, in reducing the number and severity of collisions, as one might have expected. The Highways Agency is, as a priority, investigating options to try and make those junctions safer for the public.
The Highways Agency’s road safety audit concluded that further measures to improve safety at those junctions should be investigated and that the most effective way to improve safety would be to close the gaps in the central reservation. That was because the recent accident history suggested that motorists commonly find it difficult to judge the distance and speed of approaching vehicles when undertaking right turn movements at the junctions. If, following surveys, the Highways Agency concludes that it is not feasible to close the gaps, the severity of collisions could be reduced by implementing a reduced speed limit, as my hon. Friend advocates, enforced with speed cameras to ensure compliance. However, the
Highways Agency, at the moment, has concluded that a reduced speed limit would not significantly reduce the frequency of accidents. It favours gap closures as a preferred short-term option, and it is continuing to investigate a longer-term solution.
Mr Jenkin: Is there any reason why there cannot be a temporary speed camera trial to test that assertion? Closing the gaps without testing that assertion seems extremely irresponsible to me.
Norman Baker: I understand that point entirely. I fully recognise that simply closing the gaps will have an adverse affect on local residents and businesses, as my hon. Friend has eloquently described today. Indeed, diversions could be several miles long, depending on the journeys to be taken. Therefore, prior to deciding on the most appropriate method to improve road safety, traffic surveys will be undertaken to provide information on that and the likely impact on the local roads. He was concerned about rat-running as an unintended consequence of any changes.
I am advised that the surveys will be carried out in June. The Highways Agency, working with Essex county council, because clearly, it is responsible for the side roads, and the police, will use the results of those surveys to determine how best to improve road safety in both the short and long terms. I can confirm that consideration of the use of a speed limit will inform the decision, and that that is not intended simply to move the problem elsewhere.
At this stage, I want to make a point about localism and devolution. Across both coalition parties, the Government has been very keen on championing that and on paying more attention to what is said locally. I feel that we should be listening to local MPs, who know their patches very carefully, before final decisions are taken on any alterations to road schemes in their areas. Therefore, I confirm that I will feed back the comments my hon. Friend has made this afternoon to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon, and ensure that the Highways Agency is aware of his views. He has asked whether there could be a speed limit trial, enforced by cameras. Clearly, that is something that will need to be considered. It is not my responsibility, but I will at least undertake to ask that that is properly considered before decisions are taken to close any gaps, which I know is of concern to my hon. Friend.
My view is that we need to look at all the options. Obviously, costs will be a factor, as will an assessment by the Highways Agency of the likely success rate of any particular action it takes, both in terms of the positive upsides in reducing accidents and the negative downsides in consequences for local residents.
Mr Jenkin: I am waiting for the Minister to raise the land acquisition issue, which I will want to intervene on him about, but will he explain why he thinks the police might be objecting to average speed cameras? Do they bear any cost for the cameras’ installation and maintenance? I should have thought that the cameras might make quite a bit of money for the speed camera authority. Do they involve any additional labour for the police that would incur cost? Why would the police be objecting to it?
Norman Baker: I hope I did not say that the police were objecting. I think I said that the police would be consulted, and we are working with the Highways Agency and Essex county council to determine the best way forward. If the police are objecting, my hon. Friend will have to pursue the matter with them. I suppose that, if I were to speculate, it would be that the police are concerned that speed cameras are put in places where they believe they would be most effective, and not in places where they believe the value of a speed camera would be diminished. However, that is pure speculation on my part. Their views will be sought as part of the activity in June involving the Highways Agency and Essex county council.
Mr Jenkin: I have yet to have a coherent explanation from Essex police as to why it is objecting to the speed cameras. There are other places on the road network where very similar problems occur, such as on the A14 and on an A road in Nottinghamshire, between Nottingham and Ollerton, where speed cameras have recently been installed at similar junctions and have dramatically reduced accident rates. I do not see what the problem is in principle about speed cameras on this stretch of road. The police seem to be objecting to that and have not given an explanation.
Norman Baker: The hon. Gentleman has put it on the record that the police have not given him an explanation. I am disappointed if that is the case. No doubt they will avidly follow this debate and will want to give him, as the local Member of Parliament, an explanation as to their views. I would hope that they would do so on the back of this debate, and that will help to inform future decision making about the road.
I have some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion that the long-term solution might be a roundabout. Roundabouts are proven to be safe constructions on the trunk road network. They also, of course, enable U-turns to be made without people having to travel long distances to alternative points on the network. There is an issue, I understand, about land acquisition, because clearly it has to be determined whether a roundabout could be constructed entirely within Highways Agency land or whether that would require the acquisition of other land, either voluntarily or through compulsory purchase.
Mr Jenkin: I can certainly confirm that any likely roundabout would involve the acquisition of private land, but I can also speak with reasonable authority on behalf of the landowners. They would be only too willing to contribute to a safe and practical solution to this junction, because they are local farmers and it affects the movement of their farm vehicles.
 
Norman Baker: That is also a helpful intervention, and again I will ensure that it is fed back to my ministerial colleague.
We expect an initial analysis of survey results to be available in July and we would want potential measures to be introduced as soon as possible later this summer. I share the view that if there is an accident problem in this area, which there is, and if the measures taken so far have not dealt with it, we do have a responsibility to try to find a way of dealing with the matter, because obviously people’s lives are at risk.
I conclude by again congratulating the hon. Gentleman on raising this important issue for his constituents. I confirm again that the Highways Agency is developing proposals to improve road safety at these junctions in both the short and the long term, taking account of the impact on local residents and businesses. I will specifically ask to make sure that his suggestions are factored in and properly evaluated as part of that process, and I hope very much that the steps that the Highways Agency ends up taking will benefit him and his constituents.
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