Peter Aldous leads a Parliamentary debate calling for Government backing for a third crossing over Lake Lothing which would be of enormous economic benefit to Lowestoft.
Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David, and to raise the issue of a third crossing over Lake Lothing in Lowestoft. This is a matter of great importance to those living and working in the Lowestoft area. There has been a need for such a crossing for many years.
Lake Lothing, around which the port of Lowestoft is based, splits the town into two parts. At present there are two crossings: the bascule bridge at the eastern end, close to the town centre and the outer harbour, and a crossing at Mutford lock to the west, at Oulton Broad. The two crossings are inadequate, and congestion frequently builds up, particularly when the bascule bridge opens to allow vessels into and out of the inner harbour. A poor road network has blighted the town for a long time. It is a disincentive to people to go into the town and is preventing businesses from moving there or expanding there.
The challenge of building the third crossing has been considered many times over the years. It is not a straightforward task, although I believe that in the past five years the building blocks have been put in place that will enable the bridge to be built at last. I propose to explain why that is the case and what now needs to be done to take the scheme forward. The bridge will bring benefits not only to north Suffolk but to East Anglia and the United Kingdom, by developing the regional economy.
I am particularly pleased that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), will be responding to this debate. Last summer, he started his fact-finding drive along the A47 from the centre of Lowestoft. He arrived early on the train. I drove him around Lake Lothing and he saw for himself both the problem of the bridge and the great potential that can be unlocked by building the third crossing.
I want to provide some historical context. There have been two crossings of Lake Lothing, approximately in their current positions, since 1830 when the first swing bridge was installed, linking the town centre to Kirkley and Pakefield. That bridge was replaced in 1897 with another swing bridge, the Jubilee bridge, which lasted until 1969, when it broke down. It was replaced in 1972 with the current bascule bridge. Two bridges over Lake Lothing were adequate while the main transport routes to Lowestoft were by sea and rail, but it was apparent even before world war two, with more reliance on road transport, that there was a need for a third bridge and that its absence was hampering plans to bring new employment opportunities to the town. The problem was compounded by the decision to construct a three-lane bascule bridge, which was illogical when one takes into account that there are four, and now sometimes five, lanes of traffic approaching it.
In the past 35 years, much of Lowestoft’s rich and proud industrial heritage has gone. The fishing industry is a pale shadow of its former self, the canning factory and the coachworks have long since closed, and there has been a move away from traditional home-based tourism. It would be wrong to blame the lack of a third crossing for their demise, but poor infrastructure to and around the town has hampered attempts to attract new businesses to the area.
The problems faced by coastal communities such as Lowestoft, which include inadequate infrastructure, are deep-rooted and will not be addressed in five years. However, since 2010 policies and initiatives have been put in place, and projects have been carried out, that will reverse the decline and enable the necessary road infrastructure to be built that can bring sustained economic growth back to Lowestoft.
First, the Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth enterprise zone has been a great success, with 40 new buildings now completed and £19 million of private sector investment secured, including the developments on the Riverside business park, which adjoins Lake Lothing. On his recent visit to Lowestoft, the Prime Minister announced plans for the future expansion of the enterprise zone, which could include land in the surrounding area. To realise the full potential of the enterprise zone and the assisted area designation, good road infrastructure is required, including a third crossing.
Secondly, a major constraint on realising the full economic potential of the Lake Lothing area has been the lack of adequate flood defences. That was all too apparent during the storm surge of 5 December 2013, which hit the area particularly hard. It is vital for businesses investing in their premises that flood defences are in place. Thus it is welcome that funding has been secured for a £25 million flood protection scheme. This major engineering project will be constructed over the next few years, during which time temporary arrangements will be put in place to provide the necessary protection. Addressing that problem means that developments can proceed, which in turn focuses attention on providing better road infrastructure.
Thirdly, Lake Lothing is not the only pinch point in the Lowestoft road network, and work is taking place to sort the others out. The Oulton Broad North level crossing is a major cause of congestion, but a solution to improve the situation has been found. When the railway line to Norwich is re-signalled, the platform will be extended and the signal board repositioned, so that trains can run into the platform while the crossing remains open to traffic. That work should be completed in 2016 and will result in a considerable reduction in the time for which the barriers are down, during which congestion builds up along Bridge road, Normanston drive and Gorleston road.
The long-awaited final phase of the northern spine road, which removes traffic from the Bentley drive area to the north of the town, will be completed in the next few weeks. The scheme is taking place as a result of a £4.63 million pinch point fund grant from the Government. A relief road for Lowestoft has in effect been built in phases over the past 30 years, and the new section of the northern spine road is the penultimate item of work. The final piece in the jigsaw, which will link them all together and join the north of the town to the south, is the third crossing. It is thus right that we now focus our attention on its delivery.
Fourthly, for too long during the past 40 to 45 years we have built roads in a piecemeal, scattergun way, rather than by pursuing a strategic planned approach. That explains why the gestation period for many projects is elephantine and why some schemes are woefully inadequate almost from the day they open, as was the case with the new bascule bridge in 1972.
In the past year there have been encouraging signs that a strategic approach will be pursued in future, as the Government have carried out feasibility studies on six trunk roads as part of their road investment strategy. One of those roads was the A47, which links north Suffolk and Norfolk to the A1 at Peterborough. The A47 is at present of poor quality along much of its 119-mile length, and its unreliability has meant that it has not functioned properly as the gateway to growth that it should have been. In December, the Government announced an initial investment of £300 million for upgrading the A47, to include some dualling, junction improvements and extending the road to Lowestoft. This is good news, but it is not the endgame. It is only the beginning of a campaign for a full dual carriageway link from Lowestoft to the A1. That would enable the road to function properly as a gateway to growth and ensure that the whole area along the length of the road realised its full potential. It would create an estimated additional 17,000 jobs and an increase of £706 million per annum in economic output across the region. The new, upgraded A47 now starts on the south bank of Lake Lothing, which provides the context within which we can now plan for the third crossing.
A start has been made, with Suffolk county council commissioning WSP consulting engineers to provide an overview of options both to the east, close to the bascule bridge, and in the centre of Lake Lothing. The study considered the engineering feasibility, the budget costs and the likely effect on traffic movements of the options, and concluded that bridge crossings both in the centre of Lake Lothing and to the east are technically feasible. From analysis of the report, it is clear that more detailed work is required to produce a robust scheme that everyone can get behind and that can be promoted to secure funding for the bridge’s construction.
There are further issues that need to be addressed. First, there is bridge’s location. It needs to be in a position that both enables traffic to flow smoothly around the town and enables the port and the businesses located there to realise their full potential and make the most of the exciting job opportunities emerging in the offshore energy sector. When one looks at how the various phases of what is in effect the Lowestoft relief road have been built over the past three decades, one sees that the obvious location for the crossing, to enable traffic to flow smoothly, is at the centre of Lake Lothing. During that time, port operations have changed and vessels have got bigger. If the crossing is to be in that location, it must be a high-level bridge that does not have a negative effect on the potential to bring jobs to Lowestoft and that serves the emerging offshore renewables sector. Lowestoft is well placed to benefit from those opportunities, due to its geographic position close to wind farms, the skills built up in the oil and gas sector over the past 40 years and the town’s growing reputation for expertise in offshore renewables technology.
Secondly, the report identifies further work that needs to be carried out to arrive at the optimum solution. That includes further traffic monitoring, taking into account not only existing traffic flows but changes that are likely to result from the completion of the northern spine road, new housing and new business development; full ground condition surveys and environmental investigations; an assessment of the impact of any scheme on existing buildings, including those that might have to be demolished; and the likely cost of necessary land acquisitions.
Thirdly, the business case for the third crossing needs to be worked up. Lowestoft has three economic assets: the port, the town centre and the south beach. At present, all three fail to realise their full potential due to the dysfunctional road system that serves them. The third crossing can solve that problem, thereby creating hundreds of new jobs. We must demonstrate how that will be achieved.
I am seeking Government support and assistance to take the scheme forward. The necessary background and preparatory work has been carried out, but we now need to move forward on two fronts. First, a full, credible and robust scheme needs to be prepared. The New Anglia local enterprise partnership and Suffolk county council have indicated that they will carry out that work if the Department for Transport confirms that it will give the scheme full and serious consideration and there is a reasonable expectation that funding for the bridge’s construction will be forthcoming. Will the Minister provide that confirmation?
Secondly, the work is detailed and will take some time to complete. While it is ongoing, it is important that short-term improvements are carried out to ensure that traffic flows more smoothly and to relieve congestion. Later this year, tidal flow arrangements over the Bascule bridge, which are necessary as a result of the bridge having only three lanes, are due to be improved. The old signs and signalling equipment will be replaced. It is important that that work takes place on time. The Highways Agency is working with Suffolk county council on proposals to improve key junctions around the town, including the nearby Pier terrace, the Asda roundabout, Tom Crisp way and its junction with Blackheath road, and the junction by the Flying Dutchman. Will the Minister do all he can to ensure that those works take place as soon as possible?
For nearly 80 years, there has been a need for a third crossing over Lake Lothing, but requests to Governments of all colours have fallen on deaf ears. As a result, many people in Lowestoft feel let down by and alienated from those in Westminster. To get the third crossing built will not be easy. Plenty of challenges lie ahead, but there are reasons to be optimistic. First, the Government recognise the need for a strategic approach to building such large local infrastructure projects. It is helpful that the crossing is now on a strategic route, the A47, which has been identified as a growth corridor. Secondly, the acceptance of the need for such projects to be driven by local people and local businesses who know their area best, rather than by the man from Whitehall, is encouraging. Those people are better placed to understand what a scheme such as the third crossing can do for the Lowestoft and East Anglian economy. Finally, the success of the enterprise zone illustrates and confirms Lowestoft’s great potential, but that can be fully realised only by first-class infrastructure. In summary, there is a real opportunity to build the third crossing. I look forward to the Minister’s reply on how the Government will work with local people to turn that dream into a reality.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr Robert Goodwill): It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on securing this debate on the third crossing over Lake Lothing in Lowestoft. I know that the subject is of great importance to him and his constituents, including businesses within the area, and he spoke eloquently. I visited Lake Lothing and Lowestoft on 4 July as a prelude to my epic road trip along the A12/A47 that culminated at Peterborough. I know that the road is very important for a number of Members whose constituencies lie along it, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), who I note is in her place.
Lowestoft is an important centre in Suffolk and the east of England. While its traditional industries, such as fishing and tourism, have declined over the years, the town has begun to develop as a key centre of the renewable energy industry in the UK. As with any key centre, having good transport links is vital for continued economic growth. With its particular geography—indeed, I believe it is the most easterly point of the British mainland—Lowestoft needs good connectivity to compete effectively. That goes for the country as a whole, and the Government certainly recognise the importance of an effective transport infrastructure to the economy and to delivering improvements targeted at supporting economic growth. That is why just before Christmas the Government announced the road investment strategy—the biggest upgrade to our motorways and key trunk roads in a generation. It is a £15 billion programme to triple annual investment by the end of the decade. It represents an enormous opportunity to transform the roads that traverse our nation and includes an unprecedented £3 billion of investment for the east of England, of which some £1.5 billion is new investment.
The key artery of the A47/A12 will see a £300 million package of improvements that includes dualling of three sections of the route and improvements to the Acle Straight and junctions around Norwich and along the A12 in and around Great Yarmouth. The aim is to address challenges and reduce congestion, delays and accidents on that key corridor. As part of the improvement package, we also plan to renumber the section of the A12 between Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft as the A47. The renaming will better reflect the route’s nature as a continuous corridor. Time scales for the next stages of work are due to be published in the Highways Agency’s delivery plan, which is expected to be published later this month.
Improving our national networks is about not just roads, but railways. They are all part of the picture of improving connectivity, of which the proposed third crossing is a vital part. The Government support the key recommendations put forward by the Great Eastern main line taskforce. The group wants to see better rail journey times to East Anglia, with the journey to Norwich reduced to 90 minutes—the “Norwich in 90” campaign. We want to see bidders for the new Greater Anglia franchise incentivised to submit plans for achieving these recommendations for services and other associated benefits along the Great Eastern main line. In addition, east-to-west rail connectivity is important. We understand that good progress is being made on the ambitious east-west rail project, which aims to link Ipswich, Norwich, Cambridge, Milton Keynes and Oxford by rail. Those are some of the fastest growing urban centres in the country.
The local road networks in Lowestoft are vital for the local economy and for the journeys that residents make day in, day out. As Members will know, local roads are the responsibility of the local highway authority, which for Lowestoft is Suffolk county council. From 2011 to 2015, Suffolk county council received £74 million from Government for the maintenance of its local road network, with a further £18.5 million for local transport improvements. As my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney mentioned, we have also invested in addressing known areas of local congestion through the Department’s local pinch point fund. In May 2013, Suffolk county council secured £4.6m of Department for Transport funding towards the £6.6 million cost of completing the Lowestoft northern spine road. That work is due to be completed shortly and will allow better traffic flows and a quicker route to the northern part of the A12. Members will be aware that we have made some substantial changes to how we fund local transport schemes. As part of the growth deal process, we have a more decentralised and devolved system through the local growth fund. That gives real decision-making power to local areas, allowing them to develop and prioritise key projects to best help to realise economic growth in their areas.
Transport projects play an important part in the process. The initial round of the local growth fund allocated about £6 billion to areas around the country, about £3 billion of which went to proposed new transport schemes. The local enterprise partnership for the east of England benefited, with £173 million allocated in the July growth deal announcement. A considerable amount of that allocation is for transport projects. In addition, a further £48.5 million was made available to the LEP through the second stage announced in January.
Many local transport schemes, such as the third crossing over Lake Lothing, will look for funding to further rounds of the local growth fund. However, the process is competitive and the funding is not a bottomless pit. Only the projects that produce the most compelling business case will be successful in securing funding, and they will also need to be top priorities for the LEP, as it determines which schemes are needed to deliver economic growth in the LEP area.
A third crossing at Lowestoft has been under consideration for some time now. I am aware that the Highways Agency commissioned a feasibility report into the options for a crossing at Lake Lothing a number of years ago, and I note the recent report commissioned by Suffolk county council to look at options for a new crossing. There have also been a number of public-facing events to gauge local opinion on the location and design of the options. The prospect of a third crossing appears to generate considerable local support, and I appreciate that my hon. Friend welcomes the momentum behind the project.
The Government would look to support well-evidenced local major transport schemes that are prioritised by the local enterprise partnership, would help to deliver local growth, and offer good value for money. We know that local residents are frustrated by the town’s long-standing traffic problems and want a solution, which is why, in July last year, the New Anglia local enterprise partnership secured £100,000 through the local growth fund towards development work to look at the options for a third river crossing in Lowestoft. That funding will enable the LEP to develop a more detailed technical feasibility study for the project. It is now for the LEP and its key partners to take that work forward.
As part of the next steps, I urge my hon. Friend and all the interested local partners to continue to help to take the project forward; to help to build an effective and convincing evidence base; to continue to gather strong local support; and to continue to develop that support through the LEP. We want to see local areas creating the best local infrastructure solutions for growth.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important topic, which I know has generated considerable local interest. I also thank him for highlighting the issues in Lowestoft. It is now for the LEP and local partners to take forward the assessment work and to consider the outcomes and the best way to take the proposal forward.