Transport Infrastructure (Essex)

Sir Alan Haselhurst (Saffron Walden) (Con): I am grateful for this opportunity to contribute to the debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel). Infrastructure is probably too grand a word for the transport arrangements in our county. We enjoy relative prosperity, yet we have, varyingly, either no transport infrastructure worthy of the name or totally inadequate infrastructure. She said that we are halfway through this Government, and it is to this Government that we direct our pleas, but the situation goes back many years. Sometimes, I think that the inadequacies of the transport system in our county can be traced back to Roman times. We therefore have a great deal of catching up to do. Things are London-centric: everything goes away from London. Therefore, even counties near London have difficulty connecting places in the way required by modern business, as my hon. Friend so eloquently said.

Our principal roads are the A11, the A12, the A13 and the A127, which all go outwards from London. Only one, the M11, has been upgraded to motorway status, although the A11 still runs separately. I understand that when this country’s motorway system was first mooted back in the 1930s, the original plan was that the M11 would be a London-Norwich motorway. If that was so, the county of Norfolk has grounds for grieving that there is still no adequate connection from London to that important city in the east of England. The M11 only happened because people saw it as a way to go faster to an airport at Stansted, if one was developed.

As for cross-county roads, I can add to my hon. Friend’s story about the A120. When I first became Member for Saffron Walden, the constituency included, apart from the district of Uttlesford, the northern part of the district of Braintree, through which ran the A604, the Cambridge-Colchester road. The road was under heavy pressure, and when I tried to argue for bypasses for villages and so on, I was told, “No, no, you must understand the strategy.” On this matter, Essex county council, the highway authority and the Department for Transport were as one. The roads communicating with the east coast ports would be the A12 and then, when constructed, the Orwell bridge on to the A14. The other was the A120, connecting with the M11. That road has still not been completed, as my hon. Friend said. It is the most extraordinary situation. That was the great strategy for a cross-county route, from which everything else was directed, yet it has still not been completed.

Parts of the A130 have been improved, but in my constituency, despite the downgrading of a section to the B1008, heavy transport still ploughs through the villages of Barnston and Ford End and the parish of Great Waltham. Satellite navigation tells lorry drivers the route, rather than the signposts on the road. The road in that part of the county is totally inadequate. We do not have a complete approach to the A130, which would help communications across the county. The trouble is that schemes get mooted, talked about, designed and left to fester, leaving only blight and a great deal of heartache.

On rail services, I will not say anything about the Fenchurch-Shoeburyness line, but it appears to be the only one that has been significantly upgraded in the past 20 or 30 years. The great eastern line is certainly below its capacity needs, and the west Anglia line is the most extraordinary story of all. Successive Governments over 20 or 30 years have designated Stansted as an airport to be developed in varying degrees and have also decided that the M11 corridor is one for development. Despite that fact, one of the most inadequate railway lines of all still serves our county and beyond, running to Cambridge, Ely and King’s Lynn. It has the shortest stretch of four-tracking of any London terminal, not measured in inches but by a considerable degree.

Our commuters have had a rotten deal. Now, belatedly, the owners of Stansted airport have woken up to the fact that the Stansted express is not as express as it was originally and are at last demanding a 30-minute journey time, equal to the time from Victoria to Gatwick airport. Indeed, that is how it should be. We have an airport—it is not approved with enthusiasm by all my constituents, but we are realists—whose capacity can double, but our railway system serves neither the airport and the businesses related to it, nor the vast number of commuters who come from the constituencies of many of my neighbours, including my hon. Friends the Members for Harlow (Robert Halfon), for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk) and for Broxbourne (Mr Walker).

Even stations further south are suffering from the inadequacy of the line. It might be argued, “Come on, you’ve got Crossrail coming along.” Crossrail might make some contribution as far as passengers from Shenfield and other stations are concerned, but the idea that it will be the complete answer to Essex’s rail needs is nonsense, and the idea that £3 billion might be spent on it or on an extension to an enlarged Stansted airport is for the birds.

Cross-county, we have nothing. In the wake of the decision to develop Stansted airport, people would like a line reinstated from Braintree towards the airport and Bishop’s Stortford, but why would one think of spending more money to restore a line when we cannot even find the money to make existing principal lines work effectively? To the extent that we have some cross-county rail operations out of Stansted airport that could be developed, the single-bore tunnel restricts the number of trains and is currently working at capacity. How stupid is that? We need a second-bore tunnel, so that extra trains can serve from Stansted and through. Indeed, we could have more trains going to the northern parts of the east of England.

On air, I am afraid the county is deeply divided, although we speak with unity on most other things. We have two airports: London, Southend and London, Stansted. Those names tell their own story. Stansted has never been Essex’s airport. Perhaps Southend has more of a claim to be an Essex airport, but Stansted airport was never treated by its owners, BAA, as an Essex airport; it was a London airport, part of its system. Fortunately, that is about to change soon, but it is still seen—speculation has started—as part of the London airport solution. I do not believe that it can be, unless one is prepared to say that the Essex countryside should be devastated to the extent of having four runways.

Even our most ambitious business people would not believe that an airport on that scale is necessary, yet we are faced with the fact that, once again, we could be bearing the burden of solving London’s problems without any of the real benefits that might flow from it—an improved railway line and an improved road system. We are bad in this country in that when we have major developments that can be necessary in the wider national interest, we do not give people a commensurate benefit that flows from them, or even adequate compensation.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Witham. We fail to obtain the amount of moneys required to deal with the backlog of problems that we have, so the quality of our transport system is inadequate. We do not have anything that could remotely be called an integrated transport system. Overall, what has happened over the years is that there has been nothing much in it for us. Frankly, there needs to be a lot more.