12th January 2012
Mike Penning answers back bench MPs' questions to the Transport Secretary on issues including road infrastructure, speed limits and the Cheshire safer roads partnership’s “Think, Drive, Survive” scheme.
Mark Garnier (Wyre Forest) (Con): What steps she is taking to improve road infrastructure. 
Gavin Barwell (Croydon Central) (Con): What steps she is taking to improve road infrastructure. 
Stephen Metcalfe (South Basildon and East Thurrock) (Con): What steps she is taking to improve road infrastructure. 
Julian Sturdy (York Outer) (Con): What steps she is taking to improve road infrastructure. 
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mike Penning): The Government announced in 2010 that we were investing £2.1 billion to start 14 new road schemes over this spending review period and to complete eight existing schemes. A further £1 billion of new investment was also allocated in the autumn statement to tackle areas of congestion on the strategic road network.
Mark Garnier: As the Minister will be aware, a number of other projects can have specific local economic impacts. Two such projects are the Stourport relief road and Hoo Brook link road in Wyre Forest. Will the Minister meet me and the leaders of Wyre Forest district council and Worcestershire county council to discuss how his Department might assist in the progress of those two projects?
Mike Penning: I will be more than happy to meet my hon. Friend and those council leaders, but I think this is probably a matter for my colleague the Minister for local roads, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker). If he can meet them, that will be fine, although, ultimately, these matters are for the local authorities.
Gavin Barwell: Congestion on the A23 is a major problem. Will the Minister or one of his colleagues meet me to discuss what the Department, along with the Mayor of London, can do to improve conditions on that road?
Mike Penning: I am always more than happy to meet colleagues, especially to discuss the A23, which is a much-improved road since the Hindhead link tunnel was opened. The stretch of the A23 about which my hon. Friend is concerned is mainly a matter for the Mayor, but I am more than happy to help in any way I can.
Stephen Metcalfe: The Minister is aware of the importance to the national economy of the Dartford crossing, and he is introducing plans to increase capacity. However, to get the maximum benefit from those improvements work must be done on junctions 30 and 31 of the M25. When will the Minister publish detailed, costed plans for those improvements, which are especially important given the developments that have taken place in the Thames Gateway?
Mike Penning: I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock—[Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe); I apologise for having got the constituency name wrong, but it is a long time since I stood for election in that part of the world. We are currently working on the costings for junctions 30 and 31. As my hon. Friend will be aware, the fantastic investment by DP World at the Gateway port means there will be work at junction 30, and we will publish proposals as soon as we can.
Julian Sturdy: As my hon. Friend the Minister will know, I am deeply concerned about the A64 and the A237 in York. Those vital road corridors are increasingly congested and accident prone and are a major drain on our local economy. Can the Minister give me any information about any future funding for projects, and will he again meet me and a group of local MPs who share my concerns?
Mike Penning: It looks like I shall be very busy with meetings, but I am more than happy to meet my hon. Friend and his colleagues as we look for new road programmes for the future. He may not know that I was on the A64 to Scarborough on new year’s day and experienced some of the traffic problems on that day.
Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North) (Lab): As the Minister’s constituency is near mine, he will know that we in the eastern region have terrible east-west road links. Is he carefully considering any serious schemes for improving those links?
Mike Penning: Yes, and we are looking very closely at one of the most significant road problems we have: the A14 link across the eastern corridor. We have limited available funds, but I am very pleased that the Chancellor announced an extra £1 billion in the autumn statement. I will be happy to work with the hon. Gentleman at any time to improve the transport links in our part of the world.
Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Although we always like to hear of the big schemes, is the Minister aware that low-cost engineering schemes save the most lives? They are the best investment and offer the best bang for the buck. In this the United Nations decade of accident reduction, the most likely cause of death for any young man anywhere in the world is a road accident, so will we consider any innovations we might introduce on the roads through low-cost schemes?
Mike Penning: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and the fact that he mentions is a sad indictment. Boys aged between 17 and 25 are 10 times more likely to be involved in an accident than a lady of that age. Low-cost schemes are vital, and some of the very low-cost schemes, such as retro-reflective paint on roads, have moved things on a huge amount in the last 10 years. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I am considering such schemes.
Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab): The Government have approved construction of the Switch island to Thornton relief road. The land is owned by a number of Government agencies, including the Forestry Commission, the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency and the Highways Agency. Will the Minister encourage his ministerial colleagues to speed up negotiations with Sefton council, so that work can start on the road?
Mike Penning: I am working with other Departments and Ministers. This is a vitally important scheme and we will push it forward as fast as we possibly can.
Dr Julian Huppert (Cambridge) (LD): Cycle infrastructure is sadly lacking across the country and that causes a number of safety problems, such as a recent tragedy at King’s Cross and many others around the country. What steps is the Minister taking to improve the quality and amount of cycle infrastructure on our roads?
Mike Penning: Most of the roads I am responsible for are part of the national road infrastructure, and I hope there are no cyclists on that part of the infrastructure. However, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: cycling is vital not only to local commuting and enjoyment but to the health of the nation. I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) was listening closely to what the hon. Gentleman said.
Mr Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): What plans she has for future use of variable speed limits. 
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mike Penning): Mandatory variable speed limits will continue to be used as part of the management of traffic on controlled and managed motorways on the strategic road network. Three schemes will be started this year and there will be a further 10 schemes by the end of 2015.
Mr Knight: I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. We heard calls earlier today for the greater use of 20 mph speed limits, but is the Minister aware that often the danger that justifies a 20 mph limit is transient, such as outside a school, where the danger is present only briefly during the school day—in the morning, at lunch time and in the afternoon? As we already have the lowest speed limits in Europe, will the Minister encourage local authorities to make greater use of variable 20 mph limits so that once the danger has passed the limit will default to 30?
Mike Penning: That is exactly what is being looked at in the Department at the moment. On the motorway network, where variable speed limits help us to sweat the assets, where we can stick to national speed limits we shall continue to do so.
 Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): Road crashes are the biggest single killer of young people aged between 17 and 25 in this country today. Will the Minister join me in congratulating Cheshire safer roads partnership’s “Think, Drive, Survive” scheme, which brings officers into schools to teach young drivers about better road safety? What more can the Government do in this respect?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mike Penning): I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that I have done that excellent scheme in Cheshire and have the certificate on the wall in my office. One of the things we can do is ensure that the test taken before someone is given a driving licence is fit for purpose and that it is not simply a case of passing a test, but of giving the skills everyone needs, particularly young people, to be able to drive and enjoy the road safely.