By CHRIS HILL
, Rural affairs correspondent
Saturday, November 24, 2012
A united drive has begun to convince the government of the overwhelming business case for fixing the traffic bottleneck strangling Norfolk’s prospects for growth.
With work under way to dual the A11, the east-west artery of the A47 has now become the main transport priority for the county’s politicians and industry leaders.
Many of them met at the Norfolk Showground outside Norwich yesterday for the launch of “A47 – Gateway to Growth”, an eight-page prospectus which outlines “an achievable programme of targeted improvements” along the congested route.
Rather than putting forward a single, unaffordable plan to dual the whole 105-mile stretch from Great Yarmouth to Peterborough, the document outlines a “realistic” series of 14 individual projects at pinch-points and problematic junctions.
They include dualling the Acle Straight, creating a third river crossing at Great Yarmouth, and building an East Winch / Middleton bypass in West Norfolk.
Combined, the plans could revolutionise Norfolk’s “economic spine”, unlocking the potential of Great Yarmouth’s outer harbour, reinforcing Norwich’s position as a shopping destination and improving the journey times of thousands of commercial motorists.
But in order to help secure the necessary funding for these projects – more than £500m in total – the economic case is laid out in the potential benefits of the plans over the next 20 years:
-Almost 10,000 new jobs
-£390m per year increase in economic output;
-Private investment of more than £800m
-A 30-minute reduction in journey time, worth £42m a year to road users.
The launch event was joined by Broadland MP Keith Simpson mid-way through his journey along the A47 from King’s Lynn to Great Yarmouth to highlight the issues – driving a Mini Cooper emblazoned with a Union Flag, borrowed from his son, George.
Mr Simpson said: “There is no ‘big bang’ solution to this. But if we don’t come up with an achievable business plan we will not be able to persuade the government to at least come up with some initial money and I am absolutely convinced that unless we come up with a compelling business case we are not going to be able to convince the minister.
“There is some money available, but we are going to be in competition with every other part of the UK so if you do not hunt as a pack, you will always get picked off. It will be crucial to demonstrate the support of the business community.
“If we can demonstrate something is viable and achievable and get the money for it, then not only will people in Norfolk see that things are starting to move, but it also reinforces our case for the next tranche of money when it becomes available. I would like to think maybe we could get something in the next five years.”
Davina Tanner, general manager of Chapelfield shopping centre and board member of New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), said: “When I got this job I was living the other side of Wisbech and had to drive to Norwich every day, so I know from personal experience that this is the road from hell.
“The LEP represents a whole range of businesses and our experience with the A11 is that we need to show much more than just a technical case to be successful – we need to make sure that all our businesses are behind this.
From my point of view, as a retail destination it is very important that we get more visitors to Norwich because we want to stay in the top ten shopping destinations in the country. We need to be able to have a high quality retail offering and the people need to be able to use the roads to get here.”
Chris Limbach is network officer for First Buses, which runs the X1 route between Lowestoft and Peterborough, carrying 1.8m passengers along the A47 last year.
He said: “If people turn up at a bus stop at 5pm for a bus at ten past, then it needs to be there at ten past. For us, it is all about reliability and consistency. One day you might be there at ten past, but the next there will be roadworks or an accident or a closure and people will be out there standing in the cold. The Traffic Commissioner tells us that 95pc of journeys must be no more than one minute early or five minutes late. That is what we want, and that is what our customers want. Punctuality, reliability and consistency are the three key things, and to have a dual carriageway would give us a better chance of achieving them.”
Martin Lake, director of Norwich-based firm Copyprint and chairman of the Mid Norfolk Federation of Small Businesses, said: “I go up and down the A47 every day.
“If I can save 10 or 20 minutes on those journeys per day then that’s another 10 or 20 minutes I can use constructively, and that’s the same for tens of thousands of other people so if we can combine all that we will have a huge economic benefit.
“This could draw some very positive discussion about Norfolk and I am very excited about the prospect of the A47 being properly opened up, welcoming people in and allowing us to get our brilliant products and services out.”
Graham Plant, Norfolk County Council Cabinet member for planning and transportation, and chairman of the A47 Alliance, said:
“We are right behind the Government in wanting to see rapid progress on infrastructure improvements that will boost economic recovery, and the report we commissioned shows that the A47 is a prime candidate.
“In the long run, we still want to see the road dualled throughout, but the case for early, targeted improvements is very strong. The Gateway to Growth prospectus provides a realistic way forward, recognising the importance of securing developer contributions wherever possible, but also showing what benefits would flow from the investment of public money.”
Mid Norfolk MP George Freeman said road safety provided another key justification for improving the road. He said: “The A47 is a vital artery in the Norfolk economy but is has been neglected over recent decades, and increasingly becoming an obstacle to growth, like a blocked artery. As a result, it has become increasingly dangerous road and the section which runs through my constituency is responsible for far too many accidents, injuries and – regrettably – deaths, every year.”
Great Yarmouth MP Brandon Lewis, who met Mr Simpson on his arrival at the coast, said: “What today is about is highlighting the importance of the A47 for all of Norfolk.
“In Yarmouth we have a separate issue and requests. The Acle Straight needs to be safer, but also made better for businesses. We have massive opportunities in Yarmouth for expansion, for example with the energy industries, and the Acle Straight as the important access to the town is something we have got to work on.
“All of us in Yarmouth know it and the debate has been going on for decades now. I am not saying I can get it dualled this year or the next but we have got to start the work now.”
Vivienne Spikings, a borough councillor in West Norfolk and vice chairman of the A47 Alliance, said: “The A47 is a key route for businesses, visitors to and residents of King’s Lynn and West Norfolk.
“The robust, economic business case we have put together demonstrates how improvements at specific junctions or along certain stretches of the A47 could not only result in faster journey times for road users, but could also unlock private investment in Norfolk, increase the county’s economic output and create jobs.
“In King’s Lynn, these improvements are crucial for the future growth and prosperity of the borough.”
Andy Wood, chairman of the New Anglia LEP, said: “The A47 is a crucial road artery linking Norfolk with the Midlands and the North. Our Gateway to Growth prospectus shows the clear economic benefits of upgrading the road and we are keen to explore ways of turning the plans into reality.”
Caroline Williams, chief executive of the Norfolk Chamber of Commerce, said: “There is no doubt that improving Norfolk’s poor infrastructure especially the A47 will enable Norfolk businesses to develop more quickly and create the jobs that are so needed. Norfolk’s business community are united in the desire to grow and we look for improvement to the A47 to help us make this a reality and connect us more effectively to the west of the country.”
Ian Alston, managing director of Honingham Thorpe Farms, which employs more than 200 people, said: “We must seize every opportunity to bring the A47 up to date if Norfolk is to avoid losing real business and employment opportunities.
“The Norfolk Food Hub is a vision that seeks to cluster rural businesses. We have been assembling interest from the food and drink sector to process, package and promote regional food from our central Norfolk site at Easton. We have political support, we have received considerable encouragement from across the county, we have serious interest from major employers. What we desperately need now is the infrastructure to allow us to create this job creating proposal. We envisage the creation of over 1,500 jobs in the years ahead.”
James Parry, Norfolk chairman of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), sounded a note of caution. He said: “We welcome initiatives that provide genuine opportunities for rural communities in the county. Relieving the current bottlenecks on the A47 will ease congestion temporarily, but history tells us that increasing road capacity simply leads to more traffic and greater congestion at a later date.
“More to the point, these proposals are part of a wider development scenario that seeks to bolster growth to a point beyond that which we consider to be sustainable or desirable. Such high levels of growth cannot be achieved without a severe impact on the character of Norfolk’s countryside.”
-The A47 Gateway to Growth prospectus says about £110m in funding has already been identified, with the potential for £50m-£150m from other local sources, leaving between £270m and £370m to be sought from the government. The document is due to be presented to transport minister Stephen Hammond by an A47 Alliance delegation on December 18.