Safety on the A34
Safety improvements on the A34 remain a top priority.
As the second anniversary of those tragic accidents on the A34 came round in August, I want to update you on what has been happening. The Oxford to Cambridge Expressway project is gathering momentum and a decision has now been announced on which ‘corridor’ will be considered for this new route between Milton Keynes and Oxford. There will be a public consultation on the preferred route within this ‘corridor’ next year. You can keep up to date with progress on https://highwaysengland.co.uk/projects/oxford-to-cambridge-expressway/.
In my discussions with Highways England and Ministers, it is clear that the original idea that this Expressway should start at Junction 13 of the M4, close to Newbury, is the right one. If, for any reason, it was to go ahead without added improvements to the A34, this would only make the current problems with this road much worse. I have written to the Minister stressing the need for this and have had his assurance that the long-term future of the A34 will be taken into account (see below).
In the shorter term, it was a major achievement by all parties to succeed in getting the Safety Review of the A34 commissioned from Highways England. As you will no doubt already know, it came up with several sensible and achievable recommendations. There have been junction improvements and other works already carried out further north of here and we are on the verge of seeing an announcement that works will happen in West Berkshire too. These include improved signage and reconfiguration of both laybys and junctions, some of which, as the Review made clear, around Beedon and East Ilsley, are below the safety standard required for roads of this kind.
I’m assured that Highways England’s consultants have done their bit, the feasibility work has been completed and it’s now a question of finalising approvals by the various departments involved. Frustrating though it seems, progress is being made, if slowly, and I am determined not to let this drop. I hope to be able to update you with some more information soon.
I met first with the A34 Action Group in the autumn of 2016 and followed this up, with fellow MPs, Ed Vaizey and Nicola Blackwood, by lobbying the Roads Minister and holding a debate in Westminster Hall. This resulted in a commitment from the Roads Minister to commission a safety review from Highways England. Meetings followed bringing together key stakeholders including Thames Valley Police, the Local Enterprise Partnership, local businesses, local Councils and Parish Councils, and the Road Haulage Association. At the end of November, Nicola and I met the Chancellor who then confirmed funding worth £50m as part of the 2015-20 Road Investment Strategy, of which £25m was allocated for A34 ‘technology enhancement’ – vehicle detection loops, CCTV camera and driver information systems – between the M4 and the M40, and £25m for improvements previously agreed to the Peartree and Botley junctions at Oxford. The confirmation in that autumn Budget of funding for the Oxford to Cambridge Expressway was further welcome news as this scheme is generally recognised as offering the long-term solution to the problems of the A34.
Highways England presented a first draft of its safety review at Westminster in April 2017. Although the A34 was found to be statistically no more dangerous than many other similar roads, this did acknowledge the particular issues on the stretch by East Ilsley and, importantly, it recognised the huge economic impact caused by hold ups and collisions, given the increasing importance of the road as a major north-south transport link. The A34 Action Group did a great job in running an online survey which provided further useful evidence.
Highways England then came back to Westminster at the end of October 2017 with the final version of its Safety Review (see below). This focussed on the stretch between the M4 and the M40 and we were pleased to see some positive and sensible recommendations, including improved signage and reconfiguration of both laybys and junctions. The Review made clear that some of these (around Beedon and East Ilsley) are below the safety standard required for roads of this kind. To my mind, this alone should mean that improvements must be prioritised. In my view it is being negligent at best, culpable at worst, if the safety implications are ignored and no action is taken.
Along with the other MPs involved, I responded to the review giving my full support for the recommendations and emphasising the urgent need for funding. I also met again with the Minister in January to put the case. As a result of this meeting I received confirmation from both the Minister and Highways England that most of the recommendations will go ahead – subject to ‘further development work’. The financial evaluation was due to be completed by mid April. Despite constant chasing, we still have no announcement that work will start but, as indicated above, I am assured that the ‘feasibility work’ is completed, Highways England has finalised its proposals and we are just waiting for the Department of Transport to sign it off.
There is still a strong combined will across all agencies to address this problem. I will keep you updated on progress.
OXFORD TO CAMBRIDGE EXPRESSWAY
As stated above, it is generally acknowledged that this proposal will offer the long-term solution to the problems of the A34. The recent announcement about the choice of ‘corridor’ that the Expressway will take around Oxford will be followed by a public consultation next year to inform the decision on the preferred route within the selected corridor. I have written to the Secretary of State to stress that, if for any reason, construction of the Expressway was undertaken without added improvements to the A34, this would only make the current problems with this road worse. You can read my letter here. His positive response states, ‘I can assure you that the long-term requirements of the A34 will be taken into account as we develop RIS 2 and plans for the Expressway once a corridor has been chosen.’ His letter can be seen here.