It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary.
My hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden) and I have many things in common and many common interests, but the one that really united us from the get-go—it was not pints of lager anywhere near the Red Lion—was in fact our passion for the A68 and our joint commitment to making it the monolithic structure it should be: a proper road that is part of the strategic road network. I have been working with him since we were elected to try to make that happen, and the campaign continues. I see the Minister’s ears pricking up. I hope he has heard us, but we will continue remind him until it is done.
In a past life, before I became a Member of this place, I used to drive the A68 every day to go to work, from High Etherley, just near Toft Hill—hon. Members will hear me mention it a few times, so I thought I would get started early—right up towards Annfield Plain. Every day, I faced absolute torment trying to drive through Toft Hill.
My hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) mentioned the disaster when the A68 goes right through those residential zones, the congestion and the issues it causes for local residents and their quality of life. As a commuter, it used to add 15 to 20 minutes on to my journey time to drive a mile-long stretch. It was absolutely disastrous and something has to be done about it.
During the general election, I went out around Toft Hill and High Etherley with some surveys and asked local residents about the key concern on their mind. Universally, across the board, the issue that came back on 90% of all surveys from those who did bother to respond, was building the bypass in Toft Hill finally.
We have heard today from all three of my colleagues from the County Durham area—my hon. Friends the Members for North West Durham, for Darlington and for Sedgefield—about how the Toft Hill bypass was in and promised by the County Durham plan back in 1951. We are 70 years down the line and it has still not been delivered. It is an absolute disgrace, but I have some good news, which will come up later in this speech.
Residents told me in the survey that they wanted a bypass. The local parish council has been campaigning fiercely for a bypass for decades. My predecessor even presented a petition to this place in 2018, calling for a bypass to be built, and yet it was not done. I made building the Toft Hill bypass a key part of my general election pledges. It was one of my five pledges and I have worked on it non-stop since I was elected.
The issues for residents of Toft Hill and Etherley are vast. It is not just cars whizzing by; it is parking on both sides of the street, heavy goods vehicles and other heavy vehicles trying to get through, right next to a primary school that is just feet away from the road, with a school crossing. The congestion can be absolutely crippling. The road safety aspect cannot be understated. A few years ago, one of my constituents, as was raised by my predecessor, was sitting at home in her living room when a van came speeding down the road, ran straight into her living room and completely destroyed her property. She was out of her home for months waiting for it to rebuilt. That shows just how much of a road safety priority it is to get the Toft Hill bypass built.
The local parish council has been pushing for this for years. I have only been in post for a year and a half, but I have been non-stop nagging the Transport Secretary and basically anyone else who will listen about this bypass. In the national scheme of things, it may seem small and insignificant, but for residents of Toft Hill, High Etherley and the surrounding areas it is absolutely crucial. I have raised it with the council and the director of regeneration, Amy Harhoff, at our very first meeting. She asked me what my local priorities were and I think she expected me to talk about all sorts of job creation measures, which we got on to later, but the very first thing I raised was the Toft Hill bypass. I told her that, working with her in partnership, that was the key project I wanted to get completed in my first term as a Member of Parliament.
I raised it with the chief exec of the council, who I think is absolutely sick of hearing me utter the words “Toft Hill bypass”, but he has been fantastic in helping me to facilitate the campaign. I have also raised it with Government, the Transport Secretary, the Leader of the House, in the Chamber and privately with countless Ministers, including the Communities Secretary and the Chancellor. I really hope they are listening, because this is crucial for Toft Hill.
We had our local elections a few short months ago and I am delighted to say that, going from one Conservative and one Labour ward, we took the ward in which Toft Hill sits, with two Conservative councillors, and one of their key election pledges was getting the Toft Hill bypass built. The good news that I promised earlier is that, thanks to the incredibly hard work of Amy Harhoff and Dave Wafer at Durham County Council, and countless other officers and campaigners from Toft Hill parish council and Etherley parish council, we now have a bid that will be going in to the levelling-up fund in the next few days calling for the bypass finally to be built. We have a plan and are asking the Government for the money, so Minister, please tell me you are listening and please put a good word in for me with the powers that be.
Finally, after decades of inaction and, I am afraid to say, of Labour promising and not delivering, I hope, after 18 months in this place, to get some good news and get the Toft Hill bypass approved and delivered in my first term as an MP.
I know West Auckland residents of in my constituency are concerned about the proposed bypass. They want a bigger bypass that would go past both Toft Hill and West Auckland. We believe that was discussed in earlier
plans, 20 or 30 years ago—I think before I was born. I think there are concerns that the bypass will bring new congestion into West Auckland. I want to reassure any residents of West Auckland that that will not be the case. It will be the same traffic that is already coming into the village. There will be no worsening. I certainly agree with local residents, however, that the next phase has to be completing the bypass around West Auckland. Unfortunately, given the amount of time we had for the levelling-up fund bid, the hoops we have to jump through and the amount of funding available, it is not possible at this stage.
I hope he will forgive me but I say to the Transport Secretary—I hope he is listening—that I am coming to you at the moment for the Toft Hill bypass, but as soon as the ink is dry I will be nagging you once more for the next bypass, the West Auckland bypass. I hope that local residents of West Auckland hear me loud and clear when I say that that will be my next major transport priority. Mum always said, “If you don’t ask, you don’t get,” so I figured I would throw it in early.
I am delighted that we have had this debate on the importance of the A68, and that I have had the opportunity to discuss the importance of completing the Toft Hill bypass. The levelling-up bid will be going in this week, and I hope that any Ministers present and any who happen to be reading Hansard in the middle of the night this evening will take that bid on board, and grant us the bypass for which local residents have been calling for so long.