Today is a momentous day for Tunbridge Wells with the official opening of the newly dualled A21 between Tonbridge and Pembury. Already the old narrow, dark and dangerous road seems a distant memory.
Along with getting the new hospital built, the dualling of the A21 has been my biggest campaign since I was elected MP for Tunbridge Wells. Over 35,000 vehicles travel along this section of the A21 every day and at peak times, they came to a halt. It was a nightmare for people travelling to and from work, and a serious drag on the local economy. This stretch of road was also an appalling accident blackspot – the average accident rate was nearly double the national average for roads of this type and too many people had lost their lives.
It was blindingly obvious that something had to be done but little did I realise just how long our campaign would have to run. And I firmly believe its success is the result of three ingredients: tenacity, creativity and unity.
Firstly, tenacity – I cannot begin to count the times when it seemed all was lost. Back in the early days in 2008, when local road priorities were decided on by a Regional Transport Board, the Department for Transport tried, on more than one occasion, to put pressure on the Board to drop the scheme. All of these attempts were thwarted. At one point I even had to gatecrash a meeting of the then South East Regional Transport Board to persuade them not to cancel the A21 dualling – as was proposed on an agenda I got wind of the day before the meeting. Each time a new Transport Secretary or Roads Minister was appointed, I asked to meet them to ensure the A21 was firmly in their consciousness so that as and when setbacks occurred, they were fully aware of just how important the scheme was to local people and local businesses.
Finding creative solutions to what seemed, at the time, major obstacles, was also critical. Remember the note left by the outgoing Chief Secretary to the Treasury to his successor after the 2010 General Election which said "there's no money left"? This led to the dualling scheme being postponed. We took the decision to keep the project alive by seeing if there was any way of reducing the cost of the scheme which might persuade the Chancellor to change his mind. Kent County Council agreed, along with other local councils, to underwrite the costs of the stalled public inquiry. The Transport Secretary announced that the Public Inquiry for the Tonbridge to Pembury dualling scheme could go ahead –the authorisation of a public inquiry before funding for construction was agreed was an extremely unusual step and I am sure would not have happened had the Secretary of State not been under constant pressure to get the dualling underway.
The success of the A21 campaign was a vindication of the focused effort by the whole community. We would not have got to where we are without working closely together – local people, local businesses, local councils and local press speaking as one. By bringing together every MP and every council on the A21 from Sevenoaks down to Hastings, as well as the local NHS Trust, into one campaigning group, speaking with one voice, we were able to emphasize that the dualling was desperately needed for the whole of the South-East. We met regularly to take every opportunity to press the case with Ministers and others. This culminated at the Public Inquiry where leaders of local councils and MPs representing constituencies all along the A21 presented a unified case.
The whole community can be proud of what we have achieved in the face of many adversities. Thank you to everyone for your huge support.
But it doesn't end here - the campaign goes on with the next section of the A21 from the Blue Boys Roundabout to Lamberhurst firmly within our sights. No doubt we will meet obstacles on the way but given our success with the Tonbridge to Pembury dualling, I am determined we will succeed.
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