"So, what's next?" It's a question I've been asked a lot recently, now the A21 flows fast and free. The truth is we've only just started.
As I wrote last month, the day before its official opening, the next stage of the A21 campaign is to get the section between the Blue Boys Roundabout and Lamberhurst upgraded. And so I want to take this opportunity to set out where we are.
In January last year, the Hastings MP, Amber Rudd, and I met with the Transport Secretary to remind him that – as delighted as we were with the new road – we didn't see Tonbridge to Pembury as the end of our campaign. We made clear our vision of a modern dual carriageway running from Sevenoaks to Hastings, one which befits the main link between the M25 and South Coast.
Two months later, on a freezing March morning, Amber and I took the Roads Minister for a drive to show him what is needed. We met in Tonbridge before travelling along the A21 to Lamberhurst so he could see for himself the need for the further works – and yes, we were stuck in traffic!
The trip must have left a lasting impression because earlier this year a report by Highways England acknowledged that there are important safety issues, congestion and a restriction in capacity on the route. This report will be considered by the Roads Minister and Transport Secretary as part of the Government's Road Investment Strategy, a plan which informs which main roads will be upgraded between 2020 and 2025.
Since the General Election there's another Roads Minister and just as I did with each of his predecessors I will be meeting him later this month, setting out the case for further investment to make the next section of the A21 a priority.
Again, as before, I will be working with the whole community as well as businesses, councillors and MPs along the whole route. We'll be pushing to make our case. We'll be scrutinising proposals across the country: ensuring our cause is never undersold. There'll be meetings, events, letters and consultations – and I daresay I'll be taking the new Minister for a spin too!
One of the most powerful things in any debate about priorities are the personal stories which illustrate a point and that's where I need your help now. When at the end of the month I meet the Roads Minister, I want to go armed with accounts of the missed opportunities and wasted hours so I can convey the very real need for this work.
Whether you be someone who travels between Blue Boys and Lamberhurst, all the way to Hastings, or somewhere in between, I want to hear from you. Whether you have loved ones or clients put off travelling the other way, I want to hear from you. Or if it has any other impact on your life, I want to hear from you.
The story of the Tonbridge to Pembury dualling is that persistence pays. I'm sure there'll be ups and downs, setbacks as well as advances. But as with the Castle Hill section, I will not rest until I see the bulldozers start work. Together we can drive this through.
Greg met with Ben Dale, Director of Jestic – the UK's largest supplier of fast food equipment. The company also specialises in open-plan food preparation equipment which allows restaurant customers to be immersed in the theatre of cooking.
Jestic was one of 1,000 companies to be recognised by the London Stock Exchange last year as the UK's fastest growing and most dynamic small to medium sized businesses.
Greg met with members of Paddock Wood Business Association. The meeting was hosted by the company Bidfood.
After receiving a number of complaints about the local patient transport service, Greg called a meeting with the company that provide the service, G4S, and West Kent Clinical Commissioning Group who arrange the contract.
After the meeting, Greg said:
"I told both G4S and West Kent Clinical Commissioning Group that the poor service that they have been providing is unacceptable. Patients have been left stranded for hours, often late into the night, in London hospitals and have also sometimes been picked up so late that they have missed vital appointments. The people that use the service are often very unwell and it is crucial to their health that they can rely on getting to their medical appointments on time.
"The local NHS Commissioning Group told me that there have indeed been problems with the new contract which, for the first time, included journeys to London hospitals. They said that they realised quite quickly that it had been a mistake to include these so the responsibility for journeys to London hospitals has been passed back and priority given to journeys to local NHS appointments.
"I had also been told by patients that complaints about the service had been unanswered and that they had not been kept updated when things did go wrong. In response to this, G4S has set up a new dedicated complaints team and have committed to improved customer service including letting people know if, for example, a vehicle is running late.
"I welcome these steps but I will be keeping a very close eye on how things go over the coming months. If anyone experiences any problems with the patient transport service, I would be very grateful if you could let me know."
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.
After local residents and representatives from Lamberhurst Parish Council came to see Greg at one of his advice surgeries to raise concerns about ongoing and frequent power cuts in Lamberhurst Down, he contacted the Chief Executive of UK Power Networks, Basil Scarsella, to ask for urgent action.
The power cuts have been caused by a faulty underground cable which runs through the grounds of Scotney Castle and although it has been agreed that a new power cable will be installed, archaeological works will have to be undertaken beforehand which means that the works are unlikely to be completed by the summer of 2018. It has already taken UK Power Networks two years to reach an agreement with the National Trust and English Heritage on this.
"To wait yet another year for this problem to be resolved was unacceptable so I was delighted that after contacting its Chief Executive, UK Power Networks has agreed to install an additional cable outside the castle which could be completed within the next 3-5 months. This should provide a fast and reliable back-up if the main cable fails."
In June 2017, residents of Lamberhurst Down experienced at least 8 power cuts – some of which lasted a number of hours.
In his Times of Tunbridge Wells column published today, Greg has called for urgent improvements in the local Patient Transport Service.
To read the full story, click here
Today Greg officially opened the new Southborough Post Office following a major refurbishment.
"The Post Office is a vital part of Southborough and I'm delighted that its future has been secured. Now with seven day opening and longer hours it can serve the community even more. I wish Sivarajah and his team all the best."
Greg met Alex Wood, a local apprentice jeweller who has been chosen to represent the UK at WorldSkills Abu Dhabi 2017 – often referred to as the "Skills Olympics".
WorldSkills Abu Dhabi 2017 is an opportunity for the UK to demonstrate the high quality of its apprenticeships and technical skills.
Greg said: "It was great to meet Alex - he showed me some of the pieces that he had made which were really amazing. We wish him all the best for the competition in Abu Dhabi."
"So, what's next?" It's a question I've been asked a lot recently, now the A21 flows fast and free....
Greg met with Ben Dale, Director of Jestic – the UK's largest supplier of fast food equipment. ...
Greg enjoyed meeting a group of sixth formers during a visit to Mascalls School in Paddock...
Greg met with members of Paddock Wood Business Association. The meeting was hosted by the company...