I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the upgrading of road routes into the South West.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I am very grateful that this Transport Minister is here today. Looking round the Chamber, I can say with confidence that many hon. Members will agree with me when I say that I do not believe that the south-west has had the greatest bite of the cherry and the greatest funding in relation to roads and infrastructure. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister has travelled through the west country and shares our concerns. All I hope is that he has his chequebook with him this afternoon—we will see the colour of his money later, we hope.
The whole idea of this debate is to ensure that we deal with the roads going through the west country. There are particular roads that hon. Members will want to promote. I will be considering in particular the A303 from Ilminster through to Honiton. I very much welcome what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Government have put forward for dualling the A303 right the way past Stonehenge—indeed, under Stonehenge—and right the way through to Ilminster, and then dualling the A358 from Ilminster to the M5. My hon. Friend Rebecca Pow is not here, but she would want me to say how much she welcomes what is happening with the A358. I am not here to complain about any of the roads that the Government have in place; I am here to say that we need a second arterial route into the west country. Just as we need a second railway line, we need a second road. Taking all the traffic on to the M5 at Taunton may not be the best idea if we have a problem on the M5, so having a second arterial route to Exeter, to the airport, is essential.
My hon. Friend makes the valid point that we need railways—we need two lines—and we certainly need a very strong route through. Does he agree that the Government should be in favour of that? We need economic growth in the south-west, and without that infrastructure we will not achieve it.
I could not agree more. Doing the figures, we reckon that these infrastructure improvements could deliver about £40 billion to the west country, so we are talking about very big money. There are also a great number of visitors coming to see us, and we want to ensure that they can get there by rail, by road and even on their bicycles if they want to. We want them to come to the west country. There are many hon. Members present from Cornwall. To get to Cornwall, people need to travel through Devon, Somerset and Wiltshire, so that is key.
The west country is definitely a honeypot as far as tourism is concerned. If the A303/A30 through to Honiton and Exeter is dualled virtually all the way, most of the London traffic will come that way. Then there is the north and the northern powerhouse that the Chancellor is so keen to have and that I very much support. When people from the northern powerhouse and the midlands come down, they will naturally come down the M5 and into the west country from that direction. What I am talking about is a natural way of keeping that traffic going and keeping it separated. I go back to the point I made earlier. Let us say that we take all the traffic on to the M5 and there is a problem after Wellington. A caravan may tip over going down the hill, which is not an unforeseen happening. With what I am talking about, we will not only be able to get traffic on to the motorway. If there is a blockage on the motorway, then with the A358 dualled, we will get a lot more traffic back up the A358, going into Honiton. That is where I believe we need to do the second route in and have it dualled all the way through and upgraded through the Blackdown hills.
I know that my hon. Friend Peter Heaton-Jones will make a case for upgrading the north Devon link road, and I very much support that. I am not here to destroy other people’s ambitions; we want to ensure that we have as much investment for the west country as we possibly can.
I agree with the Chancellor—the architect of our long-term economic plan. As he rightly says, the south-west has not enjoyed as much attention as the north of England, but that does not excuse any neglect of the south-west. I agree that his long-term economic plan for the south-west is good, but we want to see the colour of his money. In particular, I believe that transforming connections between the south-west and the rest of the country is the right thing to do, as well as improving connections within the south-west. From Somerset to Devon to Dorset, these infrastructure upgrades are essential.
I am very much enjoying my hon. Friend’s comments. Does he agree that the Kingskerswell bypass, which has just opened and connects my constituency to the rest of the road network by dual carriageway for the first time, is a perfect example of the benefits that can be delivered by investment in our infrastructure, with thousands of jobs and new homes predicted to be generated just by that investment?
I could not agree more. The Kingskerswell bypass brings people into Torbay. It brings them from the A380, and if they go back on that road, they have the A380, the A38 and the A30 when they get to Exeter, so they have a choice of roads. It is ideal to keep the A303 going from Ilminster through to Honiton to ensure that they can make that connection, so I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. He mentioned Dorset, and Dorset in the south-west often feels unfairly left out. Does he agree that it is not just about individual counties such as Dorset and Wiltshire working together? We have to look across the whole of the south-west and then, as he says, into individual counties. For example, it is vital that we get north-south roads built out of the important port of Poole and put that infrastructure in place.
I again agree, because in a previous life I had the terrible job of being one of the Members of the European Parliament for the whole of the south-west, which includes Wiltshire, Gloucestershire and Dorset, as well as all the other counties in the west country. If we take the A350 and other roads, getting north to south through Dorset, from Poole to Bristol, is an absolute nightmare. It is about ensuring that we have roads from those ports through to our major cities and our major road links, so I am very supportive of what my hon. Friend says.
In the course of this Parliament, we have a real opportunity in the south-west to consolidate and invest in our infrastructure. A number of roads need upgrading, and I know that my hon. Friends here today will be talking about the various projects—we have heard some comments already, but there will be more—all of which will play an important part in upgrading and improving our local economy in the south-west and our long-term economic plan. I think at least one of those investments should be upgrading the A303/A30/A358. The A303/A30 is a vital arterial route into the west from London, as I have mentioned. Those upgrades will also help as traffic calming measures. Currently, the A303/A30/A358 is one of the most congested roads in the south-west, and in the summer months road usage increases by up to 50%. If the Minister ran down through the A30/A303 today, he would probably find little problem with it, but that bears no resemblance at all to what it is like in the height of summer. Do not forget that we want people to come to the west country to spend their money and enjoy the great scenery.
The A358 runs through the constituency of my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane, and acts as a link between the A303, the A30 and the M5. She has campaigned long and hard for the upgrade of the A358, which runs just outside the Blackdown hills area of outstanding natural beauty—an area that I share with her. About 80% of local residents and businesses in the Blackdown hills AONB believe that road congestion is an issue and 97% of all residents support road improvements in the hills. The Blackdown hills AONB has made it clear that it supports an upgrade to the A303/A30, but that those upgrades should be carried out with sensitivity and in ways that are compatible with conserving and enhancing the natural beauty of the Blackdown hills.
I could not agree with my hon. Friend more. We have talked about this for a great deal of time and we have put the money on the table, but people actually want the road built now.
It is not just about the commitment to doing it; it is about physically seeing some of the work starting. We need some spades in the ground.
We certainly do. Before I answer my hon. Friend, let me say to my hon. Friend John Glen that it is essential to get the tunnel built, but I want to ensure that we start building all parts of the A303/A30. We should not just hold up one part for another. We have to get on with it. To get down to Plymouth, we have to get through a number of counties. Plymouth is very much a driving force for the west country so it is essential that we get not only trains, but good roads to Plymouth.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. On the subject of getting the choreography right, it is great to do Stonehenge, which is what grabs the national news. However, would my hon. Friend observe that if we fix Stonehenge and merely shunt traffic a little bit further west, into the village of Chicklade, for example—a very real possibility, particularly if the economy takes a nose dive, which economies tend to do from time to time—my constituents will find a whopping great traffic jam landed on their doorstep, which would be an extremely bad thing and do nothing to sort out the problem with the superhighway to the south-west?
I agree with my hon. Friend. Roads are a little bit like tributaries. If one area is cleared, the water is taken faster into the next area, and the same applies with traffic. Therefore, if we are doing the road, we have to ensure that we dual the road all the way through.
Although the tunnel under Stonehenge is necessary, it is expensive and will take some time. We have other schemes through Chicklade and other places that are not so expensive and can go on at the same time. The previous Government made a mistake: the problem at Stonehenge stopped any help to the rest of the roads. We have to do Stonehenge but we have to do the other parts of the road as well. Should the Minister travel on the A303/A30 now, he will have the good fortune of congested roads so that he can safely admire the natural beauty of the area, but I want him to be able to travel through a little faster so that he can get to his destination when he decides he is going to and is not stuck in hours of traffic jams in the summer.
In the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, we deal with air quality. There is no doubt that the more traffic is congested, the more vehicles stay ticking over, and as idling cars give out a lot of pollution, this a problem of pollution as well. If we get people through quicker, Roads Minister, we will improve the environment even more.
Unfortunately, many commuters are not that interested in the surrounding beauty and think that getting to work on time is important. Although a great many tourists come through the area in the summer, we must not forget that a lot of people are still working. They want to get to get to work and to get goods delivered in their vans and cars.
My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head of a historical problem, which is that the south-west—I include Dorset in that—has always been seen as a busy holiday destination that can just take the pressure for those months. It is often forgotten that we have a vital and viable series of businesses large and small, the agricultural sector and so on, which need high-quality roads so they can get their goods to and from market and their employees can get to and from work. If we are to see a real strengthening of our south-west economy, roads such as the A350 and the C13 in my constituency all need investment and attention.
My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. When we improve the major roads, we must ensure that all the links work and get the heavy traffic through. We must ensure that we have good roads for tourists and for those who live in the west country all the time.
Some 58% of people think that road safety is an issue and 53% believe that reliability is an issue, which demonstrates the need for an upgrade due to the public perception of the lack of reliability of the road. That goes back to what I said at the beginning: if people choose a route into the west country and they are absolutely certain they can get along the A303, they will use it; if not, they will go on to the motorway, which will probably be highly congested.
This is not just about public perception. The A303, A30 and A358 have among the highest number of fatalities and personal injury accidents, which underlines that road safety is a clear issue. Of course, road safety is not just an issue along the A303, A30 and A358. I have been working hard with Highways England to come up with a solution for Hunters Lodge junction on the A35, because that route is a real problem. There have been serious accident and fatalities there next to the turning into Uplyme and Lyme Regis.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a safety issue regarding the number of potholes? I remember that in a recent very bad winter, the potholes, even on the M5, were very significant. Given the number of roads we have in the west country—certainly in Devon—we need more money not just for new roads, but for ensuring that the existing roads are properly maintained.
In fairness, I think that the Government gave a great deal of money for potholes, and the county councils, particularly Devon County Council, worked very hard on the problem. We have to deal with potholes because they cause accidents and damage cars. It is essential that we get that work done but, in fairness to the Government, they did give something like £8 million to Devon to solve the problem of potholes.
I am dealing with Highways England regarding the A35. We are looking for a solution to slow the traffic and make the Hunters Lodge junction safer—we must deal with that. Upgrading the whole corridor of the A303, A30 and A358 would create 21,400 jobs and boost the local economy by some £41.06 billion—a key delivery for the long-term economic plan for the south-west. Other benefits would include £1.9 billion of transport benefits due to reduced journey times and greater resilience.
My hon. Friend mentioned the long-term economic plan for the south-west, with which the Minister will be familiar. It was delivered 13 months ago, almost to the day, and he very clearly pledged £7.2 billion for wider transport improvements in the south-west, £3 billion of which was for roads. I hope my hon. Friend would agree that today would be a good time to hear an update on how the spending of that £3 billion is going.
My hon. Friend raises a good point. We are keen to hear from the Minister exactly how the spending is going and when we are likely to see diggers arriving to construct the roads, as my hon. Friend Oliver Colvile said earlier. We look forward to that answer.
Additionally, as my right hon. Friend Mr Swire reminded me, the A30 is a stretch of road that runs past Exeter airport and that by no means constitutes low noise. He is particularly keen for the concrete motorway to be quietened—I suspect he tried that when the Minister came down the A30. It is definitely dualled, of which I am jealous, but there is an argument about the noise caused by the road. The village of Clyst in the East Devon constituency is hit by the double whammy of noise from the airport and from the roads.
Furthermore, the A30 is the main carriageway for motorists travelling westwards towards the Exeter and East Devon growth point, which is also in the East Devon constituency. The growth point, as my right hon. Friend pointed out to me, includes the brand-new and fast-growing town of Cranbrook, the science park, the business park, Skypark and, as mentioned previously, Exeter airport. The Minister was in Cranbrook just last week for the opening of a new train station, and he will have seen at first hand that improvements to the A30 would be a big boost to the growth point and therefore the wider economic area. The only way to achieve those figures is to upgrade the whole A303/A30—I may possibly have mentioned that before. That second arterial route into the west country would create a natural flow of traffic, as much of the London traffic would be dealt with, thereby creating the sensible and logical division of traffic that we need.
I ask the Minister for assurances that all those projects will be given the go-ahead. Please show the same confidence in the south-west that all of us here today share and recognise. We have been given a brilliant opportunity to develop as part of the long-term economic plan not just for the west country but for the whole country. Will he encourage Highways England to work with Devon County Council on the design of the roads through Honiton and Monkton, all the way through the Blackdown hills to Ilminster? Devon County Council has done a lot of work on that. Finally, we say to the Chancellor: please may we have these funds? They have been promised, and we look forward to seeing them.
Before I call the next speaker, I note that at least five hon. Members, perhaps more, are seeking to catch my eye. I intend to call the first Front Bench spokesperson at 10 minutes past 5, which gives 18 minutes between five speakers. An average of three or four minutes each would be courteous to each other.
It is appropriate that a fellow south-west MP should be in the Chair for this important debate, Mr Gray.
Given the time available, I will move quickly to my shopping list for the Minister, but not without first saying that the unveiling of the long-term economic plan for the south-west last year was an important moment in the election campaign, because it clearly demonstrated that a Conservative Government would have the south-west at the heart of their thinking and would recognise that investment in south-west infrastructure had for too long lagged behind other parts of the country. Since the election, we have had an opportunity to debate at some length the problems with our broadband in the region, and the other night we had an excellent debate led by my hon. Friend Kevin Foster on the area’s rail infrastructure. Today’s debate on roads is similarly important.
I will briefly focus on two areas, the first being our region’s strategic connections. The M5 is closed too often. Traffic gets south of Bristol and is too often met with a traffic jam that closes the road, which has an impact on the visitor economy not just in Somerset but in Devon and Cornwall. On a Friday evening many restaurants and campsites are left without their Friday evening’s revenue because people are still stuck in and around Avonmouth on the M5. The A303 and the A358 are clearly important improvements for us to make to take some pressure off the M4-M5 interchange. Those improvements must be made as quickly as possible, but with them must come a traffic management system that goes all the way back to the eastern end of the M4 so that people are advised to take the A303 and A358, if that route is the clearest, when trying to access the south-west. We must also make more effort to connect our road network with our rail and air transport hubs. At the moment, too many of our railway stations and airports are too far removed from decent roads, which also stands in the way of economic development.
My one entirely parochial plea, having spoken about the importance of the A303 and the A358—that is without doubt the most important improvement we must make to our region—is that, locally, there is a challenge in accessing the northern part of Somerset. There is an east-west connection on the M4 corridor. The next proper east-west trunk road is the A303 and the A358 in their current state; there is nothing in between, unless we accept the Bristol southern ring road, but that really serves Bristol’s suburbs, not the county of Somerset, north Somerset or north-east Somerset.
Although my hon. Friends the Members for Bath (Ben Howlett) and for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) are both encouraging improved access off the M4 beyond Bath and down into west Wiltshire and Somerset, we are also looking at improvements from junction 23 of the M5 along the A39 and the A361 to open up eastern Somerset and west Wiltshire from the M5 corridor, too. I plant that in the Minister’s mind, as I will be coming to speak to him about it in due course. It would make a significant difference to access for that part of Somerset, which at the moment runs the risk of becoming a rock in the stream as everything moves around it very quickly on the A303 or the M4/M5. That does no service to my constituency, where there are huge opportunities for a relatively small number of very short road improvements—probably an extra five miles of road. With that, I cede the floor so that others can put their shopping lists on the record, too.
I thank my hon. Friend Neil Parish for securing this important debate.
The A30 is the only real route of access to Penzance, which is the best-known town in the UK. It is still a hugely popular tourist destination, and it looks after the whole of west Cornwall. It is the economic centre of my constituency. Although I want to address the concerns about roads and congestion, I do not want to discourage people from booking their holiday in west Cornwall this summer, so please do that.
People who have holidayed in west Cornwall will know that at peak times throughout the year, not just in the summertime, the roads are particularly congested. Good work has been done on the A30 by this Government. We have not seen a lot of investment, but the road is being dualled right down to the edge of my constituency. At the moment, the road continues as a single carriageway right through the last and only village on the A30, Crowlas, where the first set of traffic lights for those travelling from London can be found.
In my constituency I genuinely have the biggest challenge and deserve the greatest rewards, for which I am thankful. We have a single carriageway, and Cornwall Council’s estimate suggests that congestion just on that section of road costs my constituency some £1.3 million a year, so we have a problem. There was a solution, but in 1997, the Labour Government cancelled a shovel-ready project that would have brought the road comfortably into Penzance and would have resolved some of the issues that the present Government are now being forced to consider.
I want to see a solution, and I thank the Minister for coming down in August on a very wet day. It only rains one day in the summer, which is when people come on holiday, and it was that particular day. He stood on the edge of the road, and he met the local council and local campaigners. He could see for himself the challenge that we have before us to improve the situation.
I come here with a solution. Since the Minister came to my constituency, I have met Highways England, Cornwall Council and local parish councils, and together we discussed what can be achieved. Cornwall Council has put together a useful piece of work called “The Cornish Expressway,” which is excellent and talks about how the road could be opened up for free movement of traffic down to my neck of the woods. The Government are already doing significant amounts of work around Temple and near Truro to make that become a reality.
As the cars move more freely after the work is done, it will only create a new pinch point in my constituency, making it even more urgent to address the situation. The Cornish expressway will keep traffic moving freely, reduce pollution and boost our economy. As I said, I have met a number of people and brought them around the table. We will do whatever it takes—whatever the Government or Highways England need us to do—to make the case. Our intention is that a well thought out plan will be prepared and included in the road investment strategy 2, for which the Government are currently seeking ideas. I would welcome some indication that such a solution to the A30 in my neck of the woods, enabling it to meet current demand on that section of road, would be welcomed by the Minister. I want to be sure that he will support the hard work that we will put in to free up the economy, reduce pollution and keep traffic moving.
Mr Gray, I can feel you champing at the bit to get involved in this debate; as another Member rightly said, you are a Wiltshire Member of Parliament too. I have three straightforward points to make.
First, the issue of transport connectivity in the south-west and down into the peninsula is absolutely and utterly vital. I have been campaigning on it for the last 15 years, both for 10 years as the candidate, along with my hon. Friend John Glen, who was there in the early days, and in the past five years as the Member of Parliament for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport.
There are two vital issues. The first is the dualling of the A303. We must ensure, ideally, that it continues through the Black hills as well, because it can take up to four hours, if not five or six, to get all the way from London down to Plymouth. The second is that in 2020, we will commemorate the Mayflower 400, the anniversary of when the Mayflower left Plymouth to go found the American colonies. We have an opportunity to use that occasion to hold one of the best trade exhibitions in the country, not dissimilar to what happened during the Olympics. We need decent transport links—road, rail and airport. I urge the Government seriously to consider reopening Plymouth airport; I know that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has said that he will do so. If we do not have those links, we will lose an opportunity beyond all measure.
Finally, although we talk about dualling the A303, the A358 and potentially the road down into the Black hills, the M4-M5 interchange is a nightmare for those of us who come up to London on a Sunday evening or afternoon. Only too often, I find it difficult to work out in my mind’s eye which lane I should end up in, especially if England are playing cricket and I get somewhat taken away by what might be happening in the match. I get rather concerned. As often as not, I find myself going up to Gloucester on the M5, which is a big mistake. That also needs to be looked at and sorted out.
If we do not do something about the issue, we will pay the price. It is the south-west that has delivered the majority for this Government in the House of Commons. It is vital that we do not miss this chance to look after Somerset, Devon, Wiltshire, Dorset and Cornwall. If we do, we will lose an awful lot of opportunities, and will unfortunately leave the issue to the Opposition, who I do not believe are as committed to delivering for us in the west country.
As my hon. Friend exclaims with some reason, where is Mr Bradshaw? We are united on the vital need for the south-west to secure these major road improvements. The overriding reason is that we need that investment to secure the economic future of our region. It is not about getting tourists there more quickly on a Saturday afternoon in August; it is about the vital economic future of the whole south-west.
Within that framework, the north Devon link road is vital. The A361 connects North Devon with the M5. It is our only viable link south and east to the rest of the country. We do not see it as North Devon’s only link to the outside world; we see it as the outside world’s only opportunity to visit us. We must ensure that it is fit for purpose, because at the moment it is not. It is a single carriageway for about 85% of the distance between Tiverton and Barnstaple, some 30 miles apart. Where it is not, it has short overtaking lanes that merge quickly into the main carriageway with little warning. That leads to risk-taking, speeding and, sadly, a high incidence of accidents in which people are killed and seriously injured, on my doorstep. It is hampering economic investment and harming the vital tourist industry. I want to be positive. I do not want to put people off: “Come to North Devon; it is a great place to visit and do business. You will get there eventually.” I want to change the “eventually”.
I have been campaigning for major improvements since well before my election to this place. I was delighted when my right hon. Friend the Chancellor came and made certain commitments; I say to the Minister that this is the time to deliver on them. Devon County Council is doing fantastic work, thanks to the £1.5 million that the Chancellor has given us to carry out detailed planning work, including putting together a comprehensive business case. I met Devon County Council three hours ago here, and I ensured that we are driving the matter forward so we can make a bid to the local majors fund, a nearly £500 million pot created by the Chancellor.
It is part of the wider picture. The North Devon link road is vital, but it is no good if we cannot get people to the south-west to start with. That is why the A303, the A30 and the A358, championed by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton, are vital. They are the backbone of the region’s infrastructure. The North Devon link road is one of the vital arteries connecting it to the rest of the world. I say to the Minister that I know the Government are listening; I am not complaining that they are not. I am merely asking that we now deliver what we promised. Let us put boots on the ground and diggers on the tarmac, and let us have a yellow army of road workers to complement the blue army of Conservative MPs in the south-west.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend Neil Parish on securing this important debate. It is ironic that Stonehenge, which has been around for quite some time, has until now caused a blockage to getting the work done. In fact, it has been standing for more than 5,000 years. I am sure that even then, as the stones were dragged down from Wales through my constituency, they caused an enormous queue of donkeys and carts. No doubt even then they were promised a dualling of the A303. Now, their descendants, my constituents, are at last poised on the edge of their seats as they sit in much the same queue, not daring to imagine that it will actually happen. However, I think it will this time, so I am happy to cast aside the memory of Governments committing to improve our roads and then backing down.
Our optimism increased even further with last year’s publication of the road investment strategy, which set out the details of how the £2 billion—or £3 billion; I am not quite sure of the amount—will be deployed. As we have heard, the projected material benefits are vast. Dualling the A303 alone will bring 20,000 jobs and £40 billion over six years. Those are the kinds of number that mean it is a profitable investment in our future. As I have said many times before, if the west country is to compete, grow and even flourish, we must have the structure, framework and infrastructure to do so.
Given how critical the matter is, I, like my hon. Friend, would be grateful if the Minister could give us any indication when the work will begin. When will we see the cones and the contraflows on the ground? Highways England concluded its report in October by saying that the three road measures—that is, the work on the A303, the A358 and the M5—are
So, some 5,000 years after I am sure the plans were first scratched into the west country dust with a blunt stick, I hope that now we can work together to make that aspiration a 21st-century reality.
I congratulate Neil Parish on securing this debate and indeed all the hon. Members who have contributed to it. They have demonstrated the widespread concern that exists about the need for improved road infrastructure in the south-west. That concern has existed for decades, including concern about a second route through from London to sort out the issue of the route through from the M5, and so on.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has heard enough today to be impressed by the need for improvements to the road network in the south-west. Does he agree, therefore, that the commitment to abandon the A358 improvements that was made in the Labour party manifesto last April was deeply misguided, and will he reassure us that his party has already abandoned that commitment?
I will come on to some of the history around this issue in a little while, so perhaps the hon. Gentleman can just be a little patient on that point.
I will just offer apologies for my right hon. Friend Mr Bradshaw. I heard his name come up before. He takes his duties as a member of the Health Committee very seriously and it is meeting at this moment.
The A303 has occupied a lot of the discussion today. Clearly, it is a road that has tested the ability of successive Governments to deliver the kind of objectives that we have been talking about. I think that there was broad support for the road investment strategy that was announced in 2014. However, what I am concerned about and what I would like to press the Minister on today is that despite the Government’s commitment of £2 billion for seven road schemes in the south-west up to 2021, I am not sure that the numbers add up and I am not sure that the start dates are anything other than aspirational.
What we know is that when the previous Labour Government left office, the Highways Agency had a costed and timetabled plan to improve the A303 and to dual the A358 from Ilminster to Taunton, to remove the need to create a new dual carriageway through the Blackdown hills. What we also know is that after 2010 there was a rowing back on capital investment that was worth around £4 billion in total. So when we hear now about this £2 billion coming back in to fund some of these projects, it is important that we interrogate the Government about it a little bit.
According to the pages for the seven schemes on the Highways England website, only five of them have estimated costs and, if I have added up the figures for them correctly, their combined total comes to £2.15 billion. That is already more than £150 million over the £2 billion budget without the other two schemes being considered, and before scope creep and other inflationary pressures are considered.
In March 2015, the Government produced their “feasibility study” of solutions for an alternative road route to the south-west. However, I wonder what it all means, because it is about two years ago—in this very hall, actually—that I pressed the Minister’s predecessor to ensure that that study would lead to progress, but the future seems to be about as clear as mud at the moment.
The status quo pleases no one and it is necessary that we find a solution to the A303 and to Stonehenge. As far as I can see, however, the bottom end of the current cost estimates already seems to double the £410 million estimate that led Labour to review the costs back in 2005. So, can the Minister confirm when he expects a costed and timetabled set of options for the road? In the meantime, has he asked Highways England to evaluate short-term and medium-term options to improve traffic flow and alleviate congestion? Also, can he satisfy concerns that the current front-runner—a 2.9 km tunnel—would protect the integrity of the archaeological site, as required by article 4 of the world heritage convention? And in the event that the Government cannot satisfy the objective of providing a fully costed and timetabled proposal by 2017, what would he do? Would he consider, for instance, handing this work over to the National Infrastructure Commission to consider?
It is absolutely true—in fact, I think the hon. Gentleman said so in his opening remarks—that the history of these roads, across successive Governments, is riddled with changes of mind, delays, inquiries, and further delays and further inquiries. If I understood his opening remarks correctly, the important thing now is to interrogate the Government over the current plans, and that is where I have certain problems. I do not see a costed timetable; I do not see that the budget covers what already appears to have been committed to; and I would just like to know how the whole thing adds up. And the interest that hon. Members have shown today during this debate indicates that they share my concern that we know what the figures are and what they add up to, and that we know when—as Oliver Colvile said—there will be spades in the ground.
Before I finish, I will just raise a couple of other points with the Minister. As well as increasing road capacity, it is also important that we address the issues of, first, the quality of the roads and, secondly, the design of the roads, to ensure that they are as safe as possible. In its first piece of large-scale research as a watchdog, Transport Focus has identified that the top two priorities of road users in the south-west are those two things: improving the quality of roads; and ensuring that the roads have a safer design than they do now.
On the first issue—the quality of the roads—can the Minister put on the record that the Government will meet their pledge to resurface 80% of the network by 2021, as pledged in the Department for Transport’s Action for Roads 2013 document and repeated in the road investment strategy? If that is not going to be the case, perhaps he can explain what the current estimate is.
On the second issue—the safer design of roads—can the Minister offer me some assurances about what he is doing with Highways England to address the safety concerns that have been raised? In the last year, there has been an 8.4% increase in the total number of people being killed or seriously injured on the roads. And in the latest Highways England-financed road user satisfaction survey for May 2015 to October 2015, both the areas of the south-west that were surveyed saw steep drops, when compared with the figures for the previous six months, in the number of road users who said they felt safe. The surveys and the existing casualty figures seem to reveal that the Government are not doing enough to improve road safety in the south-west.
We should address these issues; I think the Minister has to address them. Perhaps it would help him to address them if the Government brought back national road safety targets, as we have often urged them to do.
In closing, I will say that Labour appreciates the infrastructure challenges in the south-west. No Government have been entirely consistent on this issue, and the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton has made that point. So it is essential that the current Government now bite the bullet and deliver genuine improvements to road routes.
However, if the Government are going to do that, there must be transparency and clarity. We need to know what the figures are. We need to know if it is £2 billion or £3 billion that is going to be spent; if it is £2 billion, then it already appears that that sum has been exceeded. And what will the Minister do on those other issues of road quality, including resurfacing roads to achieve the 80% target that the Government have committed to, and the serious concerns about road safety, which have already been revealed in surveys during the last year?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Gray.
Let me start by congratulating my hon. Friend Neil Parish on securing today’s debate about upgrading road routes into the south-west. He has been a diligent campaigner on the issue for a considerable time. I was pleased to visit the area last August and to have him drive me down the A303, the A330 and the A30. There could not be a more stellar guided tour than the one he delivers. That visit brought home to me the importance of the lesson we learnt a few years ago: that the south-west needs resilience in its road network. Transport is a key driver of the economy, and an improved network will not only enable better journeys but boost growth. Last year the Chancellor noted that although the south-west accounts for 8.4% of the UK’s population, it accounts for only 7.5% of its economic output. A major reason for that is that the south-west has to put up with slow, unreliable journeys on congested roads, especially between the region and the south-east of England. If the south-west is not to fall further behind, major road investment is needed.
Many hon. Friends have highlighted clearly the importance of road investment in their areas. I was asked specifically about timing, and I will come on to that as I address some of the schemes. In December 2014, the Government launched the road investment strategy, outlining how £15.2 billion will be spent on our strategic roads between now and 2020-21. That is the biggest upgrade to our strategic roads in a generation. Within the strategy, the Government announced that they intend to upgrade the remaining sections of the A303 between the M3 and the A358 to dual carriageway standard. We are also creating a link from the M5 at Taunton to the A303, as part of the long-term commitment to create a new expressway to the south-west, connecting the M3 through to the M5 at expressway quality.
We intend to start the process with three major improvements as part of the A303-A30-A358-corridor package of commitments. The £2 billion budget, which is for only those commitments—it is not the overall budget for the south-west—will help to deliver much-needed resilience for the region. Part of that work has to address the iconic and historically important site of Stonehenge. My hon. Friend John Glen has raised that issue with me many times, with his customary tenacity and command of detail. We will build a tunnel at least 1.8 miles in length, to preserve the world heritage site at Stonehenge.
It is always appropriate to consider options broadly to ensure that the scheme is absolutely the right one, but there is no doubt whatsoever here; we are committed to delivering a 1.8-mile tunnel at Stonehenge. Our objective is to be able to stand at the stones and not see cars. The tunnel will transform the experience of that important part of our national heritage, and at the same time remove an environmental problem and a traffic problem. We should not, however, confuse the development consent order process requirement to show that different options have been exhausted with reneging upon our commitment. That commitment is strong, and we are working on it closely with environmental and heritage groups. The scheme has strong support from the National Trust and English Heritage; I have met with them at the stones and discussed the issue with them.
On timing, there will be a formal consultation on the scheme early next year. It will go through the development consent order process—part of the planning process—in 2018. We would expect to start works on the scheme in early 2020. We have to get that right, but I hope that that timing provides some comfort.
I listen to the Minister’s remarks with great interest. Does he agree that it would not be helpful if we sorted out the extraordinarily difficult conundrum of Stonehenge, which will be incredibly expensive, and yet did not deal with low-hanging fruit? I am thinking particularly of the village of Chicklade, since the problem will simply be shunted further west.
That is a valuable point. The scheme is not the only one we are considering for the area. When we consider schemes, they are in a network, and if one part of the network is changed there are consequential implications that we have to work through. I am conscious of time, so I need to press on rapidly.
We will dual the A303 from Sparkford to Ilchester and the A358 from Taunton to Southfields to deliver quicker, safer and more reliable journeys. Concerning the timing, we will begin the public consultation on the Sparkford to Ilchester section and on the A358 enhancements later this year, with Highways England set to make a recommendation to the Government in 2017.
Much as I enjoy my hon. Friend’s speeches, I say to him, “Give me a chance here”. I am conscious of the time.
On the scheme for the A303, we expect to get a development consent order in 2018 and to start works in early 2020. The importance of that scheme was mentioned to me by my hon. Friend Rebecca Pow, who highlighted its economic impact on her constituency.
Let us take the A303-A30 section between Southfield and Honiton, in which my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton is particularly interested. I was very grateful for the guided tour he gave me in the summertime. I recognise that large-scale improvements are overdue, but this is a sensitive area. Highways England is working with Devon County Council—they are meeting later this week as part of their regular dialogue. We have not forgotten the route, but the topography and the protected landscape surrounding it in the Blackdown hills is sensitive. I also acknowledge the safety record on that stretch of single carriageway. All the points that my hon. Friend made about it are true and the matter is being considered. It is not part of our first round of schemes, but it is not off the agenda; it is being worked up, with local input, and I hope that he will continue to have an input into that.
I must mention some other schemes that we are undertaking in the area. We are investing in dualling the last single-carriageway gap on the A30 into Cornwall. We will have an expressway-standard road running all the way from Exeter to Camborne. On timing, we will have a public consultation this year. I anticipate that Highways England will make a recommendation to the Government in about a year’s time, and that there will be a development consent order in 2018, with works starting in early 2020.
Those are, however, not the only schemes that we are developing in the area. We have the new junction of the M49, to provide access to the enterprise zone at Avonmouth, and we will start works on that in 2017. There are other enhancements along the M5, particularly with a view to unlocking development sites at Hinckley Point. A significant amount of work is taking place. We are addressing pinch points, such as the Air Balloon roundabout.
It is not as if we are just starting work; work is already underway. It was great to come down to Devon only last Monday to open the south Devon highway, which connects Newton Abbot and Torbay. That marvellous and significant project had a great response from local councils and communities. We are also, of course, working on the A30 Temple to Higher Carblake section. When I visited last summer—my goodness, that was a properly wet day; perhaps Cornwall has more than one of them.
I have about 30 seconds left, so perhaps my hon. Friend will forgive me if I do not.
We are working with local partners throughout the schemes. The north Devon link road is an important project. The Government have provided £1.5 million to help develop the business case and we will continue to look at that. Members are right to champion that project. The north-south access from Dorset is clearly overdue. I have met with local enterprise partnerships and councils in the area and we have a further meeting planned to discuss the issue. We are already on the case, and Highways England, the Department for Transport and local authorities are working on it. We are not changing the road investment strategy’s content; our question now is about delivering it.
Road safety was mentioned. Road safety is at the heart of the road investment strategy and we published our road safety statement in December last year.
There might have been other points. I am not sure whether I have addressed all the points; if I have not, I will write to colleagues.
The blue army here today, comprising some 14 Members, shows how serious we are about getting great roads infrastructure in the south-west. We welcome the Minister’s words, but now we want to see delivery and we want it done quickly. I thank Members for the great support I have had today. Let us get on with the job. Let us get the roads moving in the south-west and let us ensure that the region becomes the land of milk and honey and a powerhouse for the west country, along with the north of England and all parts of the country. It is essential that we do that.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered the upgrading of road routes into the South West.