I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the strategic road network in the South West.
First, I welcome the welcome the Minister to his place. As you are aware, Mr Howarth, I worked with him on the nuclear issue and Hinkley Point. I also thank his Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend James Heappey, and my hon. Friend Mr Fysh for being here. I am glad that my hon. Friends the Members for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), for Gloucester (Richard Graham) and for Torbay (Kevin Foster) are here too. I am sorry about the pink specs, Mr Howarth—I managed to lose mine.
I am grateful to be able to raise issues about the road network in the south-west. They relate exclusively to that network, and they have to be cured. The strategy for the major roads can be a bit of a beggar’s muddle, which roughly translates as a complete and utter mess, liable to cause confusion and dismay. I represent Bridgwater and West Somerset, and the M5 is our only official strategic route. It covers the whole of our area. If someone needs to get strategically to Watchet, Williton or Minehead, they need the A39. That road is every bit as strategic for hundreds of thousands of holidaymakers and for anybody who happens to live there, yet the M5 and the A39 come under entirely different management.
Most A roads in this country are looked after by county councils. All motorways and a handful of A roads are the responsibility of Highways England Ltd. Two years ago, the Government quite rightly shook up the old Highways Agency, turned it into a flash new company and hoped it would learn to operate within budget and focus more attention on customers. There was frustration in Whitehall that new roads took far too long to complete—we have all suffered from that. It would be much better, it was thought, if one company was given a big budget and simply allowed to get on with it. The Government also wanted to speed up the whole planning process.
A chief executive with an impressive track record was hired. Jim O’Sullivan used to be the chief engineer at British Airways, and claims he can still change the brakes, wheels and engines on an aeroplane, but I would rather he concentrated on his day job. After all, Highways England spends £7 million of public money every single week. That is enormous bucks, given that the highway under its control adds up to just 2% of the total road network. The company got a rap over the knuckles from the rail and road regulator in its first appraisal last year. The regulator said that it was not transparent enough about plans or accurate enough about accounting. I can think of quite a few level-headed Somerset people who would agree and go further.
Highways England has sparked a monstrous planning row that shows what is wrong with the whole process of strategic road development. At the end of the week, I will get in my car and drive home to the west country. I usually travel on the M4, then on to the M5 and home. Occasionally, if I am in a hurry, I will risk the A303 and the A358 into Taunton—my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil knows how tricky that is—but from drivers’ point of view that is a gamble. They face swarms of druid-fanciers at Stonehenge, armies of articulated lorries struggling up hills and enough caravans to drive Jeremy Clarkson bonkers—all going at a snail’s pace throughout.
You are probably not aware, Mr Howarth, that parts of the A303 are still single-carriageway. Most of the A358 is a bottleneck, and Taunton has become a snarled-up no-go area. As a matter of fact, there is no good reason to go anywhere near Taunton since the useless council lost its famous cattle market to Bridgwater and is allowing the shopping centre to waste away and die. Councillor John Williams is now the sheriff of a wild west tumbleweed town. He struts about spending oodles of taxpayers’ money on gold taps and new showers for Deane House, and people say he is on the take—more of him later, I promise.