Transport Infrastructure: Devon and Somerset

– in Westminster Hall at 4:00 pm on 23 April 2024.

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Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon 4:00, 23 April 2024

I will call Mr Ian Liddell-Grainger to move the motion, and then call the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as is the convention for 30-minute debates.

Photo of Ian Liddell-Grainger Ian Liddell-Grainger Conservative, Bridgwater and West Somerset

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered roads and other transport infrastructure in Devon and Somerset.

May I say how nice it is to serve under a Devon MP of great standing and long service, who knows his county better than most of us? I am delighted to be able to make this speech.

When talking about our constituents in Westminster Hall, it is rare that we are able to talk cross border. The Tiverton and Minehead seat, as you now know, Mr Streeter, is new and will cross the boundary of Devon and Somerset. This is a good chance for us to discuss my memories from my days as the Member for Torridge and West Devon before my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Geoffrey Cox—we were talking about potholes then, and that was 1997.

When digging around on Google and many of these other things—which I confess not to completely understand —I discovered just how contentiously difficult potholes are. I did not know, but pothole sizes and potholes in the road have names. I know this sounds interesting, so I will read some of them out: The Canyon—I think we can work that one out; The Alligator, a little more tricky; The Sniper; The Slalom; and The Alcatraz. There are many more named on a website. On discovering a pothole, the Minister, my hon. Friend Guy Opperman, when he is up in Hexham, can look it up and say, “Ah! There’s an Alligator,” or, “There is Alcatraz”—up in Northumberland, that is the wall.

It is intriguing: this has become a sort of national sport. In Devon, there is a Facebook page called “Devon Potholes”. It is fascinating how incensed people are by something that should really be simple to solve. Recently, in Watchet, which is in the Bridgwater and West Somerset constituency as it currently is, a little bit of private road had not been done up—because it was private—and the Daily Mail actually filled in the potholes to help a 101-year-old get in and out of their house. That is the national view of potholes.

I will give some of these ghastly statistics—which is what we all live by in this place—taking Devon first. In 2019, there were around 50,000 reported potholes, of which they claim to have repaired 50,000—I find that convenient, like all local government statistics. In 2022, there were 34,000—so there has been a reduction—of which they claim to have repaired 32,150. Okay, I hear what they say: given that we drive around the roads of Devon, I dare say this is possibly not as straightforward as it may seem.

Photo of Simon Jupp Simon Jupp Conservative, East Devon

I get out and about speaking to people across my part of Devon every single week, and our roads are a constant concern and grumble on the doorstep. We all know that MPs across the region have consistently campaigned for more funding to resurface and repair our roads—this is not just about potholes; it is also about resurfacing. By redirecting funds from the spiralling—and, to be fair, deeply questionable —cost of HS2, the Government have delivered millions of pounds for our county to speed up pothole repairs, but thanks to the Government boosting its budget, Devon County Council will invest an extra £10 million this financial year into our roads, taking the highway maintenance budget to over £72 million. Does my hon. Friend agree that Devon County Council is right to spend whatever it takes to get our roads back to the standard we expect?

Photo of Ian Liddell-Grainger Ian Liddell-Grainger Conservative, Bridgwater and West Somerset

My hon. Friend has championed Devon for longer than I have had the opportunity to do so, and I greatly welcome his gentle advice about the situation on the roads. I am very grateful for the work he has done. I know he has worked very hard with the leader of Devon to make sure we secured the money—I say “we”, and that is a very grand collective “we”. I know that you, Mr Streeter, were involved in that. It is a very good piece of news indeed, and I am grateful to Devon —£72 million is a huge amount.

That just shows, however, that it has become endemic that we never have enough money to do this. Although the claims are there, the reality, which I know from driving around Devon—I certainly know it from the constituency of my hon. Friend Simon Jupp—is that this is a never-ending battle, and one that we all must fight. Funnily enough, I do not blame either Somerset or Devon for the situation we are in. This has gone on for so long that it has become almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. We have aspirations all the time—

Photo of Sarah Dyke Sarah Dyke Liberal Democrat, Somerton and Frome

That is very generous of the hon. Member for—somewhere in Somerset.

Adverse weather has also massively contributed to the number of potholes in Somerset, which I am sure the hon. Gentleman will come on to. Does he agree that the Government must recognise and focus on improving the future resilience of our roads, and that local authorities may need specific funding allocations to improve the resilience of roads, rather than just pothole funding? I will leave him to the remainder of his prepared speech.

Photo of Ian Liddell-Grainger Ian Liddell-Grainger Conservative, Bridgwater and West Somerset

I will just reiterate again what I have already said about the number of potholes in Somerset, because obviously the hon. Lady was not listening—but never mind; no change there. I just reiterate for the record that there were 60,000 potholes in 2022.

I have worked with the leader of Somerset county now for 25 years, who covers a major part of the Levels, where we know the roads move all the time because of the peat. It has been a never-ending battle in Somerset to try to stabilise roads that are unstable. The cost of rebuilding those roads after the ’14 floods was simply astronomical, but we cannot not do it. As peat is a natural resource, we cannot pile—we cannot get deep enough—so whatever we do is a problem. Somerset county has spent hugely on roads over many years. I am not complaining; that is the situation. I am saying that the money has to keep going. Unfortunately, as I said, it does not really work.

I was interested to note that on the Devon county website—my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon helped me on this—there is a quite incredible interactive map. I did not know this existed—I know that you will, Sir Gary—but people can actually look up the potholes on their street. If they go to, they can look at these maps, find out exactly where their pothole is, and anybody can report it. We can then zone in the counties. Somerset does not have that. I looked at the Somerset website—which has been there for years, by the look of it—which starts off with a highway safety inspection manual. It always worries me when I get that, on any website, because I just know that whatever is behind it will be a worry. I accept that there is a system behind it, but it is not as good as the one I have seen in Devon. I will be urging Somerset county to adopt that system.

I know that the Minister will reply, quite rightly: “We can give what we can give. There is no more.” One of the ways around this is to use technology. I was googling some quite remarkable machines that fill in potholes. They can do the middle, so they can deal with all the pothole types I named earlier—they basically gouge out and redo it. Last night, the Minister was very kindly telling me a little bit about some of these machines. On his recommendation, I actually went away and looked them up, and they are amazing. Maybe—just maybe—Devon, Somerset and Cornwall, for instance, could look at buying some machines together as a collective, and they could then work the three counties. It does not have to be three counties; it could be whatever we want—it could be a region if we so wish, although that would be a bit big. We could use that technology to deal with these holes.

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

I wanted to try to assist my hon. Friend, because he is referring to two key things. First, by reason of the HS2 funding, for the very first time, local authorities up and down the country—but particularly Devon and Somerset—are being given seven-year funding. They have a certainty of supply of funding, which allows them to purchase new equipment and machinery.[Official Report, 15 May 2024; Vol. 750, c. 5WC.] (Correction) He is referring, of course, to the Pothole Pro—there are other products out there. The key, transformational point is that, by reason of the Prime Minister’s decision on HS2 in October last year, not only is there an uplift in funding, but all local authorities are now able to plan properly and purchase equipment, so that road maintenance also means upgrade, rather just filling potholes.

Photo of Ian Liddell-Grainger Ian Liddell-Grainger Conservative, Bridgwater and West Somerset

I am incredibly grateful to the Minister, as always. He is right, and I was going to come on to HS2. I know that he sympathises with this, because he has a huge rural constituency, bigger than any in Devon. The road system up there is challenging, as I know—I used to live in it—not least because he has got the military running all over a part of his constituency.

The Minister is right: we have got to embrace that money. If nothing else, the message I give today to all colleagues is that Devon, Somerset and other counties need to get together, to start buying very expensive but very clever machines. There are ways to do that, and the Minister is right that the Prime Minister has led the way with this windfall, thank the Lord. It is marvellous to have it, and we should use every penny we can.

There is no secret that in Somerset we have a financial crisis. It is very difficult at the moment. We have managed to get through this year—we are fine—but next year is not looking so good. We have a lot of work to do, and if we do not do the work on roads, they just get worse. Then more money is required, and it a self-fulfilling prophecy. We have to help places that do not have the money—the same goes for Buckinghamshire and other counties that have the same problem. Devon is not in the same position, as my hon. Friend has already said—the county has been extremely generous and has got extra money out of its own resources, as we are all aware, which is tremendous—but we do need a better system.

One thing that has always struck me is that it is up to us—not just MPs, but county councillors—to ensure we work to try to resolve this. All of us walk or drive round our areas. How many times have we been down potholes? I quite often end up in hedgerows with punctures—as you can well imagine, Mr Streeter, knowing that my driving does not bear much scrutiny. It is infuriating but, if we do not say where the potholes are, we cause a problem for ourselves.

One of the biggest problems we all face is the size of tractors, which has increased enormously since we were young, dare I say. Tractors are now lane-filling. Devon and Somerset roads were never designed for that size of tractors, big lorries or some big cars. The weight of tractors has gone through the roof. What they now haul is hugely heavier than it used to be. That is one of the biggest problems we face, because they cause more and more damage. As one drives around both counties, it is the structure of the sides of the roads that is causing the problems. We have to be much more aware that farming damages roads, but there is nothing we can do about it. The farmers have every right to be there and need to be, but we need to cover that up.

This is my last point before I sit down and give way to the Minister, who I know has a lot to say on this. I am really disappointed about certain parts of Devon, which I am beginning to learn about, and especially Mid Devon District Council, which I find iniquitous. It should be scrutinising this, as should everyone else. I know it happens in Somerset and Devon counties. We would not have got the money if it had not. That is the point: they should scrutinise. To learn that the head of scrutiny has now legged it because it all got a bit tough and hard is pathetic. We need proper scrutiny.

Photo of Ian Liddell-Grainger Ian Liddell-Grainger Conservative, Bridgwater and West Somerset

In a minute.

I find it ridiculous that we cannot get this sorted. That is a ridiculous position for us to find ourselves in. Some people need to start thinking about what they are there for. MPs have a responsibility, which can be seen every day in newspapers, and we know what we suffer. I just wish a few of the councillors who are meant to represent their areas would do the same.

Photo of Richard Foord Richard Foord Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence)

I thank the hon. Member for giving way and commend him for securing this debate. Devon County Council is the local authority responsible for roads in Devon and the leader of Devon County Council, John Hart, said last year:

“They gave us £9.5 million and I hate to say it but £7 million of that went in inflation”.

He also said of that £9.5 million that it

“is a drop in the ocean.”

Does the hon. Member agree that the county council is responsible for roads and that the potholes we see are ultimately the responsibility of central Government?

Photo of Ian Liddell-Grainger Ian Liddell-Grainger Conservative, Bridgwater and West Somerset

I can see why the hon. Member was in the education corps. Where does one start? I think I will start with a sigh. That is better; I now feel fresh to go on.

John Hart, who I knew nearly 30 years ago, has led a council and has made massive differences. He has just announced that he will stand down after a very long period and I respect that. He has made £10 million available. He has taken his responsibility for roads in Devon deadly seriously. His achievement is remarkable, given that Devon has more roads than Belgium—am I right, Mr Streeter? I think that is right. My hon. Friend the Member for East Devon has made it quite clear that Devon has stepped up to the mark.

As for the hon. Member for the education corps—God help us!—scrutiny should be scrutiny. You can scrutinise anything you want—that is the point. I have always found that the best way to scrutinise is to take scrutiny down to a local level, because we live with those potholes in our areas. We live with them, not just as MPs, but as constituents and members of district councils. I therefore find the hon. Gentleman’s question iniquitously ridiculous.

On that happy note, Mr Streeter, I sit down. Thank you.

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 4:16, 23 April 2024

What a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. Obviously, I accept and acknowledge that, when you have served your constituents in the south-west for so long, you will be exceptionally interested in a debate such as this one, which has been secured by my hon. Friend Mr Liddell-Grainger. I also genuinely acknowledge the passion and the fervour that my hon. Friend has brought, as always, to this particular issue. I commend him for the tone of his speech and for the fact that he is sticking up for his constituents, as he has done so very well for many a year.

This issue is clearly something that we all care about. There is no doubt whatsoever that all our constituents are passionately concerned about the state of the roads that they have to utilise, whether that is as a driver, as a farmer, as someone who does logistics and deliveries as part of a business, or as someone trying to engage regularly in active travel. All those activities are affected by the state of our roads and we are all conscious of that.

One must look at the consequential decisions that the Government have made over the last year in particular to address some of those problems, because if I look back at the situation approximately 16 or 18 months ago and compare it with the situation now, I see that it has been utterly transformed. That has happened in three ways. The core base budget that both local authorities had was substantial and had been going up periodically, but there is no doubt that it was a struggle; we all acknowledge that. To a lesser or greater degree, that is true of different local authorities up and down the country.

Clearly, the first thing that happened was the spring Budget of 2023, which saw a significant uplift to both local authorities: just under £5 million to Somerset and £9 million to Devon. Subsequently, the decision of the Prime Minister in October 2023 in relation to HS2 utterly transformed the funding increase, because there is a base increase of funding ultimately of 30% in the case of both local authorities. That is transformational funding—there is no question whatsoever about that.

Photo of Richard Foord Richard Foord Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence)

The Minister refers to “transformational funding”, but I think that expression would jar with the experience of constituents in Devon who I talk to. In total, 966 claims were made for compensation by Devon residents, amounting to £1.1 million, between April and December last year. Would he like to comment on this disjuncture between, on the one hand, the “transformational” change that he talks about and, on the other hand, the day-to-day experience of my constituents?

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

I have answered such questions repeatedly since the debate on 19 December and at other times. Simply put, the situation is this: if one has a business or statutory undertaking, and one increases the budget to address a problem by over 30%, there is no other part of the Government infrastructure that has been increased in that way. There is no local authority in the country that has had the benefit of that in other parts of its portfolio. The reality is that the transport budget for highways maintenance has been dramatically addressed. No one is diminishing the impact of what has happened in the past and the day-to-day vicissitudes that people have to face, whether those are on the Somerset levels or the Slapton line, which I debated in the House barely a month ago. There are clearly instances where those things need to be addressed, and frankly the Prime Minister has taken a very bold decision to address the problem specifically, which is massively to his credit.

Obviously, that is on top of record amounts of bus funding. There has been a significant increase in bus funding, such as the £2 bus fare, the bus service improvement plans money and the active travel budget, which has seen considerable enhancements to Devon of over £6 million and to Somerset of over £3 million since 2020. There is massively increased support for all forms of cycling and walking. Also, the rail station infrastructure has increased, whether that is in Cullompton—which the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Transport have visited—or elsewhere. A huge amount of investment is going on.

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

No, I will not, with no disrespect. I am going to try to address some of the many points that have been made. Not for the first time, my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset went on for quite a while. Obviously, it was all worthwhile listening, but it was certainly well beyond the 15 minutes.

The reality is that Devon and Somerset received a further funding uplift of approximately £15 million in the spring Budget of 2023, and then £10 million of additional maintenance funding in 2023-24. The point I was trying to make to my hon. Friend is that anyone who has ever worked as a parish, district or county councillor, as a Member of Parliament, or who has run a Department knows that having a long-term, seven-year budget is transformational. Any local authority leader will ask, “Could I have some more money and could I know what I am going to get over the next two to seven years?” That is transformational, that is exactly what the PM has done, and that is why local authorities can do different types of investment.[Official Report, 15 May 2024; Vol. 750, c. 5WC.] (Correction)

I make the significant point that we hold local authorities to account. There are two ways to address the point about accountability that my hon. Friend raised. First, many local authorities—I cannot comment on individual specifics—subcontract a lot of work to particular providers. Some are better than others, and I cast no aspersions. We now require local authorities to publish a plan every year, in which they have to set out what they intend to do with that money and where they intend to spend it.

We encourage the local authorities to do two things. First, they should look at the quality of the work. There is clearly a necessity on some occasions to do patching. No one disputes that; it must happen from time to time. However, we want better quality work, because the better quality work does not need repeat work.

Secondly, local authorities need to look after the road maintenance system itself, which involves ensuring that they have a sufficiency of gully suckers clearing the road and ensuring there is no water, so that they can deal with the winter weather in the usual way. We want them to check the quality of subcontractors so that the work follows the local authority guidance on how it should be done and can be checked. Personally, I would strongly encourage them to get into arrangements with their subcontractors if the work fails within a three-month, six-month or nine-month period. In our constituencies up and down the country, we have all come across the odd occasion where a pothole is filled and has to be refilled very quickly thereafter. It is for local authorities to hold their contractors to account, or if they are doing the work in-house, they need to be held to account as well. This transformation clearly relates and dates back to the core funding and the highways maintenance funding.

I am happy to say that both Devon and Somerset councils have published their plans, which my hon. Friend will want to look at. They allow all hon. Members’ constituents to see for themselves which roads will be resurfaced. In Somerset, the A37 Whitstone Road in Shepton Mallet and the A39 Puriton Hill in Bawdrip have already benefitted from the additional funding, as have the A358 Cross Keys roundabout in Norton Fitzwarren and the B3090 Marston Road in Selwood. In Devon, roads from Axminster to Yarcombe and from Ashburton to Widworthy will be resurfaced. All of that is because of the new money coming in.

The funding formula recognises that and allocates funding to local authorities based on road length. We acknowledge the particular circumstances in Devon, and I have set out in this House how it receives effectively more money than virtually any other local authority because of road length and its nature. Although my constituency is bigger, Devon’s circumstances are well known and well understood.

I will briefly deal with road enhancement. The Department has worked with Western Gateway, Peninsula Transport and the sub-national transport bodies to identify priorities for investment from our major road network and large local majors programmes. That has seen over £330 million of investment, subject to the Government approving the individual business cases from local councils. Obviously there is an outlined business case and a final business case.

Included are improvements to the A361 North Devon link road, the A382 between Drumbridges and Newton Abbot, the A379 bridge road in Exeter and the A38 in North Somerset. As I understand it, good progress is being made in the construction of improvements to the North Devon link road, and I look forward to its completion later this year. I could go on at great length about the substantial infrastructure investment in rail in this part of the world—and I see that the Rail Minister, my hon. Friend Huw Merriman, has snuck into the room to laud and applaud the massive investment that has been made in rail.

Massive investment has also been made in the bus and public transport network, and we have made further investment in active travel. I look forward to developments in all those.

I welcome this debate, which my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset introduced, and I welcome his enthusiasm in holding local authorities to account and ensuring that the taxpayer, who we all serve, will get the best outcome. That outcome will be a massive increase in investment, much better roads, a long-term plan for local authorities and better outcomes for all. That is something we should all strive for.

Question put and agreed to.