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17 Dec 2002 : Column 215WH—continued


12.30 pm

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil): I am delighted to have secured this debate on the A303, which I hope will be fairly constructive in the light of the fact that the plans that the Secretary of State for Transport unveiled last week are on the whole welcomed by myself and my constituents, and in surrounding constituencies such as that of my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath).

However, I start on one slightly discordant note—relating to the Government's policy on public transport—that is directly relevant to the amount of traffic that travels down the A303, and to issues of traffic safety and congestion. Only a couple of years ago, the Government were willing to give a clear commitment that they were considering upgrading the A303 to a four-lane road, and the Strategic Rail Authority was prepared to upgrade the railway line between Exeter and Salisbury from a one-track to a two-track line. It is to be regretted that the Government's proposal to improve the A303 has not gone hand in hand with an improvement to the railway line, which could reduce congestion.

The other day, I made the mistake of referring in a local newspaper article to the railway lines between Exeter and Salisbury as "Victorian in character". I have since been corrected by several constituents and non-constituents, who pointed out that in Victorian days—from 1870, I believe—there was a dual-track line between Exeter and Salisbury. I have been somewhat unkind to the Victorians, who maintained a better railway system in the area that was more efficient in terms of journey timings than the balance of road and rail today. I hope that the Minister will touch on the issue of dual tracking the railway line, and the relevance of that to the A303.

Broadly, I welcome the Government's plans for the A303, particularly the plans to dual the A303 eastwards from the Southfield roundabout near Ilminster, towards the junction with the M3. That will be an important step in helping to ease congestion on that route. It will open up a vital economic artery for the south-west, and should improve safety on many stretches of the A303 because people who get stuck behind slow-moving traffic are often tempted to overtake. That has meant that a number of stretches of the A303 have a very bad accident record.

I begin my comments on that part of the A303 by asking the Minister several practical questions about the newly envisaged plans. What timing is envisaged for the different stretches of road? We appreciate that projects take place at different periods. There is a plan to dual the A358 up to the M3—a subject to which I shall return—and there are also plans to dual the Ilminster bypass and the stretch of road from Sparkford to Ilchester.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): My hon. Friend mentioned the Sparkford to Ilchester road that he and I share, which is of great importance, sadly, because of the number of fatalities and serious accidents that have happened along that stretch. Does he agree that the plan—which has already gone through a public inquiry with no serious opposition—should be

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prioritised by the Department, so that some of the funds available for improving the A303 could be spent at an early opportunity?

Mr. Laws : That is a sensible suggestion. I hope that the Minister will return to it and explain the timing status for different stretches of the A303, particularly in Somerset, and tell us which of them already has some planning consent that might allow work to be accelerated.

The second practical point concerning timing is that I hope that the A303 will not be dualled simply to speed up traffic from London towards the west. That would open up an artery of traffic that could lead to huge congestion in Somerset before the completion of the route that we hope will take traffic from the A303 Southfield roundabout to the M5. I shall return to that when I discuss the A358.

Another issue on which I want to press the Minister is grade separation on the A303 in Somerset, which is being considered in relation to Cartgate, near Yeovil, and Podimore junction. Do the Government intend to consider grade separation on those two parts of the route in the light of the fact that that could improve the flow of traffic and reduce the number of accidents on those stretches of the road? What measures is the Minister considering to deal with the environmental damage that could result from dualling those stretches of the A303? He will be aware that issues have already arisen concerning the A303 Ilminster bypass, which is a concrete road that the Government have promised to resurface properly when work is next done. The neighbouring villages close to the A303 bypass, including Seavington and Whitlackington, have experienced a lot of noise nuisance since the bypass was opened. They are hoping that planting and screening, as well as embanking, will take place when the A303 is dualled in that area, to prevent the noise nuisance increasing.

Mr. Heath : I promise not to interrupt my hon. Friend again. Road noise is a substantial problem on quite a long stretch of the A303, particularly in the area of Wincanton, where for some inexplicable reason the Highways Agency, far from increasing the planting, has cut down the trees that used to reduce the sound nuisance to local residents, with the result that the road now has a very noisy surface and the residents have nothing to shield them from the nuisance. We are told that resurfacing will not be done until 2005. Does my hon. Friend share my view that the Government and the Highways Agency can do better in providing relief for local residents?

Mr. Laws : I certainly share my hon. Friend's views on the matter and hope that the Minister has detected that this is a common concern in the villages that abut the A303 in Somerset.

The choice that the Government must make between dualling the A358 from the Southfield roundabout to the M5, and dualling over the Blackdown hills, is obviously controversial; even people within the immediate area have different views. The Government were right to say that they wish first to explore the option of dualling the A358 from the Southfield

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roundabout to the M5, instead of going over the Blackdown hills. They were also right to suggest that they may make that choice for a number of reasons.

First, there will be a major environmental issue if the A303 over the Blackdown hills is dualled. Such an environmental controversy could result in the project becoming bogged down for many years while objections are heard. We all know that during such projects Governments come and Governments go, and as suddenly as a road scheme goes on to the agenda, it can be taken off. If the rest of the A303 were dualled from the M3, we would face the problem of much larger volumes of traffic coming down the A303, then having to go on to single-lane roads, either over the Blackdown hills or up the A358. That is my first reason for hoping that the Government will go for the option of dualling the A358.

The second issue is that the A358 is a major trunk road in the region. It has key economic significance for Dorset and south Somerset, and is a major artery from there to the vital route of the M5. At present, it is one of the most congested roads—if not the most congested road—in Somerset, and has a very bad accident record. We hope that economic, environmental and safety benefits could be secured by improving that route.

Will the Minister be a little more open and informative than the Secretary of State was in the House of Commons the other day about the inquiry into the practicalities of the A358 route? Will he tell us when it will start, and give a broad idea of when a conclusion will be reached? The Minister may have heard about the frustration of many people in the Blackdowns area when it was announced last week that the Government are to set up another inquiry into the issue. Many people in the area feel that the Government should make a decision quickly, whichever route they take. Gill Bromley, a member of the Buckland St. Mary parish council, was quoted in the local newspaper:

I hope that the Government will come up with a decision on the route very soon.

I also hope that the Government will work with Somerset county council—for which this is a tremendously important highways issue—and that the Minister will suggest to officials in the Highways Agency that they should open communications with the county council to discuss the project's practicalities. I hope that when he speaks to his officials he will make the vital point for Somerset and the Blackdowns that this part of improving the A303 cannot be left to the end. It must be done as soon as possible if we are not to end up with a huge bottleneck at the Southfield roundabout, and if the extra traffic coming down the dualled A303 from London and the south-east is not to be faced with a choice of two very unsatisfactory single-track roads.

What is the Government's thinking on the manner in which a dualled A358 will join the M5? The Minister will be aware that the junction there is already extremely busy, and that many cars and lorries that use the route do not turn west to go to Devon and Cornwall but turn east. Are the Government considering a new junction on

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the M5 close to Taunton, and will they consider a southerly and a northerly junction for the A358 at that point?

Are the Government determined to ensure that the A358 scheme is as environmentally sensitive as possible? Is the Minister aware that many people still suspect that the Highways Agency and the Department for Transport have always favoured dualling the A303 over the Blackdowns, and that they might be tempted to bring forward a scheme for dualling the A358 that is not as environmentally sound as it could be, so as to reopen the question of dualling the Blackdowns route? Will the Minister assure us that he will not allow that, and that he will ensure that any A358 dualling is done in as environmentally sensitive a way as possible?

I shall wrap up my comments by talking about what will need to happen if the Government go ahead and opt for the A358 route directly up to the M5 rather than dualling the A303, the Blackdowns route. Many people who live along the Blackdowns route in villages such as Buckland St. Mary and nearby Newtown are concerned about existing traffic volumes on the A303, and about the bad safety record of the A303 through the Blackdown hills. The safety and congestion issues must be addressed. There is therefore a need to ensure that if the A358 route is chosen, the Government will put in place alternative measures to take traffic off the Blackdowns route.

How does the Minister intend to instruct the highways officials to design the A358 route to the M5 so that it becomes the natural highway taking traffic from the east to the west of the country? Will signing and grade separation be used to encourage people going to Devon and Cornwall to use that route rather than the Blackdowns route? Will he also consider downgrading the classification of the A303 Blackdowns route so that people are no longer encouraged to use it?

The Minister will be aware that a series of safety measures relating to the Blackdowns route has recently been considered, including a reduced speed limit of 50 mph and speed cameras. Will he ask his highways officials, as part of the wider project, to consider whether more fundamental safety measures are needed to make the route less attractive to through traffic and safer for people using it?

There is a very dangerous junction—the Eagle Cross junction—on the Blackdowns route, which has a high accident rate. The local feeling is that traffic lights or a roundabout are needed to deal with the safety issues there. The Minister may wish to write to me about that detailed point. I am grateful to him for participating in the debate and I look forward to hearing his comments. Doubtless I will be in contact with him about the issue over the months ahead.

12.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Jamieson) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) on securing the debate and on the way in which he has conducted it; he has made his points very strongly on behalf of his constituents.

I noted his welcome for the thrust of the announcement that the Government made last week in relation to the south-west area multi-modal study. He

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talked about bringing schemes forward and about extra spending on the rail scheme. He is a pragmatic and sensible man. If he were not, his leader would not have made him the number two in the Liberal Democrat shadow Treasury team. I believe that he has been put in charge of finding spending cuts of £2 billion. I am certain that he would not want any of the schemes that he mentioned today to be part of those cuts.

Mr. Laws : Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Jamieson : Of course. The hon. Gentleman is probably about to tell us where the cuts will take place.

Mr. Laws : I fear that, although that would fascinating, it would take up too much of our time.

Will the Minister explain why a proposal to upgrade the rail link between Exeter and Salisbury to dual track appeared in the Government's spending plans two years ago, but has now disappeared? I say that in the most constructive way possible.

Mr. Jamieson : The hon. Gentleman said that it would take a long time to tell us where all the spending cuts will take place; I am sure that Hansard will have recorded that.

There are priorities in such matters. The hon. Gentleman will know, having the job that he does, that one has to face priorities. That is particularly true when one is in government; it is different when one is in opposition.

The A303 is an important trunk road. It is part of the strategic route from London to Exeter, which also includes the M3 and the A30. On Tuesday last week, the Secretary of State announced to the House the Government's decision on the London to south-west and south Wales multi-modal study, known as SWARMMS. The study was established in April 2000 to look at congestion on the M4 and M5, the impact of tourist traffic, the potential to transfer freight on to railways and the need for improved road services to reduce pressure on roads.

The study also considered the future of several on-hold road improvements on the A303 in Wiltshire, Somerset and Devon and on the A38 in Cornwall. The schemes on the A303 within the study's remit were as follows: the Ilminster bypass improvement; the Sparkford to Ilchester improvement—which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath); the Wylye-Stockton Wood improvement; the Chicklade Bottom-Mere improvement; the Ilminster to Marsh improvement; and the A30 and A303 Marsh to Honiton improvement. Those stretches of the A303 are the remaining single carriageway sections of the road. They have a high rate of accidents—above the national average.

The Government are mindful that this is a popular holiday route, particularly from the south-east to the south-west. The rest of the route is already dual carriageway. Sections of the road are severely congested, particularly in the busy times of the summer when holiday traffic is in evidence. The route is also important for business because it links the south-west to other parts of the country. It provides access to the channel tunnel, the M3 and the M25.

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We realise that there are sensitive environmental issues relating to that corridor. Four of the schemes are located in areas of outstanding natural beauty. The Ilminster to Marsh and the Marsh to Honiton improvements are located in the Blackdown Hills area of outstanding natural beauty.

We all know that increased pressure and congestion are experienced not only on the M4, but on the M5. That is particularly prevalent in the summer months. The SWARMMS study considered the need for improvements to the parallel railway routes that might reduce congestion on the M4, M5 and A303. Those are the routes out of Paddington to Bristol and Taunton, and out of Waterloo to Exeter. On the second line, the section west of Salisbury is single-track, which, as the hon. Gentleman said, prevents further improvements from being made to journey times and service frequency on that section. However, the study concluded that, although improvements to the Waterloo to Exeter route were desirable, they were unlikely to take significant amounts of traffic from the A303. That is one issue that informed our decision.

In the discussion that we had on the statement last week, the hon. Gentleman asked my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State about the re-dualling of the Salisbury to Waterloo railway line. I can only reiterate what the Secretary of State said at the time; that is a matter for the Strategic Rail Authority, and because of the other huge and competing demands, we are unable to take that scheme forward at the moment.

The SWARMMS study concluded that the whole route from the M3 to the A303, the Exeter route, needed to be improved to provide a second dual carriageway; a high-quality road from London to the south-west. Compared with the M4 or M5, the M3 from London to Exeter is shorter by some 25 miles, with obvious savings in time, costs and pollution. An improved A303 could provide an alternative and more reliable route from the London area or from the south-west to the south-east.

As I said, the A303 and A30 west of Ilminster go through a nationally important environmental landscape. The hon. Gentleman will know that our policy on areas of outstanding natural beauty is that we do not support infrastructure developments that damage the landscape if there is an alternative. The consultants who worked on the SWARMMS study considered that there was an alternative to improving the A303 and A30; directing traffic north from the A303 at Ilminster on to the A358 to join the M5 at junction 25 at Taunton.

The A358 is already a busy section of road, catering for regional north-south movement, and the hon. Gentleman has raised that route in past correspondence with the Department. However, the consultants recommended that route as an alternative to improving the A303 and A30 through the Blackdown Hills area of outstanding natural beauty. They thought that that solution was less environmentally damaging.

The south-west regional assembly has given us comprehensive views on the SWARMMS study. It undertook public hearings on the recommendations and decided in the end to ask us to dual both the A303 and the A358. What was not clear in its representations was why both those routes needed to be improved to meet the strategic needs that the study was reviewing.

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Unfortunately, life is not that easy, and there are a number of problems with the consultants' solution. First, the A358 route is longer than the direct route from Honiton to Ilminster. Secondly, it will direct traffic to the congested junction on the M5 near Taunton. Thirdly, it does not provide an extra route all the way from the M3 into Cornwall that is totally separate from the M4 and M5. In other words, extra traffic will be put on the Taunton to Exeter part of the motorway. Taunton is designated in regional planning guidance for the south-west as a focus for sustained growth over the next 10 to 15 years.

However, the route has the considerable benefit of not requiring the A303 and A30 to be improved through the Blackdown Hills area of outstanding natural beauty, as that could damage the historic landscape and a number of wildlife sites nearby. We understand that if the A358 were chosen for improvement, there would still be residual traffic, environmental and safety problems in particular to be addressed on the unimproved A303 and A30. We are therefore mindful that some improvements would be needed on the existing route if the A358 option went ahead.

The hon. Gentleman asked how the inquiry on junctions on the motorway was progressing. I would not dignify it by calling it an inquiry, but the Highways Agency is certainly considering the technical specifications and all the other issues that relate to the provision of the A358 alternative route, including any extra motorway junctions either side of Taunton that may be required.

Mr. Laws : I am grateful to the Minister for giving way a second time. Will he ensure that his officials consult Somerset county council highways officials on that inquiry, and does he expect the inquiry to report with a final conclusion on whether the A358 will be made a duel carriageway in the next 12 months?

Mr. Jamieson : I assure the hon. Gentleman that all the relevant parties will be consulted. That is the thrust and the spirit of the multi-modal studies. We want this local input. Indeed, we have had enormous input from Somerset county council and all the other county councils that have been a central part of the inquiry. I cannot predict how long those discussions will take, but we hope that they will not stretch too far into next year. We want the matter to be resolved fairly soon, because it is key to progress on the entire route.

There are planning and environmental issues relating to the whole route. Which parts of the route will be dealt with first will be a matter for careful consideration. I take into account the comments made by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, as we realise that

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several benefits might be attained by dealing with some parts of the route before others. We want to take the views of the county councils and Members of Parliament into account when we go ahead with the plan. We must balance the benefits to road users with the environmental impact, but whatever decision we take will upset one group or another. As the hon. Gentleman will know, we are not yet in the position to take that final decision. However, I hope that we will be able to do so shortly. We are, however, clear that the south-west needs the two high-quality routes.

As I said, parts of the M4 and M5 are suffering problems of severe congestion, and the targeted programme of improvements lists four improvements to tackle some of those problems. More importantly, hon. Members will be pleased to hear that we have accepted the SWARMMS recommendations for the area east of Ilminster. The Highways Agency continues to work with the statutory environmental bodies to prepare the schemes to allow their entry into the TPI. Part of that work includes looking at junctions and roundabouts on the route, and making improvements at roundabouts such as Cartgate and Podimore. That should allow us to announce a comprehensive package of measures, some of which we hope to be able to deliver quite soon.

I know that the hon. Gentleman will ask why we cannot immediately ask the Highways Agency to press ahead with the construction and why there is a need for further delays. The answer is that we are not yet ready to include all these schemes in the TPI, but the Highways Agency is working with various bodies to see how we can make rapid progress on the schemes. Those discussions mean that I am confident that the schemes will be an improvement on others that we promoted in the past. They will incorporate the latest mitigation measures to reduce the environmental impact. I noted the comment about the trees. I am aware that the Highways Agency is the second largest planter of tress in England—second only to the Forestry Commission—and I am proud of that green aspect of the work of my Department.

As hon. Members have suggested, not all the schemes are in the same state of readiness. We intend to be in a position to make further announcements in the first half of 2003 on some of the priorities. I appreciate that improving the A358, as SWARMMS consultants recommend, would have local benefits, as well as facilitating longer-distance travel from Devon and Cornwall. We recognise that the north-south route from Dorset and Somerset to the M5 and north of Bristol is important, and we will get detailed advice from the agency and produce some answers on that as soon as possible.

We have had a short but useful debate. If I have failed to cover any issues in the short time available, I should be happy to correspond with the hon. Gentleman to answer his questions more fully.

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