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28 Jan 2004 : Column 125WH—continued

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Roads (Tiverton and Honiton)

5.30 pm

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): For the record, Mr. Cook, I should say that my constituency is Tiverton and Honiton. It would be remiss of me not to correct its title.

I wish to raise three matters to do with roads in my constituency. I have given the Minister prior notice of them; I know that we will have some good answers because I am sure he will be well prepared. The first is an issue that I have raised on many occasions. In fact, I have been raising it since I was first elected in 1992. The A303 runs from Honiton to Ilminster and passes through the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire), who is in his place. We believe that that road should be dualled.

When the Government took office in 1997, there had already been a public inquiry and I understand that the contract was ready to go out to tender. Since then, the Government have initiated one report after another, all of which seem to have been kicked into the long grass. As yet, there is no progress on dualling that important stretch of road.

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on obtaining this debate. We are constantly lobbied by the Federation of East Devon chambers of commerce—with whom we have a meeting on Friday—the Devon and Cornwall business council and business men in both our constituencies, who tell us that even if the road between Ilminster and Taunton were dualled, dualling the A303 would still be a priority. One cannot replace the other; one will merely be in addition to the other.

Mrs. Browning : My hon. Friend is absolutely right; it should not be an "either or" argument. All who know that part of the country will recognise the need to dual the road from Ilminster to the M5 at Taunton. However, that does not detract from the need for the A303 to be dualled. Indeed, transport links were identified earlier this month in a report by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs as one of the major barriers to economic improvement in the south-west. Most of the rural south-west was described in that report as a disadvantaged area.

The A303 joins with the M3 to London in one direction, and it is a main east-west route. It is meant to be the second arterial route through the west country. At the moment, we have only the M5. It is wrong that we should be deprived of that second arterial route, as it affects the economic development of the whole peninsula. The Minister, who represents a Plymouth seat, will know that most people who travel to the west, especially businesses looking to relocate in the south-west peninsula, will carefully consider the arterial routes, of which we have only one. Indeed, I suggest to him that people wanting to relocate to the Plymouth area would be most favourably impressed if the A303 were dualled.

It is not only an economic argument; the road goes through an area of outstanding natural beauty. Unusually for such an area, every parish council on the route supports the dualling of the A303. Normally,

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major road works attract local opposition. People who live and work in the area know how important improvements would be for road safety, an important consideration. Certainly, those who drive along that part of the road that goes through my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon will know that it is dangerous. It is a bendy and hilly road, and is not compatible with today's transport standards. It should be dualled on road safety grounds alone.

We are not the only ones who think so. The fact that the Amesbury to Honiton road should be built entirely to dual carriageway standards was endorsed by the RAC. Having noticed that I had an Adjournment debate today, it immediately wrote to brief me on its recommendations on roads throughout the country, and it shows that the A303 has a high priority.

Since 1997, we have had umpteen multi-modal studies. Goodness knows what has happened to them. Hours have been spent on them, and money has been spent on convening meetings to consider them. The regional assembly has been involved, as has the Department for Transport and the Highways Agency. Consultants have been brought in to consider the issue, but whenever I raise it with Ministers there is always a reason not to proceed. The last time I raised the matter, the Secretary of State prayed in aid the environmental considerations of taking a dual carriageway on an existing route—not a new route—through an area of outstanding natural beauty. It is about time the Government stopped hiding behind the environmental argument. That argument has not been swept aside, but has been subject to a full public inquiry in which all the environmental factors were laid open and considered. The public inquiry endorsed the building of the dual carriageway.

I suggest that the problem is to do not with the environment, but with money. The Government do not appear to have the money. For both road and rail, we have recently seen reports ditched and put to one side. My research assistant was ready to attend a meeting, on 15 January I think, in Weston-super-Mare, because the regional assembly kept saying that the report was due any day. So confident was the assembly of the Government's promised report that it had booked a venue but on the very day before the meeting was due to take place, we were let down again. Are there new spending constraints on the Minister? When will the latest report on the A303 be put in the public domain for discussion?

Does the Minister recognise the economic importance of a second arterial route in and out of the south-west peninsula? Representing a west Devon seat, he of all Ministers must recognise that the scheme would be as important to people living in his side of Devon as it would be to the people living in my side of Devon.

The other thing that I should like to raise is the A373 Cullompton to Honiton road. I have written to the Minister about that and I know he has received the letter; not only did I post it, I faxed it to his private office. The Minister looks askance. When this debate came up, his private office asked me to fax that letter, so I hope that he has received it. Although the A373 is an A road, it links the M5 at Cullompton, at junction 28, to the centre of Honiton, the high street. The Minister will be familiar with the A30 between the M5 at Exeter and Honiton, because it is the noisy road that he is going to

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resurface any minute now. When that road was dualled, it was recognised that heavy traffic—goods vehicles—would not need to turn left at Cullompton, at junction 28, and cut through on the A373 to Honiton, but that there should be some direction for heavy vehicles being routed down the M5 to Exeter and back up the dual carriageway.

Again, that proposal seems to have been kicked into the long grass. For months and months I corresponded with Devon county council and the Highways Agency in Exeter about the scheme. I am not concerned so much about access traffic, but about the A373 being used as a rat-run. Despite being an A road, it is single carriageway in some places and passes through several hamlets and villages. I have had representations from parish councils in Broadhembury, Payhembury and elsewhere. I have also had representations from residents in Honiton, at the urban end of the road, who say that their houses are so close to the road that heavy good vehicles rattling through cause vibrations and disturbances, particularly in the early hours.

I have had sight of the minutes of a 1999 meeting of the East Devon partnership committee, where all the options for that road were considered and the police made their representation. It was agreed that once the dualling of the A30 was complete, the heavy vehicles should be directed to take what is obviously a heavy goods vehicle route; further down the motorway, off at the slip road and down the dual carriageway to Honiton, rather than along a windy A road through lots of little villages. However, the answer from the Highways Agency in Exeter was that that could not be done because signs on the motorway at the junction advising heavy goods vehicles to continue down the motorway would distract drivers and could cause accidents.

I realise that the Highways Agency might be acting on Government guidelines. On the approach to London, for instance, there are lots of junctions very close together on the M4. In Devon, as the Minister knows only too well, distances between junctions are many miles; for example, between junctions 27 and 28. There is a straight line of motorway at the approach to the junction at Cullompton. I cannot believe that a redirection sign for heavy goods vehicles at junction 28 represents the sort of motorway hazard that the Highways Agency is suggesting.

Are budgetary constraints preventing the decision from being made? Unless we have a decision, we shall not see progress on the A373. Will the Minister explain why the national guidelines about direction signs on motorways apply equally to motorways running through sparsely populated areas such as Devon and those running through the Slough conurbation? That is not the answer and I hope that the Minister will take a personal interest in the problem.

I have invited the Minister personally to drive along the road and I have offered to drive him, with a cream tea on the way and another at the end in Honiton where there are some excellent restaurants. I cannot make the package more attractive and we would be only too pleased to see him. The invitation is on the table and I hope that he will avail himself of it.

Finally, I want to raise a matter that affects virtually all the roads in my constituency and further afield: funding for maintenance of Devon roads. I know that,

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technically, that is not the Minister's responsibility, but is part of the local government settlement to Devon county council. However, I gave his office advance warning that I would raise the matter and he will understand why. As the Minister with responsibility for roads, he will have a serious interest in road safety and we all know that the maintenance of roads is a matter of road safety.

Increasingly in Devon, particularly in rural communities and with so-called climate change, more and more roads are subject to flooding, which has a huge impact on the maintenance budget. Devon, a large, rural county, has three times the national average of road length per head of population. We find that in the new formula methodology that the Government introduced last year for calculating the need for road maintenance funding, we lose out because we receive less per mile—I still work in miles, not kilometres, and intend to continue to do so—than other, smaller counties. We share the problem of underfunding of our roads budget with counties such as Yorkshire and Cumbria. It seems strange, going back to the DEFRA report on the need for infrastructure and economic viability in rural areas, that we are penalised for having so many rural roads.

The result of changing the methodology that the Government introduced last year means that, under last year's county settlement, Devon county council had a reduction of 20 per cent. in its road budget, which will be reduced again this year. A small reduction in the allocation per mile results in a funding reduction to the county budget of several million pounds. Will the Minister look again—or urge his colleagues to do so—at the representations made by Devon county council recently in response to the Government's local government settlement?

I shall mention a couple of points from the letter the council submitted on the way in which it assesses different roads. It is clear that the formula change will be an ongoing problem and will seriously affect road maintenance. One can get away with it for a year or two, but an ongoing reduction in the maintenance budget means that big costs will eventually arise when there is no longer a possibility of patching or repairing, and complete resurfacing is necessary. Devon is facing some very large bills down the track.

The Government's formula recognises two categories of road; rural roads and urban roads. The county council believes that that is too simplistic, but the Government say that it is obvious that it costs less per mile—they say kilometres, but I shall stick to miles—to maintain access roads within surburban housing estates and busy stretches on non-trunk principal roads running between towns. However, the proposed formula allocates more than twice as much for roads in housing estates, despite the extensive infrastructure associated with the principal road network.

Additional features, such as lay-bys, rest facilities, landscaping and noise management should be taken into consideration, and the funding model needs to be sufficiently sophisticated to recognise that. The council goes on to explain why that is, using as an example the way in which local authority grant distribution has been utilised in Scotland to make sure that it is fairer system.

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Scotland gives a good example of what would be fairer in a rural, sparsely populated community, and I urge the Government to consider that.

We all know that there are pressures on all parts of the county budget, not least in social services and education. Ultimately, when there are pressures on those two important areas, it is always the road budget that is cut back to meet the county's statutory obligations. That is very important now; the county needs to set a budget and has already made representations to the Government. A word from the Minister to his hon. Friends might help to relieve the problem, not just for this year's settlement, but for the ongoing maintenance of Devon's roads.

5.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Jamieson) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) on securing this debate and giving me an opportunity to respond to some of the issues that she has raised. I can think of no better way of whiling away an afternoon than by having a cream tea with her on the A373 or thereabouts. I am sure that our offices can arrange that.

Let me begin by stating that the Government are committed to sustained and long-term investment to improve local transport as a key element of our 10-year transport plan. In December 2000, we announced that £8.4 billion would be made available to implement local transport plans across England in the next five years. That funding will help to deliver the Government's vision of a high-quality transport network that meets people's needs and offers more choice to individuals, families, communities and businesses.

The hon. Lady gave the impression that some of that money has not gone to Devon, but Devon will benefit from that investment. Over £9.2 million will be made available to Devon next year for capital investment in integrated transport. That is over £1 million more than this year, and is a 14 per cent. increase. That rise in capital investment has been matched by an increase for the county to maintain its roads. This year, we gave Devon £14.5 million of capital investment for its roads, which we have increased to £16.5 million for 2004–05. We have made a further £1.6 million available for the strengthening of the Bideford Long bridge. The hon. Lady must agree that, contrary to the picture that she has painted, generous amounts of money have been made available to Devon, which, I say to her delicately, are far greater in real terms than Devon received when her party was in government.

I understand the hon. Lady's concern that the level of revenue provided to Devon through the formula spending share does not adequately reflect the length of roads that the county has to maintain. I accept that Devon is an unusual county in that it has many small roads; one hon. Member described it as having more roads than Belgium. I do not know whether that is true, but it certainly has a high proportion of roads to the population. I hope that the hon. Lady appreciates that resources must be distributed to authorities based on a consistent assessment of their needs. The formula provides more resources to the roads that are used most and, more particularly, to those roads used by heavy goods vehicles; obviously, the heavier the vehicle the

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greater the damage to the roads. The new funding formula was agreed with the Local Government Association.

I now turn to the hon. Lady's concerns about the volume of heavy goods vehicles using the A373 as an apparent short cut to Honiton and beyond from junction 28 on the M5, and to her request for a sign on the M5 advising HGVs to use junction 29 and the A30. I fully appreciate the safety concerns. I also understand that such traffic may disturb local communities along the A373, and that the road is not of an appropriate standard to take some of those HGVs.

The Highways Agency endeavours to ensure that motorway signing benefits all users in directing them to the most appropriate routes to their destination. However, that must be set against the need not to overload the road user with information that may benefit only a few road users. That creates distractions that can result both in a disturbance of traffic flow and have a negative impact on road safety. That is particularly important on motorways, with the higher speeds at which traffic passes, irrespective of the distance between junctions.

The Highways Agency is not aware of having given any prior commitment to advisory signing. If the hon. Lady has evidence in that regard, I would be pleased to see it. The agency's position has always been to consider positively any request to improve signing if it is supported by sufficient evidence to ensure that increased advisory signing will be effective.

Devon county council has made available some information on traffic flows on the A373. That suggests that the opening of the dualled A30 has not resulted in a significant reduction of heavy goods traffic using the A373. However, that evidence in itself has not been sufficient for the Highways Agency to erect additional signing at junction 28, as it does not indicate the nature or destination of the traffic flow.

To know where and how we might sign appropriately, we need more information as to the destinations and where the vehicles come from. There may be other routes. For example, if heavy vehicles are coming from the Bristol direction, it may be more appropriate to get to Honiton using the A358 instead. It may be more appropriate for other signing to be used. We need better information.

If Devon can provide additional evidence on the origin and destination of some of the vehicles, the Highways Agency will be happy to consider it. I assure the hon. Lady that I will take a personal interest in that. If, for example, the evidence showed that heavy goods vehicles were coming from further north up the M5, it might be more appropriate for them to take other routes. However, it needs to be borne in mind that signing does not necessarily mean that the vehicles will use the A30 in preference to the A373 because as well as seeing the signs, the driver will have a map in his cab and will often use the quickest route. Devon county council would have to take other measures to restrict the use of the road; it would not just be a matter of using signs.

Mrs. Browning : If a goods vehicle came off prior to that junction, it would go through the Blackdown hills, an area of outstanding natural beauty. I think that the Minister is suggesting that those coming from Bristol

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would end up on the A303. I hope that he will bear in mind what I have said, because we seem to be between a rock and a hard place. It is no good telling us that the A303 does not merit dualling if he is now saying that it might be a good idea if more heavy vehicles travelled on it.

Mr. Jamieson : I am saying that we can put up signs, but in the end drivers will make their own choices. The route that the hon. Lady suggests is substantially longer, with all the environmental impact that that would have in terms of extra fuel. The journey involving the A373, for example, is about 10.6 miles instead of 23 miles. Of course, drivers will make that choice. For the signing to have maximum effect, the local highways authority might need to consider additional measures on the A373 and ways of enforcing them. For example, as it is not a primary route, weight restrictions could be considered, but those are matters for Devon county council to consider, and I am sure that the hon. Lady is taking that up with the council. I repeat that the Highways Agency is happy to consider a request if it can be supported by additional evidence of traffic volume and by the information on origin and destination to which I referred.

Let me now deal with the A303 and A358. I am well aware of the views on this matter. There has been enormous discussion at local level and in this place about those roads. I represent a constituency much further down the line in Devon. We in Plymouth do not consider ourselves to be in west Devon; we consider ourselves to be in Plymouth, but there we are. The issue is important for economic development, and we recognise that it is important to have two routes for the growing holiday traffic going into Cornwall.

Ms Candy Atherton (Falmouth and Camborne) (Lab): Hear, hear.

Mr. Jamieson : My hon. Friend takes a close interest in such matters. She is much further away from the area—nearly 100 miles—but the issue is still significant to her. I know that she constantly takes an interest in these important matters.

In our 1998 White Paper, "A new deal for transport: better for everyone", we announced a new approach to the assessment of all transport infrastructure. The assessment is much broader than was the case before. We are talking about multi-modal studies. Our new approach involves considering all modes of transport. In "A new deal for trunk roads", we adopted a strong policy presumption against new or expanded transport infrastructure that would adversely affect environmentally sensitive areas such as national parks or areas of outstanding natural beauty, except when there was an overriding public interest in the development. I think that the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton, who knows the area well, would accept that that is a right and sensible policy to adopt.

The London to south-west and south Wales multi-modal study—SWARMMS—considered the two main corridors into the south-west: the M4-M5, and the M3-A303. A number of improvements were suggested in

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relation to the A303, including the improvement at Stonehenge, which the hon. Lady knows about and about which we have already made an announcement.

The SWARMMS consultants recommended that the four schemes east of Ilminster—Wylye, Chicklade, Sparkford and the Ilminster bypass—should go ahead, subject to some amendments following the reassessment. The A303 to the west of Ilminster—the Ilminster-to-Marsh, and Marsh-to-Honiton schemes—was also assessed and some changes were recommended. The hon. Lady will be only too aware that that route, which runs through the Blackdown hills—an area of outstanding natural beauty—was examined by a public inquiry in the mid 1990s and an alternative was proposed. That involved diverting the route from the Southfields roundabout along the A358.

However, there are some difficulties involving the junction between the A358 and the motorway, which could become seriously congested. We are considering some of those issues carefully. The SWARMMS study considered both alternatives and found that things were not as straightforward as they appeared.

The hon. Lady will know that, under planning policy guidance note 11, the Government now involve the regional planning bodies in determining needs and priorities for major strategic transport investment. Following discussions in December last year, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State accepted the main recommendation that the whole of the A303 between the M3 and the M5 at Exeter be upgraded to a dual carriageway to form a second high-quality strategic road corridor into the peninsular. We are the first Government to have accepted that. He asked the

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Highways Agency to prepare the four schemes east of Ilminster for entry into our targeted programme of improvements.

On the two options west of Ilminster, in the same announcement my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State asked the Highways Agency to carry out further work on the feasibility of the scheme involving the A358 and the connection with the M5 at junction 25. We are talking about something that is clearly crucial to the viability of the alternative. We agreed that the regional assembly would have the opportunity to comment on the work before a final decision was made. However, I have to say that the work is extremely complex. I have considered the matter carefully. The work has taken longer than we expected but it is nearing completion. The Highways Agency will prepare a summary report that outlines the findings to help the regional assembly in its considerations.

I know that the hon. Lady feels that this is a long process that goes over old ground, but it is important to get the analysis right. An area of outstanding natural beauty is involved and the schemes are extremely expensive. Budgetary considerations are important and we must consider the cost of these schemes. The other, somewhat unexpected, factor that has come to light in the past 18 months is the increase in traffic in and out of Devon and Cornwall. After the BSE difficulties, we are seeing an increase in tourism in Cornwall. We have seen a growth in traffic along the route to Cornwall, which has made us consider the decision more carefully. I hope that we will be in a position to submit the work to the regional body.

I thank the hon. Lady for raising the points. If I have not covered some matters, I shall be happy to correspond with her.

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