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Roads (West Wiltshire)

Volume 280: debated on Thursday 4 July 1996

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Burns.]

7.42 pm

I am grateful to have the opportunity today for an Adjournment debate—rather earlier than normal—on the subject of the A36. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) and other hon. Members that I shall not detain the House until 10 o'clock tonight, but I hope that they will forgive me if I take the opportunity to say a few words about the A36 improvement east of Bath to Beckington, which the Government have planned.

I should say that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, the right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) and my right hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Needham)—who, sadly, are unable to be here for this debate—endorse the majority of the views that I shall express. I shall explain why they do so in the course of my remarks.

The Government's plans to upgrade the A36 from east of Bath to Beckington date back probably to 1976, when a study known as the Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick report first introduced the idea of the A36 corridor. The scheme was entered into the trunk road programme in 1989 and went out to public consultation in 1992, and the preferred route was announced in November 1994.

In the four years that I have been the Member of Parliament representing my constituency, few issues have so dominated local news as the proposed building of this road. It has drawn almost universal opposition from local residents, from the district council, from myself, from Caroline Jackson—our Member of the European Parliament—and from many others.

I pay tribute to local groups—rather than to the more national lobby groups, which have sometimes failed to understand the real reasons and principles behind the issue—especially in Bradford-on-Avon. They have expressed their opposition in a sensible and calm manner, often basing it on sound scientific reasoning and on research that they have carried out themselves. At times, they have appeared better informed than some members of the Highways Agency who replied to their letters.

Initially, support for the road was high in Bradford-on-Avon, as it was perceived as providing a much-needed bypass for the town. It soon became clear, however, that the road's scale would mean that there would be little relief for local traffic, and that it could possibly expose the town to increased traffic noise and traffic pollution. Indeed, the road level would have needed to be raised in one area to cross over the Kennet and Avon canal, which would have made it clearly visible in many parts of the town.

The route was also opposed on the grounds that it offered little help to business or industry in west Wiltshire, a subject to which I shall return to in rather more detail shortly. The road has been opposed by Bath city council, too, on the grounds that it offers little or no relief to that city.

The road is fraught with environmental danger. It is all new build to dual carriageway standard, and it will pass through large tracts of unspoiled countryside, most notably the Limpley Stoke and Avon valleys.

Last November, my hon. Friend the Minister for Railways and Roads announced that the scheme was to be downgraded in the roads programme, presumably because of the escalating cost of the new road, which is now put at between £80 million and £100 million. That decision has been warmly welcomed by local people.

I went with our MEP, Caroline Jackson, to see my hon. Friend the Minister, when, as I am sure he will recall, we discussed possible alternatives to the road, including a single-lane carriageway. I should be grateful if he will tell us today a little more about whether that possiblity has been examined further.

I must tell my hon. Friend that we should like to hear today that a decision has been reached to abandon the road completely. Many local people believe that the A36 could easily be upgraded, in part, on line, and possibly linked to a smaller inner bypass for Bradford-on-Avon itself.

While I acknowledge that it is now highly unlikely that the road will ever be built as it is currently planned, it is still very much a line on a map. That has great significance for many people, particularly for those along the route who are still suffering the effects of blight on their homes.

I appreciate that my hon. Friend is not the Minister with specific responsiblity for blight, but he may be aware from his background briefing of the cases of one or two of my constituents. I have been in contact with my hon. Friend the Minister for Transport in London about the severe diminution in value of one or two of the properties along the route, and I hope that those cases will be dealt with more sympathetically in future.

Suspicion has also been raised recently by the publication of a preferred route for the small southern section of the road south of Rode. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister will tell us a little more about the plans for that tonight.

Fortunately for the people of west Wiltshire and for the Department of Transport, there is an alternative to building the road. In April 1994, Caroline Jackson and I launched our campaign for upgrading the A350. We have been supported throughout by the district council and by local business, particularly by the West Wiltshire Association of Chambers of Commerce. I pay tribute to the work that the association has put into the project.

I am delighted to say that the plan has won not only enthusiastic support, but active backing and encouragement from Wiltshire county council.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is well aware of the considerable concerns in my constituency about the many vehicles looking for a north-south route, which currently must come into the centre of Bath and then out, raising pollution and congestion levels. He is right to say that the A36 uprade is not particularly popular. Is he prepared to add to his list of supporters not only myself, but very many of my constituents, who believe that the upgrading of the A350 would provide the much needed relief for the north-south route?

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman, first, for the brevity of his intervention in comparison with the earlier intervention of the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel). Secondly, and more seriously, I am very grateful for his comments.

I said that I do not believe that, as currently planned, the A36 would provide relief for Bath. I shall present some specific ideas shortly for upgrading the A350 from the the M4 at Chippenham down to Warminster. I believe that much of the heavy traffic that uses the M4 and currently looks for alternative routes would use that new route. So I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) for his support, and I shall certainly ensure that people in west Wiltshire are aware of his and his constituents' support.

The A350 runs south from junction 17 of the M4, at Chippenham, through the economic corridor that comprises the towns in north and west Wiltshire in my constituency. For the purpose of the debate, I am specifically interested in the section of road that runs between the M4 and Warminster, where the A36 subsequently joins the A350, and the two roads continue down to the south coast ports.

For those who live and work in west Wiltshire, the A350 is not just a route running through, as the A36 would do. It is a transport corridor linking towns that already function closely as a single economy. I believe that the case for upgrading the section of road in question can be made on traffic grounds alone.

Using the junction with the M4, as the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) rightly said, the A350 provides links for west Wiltshire with Swindon and Bristol locally, and further afield with London, south Wales and the west midlands. At present, traffic flows between the M4 and Chippenham run at about 22,000 vehicles a day, and south of Semington, which is just south of Melksham, at 12,000 vehicles a day. North of the M4 and south of Warminster, the flows are only half those levels. For instance, the Warminster bypass takes on average 10,300 vehicles a day.

I hope that those figures will allay the fears of people who live south of Warminster, especially in north Dorset, who fear that the proposals may be aimed at embracing them, too. It is clear that the need for improvement is on the stretch between the M4 and Warminster, both on traffic grounds and on grounds of economic regeneration. The route is now overloaded, with serious congestion at peak hours and bottlenecks at Chippenham, Melksham, Semington, Yarnbrook and Westbury, to name but a few.

Traffic growth in Wiltshire has been above the national average for the past 10 years, and is expected to rise further. Indeed, the county council currently forecasts that traffic volumes will have risen by between 77 and 106 per cent. by the year 2025. In the past three years, there have also been more than 300 accidents involving personal injury on that stretch of road. Unfortunately, I witnessed the aftermath of one especially dreadful accident myself, and I have heard about and received letters about many others.

Given that increase of traffic through our market towns and villages, the case for upgrading can be made on traffic, environmental and safety grounds. In complete contrast to the new-build proposals for the A36, a great deal of the route can be upgraded on line. Where it is necessary to go off line, that will be primarily to build bypasses that go round towns and villages.

I have no doubt that, by taking traffic, especially heavy goods vehicles, away from town centres, those bypasses will reduce congestion. They will bring about a vast improvement in the environment within the towns, both for residents and for visitors. Congestion, noise and pollution will all be reduced. Above all, there will be fewer appalling accidents on the road.

I mentioned earlier the support of my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, the right hon. Member for Devizes. Although his constituency is east of mine, the traffic that builds up in Devizes, as well as in villages such as Seend and even further afield in places such as Marlborough, is a direct result of the inadequacy of the current A350 running from north to south.

Nowhere is the need for upgrading more evident than in the town of Westbury. So I was somewhat surprised to read in my local paper last week that the county councillor for Westbury had said:
"I am concerned that any bypass for Westbury might kill the town.
Westbury has more than 30 per cent. of its shops empty, business is being lost and unemployment rising. The road may bring success but the chances of failure are there just as evidently."
I must say that that councillor's experience is totally different from mine. I have been bombarded over the past four years with letters from all parts of the town seeking the long-awaited bypass. Indeed, I rather agree with the comments in a letter that I received yesterday from the chairman of a local parish council:
"We who live in Westbury and the surrounding villages are fully aware of the traffic problems that plague our lives.
Westbury town centre is dying. The amount of traffic along the Warminster Road prohibits customers from getting to the shops, and they, like many other shops in the area have closed."
Not only will the new road bring added investment to the area, but it will boost economic regeneration and enable local people to shop and walk in their town within being knocked over, or even, as in some tragic cases, killed.

That brings me to the third and most powerful case for upgrading the route—economic regeneration. I have already paid tribute to the work of the West Wiltshire Association of Chambers of Commerce, and to West Wiltshire district council. Those two organisations have produced a joint document and been instrumental in pushing for the upgrading of the route. The title of their document speaks for itself: "A350—Lifeline for local prosperity". Wiltshire county council has also recently added its support, and it produced its own excellent document this week.

In recent years, the economy of west Wiltshire has been badly affected by recession. In addition, we have seen restructuring in many of our traditional industries, most notably food processing and engineering. Like north Wiltshire, we have also seen contracting affecting some of our important defence and defence-related employment. Historically, some towns may have been over-dependent on one or two large employers, and have suffered accordingly.

Above all, we have been at a crucial disadvantage in attracting new inward investment to replace the lost jobs. Business men and local government officers have numerous stories of would-be investors who have made the trip, but have given up north of Melksham because they simply have not been able to get into the district. Two years ago, we had to watch as Tesco chose to relocate its Westbury distribution centre in south Wales, largely because of our lack of a road infrastructure—and that is just one example of many.

The Warminster travel-to-work area has an unemployment rate of 7.5 per cent., and Trowbridge a rate of 6.4 per cent. I welcome the many new jobs that have been created, but those are still among the highest rates in the county. Chippenham, Trowbridge and Warminster each have a daily net outflux of commuters going to work in Swindon, Bath and Bristol, and the trend is increasing. It has increased threefold since 1981, compared with a county increase of only 58 per cent. As Swindon continues to grow, the net out-commuting will continue, unless the increasing inaccessibility of the area is halted.

In west Wiltshire, we want to enjoy the benefits of economic recovery, as others are doing, so I hope that what I have said about economic regeneration will carry weight with the Minister.

At the outset I mentioned that I warmly welcomed the shift of emphasis in Wiltshire county council, which is now wholly supportive. The council has identified nine distinct sections along the route that need varying degrees of work, much of which can be done on line. Some of the road already exists to a satisfactory standard, and, as I have already said, when work has to go off line, that will be principally for the purpose of building bypasses.

Of those nine sectors, I shall concentrate on three priority areas. The first is the Chippenham western bypass, which has already been partially built, although the results of last November's public inquiry are still awaited. As my hon. Friend the Minister will know, a bid was made this year for transport supplementary grant for the road to be completed, but sadly we were unsuccessful. Both my right hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire and I hope that my hon. Friend will look favourably on this year's new bid for 1997–98, so that the important first link of the road can be completed.

In addition, I understand that the work is to be the subject of a bid to the newly announced capital challenge scheme. I understand too that the Government office for the south-west has encouraged Wiltshire county council to bid. Despite some limitation on the scale of the regional allocation, I should be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister would pass on to our colleagues at the Department of the Environment the message about the support of both my right hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire and myself for the bid.

Secondly, the Semington-Melksham link, as it has become known, is included in the draft structure plan, and went out to public consultation in March. The results of that consultation are currently being analysed, and that section is regarded as the second most important priority after Chippenham.

Thirdly, as I have already said, Westbury's traffic problems require long-term solution by means of a bypass. In the longer term, three possible routes are being considered. In the short term, to help with economic regeneration, Wiltshire county council has planned the so-called Hawkeridge link scheme, to provide improved access to the popular and successful west Wiltshire trading estate.

The Hawkeridge link is the immediate priority for the county council, which is also currently in discussion with the Government office for the south-west in preparation for a bid to the single regeneration fund in an effort to regenerate the town. Again, I put on the record my support for that bid.

Finally, I shall examine one other possible source of funding—the private finance initiative. In west Wiltshire, we are already beneficiaries of the PFI. We have had much-needed improvements to the A36 south of Warminster, between Heytesbury and Codford, which have been carried out as a DBFO—design, build, finance, operate—initiative. The work will be carried out well ahead of the schedule that was previously hoped for.

May I push my hon. Friend to say whether, at any time in the near future, we are likely to see a relaxation in the rules governing the PFI and local authorities? I believe that it is time for the Government to give the go-ahead for local authority schemes, as well as trunk road projects, to benefit from the PFI.

Wiltshire county council's document rightly highlights the possibility of attracting private finance under a DBFO scheme for all or part of the A350. The council has an ambitious proposal for a single PFI scheme to complete the building of the Chippenham bypass, to design and build the Semington-Melksham link, and eventually to design and build the Westbury bypass too. It may sound optimistic to talk about carrying out such an ambitious project all in one go. It may seem a long way away tonight, but we need the go-ahead in due course from my hon. Friend, so that we can consider the possibility.

The Government have already moved a long way in their reassessment of the A36, and I encourage my hon. Friend to go that little bit further this evening. The economies of north and west Wiltshire need to be encouraged if we are to exploit the many opportunities that are there for us. One of the most important ways of exploiting those opportunities and of attracting the inward investment we need is to improve the current road network. I hope that my hon. Friend will indicate his support this evening for the plans that I have laid out to upgrade the A350 between the M4 and Warminster.

7.59 pm

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Mr. Faber) for the opportunity to discuss the important subject of road improvements in Wiltshire, and to have the opportunity to explain my Department's strategy.

It has long been recognised that the road connections between the south coast ports—principally Southampton and Portsmouth—and the M4 require improvements so that they may cope adequately with the volume of traffic, particularly heavy goods traffic, that use them. Completion of the M4 and M5 motorways in the early 1970s led to a reassessment of the role of the old established trunk roads in the area, and many were de-trunked as a result. However, studies in the 1970s concluded that the most satisfactory way of meeting road transport needs on the north-south axis would be to make improvements along the general line of the A36-A46 corridor.

The execution of that strategy is already well advanced, with a number of bypasses already built. Beckington, Warminster, Codford and Heytesbury already have bypasses, and I shall have the pleasure of opening the Batheaston and Swainswick bypass next week, which will be a further important step towards achieving our long-term strategy.

We intend to pursue other schemes to improve further that corridor, including the Salisbury bypass, subject, of course, to completion of its statutory procedures—the inspector's report is currently being considered by my right hon. Friends the Secretarys of State for the Environment and for Transport—and the Codford and Heytesbury Improvement, to which my hon. Friend referred.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, in the review last year, we placed the east of Bath to Beckington scheme, as well as the Wylye to Codford Improvement, in our longer-term programme. We will bring those schemes forward into the main programme when funding permits.

The east of Bath to Beckington scheme will bypass Bradford on Avon and link the Batheaston and Beckington bypasses. I note what my hon. Friend said about its cost and environmental effects. Indeed, I looked at the scheme carefully during the review, and clearly there are some difficult environmental issues to be addressed. The problem is that the existing route—the other side of the river valley—also has significant and severe environmental impacts. The current position is that the line of the route is protected. I felt it right to ensure that the preferred route was clear, to minimise the blighting effects that would otherwise arise.

However, the scale of the road can be considered again before it is brought into the main programme. As I cannot at this stage predict when we will have made enough progress with the existing main programme to consider advancing schemes that are in the long-term programme at present, it would be premature to make any firm decisions on the scale of the road. I know that my hon. Friend has argued persuasively that a smaller scale than that proposed might well reduce some of the environmental concerns that he and others had adduced.

From time to time, the proposition has been made that the A350 should be designated as the main north-south route in this part of the world for long-distance through traffic, and should therefore be improved instead of the A46 and A36. That was debated most recently at the public inquiry into the Batheaston and Swainswick bypass.

In his report on that inquiry, the inspector concluded that, since much of the traffic on the A36 and A46 had an origin or destination local to Bath, it could not be expected to use an improved A350. Therefore, north-south traffic capacity on the A36-A46 corridor would have to be increased regardless of what happened to the A350.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has a duty to keep the trunk road network under review, and we look regularly at both the network of trunk roads and motorways and the schemes in the programme to provide improvements. We have looked on a number of occasions at whether the current network is the right one. I have to say that, thus far, we have concluded that the balance remains in favour of the A46-A36 as the trunk road. We therefore have no plans to alter the shape of the trunk road network in Wiltshire at present.

I now come to my hon. Friend's questions about how the A350 to the north of Warminster might be improved. I have already said that we do not intend to alter the status of the A350 to a trunk road, so plans to improve it will remain a matter for the local highway authority, Wiltshire county council. I recognise, of course, that the improvements of which he has spoken would be expensive, and that the local authority will be looking to central Government to provide at least some of the funding.

I should also say that the county council is already aware of the importance of obtaining whatever funding might be available from developers that stand to gain from any improvements. That fits in clearly with what my hon. Friend said about the potential of this road to unlock economic regeneration opportunities. That has already been amply demonstrated at Chippenham, where a substantial start has already been made on its bypass, with funding provided by developers.

The main source of capital funding from central Government for local authority road schemes is, of course, transport supplementary grant. Over the years, a large number of important road improvements throughout England have been funded in this way. Local authorities have been able to construct bypasses and improvements of roads that are of local strategic importance, using TSG funding.

There are many examples of that in the south-west. My hon. Friend will be aware that TSG has already funded some improvements to the A350—the Biss Bottom bypass north of Warminster, for example, which was opened in 1993, and further south the East Knoyle bypass, which was completed and opened to traffic quite recently. He mentioned a number of other schemes that the county council is planning.

The Chippenham bypass was the county council's top priority bid for TSG in the last bidding round. However, in view of the fact that the scheme had not completed its statutory planning procedures, and resources for TSG were extremely hard-pressed, we were not able to allocate any of the scarce funds to it on that occasion. The county council may wish to seek TSG funding for the Chippenham bypass again this year, and we will consider any such bid very carefully.

I should stress, however, that TSG funding is limited, and local authorities must recognise that few schemes will be accepted for expenditure each year. A very expensive strategy to upgrade a substantial length of road such as the A350 must therefore be regarded as a long-term project if it is to be funded solely from TSG.

My hon. Friend asked about the possibility of funding being secured from alternative sources, such as the capital challenge fund, the single regeneration budget and the private finance initiative. He may be aware that the Government announced on 15 May that we are proceeding with proposals for a pilot capital challenge fund to explore how best the challenge concept can be brought to bear on the determination of the distribution of Government support for local authorities' capital spending.

The aim of the pilot scheme is to test the applicability of the challenge approach to any and all aspects of capital spending across all services for which local authorities are responsible. Authorities have been invited to bid for their highest capital spending priorities drawn from their overall capital spending plans. Some £600 million is available to local authorities in England under the pilot scheme.

It is therefore open to Wiltshire's local authorities to decide whether to submit bids under the capital challenge pilot scheme for capital funding to build improvements to the A350. If they do, Ministers will, of course, consider any such bids very carefully. Local authorities have also been provided with guidance on the submission of bids, and they are encouraged to discuss any prospective bids with officials from the Government office.

My hon. Friend asked whether the single regeneration budget might be a source from which funding could be sought for improvements to the A350. He will probably be aware that the single regeneration budget provides flexible support for local initiatives by bringing together existing regeneration programmes from five Government Departments.

That does not, however, include my own, and I can only advise Wiltshire county council to discuss any plans it might have to bid for money from the single regeneration budget challenge fund with officials from the Government office for the south-west as soon as possible. I am aware that the county council has submitted the outline of a bid in respect of Westbury, which includes the construction of a link road to the A350, but not an improvement of the A350 itself.

Turning to the question of private finance, my hon Friend may already be aware that the Government intend to amend the capital finance regulations to remove obstacles to local authority private finance schemes. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Urban Regeneration intends to consult on possible provisions for capital finance regulations, and will lay them before the House in time for them to come into effect in the autumn. It will then be for the county council to consider whether it should seek to use the new powers for its own design, build, finance and operate deal.

Any local authority seeking to build a road scheme by the private finance route would, of course, still have to obtain the necessary statutory planning and land acquisition powers. My Department is making its considerable expertise in DBFO contracts available to the Department of the Environment to assist in the preparation of any such bids.

Although my hon. Friend will be disappointed that I have not grabbed with alacrity his initial suggestion that I should drop plans for further improvement on the A36-A46 corridor, and adopt the A350 as a trunk road, I hope that I have given him some pointers to ways in which the local highway authority might be able to take forward the improvements that it and my hon. Friend consider would be of value to that area of Wiltshire.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes past Eight o'clock.