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A303 Stonehenge Road Scheme

Volume 468: debated on Thursday 6 December 2007

I have granted an urgent question, but I inform the House that I expect debate on it to run for no longer than half an hour; the Front Benchers should keep that in mind.

May I begin by drawing the House’s attention to the written statement that I made earlier this morning? After serious consideration, and with deep regret, I have announced today that the planned improvements to the A303 at Stonehenge will not take place. I recognise that the decision will be a bitter disappointment to the House, the local community, and the wider heritage community. However, the estimated costs have risen from the original £233 million in December 2002 to £540 million. The main reason for the tunnel cost increase was the discovery, following detailed ground condition investigations, of large quantities of phosphatic chalk and a high water table along the line of the tunnel. That significantly increased the costs and the time scale for tunnel construction. In my judgment, the scheme can no longer be afforded within existing budgets.

However, working with all the relevant stakeholders, I want to make sure that every alternative, affordable option for protecting and enhancing Stonehenge is explored. I will co-chair the reconvened Stonehenge programme board on Monday, along with the Minister with responsibility for tourism, my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge). The Department will now consult on the possible closure of the junction of the A344 and A303.

The day the scheme was first announced, the Minister for the Arts, Baroness Blackstone, issued a press release entitled “Stonehenge Will Be Reunited With Its Natural Landscape By 2008”.

“This is a great day for Stonehenge”,

she enthused. The Minister before us today has had the unenviable task of admitting that the Government will never deliver on those high-minded promises. Will he tell us how much has been spent on the scheme that he is aborting today? Will he tell the House what impact the bottleneck has on the economy of the west of England? Will he acknowledge that the problem holds up road improvement and planning applications all the way to Penzance? Will he admit that Stonehenge’s world heritage status will be in jeopardy if the problem remains unsolved? Will he confirm that in July the British Government were called on by UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee to explain their lack of progress? Will he confirm that his proposal to close the A344 junction is subject to the agreement of Wiltshire county council? How likely is it that such permission will be forthcoming, given that the decision will drive more traffic on to the congested A303?

What will be the impact on local residents of the scrapping of the long-promised proposals for a Winterbourne Stoke bypass and a flyover at the Countess East junction? What has the Minister done to tackle rat-running through villages such as Chittern, through which satnav takes motorists frustrated by congestion on the A303? Above all, why have the Government taken 10 years simply to return to square one? In that time, the cost of the scheme has spiralled from £192 million to £540 million. Even now, their half-baked excuse of a proposal for the A344 may not happen, because there is no guarantee that they will receive the permission that they need from Wiltshire county council. That is one of the most notorious traffic bottlenecks in the country, and it impacts on great swathes of the south-west, which will feel betrayed by the announcement.

This is not just the latest in a long line of broken promises on road improvements. It is not just that £23 million of public money has been wasted. More than 5,000 years old, Stonehenge is one of the most famous sites in Britain and is well known almost everywhere on the planet. A world heritage site, it is the supreme achievement of a culture long since lost. Stonehenge—one of our greatest cultural icons—has been left in limbo for a decade as a result of the Government’s total inability to make a decision or deliver on their very clear promises.

The hon. Lady asked how much public money has been spent on the scheme, and went on to give a figure. I have no intention of adding to that.

The hon. Lady is right to say that the scheme has a long history. We added the proposed improvement to the roads programme in 1998. The scheme was taken to public inquiry in 2004. The inspector’s report was received in 2005, and it endorsed the improvement scheme. The scheme that we agreed in 2002, including the tunnel, had an approved cost at that time, as I said, of £223 million, which assumed a construction start date of spring 2005. Following the public inquiry, the Highways Agency reported in 2004 that the estimated scheme cost had risen to £410 million, for the reasons that I have given. Other factors contributed to the cost increase, including more stringent requirements for tunnelling work and rapid inflation in construction costs.

We concluded in 2005 that the cost increase was on such a scale that it was necessary to revisit other options to confirm whether the scheme taken to public inquiry remained the best solution. We therefore announced in July 2005 that we would defer a decision on the inspector’s report and set up an interdepartmental review of all the options. The review identified a shortlist of possible options, including routes to the north and south of Stonehenge. After careful consideration, we have now concluded that owing to significant environmental constraints across the whole of the world heritage site, there is no acceptable alternative to the 2.1km bored tunnel scheme. However—and I hope that the hon. Lady agrees with this—making the best use of taxpayers’ money is essential in the allocation of funding to transport schemes. When set against our wider objectives and priorities, we concluded that allocating more than £500 million for the implementation of the scheme simply cannot be justified. She may disagree, and decide that that should be a commitment in her party’s manifesto at the next election, but the Government believe that that amount of money is not affordable. We have therefore cancelled the improvement scheme today.

To address the hon. Lady’s specific questions, yes, the A303 is regularly congested. The regional transport board for the south-west has not given priority to that road. The regional financing arrangement that we implemented in 2005 allows local politicians to make local decisions and set their own priorities which the Government, on the whole, respect. Local politicians have not made the decisions that would allow early work to begin on the A303. The hon. Lady was right to raise the issue of UNESCO. I will write to UNESCO to explain the decision and what further efforts we will make to protect the world heritage site which, I agree, is of vital importance not just to this country but to the whole world.

As for the economic consequences of the continued congestion of the A303, I have been informed that, economically, the south-west is one of the fastest growing regions in the country. That does not mean that we should be complacent about congestion, but whenever the Government try to start a national debate about how we should deal with congestion, the Opposition are less than forthcoming and less than imaginative about how we should introduce demand management in the British economy.

The hon. Lady mentioned Wiltshire county council. I have been in discussion with my officials, who tell me that Wiltshire county council is looking with an open mind at the prospect of the closure of the junction of the A344 with the A303. I hope that we can make progress on that, and I hope that we will have her support and her party’s support in the proposal to close that junction. Given the announcement that I made today, that remains the best option in the short term for protecting that site.

The hon. Lady spoke about rat-running, which is a concern to anyone involved in any of the communities, let alone to a Transport Minister. I have asked for very robust transport modelling to assess the consequences of closing off the junction of the A344, and I can assure her that I will not approve any scheme that puts at risk the lives and the safety of people living in that area.

Will the Minister at least give us a timetable for coming to a decision on which option to pursue in regard to the A303? The decision has taken longer than it took to build the monument. Will he acknowledge that the overhang of the project has had the effect of crowding out funding for a series of schemes, including safety schemes on the A303 and dualling the remaining stretch of the A30 between Exeter and Truro that comprises a single carriageway?

Will the hon. Gentleman undertake that any scheme—it is bound to be major—that gets to grips with the problem will be funded outside the regional allocation for roads in the area? Will he please rule out the cheaper but frightening option of a cut-and-cover strategy for tunnelling in the area? Finally, will he give us his absolute assurance that he will engage with local people, as well as with the heritage associations, in trying to come to an appropriate decision for dealing with the road and the traffic congestion?

For clarity’s sake, I should tell the hon. Lady who has, I am sure, read my written statement this morning, that we are not proceeding with the tunnel scheme, the cut-and-cover scheme or any major capital improvements to the A303 at this stage. She speaks about the crowding out of funding for the A303. She may or may not be right about that. I understand the financing constraints in the south-west. However, a huge amount of money has been allocated by the regional transport board for a number of projects in the south-west, which will have a major economic impact in the south-west.

The hon. Lady spoke of the cheaper but frightening cut-and-cover scheme. As I said, that also has been discounted as an option. It was not the preferred option endorsed by the Government or by the public inquiry. It is not an option on the table today. She asked for engagement with local people. I can assure her that with respect to the proposed closure of the junction of the A344 with the A303 there will be extensive consultation not only with local communities, but with the local county council and other interested bodies.

Natural England has a responsibility for protecting the interests of sites such as Stonehenge. Will my hon. Friend ensure that he includes Natural England in any discussions about how best to protect and safeguard the future of such an important world heritage site?

My hon. Friend is correct. We deal with Natural England on an ongoing basis. My Department is in regular contact with it. It will be involved in any decisions that are taken.

May I take the opportunity to restate the Government’s genuine regret that we cannot afford to proceed with the scheme? This is not a proposal that I come to the House to report with a light heart. In an ideal world, we would use whatever money was available to proceed with the scheme. It is a matter of regret that we cannot do so. However, I genuinely believe that this is the right decision, given the economic circumstances and available budgets. If we were to use national funding for the scheme, that would mean some hard decisions about where to withdraw funding—for example, from the M25, the M62 or the M1. I suspect that such a proposal would not meet with much support in the House.

I commiserate with the Minister, who has been sent to the House to do his Secretary of State’s dirty work. Will he explain why he could not simply have taken out the most extravagant part of the scheme—the tunnel—and pursued some of the other options, which, after all, the previous Government had committed to providing at dual carriageway standard? Will he confirm that he is also ruling out the National Trust’s preferred option of a northern dual carriageway route?

As we look forward from the wreckage of the project, may I above all ask the Minister to ensure that he will instruct the Highways Agency to co-operate with the county council’s highway authority and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to ensure that every option is tried to provide an improvement to the road network past Stonehenge—including, perhaps, electronic traffic management to improve traffic flows? Will he confirm that we will not just tinker with a few white lines here and there? We should do something a little radical, and not just completely rule out all improvements. To do that would be to the detriment of not only my constituents but the whole south-west economy—and, above all, the world heritage site of Stonehenge. Stonehenge remains a national disgrace, and that is the Government’s fault.

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, who has taken a necessarily close interest in the project. I do not want to lower the esteem in which his colleagues hold him, but in the past few weeks he has been very helpful to me as we have come to this decision. I am grateful for that.

The hon. Gentleman asked about other transport options. It would simply not make any economic sense from a transport point of view to progress the rest of the A303 improvements without the tunnel. That would not stack up in terms of economic benefits, and the business case for such a scheme would not be proven. That is why we have, reluctantly, come to our decision.

The hon. Gentleman also asked whether the northern route alternative was still an option. I have to tell him that it is not, as that is also outwith available budgets. On his third point, I should say that the road is the responsibility of the Highways Agency. Notwithstanding the requirement of the regional fund allocation to provide for major capital improvements, the Highways Agency’s responsibility is to provide basic maintenance and ensure, for example, that accident blackspots are addressed. The agency will continue to do that.

This morning I asked officials to look again at the A303 to find out whether we could provide any other measures, additional to those that we have already undertaken. I cannot make any promises at this stage, but I will, of course, keep the hon. Gentleman informed.

The A303 is the major east-west artery through my constituency, so I welcome the Minister’s suggestion that the consequences of this issue will be considered by local politicians. However, I remind him that the Government ignored the South West regional assembly on the A303 improvements west of Ilminster.

More importantly, will the Minister confirm that the A344 closure will merely make the problem worse on the A303? Furthermore, will he confirm what I just heard him say—that all the other schemes on the A303 are being abandoned as well? Does that mean that we will no longer see the improvements between Wylye and Mere, the next major scheme after Winterbourne Stoke?

On the hon. Gentleman’s final point, it is entirely up to the regional transport board in the south-west to decide its priorities. I have said in my statement that the major scheme improvements of the A303 as it affects Stonehenge will not take place.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the A344 closure and said that it would make the problem worse. An analysis and assessment of the exact repercussions on traffic will be part of the consultation on the proposed closure of that junction. I have already assured the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) that if I judged that road safety would be compromised by the measure, I would not approve it. I do not believe at this stage that the measure would necessarily worsen congestion on the A303, but if it were proved that that would happen, it would be taken into account during the consultation process.

Some years ago, I had the privilege of working for the director of the Royal Artillery at Larkhill, which is just a stone’s throw from the site. There was a Tory Government at the time. This issue was, of course, a long-running sore. I hear what the hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) says—the site is a bit of a disgrace. We had an imaginative in-house solution: to move Stonehenge across to the green area in front of the officers’ mess at Larkhill. Is that a more realistic prospect than anything else?

There is a short and easy answer to that. There are no plans to move Stonehenge; I do not want to start any hares running on that. My hon. Friend says that he lived within a stone’s throw of Stonehenge; that would probably be a very long way.

Does the Minister accept that, as a former Transport Secretary who had plans to deal with this problem and as a local MP for 15 miles of the A303 to the east of the Amesbury roundabout, I was very sorry to hear his statement? Does he recognise that the A303 is dual carriageway all the way from the M3 to the Amesbury roundabout? Does he also recognise that it is an increasingly busy road with several planned business parks and other developments on its periphery? Is it really feasible for him to say that he has no proposals at all to deal with the traffic west of the Amesbury roundabout?

Apart from the fact that Stonehenge is next to this road, it is a road of regional importance. As with all such roads, any proposal for major capital improvements would involve the regional transport board making recommendations to the Department for Transport. He is of course right to say that he considered the issue in his role as a former Secretary of State for Transport, and it is a matter of regret that I have to report to the House that I have made the same amount of progress as he did.

The A303 is supposed to be the second most important strategic route to the south-west and is therefore of national significance, and its neglect over recent years has been deplorable. Given that this scheme has pre-empted a large amount of potential funding, and given the requirements placed on regional authorities by bundling a variety of schemes together to put them out of the price range that is available to them, preventing the progress of perfectly sensible schemes that are already planned, will he look again at proposals such as the safety improvements on the Sparkford to Ilchester part of the A303 in my constituency, which were ready to run in 1997 and which we are now told will be delayed until 2016?

I think the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that the Government have some vested interest, or take some peculiar amusement, in creating congestion on any road. If there were an affordable option for relieving congestion on the A303, I would take it. I do not accept his suggestion that other funding avenues have been precluded by consideration of this scheme, but perhaps that is an argument that we can have another day. As I said, the Highways Agency is responsible for maintaining the road and for addressing any safety issues along its route, and it will continue to live up to its responsibility.

Has the Minister not realised that everyone who cares about the built heritage of this country regards the presentation and the preservation of this unique monument of international importance as a national matter, not a regional matter? Is it not a damning indictment that a Government who could squander £700 million on the dome are not prepared to face up to their responsibilities for that?

I suspect, Mr. Speaker, that you would be quick to call me out of order if I started a debate on the dome.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that I or the Department for Transport have no consideration for the value that Stonehenge has in itself and to the rest of the country. It can be argued that Stonehenge is of national importance; the A303 is a road of regional importance. I am the Minister responsible for the Highways Agency, which is not responsible for Stonehenge. Having said that, I am entirely aware of the importance of the DFT and DCMS working together with all the necessary agencies to try to come up with a scheme that is affordable and protects this hugely important and, as the hon. Gentleman says, unique asset in the long term.

Representing Bridgwater means that I have some of the largest distribution centres in the south-west to the south of Bristol in my constituency. I get constant complaints about the level of lorry usage. To get the goods that we need, those lorries have no option but to come from the south coast. This announcement is a slap in the face for business throughout Somerset and the south-west. It will make things much more difficult, given that on certain weekends those lorries cannot move on Friday and Sunday nights because of the weight of traffic around Stonehenge. Does the Minister realise the damage that the Government are doing to business in my area by not allowing the scheme to go ahead?

I absolutely disagree with the hon. Gentleman, who is trying to make an entirely partisan political point. Given the record amounts of money that this Government have spent on transport infrastructure in the south-west in the past 10 years—considerably more than was ever spent under any previous Government by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young)—I hardly think he can say that we are responsible for a lack of economic growth in the south-west. On the contrary, as has already been pointed out, the south-west is one of the fastest-growing regions in the country, and that is thanks to this Government’s investment in the transport infrastructure.

May I point out to the Minister that the far south-west is not sharing in that economic growth, partly because it needs investment in transport schemes? I welcome this announcement because it releases money within the regional budget to complete some important road schemes such as the Kings Kerswell bypass. However, given that Stonehenge is of national and international significance, any road scheme that alleviates problems around that area should be paid for by the national taxpayer, not out of regional allocations.

Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that any road solution should be paid for at any cost—that the Government should write a blank cheque? When the scheme was first proposed, the original price was about £223 million, £70 million of which it was rightly suggested should be met by DCMS. That was correct because, as the hon. Gentleman says, Stonehenge is a matter of national cultural importance. However, given the amount of the increases over the past few years, does he seriously believe that no matter what the cost of such a scheme, the Government and the taxpayer should pay for it? If so, that is a fairly legitimate point of view, but it is not one that I—or, I suspect, the taxpayer—would share.

This is more than a disappointment—it shows 10 years of failure. It is not just a transport issue—it also affects tourism. Tourism is Britain’s fifth largest industry, but the Government do not take it seriously. They are failing to harness the importance of this heritage site and major attraction. How many more years must we wait until we see an improvement to the Stonehenge area?

Well, the hon. Gentleman has his press release.

The planning permission that was given as part of the public inquiry included provision for a new visitor centre at Stonehenge. I understand that the current visitor centre is not particularly attractive, and I will work with DCMS and the Minister responsible for tourism, my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking, to progress plans for an alternative site for a world-class tourism centre. I hope that that will be up and running before the Olympics.

Earlier this year, I had the privilege of spending a day touring the landscape around Stonehenge with the National Trust, which looks after most of that historic landscape, and I met representatives of English Heritage, which looks after the stones. This world heritage site is scarred, almost destroyed, by a busy A road passing a few yards away from the stones. It is a national disgrace and a national problem, and the national Government should be tackling it. I reiterate the point made by the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack): a Government who can spend almost twice as much money as this on a white elephant like the millennium dome should be investing in the single most important historic site in the whole of the UK.

In the seven years to 2007-08, DFT spending on road and rail in the south-west more than doubled to £825 million. If the hon. Gentleman is saying, like the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders), that no matter what the cost of the scheme the Liberal Democrats would meet it, I suspect that they are now regretting their policy of putting 1p on income tax.