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Transport (South Devon)

Volume 511: debated on Wednesday 9 June 2010

There are many reasons why the people of south Devon, and of Torbay in particular, need better transport links. Coach, rail, sea, cycle and road vehicle transport all suffer from under-investment. Our main transport link with the motorway network is the A380, which is dualled between Telegraph Hill and the Penn Inn roundabout, and is then single lane between Newton Abbot and Torbay.

Torbay is the 40th largest urban conurbation in the country, and the only settlement of such a size with a single carriageway link road to the trunk road system. The resident population increases by 50% during the summer peak with the influx of holidaymakers. Many arrive in the area frustrated and angry as their inward journey is marred by congestion and delay between Newton Abbot and Torbay, and many leave early as a result. Torbay relies heavily on tourism for its livelihood and future prosperity. Its economy is one of the most difficult in the country, with the widest gulf between average earnings and house prices and some of the worst wards in the country in relation to indices of social deprivation. A recent shocking statistic is that 40% of Torbay’s children are now brought up in households living below the official poverty line. Reviving Torbay’s economy, therefore, needs to be at the centre of everything that the Government and the local authority do.

Research has shown that our biggest single drawback is our lack of connectivity, which is a serious disincentive to inward investment and a blight on regeneration. The south Devon link road, or Kingskerswell bypass, is vital to overcoming that problem. It will overcome many local problems of congestion, pollution and rat-running, thus creating a more sustainable quality of environment.

Torbay council and Devon county council have worked together to promote the scheme, and have so far committed some £6 million to achieve the necessary consents and funding. Both councils see the road as one of their highest priorities. The scheme is ready to proceed as soon as the funding is made available by the Department for Transport: there is a valid planning consent, the land acquisition and side-road orders have been served, and a public inquiry was held in October 2009 to hear objections. The inspectors’ report should have been, or will shortly be, presented to the Minister for confirmation.

The two councils have put the project out to tender and agreed on one bidder who has met all the quality criteria and, importantly, is within budget. Subject to funding and confirmation of orders, we are ready to start in the autumn. The cost of the scheme is £130 million, and the first spend of £8 million is anticipated in 2010-11 in accordance with the regional funding allocation. The road remains a top priority in the region. The application for full funding approval has been submitted to the DFT, and discussions with officials indicate there are no technical shortcomings in the submission. Perhaps the Minister can confirm that.

The history of the project has been fraught with delays and can be traced back to the early 1950s—to well before I was born. I cannot imagine any area the size of Torbay that has had to wait as long for a proper link to the country’s main road network. In 1951-52, a dualled carriageway was first included in the Devon country development plan. By 1959, a public inquiry had determined the actual line of the proposed road, but then Devon county council sought to change the proposed line and suggested an alternative route. In 1974, a revised three-lane dualled carriageway plan was suggested by the outgoing Devon county council. By 1976, having completed stage 1 of the Torbay ring road, the highways authority made a submission to the Department for Transport for the trunking of the A380 road in its entirety.

In 1976, at the end of another public consultation, Devon county council announced its preferred route. In 1981-82, the county council submitted its preferred route to the Department for Transport, with an application for 100% grant aid funding. In 1987, a public exhibition was held, following which an updated submission for grant aid was made together with a revised submission for the trunking of the A380 from Exeter through to Torquay.

In 1989, a Government White Paper entitled “Roads for Prosperity” included the trunking of the A380 between Exeter and Torquay together with the proposed £26 million scheme to dual a new two-lane carriageway. In 1990, a traffic survey on best value and an audit had to be carried out before the proposed scheme could go forward to draft order stage. In 1994, another national report, entitled “Trunk Roads in England Review”, was issued by the Department for Transport. It still included a proposed Kingskerswell bypass as a priority scheme in the national list.

In 1995, the Government announced that they would not be able to keep their commitment to the trunk road programme, and in a report entitled “Managing the Trunk Road Programme” the A380 was dropped from the priority list and transferred to the longer-term programme for the trunking of roads. In 1996, the Government de-trunked the A380 and transferred responsibility to Devon county council. In 1997, Labour won the general election, all road building was put on hold and it was decreed that existing infrastructure had to be exhausted before a new road could be considered. Two years later, the no-roads policy statement was reversed with an announcement by the then Deputy Prime Minister.

There have been at least three significant historical changes determining the decision-making process and the financing of roads since then. There have also been a couple of self-inflicted delays resulting from local government reorganisation: in 2003, Torbay left Devon to become a unitary authority, and in 2005 Torbay voted to have an elected mayor. None the less, most of the delay has been well beyond our local control. The road should have been built by now and should be playing its part as our route out of recession. At worst, it should be under construction, with the prospect locally of better times ahead; but it is not and now we hear there may be yet another review. Will my hon. Friend the Minister tell me how many projects are being reviewed and what their total value is? How much will the Department want to cut from this total, and will priority be given to schemes that are more advanced?

I should like to add my support to this scheme, because the road in question, the A380, passes through my constituency of Newton Abbot. Indeed, Kingskerswell bypass is in my constituency. Having this road would significantly improve the lives of my constituents in economic terms. Moreover, it is a key road and a key artery between Torbay hospital and my constituency, and many of the plans the primary care trust has made are predicated on the existence of that bypass.

The hon. Lady makes a very powerful point on behalf of her constituents and those across south Devon.

Let me turn to other forms of transport that impact on south Devon’s economy and quality of life. Three years ago, the last Labour Government promised an additional 1,300 carriages across the country, of which 647 have already been brought in or are on order. The remainder have now been put on ice, after the Department for Transport was told to slash £683 million from its budget as part of a raft of in-year savings totalling £6.2 billion. Of the 1,300 carriages, First Great Western was due to receive 52, but only 12 of those were destined for services in the south-west. Their future was threatened when the Transport Secretary said that each project must be rigorously re-assessed to ensure that it offers value for money for taxpayers. Under the previous Government, the plans for new carriages had been delayed and mired in review following the announcement of the electrification of the main line between London and Swansea. There is uncertainty over the allocation of new rolling stock. What is the status of the carriages promised to First Great Western in the south-west, and where should representations be made to argue the case in favour of providing extra rolling stock? What is the Government’s overall strategy for railways in the south-west, and do they still consider Torquay and Paignton to be mainline train stations?

Finally on rail, the introduction of fast train services from Paddington to Paignton via Westbury rather than Bristol is good, but will more services be forthcoming?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and I am grateful to him for giving way, because in fact there are three constituencies that would benefit very greatly from this proposal. My own constituency, which covers Brixham and much of Paignton, lies downstream from his, at the other end of the A380, and as he has mentioned we have very high levels of deprivation in our constituencies.

I would also like my hon. Friend the Minister to consider the great problem that we have with housing. Time and again, the objection made to further housing development in our area is that there is insufficient infrastructure to support it. The roads have reached complete gridlock. Given that lack of adequate transport is one of the greatest obstacles to reconstruction and investment, what mechanism is being used to assess which projects should receive funding, and are these very important factors of reconstruction and investment being taken into account?

I thank the hon. Lady for her contribution, and I am sure the Minister will respond to that very important question. She is absolutely right. I often think of my constituency as being the “end-of-the-line” town, but the Brixham area of her constituency, which I think is the largest urban area in Totnes, is very much the end of the line and does not even have a railway line. Road transport is therefore particularly important in getting from Brixham, Paignton and Torquay to the rest of the country.

I should also mention the poor coach services from Torbay to the main centres of population. The journey times are off-putting and often, the slowest part of any coach journey is the first or last seven miles between Torbay and the dual carriageway at Newton Abbot. In the past, we have enjoyed ferry services between south Devon and the Channel Islands, and beyond. Even our cyclists in Torbay are poorly served, its having fewer miles of cycle lanes than most urban areas of a similar size.

We have been waiting for six decades to enjoy the transport links that the rest of the country takes for granted. My constituency records the lowest household incomes and highest household debt in the United Kingdom. We have been, and remain, the unemployment blackspot of the south-west region.

Better transport links are our road to recovery. Two Select Committee reports—the Communities and Local Government Committee report on seaside resorts, and the Culture, Media and Sport Committee report on tourism—support that view. Both concluded that better transport links are essential if such seaside areas are to improve their economic well-being. As for those who oppose such road improvements, I simply ask them why there are no campaign groups asking for the removal of existing bypasses.

There is a huge opportunity here for the new Government to demonstrate their commitment to the south-west region with immediate delivery of a fantastic scheme that would be a huge credit to all involved, and would fundamentally regenerate Torbay and the surrounding area for years to come. There is political unity on this issue among all parties in south Devon: Torbay council, Devon county council, Teignbridge council, and South Hams district council. All the key players, including small and larger businesses, know that this project is critical to our future success, be it the tourism industry, manufacturing or services.

In my 13 years as a Member of Parliament, I have observed business after business trying to grow locally, but in order to expand they have had to leave the area, citing the lack of transport links as the reason. Inward investors who are prepared to invest in jobs and in improving the area are being put off by the very real barrier that is the final seven miles into my constituency.

It was in 1951-52 that people started to talk about this project, for which there were plans by the end of that decade. Surely we will not have to wait another decade for another decision that will allow the project to go ahead.

I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr Sanders) on securing a debate on the important topic of transport in the south Devon area. I am aware that he has campaigned tirelessly for transport improvements in Torbay and the surrounding area since his election to Parliament in 1997. If I may make a partisan point, it is good to see him back in the House.

I also very much welcome the hon. Members for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) and for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) to their places in this House. I note that all three Members spoke with one voice today, which I suppose is a demonstration of coalition politics in action.

As the coalition agreement makes clear, we believe that a modern transport infrastructure is important for a dynamic and entrepreneurial economy. We are determined to make the transport sector greener and more sustainable, with tougher emissions standards and support for new transport technologies. The coalition agreement also makes clear that tackling climate change is one of the biggest challenges that we face and that a wide range of levers will need to be used to cut carbon emissions. Transport policy will clearly have a major role to play, given that carbon emissions from transport are still rising.

With that in mind, the Department for Transport is committed to reforming how decisions are made on which transport schemes to prioritise around the country, not least so that the benefits of low-carbon proposals are fully recognised. Of course, particularly given the current fiscal constraints, we need to ensure that any new transport infrastructure is affordable and offers value for money. Those two issues—the reform of how decisions are made and the review of all planned Government expenditure—mean that today I will not be able to be as helpful to my hon. Friend as I would like to be.

I turn specifically to the issues affecting south Devon. As my hon. Friend will know, the area is currently served by two main roads running south-west from Exeter: the A38, for which the Highways Agency is mainly responsible, and the A380, which is the responsibility of Devon county council. The area is also served by the railway line that he referred to, which runs between Exeter, Newton Abbot and Paignton, and between Newton Abbot and Plymouth. Both the lines to Paignton and Plymouth have daily services running to London, Bristol, the midlands and the north, as well as local services to Exeter and beyond, which also stop at a number of other smaller stations.

My hon. Friend asked me about the status of Torquay and Paignton rail stations. The Department for Transport does not classify stations as “mainline” or otherwise. However, Network Rail classes both Torquay and Paignton as category C stations—that is, they are important feeder stations—and further definition is included in the station champions’ “Better Rail Stations” report.

I know that my hon. Friend has been very active in campaigning for more through trains between Torbay and London Paddington, and I am delighted to confirm that, from December 2010, one additional through service each way will be provided on that route. The current service provides for a 7.30 am train to arrive at Exeter at 10.12 am. The new service will provide an earlier fast train service to Exeter and Torbay, with arrival at Exeter at 9.30 am and at Paignton at 10.6 am. The aim of this new early train service is to strengthen business links between the west country and London. It will also help to boost tourism, which I know is an issue that my hon. Friend takes very seriously indeed.

Although speed is clearly crucial for my constituents, through whose area this railway passes as it runs down the coast, we absolutely need this railway for tourism. There has been a lot of concern in the constituency that the money to support the line, which I know is one of the most expensive lines in the country to maintain, will not be forthcoming. I would be grateful if the Minister considered the issue of tourism, and therefore the impact on the local economy, when he makes decisions about money being invested in that particular railway line.

I should say that decisions on rail investment are not for me to make in my particular portfolio. However, I can say that the Government are entirely seized of the importance of tourism to the south-west and that that factor will be taken into account in making any decisions about transport infrastructure and any other issues relating to Government investment.

The new train service that I referred to will allow business passengers to travel from London and do a full day’s business in Torbay, as well as cater for people on holiday who prefer not to change trains, which was the point that the hon. Member for Newton Abbot made.

Rolling stock was also raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay. As far as that is concerned, the Department for Transport has recently signed a deed of amendment with First Great Western. That ensures that there will be ongoing funding for 30 vehicles that would otherwise cease to be funded by First Great Western itself. I hope that he will accept that that is good news for the rolling stock for the area.

The Government want to see rail prosper and we certainly value the rail links to the south-west. We do not have individual strategies for each part of the country, but the strategy for the network as a whole is set out in the Department for Transport’s high level output specification document. It is focused on improvements in safety and performance, and, crucially, on providing more capacity.

We made it clear in the coalition agreement that we will grant longer rail franchises, giving train operators more incentive to invest in better services, rolling stock, stations and perhaps even enhancements to the network. We want a better deal for passengers, with fair pricing for rail travel and the rail regulator as a powerful passenger champion. We also want to see Network Rail being made more accountable to its customers, both the train companies and—frankly—ultimately the public at large.

Given the upcoming spending review, we are unable to commit today to any further immediate improvements to rail services elsewhere in the south Devon area. However, we will monitor the current usage of rail services and re-evaluate them in the light of the emerging financial situation.

My hon. Friend is also concerned about the road network. I acknowledge the importance that he and others attach to the A380 Kingskerswell bypass scheme, also known as the south Devon link road, and his strong view that it is key to supporting the regeneration of Torbay and the surrounding area. I also note the scheme’s long history; it goes back to 1951, which is, I think, before either of us was born.

The scheme’s promoters—Devon and Torbay county councils, with the support of the other councils to which hon. Members have referred—have made the case for the bypass to the Department. As my hon. Friend acknowledged, progress is well advanced. The view expressed is that the A380 is an important link to south Devon and that the congestion between Penn Inn and Kerswell Gardens affects the business and commercial needs of Torbay throughout the year, as well as the tourist trade in summer.

I understand that the promoters have developed the scheme in recent years on the strength of the priority given to it by the previous Government within their regional funding allocation process. However, any new Government will naturally have their own views on which major schemes should be supported by Government funding, and I am afraid that we will need to consider the scheme in the light of the tough spending review to come. After the public inquiry in July 2009, as my hon. Friend knows, an inspector’s report on the scheme orders was submitted to the Secretary of State for a decision. Given the current uncertainty about funding, we must consider such decisions carefully and will be making a statement on the subject shortly.

It should also be acknowledged that considerable opposition exists alongside the local and regional support for the scheme, as my hon. Friend acknowledged. I am sure that he is aware that several well-organised campaign groups have expressed opposition, including the Campaign for Better Transport, the Campaign to Protect Rural England and the Kingskerswell Alliance, which is made up of residents of Newton Abbot and Kingskerswell. Those groups believe that Devon and Torbay should be considering more sustainable alternatives that have less impact on the environment.

I am not aware of any, but it is only fair in a debate of this nature to reflect the comments both for and against the scheme received by the Department, as I hope I am doing. There are strong views on the scheme, and it is important to listen to both sides of the argument, as I am sure my hon. Friend, as a fair man, would acknowledge.

In addition to those issues, we must also consider the wider funding position and what it means for the affordability of a £130 million road scheme. As we are all aware, the current fiscal situation means that we must consider carefully future funding decisions on all transport schemes across England and Wales.

My hon. Friend asked what mechanism is being used to assess which projects should receive funding. As I mentioned, the Government have committed in the coalition agreement to review how decisions are made on which transport projects will be prioritised. We are at the start of that process. Until that is complete and the spending review is concluded, we will not be making any funding approval decisions. I made that point clear in a recent letter to Nick Bye, mayor of Torbay, who wrote to me about the Kingskerswell bypass.

The hon. Member for Totnes asked how many projects are being reviewed and what their total value is. The Government are reviewing all funding approvals made by the previous Government from 1 January 2010, and we hope to conclude that review soon. Additionally, all schemes granted conditional approval or programme entry by the previous Government will be reviewed as part of the spending review. There are 42 such schemes, and the total requested Department for Transport contribution is about £1.5 billion. However, those schemes will not necessarily be given priority over schemes that have not received any previous funding approval. Pending further discussions with our Treasury colleagues, we are not in a position to say how much the Department will want to cut from the total. That is what the spending review is for. However, no one should assume that schemes prioritised under the previous Government’s regional funding allocation process will be funded to the previous published levels.

Finally, in response to my hon. Friend’s question about prioritising schemes that are more advanced, as is this particular road scheme, I am afraid that, for the reasons that I have given, the Department can offer no guarantees. However, I can confirm that priority will be given to projects that align with the Government’s priorities and are affordable.

I understand fully my hon. Friend’s desire for a positive decision on the funding for the Kingskerswell bypass, not least because of how much time has passed since 1951. However, the sad fact is that many other local authorities around the country are in a similar position, wondering what the future holds for their planned transport schemes. I hope that he will acknowledge that the Government need to consider all funding commitments carefully.

As with all other major local transport schemes, the Department can offer no particular assurances at this point regarding future funding, but I give my hon. Friend my personal assurance that, as part of our wider spending review, I will consider carefully the case for the funding of the Kingskerswell bypass and take into account the comments made today by him and hon. Members from nearby constituencies.

Sitting suspended.