[Dr William McCrea in the Chair]
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea, and I am delighted finally to have secured this afternoon’s debate. The A303 is a 92-mile road of historic importance that runs from Basingstoke to Devon and is one of only two major routes across the south-west. It is often affectionately referred to as the highway to the sun, because of its popularity with holidaymakers. I am sure that many hon. Members in the Chamber have fond memories of their long trips down it.
Unfortunately, such trips have become far from stress-free, and they now take far too long, because of the formidable traffic jams that are regarded as an everyday occurrence even outside the high season. A document published by the Department for Transport in July last year revealed that an estimated 20,000 vehicles drive within 200 metres of Stonehenge on an average day. The problems have become particularly acute since the closure of the A344 at Stonehenge. Sadly, to my constituents, the old Roman name for the road, which was the devil’s highway, seems appropriate. For many people, travelling on the A303 has become a deep source of frustration. Parents battling to the west country in half-term dread it, but it is a hassle that they face only once or twice a year. It is far worse for my constituents, who have to wrestle every day with what feels like one of the most notorious traffic blackspots in the country.
I have called the debate because I want to ensure that the 15 miles of the A303 that run through my constituency are not overlooked in the Government’s evaluation of the road as one of their national strategic priorities. More than 20 years have passed since the first dualling proposal was put on the table, and a staggering £43 million has been spent on numerous feasibility studies that have ultimately, and very sadly, come to nothing. That is all despite the fact that when the M4/M5 route to Devon and Cornwall was constructed in 1961, it was always envisaged that the A303 would be entirely dualled, given the road traffic and economic forecasts at the time. That was 53 years ago. My predecessor, the excellent Robert Key, campaigned on the matter throughout his 27-year career in the House. He tells me that he had meetings with 70 different Ministers from different Departments during that time, which even involved the late Baroness Thatcher examining maps on the floor of her office.
Sadly, debate over the dualling of the A303 has become increasingly polarised. For those who are primarily concerned with traffic flows and the prosperity of the south-west, dualling is a no-brainer that will ease congestion and boost the regional economy.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this vital debate. He is making an excellent case, which I would like to back up by saying that people in Cornwall would benefit enormously from the dualling of the A303 throughout his constituency, because it is a vital arterial road into Cornwall.
My hon. Friend makes a wise and sensible point, and I will expand later on the economic benefits for the south-west as a whole.
On the other side of the argument, we cannot ignore the fact that the A303 runs very close to the UNESCO world heritage site at Stonehenge. We have a responsibility to protect that sacred site and reduce the blight that traffic continues to cause. If we do not, the National Trust, English Heritage, the Stonehenge Alliance and the Council for British Archaeology inform me that Stonehenge will be formally placed on the at-risk register. That would be extremely damaging to our reputation as a world leader in safeguarding our heritage.
Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes a sensible point, which I will expand on in a moment.
The risk of Stonehenge losing world heritage status is not an empty threat. That happened to Dresden in 2009 when a new four-lane bridge was constructed. As my hon. Friend just said, we must recognise the unique nature of the environment that surrounds the A303. Understanding how the greater Stonehenge and the vast interlacing of pathways, waterways, tombs, stones and enclosures fit together is not the idle pursuit of a few; it is a national heritage responsibility for us all.
As those two perspectives collide, doing nothing is not the only option. Although people tell me, “Just get on and dual the road,” a poorly designed and badly executed overground dual carriageway that undermines a 5,000-year-old world heritage site is not an improvement worth fighting for. In the past, however, all parties have repeatedly united around one solution: a deep-bore tunnel that is at least 2.8 km long, which would pass unseen beneath the hidden barrows and earthworks of the wider Stonehenge site. It seems to me that no other realistic solution has been offered—other proposed solutions have been a cut-and-cover tunnel or open dualling—that provides the same protection for the historic asset of Stonehenge and delivers the improvements to traffic that so many of my constituents desperately seek, and which I so enthusiastically support. Successive programmes have been cancelled on the grounds of costs that made them politically impossible to deliver or justify. As a result, we are left with a highly congested road, dissatisfied local people, wasted investment in feasibility studies, long delays for businesses and an imperfect solution for those who seek fully to address the heritage concerns.
Does my hon. Friend agree that sometimes it is difficult to look at the benefit of a project? I look back to the debates over the Channel tunnel and think of what that has delivered. Tourism is mission-critical for the south-west, and if we do not get the A303 sorted, we will have a real problem. Our small businesses depend on it, and if the situation is not improved, the potential of the south-west will never be realised.
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. Later in my speech, I will describe the analysis that has been done on the impact on the south-west economy, the support of the CBI and others, and the reasons why it is imperative to get on with improving the road.
The difference now, compared with previous attempts to deal with the problem, is that Britain’s engineering expertise has developed and we now have an international reputation for excellence in large-scale infrastructure projects that involve tunnelling. I understand that as a result of the expertise accumulated through Crossrail, the Hindhead tunnel and the Thames Tideway tunnel, the cost of such a project today should, in real terms, be around half the cost that was quoted in 1996.
I recognise that the dualling of the A303 by Stonehenge has aroused significant debate over many years, but the current impasse requires clear ministerial engagement and decisions. I therefore urge the Minister to be the one who unlocks decades of inertia—to be the Minister who finally delivers a solution for the road, rather than being added to the 70 I mentioned earlier who sadly failed.
Ten years ago, the then Secretary of State for Transport, the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling), said:
“Let’s have no further re-examinations and re-examinations and reviews—let’s get on with it”.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and for securing this debate. I completely agree with him on the need to be sensitive to Stonehenge and its surrounding environment. Nevertheless, does he share my observation that the road must be dualled at some future point, at least as far as Ilminster, because the volume of traffic will inevitably make it necessary? Indeed, it already has. The question is not really whether we dual it, but whether the Government have enough sense of urgency about the economic benefits for the south-west and the time that is being lost daily. Are we going to keep pushing the problem on to future generations of politicians and future Governments when we should be looking to resolve it ourselves?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. He makes a passionate case on behalf of the Somerset people he represents, and everyone in the region, on the legitimate economic arguments for the whole country, and the south-west in particular. I fully back him up on what he said.
Will the Minister tell us how the feasibility study will be framed to deliver an unambiguous solution for the A303 in Wiltshire? I do not mean a solution on paper, and subject to further decisions near or after a general election; I mean a solution that will secure physical changes on the ground. As other Members have said, the A303 is vital to the south-west, but it is also a route used day in, day out, by local people in my constituency, and they are very concerned.
Winterbourne Stoke is a typical Wiltshire village, except that more than 30,000 vehicles thunder through it every day. In just five years, there have been two fatalities and nine serious injuries in a number of collisions. The case for the Winterbourne Stoke bypass was accepted in previous studies and public inquiries. I recently visited the proposed sites with local councillor Ian West, who said that there is no controversy over the best route or its inclusion in any upgrade to the A303. Will the Minister reassure my constituents in the village that this notorious accident blackspot will finally be addressed?
Other local areas have been similarly affected by the pollution, and particularly the noise, caused by the sheer volume of traffic. I am delighted that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury, my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Sir George Young), is present. He has drawn my attention to the increased noise and pollution caused by the sheer volume of traffic around Andover. Will the Minister outline today how he intends to tackle that and replace the particularly noisy sections in that constituency? Will he agree, at the very least, to explore resurfacing the road so that those living next to it can have relative peace and quiet restored?
The village of Shrewton in my constituency has also paid a heavy price for the recent traffic changes associated with the construction of the new visitors’ centre at Stonehenge and the closure of the A344, which I mentioned earlier. The work of the Stonehenge Traffic Action Group—STAG—under the leadership of Janice Hassett and Dr Andrew Shuttleworth has motivated me to pursue those issues.
I turn to the wider economic benefits of improvements to the route. A study carried out in 2013 for Devon, Somerset and Wiltshire councils estimates that dualling the A303 would ultimately generate more than £41 billion for the economy, create 21,400 jobs and increase visitor expenditure by £8.6 billion every year. John Cridland, the director general of the Confederation of British Industry, has said that the A303 should be fast-tracked because it is
“pivotal in underpinning the government’s broader growth priorities: boosting our export capability and maximising the economic potential of all regions.”
Of 650 south-west businesses surveyed, 89% said that the reliability of the journey time was an issue for them, and 77% said that improving the route would increase investment in the area. More than two thirds of Wiltshire businesses alone said that dualling would increase their turnover, saving time, fuel and lives. The issue therefore is not simply one of a bit of traffic on the edge of Salisbury plain. The A303 is one of just two transport arteries to the south-west. The British Chambers of Commerce has shown that upgrading it offers the highest benefit-to-cost ratio of any UK transport project, including—dare I say it—a third runway at Heathrow.
Why would businesses invest in sites if accessing them involves travelling regularly on the A303? Staff would be plagued by delays and rarely be on time, while clients would never know whether staff would turn up. The benefits, therefore, are clear, as is the choice. We can continue with the clogged-up artery that is the existing A303, or we can provide the region with a much needed lifeline to catalyse economic growth in the south-west. It is somewhat sad that seven years ago my predecessor held a debate in this Chamber on this exact topic, but since that point nothing tangible has emerged from Governments of either side.
In recent days, I have spoken to English Heritage, the National Trust and Stonehenge Alliance, and I have received representations from the Council for British Archaeology, which will not accept anything that threatens the heritage interests of the area. Decades of consultations mean that we know the position of the Ministry of Defence and of the numerous stakeholders I have referred to, which have all contributed many times to the lengthy, expensive and repetitious public inquiries over the years. Let us be honest and say that tackling Stonehenge might well be the most difficult part of the A303 programme, but let us then get on with the job.
Let us have no more hand-wringing and procrastination, flying of kites that will not get off the ground or picking off of smaller, cheaper schemes elsewhere along the route—perhaps the Countess roundabout flyover, or an underpass at Longbarrow roundabout. They may be politically more palatable and fiscally less threatening to the Treasury, but they are not really what is required. We need an imaginative and holistic solution, and a realistic, fully costed explanation of how it will be paid for.
Have we explored every funding avenue available? Will the Minister agree to examine European funding avenues related to the economic interests of the far west of the region, which would undoubtedly benefit from the A303 being upgraded? Will he work with other Government Departments, including the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, to ensure that all funding associated with this UNESCO world heritage site is pursued aggressively and exhaustively? More importantly, will the Minister pledge categorically that Stonehenge will not be simply siphoned off into the “too difficult” category in the study, in order to deliver improvements elsewhere on the route?
The harsh reality is that if the Stonehenge solution is ignored and the rest of the A303 is dualled, my constituency will remain host to the bottleneck that prohibits swift and easy access to the wider south-west region.
The Government have commissioned a resilience review for the whole transport infrastructure to the far south-west in Devon and Cornwall, which is very welcome. Does my hon. Friend agree that we might also ask the Minister to consider giving the importance of the A303 greater emphasis in that infrastructure resilience report?
That is a useful intervention. The difficult past few weeks, in which the infrastructure of the south-west has been under enormous pressure, have underscored the fact that we must open up new options for the A303. Sorting out the A303 in Wiltshire will provide a clear gateway to the south-west.
My constituents have been promised so much on this issue by many Ministers over many years; sadly, they have been let down every time. I am determined that they will not be let down again. I ask the Minister to commit today to ensuring that our hopes for the A303 can become a reality. I know that he is a plain-speaking Yorkshireman. I look for plain speaking in his response to us Wiltshire folk, who are fed up with constant words and little action.
It is a pleasure to have you in the Chair, Dr McCrea. The hon. Member for Salisbury (John Glen) is to be congratulated on securing this debate, not least because the A303 is one of the few strategic road links down to the far south-west, and particularly to Plymouth. Its importance therefore cannot be overstated. The recent extreme weather in the far south-west shows how vulnerable we are; we lack rail and road resilience when major road routes are cut.
The hon. Lady knows the region very well. I will come to those issues a little later, but she is absolutely right that there are major problems when either the M5 or the A303 closes for one reason or another. We have had relatively little investment in the south-west, as recent weeks have shown. Across the south-west, we have less investment in transport per person than any other region in the country, with the possible exception of the north-east in some modes. We are now reaping the consequences.
I say to the Minister that I fully accept that there is no open chequebook—the shadow Chancellor would jump on me if I suggested that there was—but when we look at the Hindhead tunnel, which goes under the gorgeous landscape of the Devil’s Punch Bowl in Surrey, we can see what could be done if the finance were to become available. As the hon. Member for Salisbury made clear, the A303 has long been a subject of Department for Transport attention, and his predecessor was much admired by all parties for his persistence and the intelligent way in which he tried to find a solution to the problem around Stonehenge.
The South West Regional Committee, of which I was the Chair and which reported in 2010, made it clear that we felt it important that the Department for Transport should value the route in terms of the resilience that it provided to the region. We had instances during the recent storms—I will come back to this—when the A303 was partly closed due to falling trees and the rail line was closed for engineering works, as was the M5. Nobody had actually talked to each other. Business in Plymouth and further south ground to a halt. Fortunately, co-ordination between the Highways Agency and Network Rail is now a lot better, but as the hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) pointed out, we have seen exactly what can happen if those roads close.
Tourism and manufacturing are hugely important issues in the south-west and Plymouth. Although rail usage is growing—when there is a line—we also need road links to bring visitors, freight and goods. Companies such as Wrigley, Princess Yachts and Babcock all need to ship products and supplies via road links rather than rail, due to the nature of the products that they are moving. The Heart of South West local enterprise partnership’s top priority is a faster, more resilient transport system, and it is pressing for improvements to the A303 as part of its key area of activity. It understands the need to move people around by road. Certainly, now that Hinkley Point C will be going forward, there will be a greater need for good road links, and improvements will be required.
The region’s transport planners have been grappling with the A303 for decades. What should be done with it? What should its status be? How can we better connect it with roads further west? The dualling argument to increase resilience is made by motoring organisations such as the RAC as well as local authorities. Dualling the road under the Blackdown hills, for example, would be a huge cost commitment, but it is undoubtedly what local people want, in the same way that tunnelling under Stonehenge is important.
Like many hon. Members here, I have driven along the A303. It is a lovely route winding through a number of counties. Judging by the Members here, it does not go through many Labour constituencies, but I say to Government Members that they have a strong, powerful voice. It is their coalition that is in government. I have seen Members from my party in areas such as the north-east make use of the strength of such a body of people. Government Members have a good opportunity, and they should ensure that they use it.
I will wind up, because I am sure that other hon. Members want to make similar points. I point out that the road does not have national status. Unfortunately, it has not been seen as important by this or previous Governments, but I hope that the Minister will now take a close personal interest in it, because it is important. We have seen the impact of weather on the south-west. If we fail to get a grip on the situation, not only will UNESCO look at Stonehenge—the hon. Member for Salisbury made that point clearly—but we will lose the important opportunity to grow the economy in the south-west. We have a lot to offer, including a lot of manufacturing companies that could do a lot more, but we cannot do it without the transport infrastructure. The A303 is a vital part of that.
In my 17 years in Parliament—other than the period when I was a Minister, when I had to secrete references to the A303 in answers on other things—there has not been a single year in which I have not raised the issue of the A303, so I am particularly grateful to the hon. Member for Salisbury (John Glen) for securing this debate, and for introducing it so well. The A303 is a special road. It is a road of myth and legend, about which books have been written and films made. It is Britain’s mother road. Sadly, it is a neglected mother, because successive Governments have failed to put in the investment needed, and it is frankly unfit for purpose. That is the simple point that many of us have made year after year to Government.
The hon. Member for Salisbury concentrated, quite reasonably, on Stonehenge, which is the major difficulty along the whole road. I hope that he will forgive me for concentrating, despite the fact that we do not have megaliths to hand, on the portion of the road that runs through my constituency, the Sparkford to Ilchester stretch. We have a couple of listed world war 2 hangars turned into houses that are of interest, but they do not quite merit the same attention as Stonehenge. Nevertheless, they are very interesting.
Sparkford to Ilchester is a stretch of road that should have been dualled a long time ago. There are reasons why it has not been, and in my view, those reasons are unsustainable. Casting my mind back a little, I remember appearing at a public planning inquiry in 1996 on the dualling of that stretch of the A303. Those of us who were in favour of dualling won the inquiry—the inspector found in our favour—and construction was about to start, when suddenly, in 1997, with the change of Government came a moratorium on all major road construction, and the Sparkford to Ilchester stretch was left out. That meant that work did not start when we hoped it would.
Then the regional bodies for local government in the south-west brought together the so-called south-west regional spatial strategy; very few people shed many tears when it went. Those bodies decided that the A303 should not be considered the second strategic route to the south-west. That was an utterly perverse decision, but of course the Government at that time, with many other demands for investment—
In the north-east, as the hon. Gentleman says, or elsewhere. The Government were very happy to grasp that and say, “Well, the local people don’t think this is an important road, so why on earth should we invest in it?” So the road was still not dealt with at that time.
There were other knock-on effects. The hon. Gentleman mentioned Winterbourne Stoke, where I have spent many happy hours queuing in traffic over the years, and the effect of the surface noise from the road there. That problem also afflicts my constituency; around the Wincanton area, there are houses that are close to a busy road. We had a commitment 15 years ago to replace that road surface with a low-noise road surface, but guess what? The plans to do that were cancelled and the money was specifically moved to the A1(M), which was considered a higher priority.
The A303 has been constantly neglected. Also, the best has sometimes been the enemy of the good: sometimes the difficulties to do with Stonehenge and the Blackdowns—difficulties that undoubtedly exist—have been allowed to prevent anything being done along any part of the road. I entirely accept what the hon. Gentleman said about Stonehenge; it is essential that we find a solution.
Sorry, I am not doing very well with titles today. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that if a solution is not found on Stonehenge and the Blackdown hills, dualling other bits of the road and encouraging more traffic on to them will simply cause further problems at bottlenecks? There is almost a case for sorting Stonehenge and then working backwards.
Well, the same volume of traffic will be on the road, so I am not entirely sure of that. However, I agree that Stonehenge is a priority; we have to find a solution to the problem there.
The problem with the Blackdowns is that it is extremely difficult to conceive of a road scheme across the area that will meet the environmental requirements. In the case of the Blackdowns, there is an alternative, in the use of an enhanced A358 connection. I know that those in south Devon, including the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck), will not see that as the ideal solution. Nevertheless it is a viable alternative, at least in the meantime, until we can find a better solution.
Let me return to the reason for dualling the parts of the A303 that can be dualled relatively simply. I would like the schemes for Winterbourne Stoke, Chicklade and Sparkford to Ilchester to be taken off the shelf; it is utterly absurd that we have not made progress on those. I am hugely relieved that this Government have finally decided that they want to do something about the A303 and have commissioned the feasibility study. I hope that it will be in the hands of the Minister relatively soon, so that decisions can be made, hopefully in time for big announcements in the autumn spending review this year.
There is every argument for doing something about the A303, but they are in three main areas. First, there are the economic arguments. We have already heard from various hon. Members that the economy of the south-west needs this connection, and ample evidence has been produced by the CBI, the Federation of Small Businesses, the local enterprise partnership and the local authorities in the area to say that this work needs to be done to unlock the economy of the south-west peninsula.
Secondly, there are perfectly sound safety arguments, certainly in relation to the area that I represent. One of the problems is that there is a relatively fast—I say “relatively”, because too often it is clogged up—dual carriageway that suddenly becomes a single carriageway, then a dual carriageway again and then a single carriageway again, just at the point when people travelling from London are at their lowest ebb and most tired. They have probably not taken a break before that point, and therefore the accident record is of some concern to me. That problem could be avoided by simple online improvements.
Thirdly, there is the point about resilience, which was eloquently made by my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton). It is simply ridiculous that we often have only one viable route to the whole of the south-west peninsula; it is ridiculous that one of the longest peninsulas in any country has such limited access to it. People in London and elsewhere sometimes do not understand just how big the south-west is. I remember that when we were talking about regional police forces, I said that the northernmost point of the so-called south-west regional police force, which was at Tewkesbury, was nearer to Scotland than to the tip of Cornwall. That is a fact. People have no conception of the distances in the south-west, yet we are served by one motorway. When that motorway is closed for any reason, as it was, sadly, by the accident near Taunton in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne) a little while ago, the result is chaos for the inadequate A303. Similarly, the A303 was flooded at Christmas. Perhaps that was because of freak conditions, but nevertheless we had, yet again, an example of the area’s lack of resilience.
We have to couple that with our inability to travel by rail in such circumstances, which all of us will remember from just a few weeks ago, when Paddington station was like a ghost station, because there were no trains running from it, or no trains running to anywhere that people wanted to get to. I beg the pardon of my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell), because he could probably get to his constituency from Paddington, but we could not get to the south-west from Paddington. Resilience is a big issue.
My last point relates to something said by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View, namely that the south-west seems to be forgotten by every Government. A few months ago, I accused the Secretary of State for Transport of not knowing where the south-west is. He has proved me wrong; he knows where it is and has been there, as has my hon. Friend the Minister who is here today. However, in terms of Government investment in infrastructure, the south-west is still very much the poor relation of every other part of the country, and that is not good enough for me. I just do not see why we have to be the last in the queue for every single thing when it comes to Government investment. My plea to the Minister is this: for once, listen to the west country, listen to all the points that we are making, and do something about our wholly inadequate A303.
Let me apologise, Dr McCrea, because I may not be able to stay to the end of this debate, depending on when it finishes, as I have another meeting to attend.
I will make a short contribution picking up on the historical implications of this issue, which my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) mentioned. I declare two interests: first, I am a member of the all-party group on archaeology; and, secondly, I am a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. The economic implications of this issue have already been highlighted by Members; I will not go over them again. I just point out that Stonehenge is an important element of the economic case that they have made, and we need to take it into account.
Inevitably, the issue of the A303 bottleneck in the area of Stonehenge has been raised. We need the Government to look for a long-term sustainable solution to this problem, which reflects their full cultural, environmental and international obligations. With respect to the Minister, this is not solely a traffic issue; at stake is the integrity of one of the world’s finest prehistoric landscapes.
I intervened earlier to say that this was not just about the monument. I am credited with being one of those who helped to invent landscape archaeology. I stress that the landscape in which Stonehenge sits is an important archaeological site in its own context. This Government should explore what impact on this world heritage landscape would be acceptable. Particularly for the reasons set out by my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury, the Government should explore a long-bore tunnel option. That would add to the considerable achievement of the recent closure of the A344 next to the stones, which reduced noise and traffic pollution from the road, and that in turn moved us further in the desirable direction of allowing visitors to explore the entire world heritage landscape in its completeness.
Although my hon. Friend makes a reasonable point about the wider heritage arguments, he must acknowledge that the closure of that road before a solution for the A303 was fully established caused enormous frustration to many local residents, some of whom are in the Public Gallery.
I thank my hon. Friend for that comment. I fully accept his point, but we cannot undo what has been done historically, and we have to take the major benefits that came out of it, in terms of reducing noise and traffic pollution. We would like to get back to the amount of noise and traffic pollution being reduced, so that people can explore the world heritage landscape in its entirety.
The aim of all the key heritage bodies involved—my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury listed them in their entirety—is to regain the tranquillity and dignity of this unique cultural landscape, as well as allowing the throughflow of traffic between here and the south-west, so that present and future generations can fully enjoy and appreciate the world heritage site as a whole. Anything that can be done to achieve those two objectives is to be welcomed as something that we should do now.
It is a pleasure to speak in this worthwhile debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) for securing it and congratulate him on doing so. The number of hon. Members in the Chamber, especially from along the route of the A30/A303, shows how important a debate it is.
I want to quote Hansard first of all:
“The trunk roads from London to the West are quite inadequate for the traffic they have to carry. Queues up to 10 to 15 miles long are commonplace in summer on roads like A.30 and A.303. At many points there are bottlenecks, and the carriageways are quite inadequate.”—[Official Report, 14 May 1959; Vol. 605, c. 1558.]
This is from a speech made by Mr Edward du Cann, MP for Taunton, in an Adjournment debate held in May 1959. It shows that there has been quite a long debate about this road.
My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) mentioned the part of the road in Ilminster that was to be trunked in 1997, before the moratorium on road building by the previous Government. A project involving the A30, moving into the A303, east of Honiton, was also shelved. We nearly got there, but it was stopped.
I am delighted that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), has agreed to drive on the road and see the A303 for himself, including where improvements can be made. That is welcome. I thank him for that. As he is a Yorkshire farmer, I am certain that we will get a truthful answer from him today, and that he will commit the Government to doing something about this quickly, rather than taking too long.
I want to take issue slightly with my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell). Rome is one of the most historic cities in the world, with the forum and all the Roman remains, but dual carriageways go all around it, right close to the buildings. Yet that can be maintained. We have to be able to deal with the life that we live today and the need for dualling of the A303/A30, and not live in a prehistoric world. I am keen on history, but at the end of the day we have to find a way, acceptable from both an historical and financial point of view, to ensure that we dual the A30 right the way down to Cornwall.
In this Chamber, we are probably 300 miles from Penzance. I have not done the arithmetic, but I suspect that it is only a little further from London to Scotland. People have to remember that.
The hon. Gentleman is right. The distances are not wildly out. It is distressing, when one visits Secretaries of State in some Departments, to find that they think that Plymouth is a bit like Hastings, in terms of its distance from London. Some education is needed in Departments.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. Of course, when the Minister drives the route—he has probably already done so, but he will do it officially—he will see the length of the A30/A303 and will only probably get halfway along it. By some magic, he appears to be stopping at Honiton; I have no idea why. But seriously, we have to improve the road.
Hon. Members have said that we have few arterial routes into the west country. Bristol is not the west country; it may be part of the west country, but there is much after Bristol. To get to Devon and Cornwall, people need to cross Wiltshire and Somerset. We need to get that road done. A previous solution talked about in the spatial strategy—building on the A358 and dualling it out to the A303—is not a solution, because all that does is drive motorway and A303 traffic on to and off an already congested road. The west country—Somerset, Devon and Cornwall, and Wiltshire—relies a lot on tourism. We also rely on our businesses being able to be able to move their goods and services around. Come the summer, there are times when those roads are completely blocked. That has a huge economic effect on our businesses. Money for dualling the A303/A30 would be well spent.
I have made the point before in Parliament that, although I am 110% behind the Government taking action on our deficit—the huge sum that we have to borrow day in, day out, to pay the running costs of this country—there is an argument that says that, when interest rates are so historically low, we should borrow money to build infrastructure, because that builds up our economy and gives us a great future.
We expect our fair share of proceeds in the west country. Vast sums may or may not be spent on High Speed 2, yet we have railways that are falling into the sea. We are doing our best to make sure that that does not happen, and that railways are rebuilt. A second railway line needs to come down to the west country. All this is part of the infrastructure. Roads are also important.
On a slightly more controversial note, people say, “If you dual those roads, the traffic will go faster and it could cause more pollution.” However, in my view, it causes much less pollution. There is nothing worse than car engines ticking over for hours on end; cars do not run well when the engines are not running smoothly, and the amount of fuel and carbon monoxide that comes out of cars that are queuing for hours adds to pollution.
In my constituency, especially coming out of Honiton, several villages along the A30, which leads into the A303, have poor access to and egress from that road. There have been many accidents along it, so there are many good reasons, from a traffic safety point of view, for improving it.
People might think that I, as the Member for Tiverton and Honiton, would be telling the Government, “You must start by dualling the A30/A303 from Honiton eastwards,” but I am not saying that. I say that eventually we must dual the whole road. We must not be stopped by either Stonehenge or the Blackdowns in my constituency, because those are the expensive parts of dualling the road. In a former life, I drove around the whole south-west region. I often drove down the A30 into Cornwall. Short stretches of single-track road do not hold up traffic anywhere near as much as longer lengths of single-track road. My point is that we have to start the job. There is a saying that a job started is a job half done. There is no doubt that, once we break the logjam by starting to dual the road, it will be dualled the whole way.
I accept my hon. Friend’s positive approach, but does he acknowledge that, for the large volume of people going all the way through to the furthest extremity of the south-west region, the economic advantages of spending money on the route will not be realised unless they can get through the significant bottlenecks near Stonehenge? We have to do something; otherwise people will not get down to the south-west quickly enough.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. He is fighting the corner for Stonehenge, but if we improve the roads either side of Stonehenge, we will solve the Stonehenge issue. We do not want to say, as the previous Government did in many respects, that we will not spend any money on the A30/A303 unless the Stonehenge situation is sorted. I will support him all the way in whatever he wants to do to get his piece of the road done, but we should not let that be the piece that holds up the whole road. I will not necessarily throw all my rattles out of the pram—I will throw only a few of them—when the A30/A303 at the Honiton end, going east, is not the first part to be dualled. I believe that the dualling will happen, and it is right that it does. We are considering the long-term strategy for the south-west. The A30/A303 has to be part of that strategy. Businesses, the local enterprise partnerships and councils are all pulling together, which is amazing in itself, so let us not say that it has to be Somerset, Devon or Wiltshire. It has to be all of us pulling together.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we need the Government to commit to a strategic plan for the whole A303 corridor. What part is done first depends on how quickly things can be worked up, how long the regulatory and planning processes take and all the rest of it. We know that some bits will be difficult and some bits will be easy, but we want the Government to commit to a comprehensive plan.
The hon. Gentleman is right. The improvements are set up in five pieces for five different areas. Some of those pieces will be easier to start than others. I urge the Minister to get on with it. We have talked for an awfully long time, and people want to see something happening on the ground. We could do with a bulldozer or a JCB sometime before 7 May 2015. I do not know what is happening on that day, and the Minister cannot possibly comment.
My hon. Friend is generous in giving way. He makes a powerful case, because we have a long-term economic plan. From the Isles of Scilly up to Bristol, we are all united. A key part of the Government’s long-term economic plan is to rebalance the economy so that every region contributes to the success of our nation. Every LEP has identified that this infrastructure is mission-critical.
My hon. Friend is right. The Government’s long-term economic plan is essential for ensuring that the west country gets its fair slice of the cake. We will contribute hugely to the economy, and we will help to build growth. People always want to come on holiday to the west country. Until we had all this rain, the sun did nothing but shine in the west country. I am surprised that we have managed to have such an amount of rain. In all seriousness, people come to the English riviera in south Devon, and they come to Somerset and Cornwall. They visit Stonehenge in Wiltshire, but they would like to be able to move on at a reasonable speed without being jammed for ever; if they cannot, it probably does not show Stonehenge to advantage. It probably sticks in people’s memory as that horrendous place where they were jammed in traffic. Improving the A303 will hugely help the national economy and the west country. The scale of the flooding has caused setbacks for people, businesses and property; now is the time for us to move forward positively.
I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say. We have twice had statements in Parliament from the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and others on money to be spent on the A303. That is why the situation is different now from in previous years: the Government have committed real cash to getting the road done. My one plea is for the Minister to get on with it. He should get the money out of the Treasury, which is a naturally generous body, as soon as he can; otherwise, it might take the money away. Let us get on with building the road, so that not only can there be a good future for our constituents and businesses, but all the people who come to the west country have a good experience and come back again.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Salisbury (John Glen) on securing this debate, which has attracted interventions and speeches from no fewer than eight speakers from both sides of the House. All of today’s speakers have made important points on this piece of road. It is difficult to talk about it as a “piece of road”, because it is so long. He described it as “the highway to the sun.” Coming from Birmingham, I know such highways well. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) describes it as “Britain’s mother road”. Both of those descriptions are accurate.
Many hon. Members have talked about the economic importance of the A303. Most notably, it was a major part of the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck). There has been unanimity today on the need to invest in creaking parts of the road network to cope with demand, improve safety, relieve congestion and secure jobs and growth. There is also an understanding that, however we do that, it has to be done in a way that improves our communities and quality of life. Protecting the environment is an add-on to that and has to be part of the process.
The A303 is a road that has tested the ability of successive Governments to deliver those objectives. We have to be honest about that. There is a clear need to improve the route, which is vital for the entire south-west’s connectivity to the rest of the UK. Incomplete dualling over the years has resulted in a number of bottlenecks, about which we have heard today. Those bottlenecks cause road safety problems and cost trade and tourism. There has been a range of continuing reviews, public inquiries and policy changes from the 1990s to the current day. They have demonstrated just how contentious delivering some crucial road upgrades can be in practice. Any solution to this matter will be difficult, but I am concerned—some of the issues put to the Minister are real ones—whether the Government’s approach fully learns the lessons of the past. I have a number of questions for him to tease that out. The recent floods have underlined just how important it is to improve strategic transport connections to the south-west more generally. It is no good just looking at roads, although they are important; we need to take into account all the transport networks of the south-west—that point has been made by a number of Members today—and improve transport resilience across the piece in the region.
I will not attempt to hide the fact that, like this Government, we faced challenges in delivering a second arterial road to this part of the country when we were in government. As Secretary of State for Transport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling) committed to improving the A303 in 2003. Our process was subject to lengthy public inquiries and the cost of the proposed schemes rose significantly during that period. When we left office, however, the Highways Agency had a costed and timetabled plan to improve the A303. That included—it has been contentious for some in the Chamber—dualling the A358 from Ilminster to Taunton, which avoided some of the problems with the area of outstanding natural beauty at Blackdown hills. What is the status of that plan now?
The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) spoke about money, and we need to press the Minister on that. When the Government entered office, nearly £4 billion of planned investment for our roads network was cut. Those are not my figures, but those of the National Audit Office. The Highways Agency budget for capital investment in roads has been cut from £1.6 billion in 2010-11 to just £877 million in 2013-14. That has had a big impact on specific road slippages.
A lot has been said about delivering major progress. Things were said about that in the autumn statement, but the truth is that most of the road schemes that are being talked about were started under the previous Government. I do not say that just to make a political point, although I am making something of a political point. My right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) wanted to be here today, but was unable to come. He has said that the Government’s failure to invest in infrastructure has made the reality of improving the A303 further away than it could be.
On this side of the House, we are pleased that Ministers are finally talking about the need to invest in our country’s long-term transport infrastructure, but the important thing is to start delivering it. In the spending review of June 2013, the Government committed to producing a feasibility study on solutions for an alternative road route to the south-west, and I have a number of questions for the Minister on that. Will he clarify the study’s intended publication date? There has been some talk about that being spring 2015. I am sure that all of us are looking to spring 2015 for all sorts of things, but I suspect that the constituents of Members who have spoken today, seized though they will be by events in spring 2015, want to know what the significance of that study will be for the road scheme.
The real lesson of the past is that publishing reports near general elections ensures that nothing happens for another five years. It is absolutely imperative that we have a clear proposal from the feasibility study much sooner than spring 2015. Does the shadow Minister not agree?
The hon. Gentleman is ahead of me in many ways. It is important that the Minister is clear about the issue. If we are talking about publication in spring 2015, is the bottom line that it might not even be published before the next general election? If it is published before the general election, when does he, whichever Government are elected, see the study being put into operation in practical terms?
I want to ask the shadow Minister a direct question. The A303 was about to be dualled in 1997. If the British people do not make the right decision and elect a Labour Government in 2015, can he assure us that, if it is in place to go, that road will be built and not shelved as the previous Labour Government did in 1997?
I will make a number of points to the hon. Gentleman, and the first is that I would love to have a Tardis, for this issue and for many other things. I would love the result of the last general election to have been different. I am sure that the Conservatives would have liked to have won the last general election, but they did not quite manage that. There are lessons to be learned by all parties on this issue. As my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View said, we have committed to a review, but the fact is that the finances of this country are opaque and what is going on is not clear. We will and are going to have to go through everything before the general election to work out what can be done.
The points raised by the hon. Member for Salisbury were well made. This issue has been subject to delay. Whoever is elected next year, we need to know the timetable for discussion and for those decisions to be made and put into effect, one way or another.
I fully admit that the decades of delay have been under different and successive Governments, but perhaps the Minister can explain why it was only in January of this year that he wrote to the relevant Members—I quote his response to a question from the hon. Member for North Devon (Sir Nick Harvey)—to
“set out a brief synopsis of our proposals for the study.”—[Official Report, 24 January 2014; Vol. 574, c. 356W.]
Is that the only practical progress that has been made by the Government since the summer of last year? If not, will the Minister set out what else has been done? If the study is to take nearly two years, when does he expect a costed and timetabled plan to be in place? That is what is needed for delivery. The hon. Member for Salisbury has rightly said that a new feasibility study needs to take into account things that have happened so far. A number of Members have talked about the previous south-west and south Wales multi-modal study, which was published in 2002 and took an integrated approach to tackling transport problems in the region. Does that have any status in the Government’s thinking, and if so what?
My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View has talked about the work done by the former South West Regional Committee. Regional Committees did some excellent work in their short life, including on this issue. Will that work form part of what the Government do and say on the feasibility study? Given that the congestion problems on the road have remained broadly similar, is there not a case for updating what has already been done, rather than simply commissioning a new study? There seems to be some confusion on that point. If I have misunderstood what is happening, perhaps the Minister will tell me. What action are Ministers taking to ensure that the feasibility study will not just result in an A303 proposal again being subject to further public inquires and further legal challenge?
Recent events have underlined just how important it is to improve transport connections to the south- west. At a debate last week on weather events in the south-west, Members from across the House spoke about the devastating impact the floods have had on their communities. Our thoughts are with all those communities that have been affected. Labour party candidates from that area have been on to us, saying that investment needs to be prioritised. Those points are made to us by our people in the south-west, as well as by those in this House. It is not only about restoring rail services, important though that is, but ensuring that the transport network as a whole to the south-west can cope with future pressures and be resilient. I therefore want to press the Minister for more clarity on the Government’s plans for future investment.
The transport network in the south-west is increasingly under threat. There has been significant concern among local authorities trying to improve resilience on the peninsula. Can the Minister confirm whether the funding that he is talking about on the rail network, apart from anything else, is the same money that was pledged in 2013, or is it new money? If it is not, where will it come from and what cuts will be made elsewhere?
Equally, I welcome Network Rail’s proposals for an alternative to the Dawlish line, which is expected to be published in July. After two attempts by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) to raise this question last week, I ask the Minister again to clarify how a Dawlish avoiding route will be funded. Will new money now be available from central Government? It is important that we have clarity from the Government on both the rail and the road situation. It is important for the Government to consider the needs of the transport system, as well as land management and flood defence, holistically. That is partly what today’s debate is about.
First, the report on options for the Dawlish avoiding line should clearly be developed in conjunction with the A303 feasibility study to ensure that they come together to ensure needs are met. If that is going to be the case, can the Minister confirm whether they will be parallel processes that do not link up? Secondly, will the Minister think again about the new national networks policy statement proposed for the future of our road and rail? This planning document, which is open to consultation at the moment, does nothing to ensure that our existing transport networks are flood-resilient. I understand that, privately, his Department is aware of this and aware that the policy statement requires major work to ensure that it reflects future planning policy properly and that it is climate-resilient. If that is the case, it needs to be revised. So I think we need to hear a little more from the Minister about that one.
If the NPS is meant to be the Government’s vision for future transport, and the omission of flood resilience remains, that is highly concerning. In the light of all this, will the Minister clarify what consideration is being given to climate change and future weather shocks in the A303 feasibility study?
The Opposition take investment in our long-term infrastructure seriously. It is not about rushing to announce long lists of schemes or studies without considering future risks and shocks. It is about properly considering the options and future pressures, and establishing clear and costed plans for delivery. It is about looking at our transport network in an integrated way so that we can meet the needs of the future. I hope the Minister will be able to clarify some of the issues raised, because the A303—Members have alluded to many problems along the line of the route—is not and cannot be a stand-alone issue. It is indicative of a need to deliver an effective strategic transport network for the south-west in future. I hope that when we leave the Chamber today, the Minister will have provided us with greater clarity, rather than greater confusion.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) on securing this debate on the future of the A303. I know this subject is of great importance to him and to other hon. Friends and Opposition Members. I am aware that he has raised issues about the performance of the A303 at Stonehenge and details of the Department's feasibility study during business questions.
The A303 is an important trunk road that passes in close proximity to the Stonehenge world heritage site, and the issue of improving this road has been considered by successive Governments, as we heard. I very much recognise the strategic importance of this corridor and therefore of finding solutions to its problems. Before I respond to the points raised by my hon. Friend, the Member for Salisbury, it is perhaps worth taking the opportunity both to set out this Government’s position on investment in the strategic road network, but also the history of proposals for major improvements to the A303, as well as setting out how my Department will consider options for future investments. Indeed, I hope that I can make progress where even Mrs Thatcher failed.
Before I go on, I will respond to a couple of the points made by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden). He recognised that the previous Government had been engaged in a degree of stop-go—mainly stop in terms of the A303. Although he recognised that fact, there was no straightforward apology, and I was rather perturbed to hear him say that when they left office, they had a costed plan. Nothing was costed when the previous Government left office. The public finances were in a catastrophic state. Indeed, when they had some money in 1997, when they took office, they announced a moratorium, so I will take no lessons from the Opposition on how to organise a road investment programme.
We have controlled spending so that we can increase genuine investment, and we will build on the previous work done in planning the feasibility of this route. On timing, we have set ourselves an ambitious programme, and we hope to have some news in the autumn statement. Indeed, when the announcements are made in the autumn, it will be interesting to hear what the shadow Chancellor says about following through on the promises when the Labour party writes its manifesto.
I made it clear in front of the Select Committee last week that we are certainly not going down that route. The decision on the A14 Huntingdon bypass makes that very clear indeed. In fact, I was reported as saying we have drawn a line in the sand on that one.
As part of the progress we are making, Department officials met local stakeholders in Taunton on 24 January to discuss the scope of the study, and officials are working to incorporate the views of stakeholders when finalising the scope.
I said that it may be useful to set out the historical background in terms of the previous proposals for major strategic improvements to the road. Proposals to complete the dualling of the A303 were made in the 2002 London to south-west and south Wales multi-modal study, and, together with improvements to the A358 between Ilminster and Taunton, they could have created a second strategic route to the south-west. However, by 2007, with the cancellation of the Amesbury to Berwick Down scheme owing to increased costs and the south-west region’s conclusion that some schemes could not be funded from the regional funding allocation, the Highways Agency was no longer able to progress the proposals.
My hon. Friend may also be aware that Somerset county council held a summit with other relevant stakeholders in 2012, the outcome of which was a commitment for further work on the relative prioritisation of potential interventions and consideration of possible funding avenues. A grouping of local authorities and local enterprise partnerships produced an initial analysis and business case for future improvements to the A303 corridor, to reiterate the importance of investment in the corridor. This work provides a useful starting point for more detailed work into the consideration of possible solutions to the problems along the A303.
On this Government’s commitment to infrastructure investment, we have already announced increased levels of Government funding to deliver improvements all around the strategic road network, targeted at supporting economic growth. Our commitment to deliver a step change in future investment in transport infrastructure was made clear by the Chancellor in his statement of 26 June last year, which announced the conclusions of the Government’s 2013 spending review.
The Treasury’s Command Paper, “Investing in Britain’s Future”, set out that the Government will invest more than £28 billion in enhancements and maintenance of both national and local roads, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) mentioned. This includes £10.7 billion for major national road projects and £4.9 billion for local major projects. More than £12 billion has been allocated for maintenance, with nearly £6 billion for repairs to local roads and £6 billion for maintenance of strategic roads, including resurfacing 80% of that network.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury is aware, for future investment planning, the Highways Agency is conducting its route-based strategy process, which involves local stakeholders in the consideration of future priorities. It might be helpful to say a little more about the agency’s approach, because that is the mechanism by which we will consider the investment needs of the entire strategic road network.
In our May 2012 response to the recommendations of Alan Cook’s report, “A fresh start to the strategic road network”, we agreed to develop a programme of route-based strategies to inform the identification of future transport investment for the entire strategic network. Route-based strategies will provide a smarter approach to investment planning throughout the network and see greater collaboration with local stakeholders to determine the nature, need and timing of future investment that might be required on the network. We will produce a uniform set of strategies for the entire network, including the A303, as part of the south west peninsula route-based strategy.
The Highways Agency completed a series of local engagement events last autumn to help identify performance issues and future challenges. I welcome the enthusiasm with which stakeholders in the south-west, including those in my hon. Friend’s constituency, have participated so far. The agency and the Department will use the evidence to prioritise and take forward a programme of work to identify indicative solutions that will cover operations, maintenance and, if appropriate, potential road improvement schemes. Route-based strategies therefore provide an opportunity for stakeholders to provide evidence about problems on the A303, so that the need for improvements can be considered and a plan for future investment developed.
My hon. Friend highlighted the issue of congestion on the A303 and the problems experienced as the road passes the Stonehenge world heritage site. The Government very much recognise such issues and the importance of transport infrastructure to support the economy. We are committed to identifying and funding early solutions to the longstanding problems on the A303-A30-A358 corridor, initially by undertaking a feasibility study.
The Minister was rushing through different things—the route-based strategy and the feasibility study—and I may have missed something, but will he clarify when he expects the route-based strategy to be completed and how it will feed into the feasibility study? Given the estimates that I have heard, the report of the feasibility is due in the spring of 2015. Is that what is intended?
No, we hope to make better progress than that and to be in a position to make an announcement based on that study in the autumn statement this year. The good news is that that study is one of six on the strategic road network. The A303 is already in the final of that competition.
I wish for no less for the hon. Gentleman, I am sure.
It might be useful to say a little more about the approach we are taking, as the feasibility study is the mechanism by which we will identify early solutions to the problems on the A303-A30-A358 corridor. The aim of the study will be to identify the opportunities and understand the case for future investment solutions on the corridor that are deliverable, affordable and offer value for money, including noise mitigation where appropriate, as my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury suggested. Much work has been carried out, but agreement has not been reached on a set of solutions. It is therefore important for us to carry out this study to ensure that we understand the priorities for the corridor and that proposals for investment demonstrate a strong and robust economic case for investment, as well as value for money, and are deliverable.
Does the Minister accept that the Stonehenge case will require not only a value-for-money approach, but a perspective on the wider heritage interests? What work is he doing to engage with other colleagues in government to take account of the particular concerns at Stonehenge?
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. A number of issues associated with the route-based studies up and down the country include environmental or heritage considerations. It is important not to take the view that, because they are sometimes too difficult, they should not be considered properly.
The study work will be conducted in stages, with the Department initially looking to identify the current and future challenges along the corridor. We are keen to ensure that we have the most up-to-date and relevant information available to inform the study. The Department has asked stakeholders to furnish us with any additional study work or analysis that they might have commissioned. The next stage will be to identify the range of solutions or measures that could address the problems identified along the corridor. Again, we will look to build on previous work, rather than starting from scratch, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield suggested, but we will not rule out other potential investment proposals that may emerge from the first phase of the route-based strategy process, as well as potential investment proposals on the A358.
We will look to engage with a range of stakeholders throughout the life of the study, including local highway authorities, local enterprise partnerships and local environmental groups. A stakeholder reference group will be established to ensure a mechanism through which the views of stakeholders may be incorporated in the study work. The views of hon. Members will also be important in the deliberations. The outputs of the route-based strategy and of the six feasibility studies will inform the Department’s roads investment strategy, which is being developed and which we have committed to publish by the end of the year.
I fully understand the Stonehenge concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury. As is well known, the single carriageway section of the A303 can cause congestion during traffic peaks on bank holidays and through the summer. I am aware that local lobby groups have been established, such as the Stonehenge traffic action group, of which I understand that my hon. Friend is aware.
The new Stonehenge visitor centre opened in mid-December 2013 and is situated at Airman’s Corner on the A360. In terms of traffic to the centre, the car park fails to meet demand at busy times, and this leads to traffic that is queuing to enter the visitor centre backing up along the A360 and blocking it to other users. In extreme cases, the traffic has reached as far as the A303 at Longbarrow roundabout, causing congestion on the A303. In support of the new visitor centre and closure of the local road, the Highways Agency has carried out extensive improvements to the Longbarrow roundabout at the junction of the A303, with significant investment of more than £3 million to support the Stonehenge attraction.
In addition, drivers have been using the nearby byway and lay-bys to get a good view of the stones, which has further exacerbated congestion on the A303. The Highways Agency has worked with Wiltshire county council and the police to prohibit certain movements and to prevent drivers parking illegally, guiding them by the designated route to the visitor centre. I assure hon. Members that while we await the outcome of the feasibility study, the Highways Agency will continue to monitor and respond to congestion at this location. Wiltshire police have invited some local representatives to a meeting with key agencies, including the Highways Agency, the county council, English Heritage and the National Trust, to look at the short-term issues likely to arise this summer.
Given the flooding that we have seen over recent weeks and months, I emphasise to my hon. Friend that the strategic road network in the south-west has performed well, although there was a closure one weekend. By and large, the network has been kept running, keeping the south-west open for business during this difficult period and allowing the replacement buses to run. The importance of the A303 has been emphasised in light of the issues experienced on the rail network.
Flooding occurred at two locations on the A303, at Ilchester and at Deptford, which was due to adjacent water courses and groundwater run-off from fields. Flooding at Ilchester meant that the A303 was closed in both directions for 20 hours. The diversion route was utilised to keep the route into the south-west open. The flooding at Deptford saw the eastbound carriageway affected for 12 days, although within two days a contraflow was put in place, enabling traffic to get through.
In conclusion, I again congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury on securing the debate. I have been clear that the Government are committed to and have set out plans for large-scale investment to improve our strategic road network in the relatively short term. We are also committed to developing a longer-term programme of investment through the route-based strategy process. Through the A303-A30-A358 corridor feasibility study, we will work closely with local stakeholders to ensure we consider current and future transport problems and the range of possible solutions that could deal with them. As I said, it is important that proposals for future investment are clearly supported by the local stakeholders and that there is a clear consensus on what is required. Ultimately, any proposals for future investment need to be able to demonstrate a strong business case and the delivery of both transport and wider economic benefits.
Every cloud is said to have a silver lining, and the weather in the south-west this year has emphasised the importance of a resilient road network when we have problems on our rail network. The fact that big investment is going into north-south rail connections makes an even stronger case for investment in roads in the south-west. I look forward to my road trip to Tiverton and Honiton—a road that I have travelled before. Having heard the points made today, I think that I need to set off in good time.