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Safety and Littering: A34 and A420

Volume 683: debated on Tuesday 10 November 2020

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Eddie Hughes.)

It is a pleasure to have secured my first Adjournment debate. As some Members will know already, one of my major transport requests is the reopening of Grove station, which was one of the stations cut in the Beeching cuts. My constituents have wanted it to be reopened for more than 40 years now. It would better connect the people of Grove, where a lot more housing is due to go, it would get people off the roads I am about to talk about, and of course it would improve our environment. I have got my bid in to the Restoring Your Railway fund, and I have everything crossed for hopeful news at some point in the future.

However, that is not my constituency’s only transport challenge. In fact, we have two issues on two roads, which add up to one big problem for the people in my constituency. What I will talk about is the responsibility partly of Government, partly of Highways England and partly of the councils, both county and district.

I will begin with the A420. The A420 has two sections, and I make no apology for being most concerned with the section that goes through my constituency, from down near Shrivenham and Watchfield, up through the Coxwells, round Faringdon, across through Littleworth, Buckland and Kingston Bagpuize, and up through Fyfield and Tubney, which I will come back to in a moment.

The road is known locally—it has been for a couple of decades now—as a “road to hell” or “Hell’s Drive”. The fundamental problem is that it is very unsafe. It is supposed to be a local road going through a predominantly rural area, but it is used for commercial traffic between Oxford and Swindon, with a lot of heavy goods vehicles, which I will come back to, and as a shortcut between the M4 and the M40. All that adds up to too much traffic, and too much traffic of the wrong kind—traffic that is too heavy for what was built as a local road.

To put the safety issues in context, because that traffic adds up to a lot of accidents, we have had 12 fatal accidents in the three years to 2019, compared with five fatal accidents in the three years before that, so the problem has been getting worse. Overall, there have been 1,057 accidents in the past six years, which averages at nearly one accident every other day. The important thing about that statistic is that it is only for accidents that were reported to the police because someone was injured; it does not account for all the other accidents we know happen that simply involve vehicle damage. With those, I think that figure would be a lot higher. Of course, the safety issues are predominantly for the vehicles on the roads, but they are also an issue for cyclists and those on foot, because I stress that this is supposed to be a local road. All the way along the road, people live near it and need to be able to cross it.

One good example of the problem is when we get to the villages of Fyfield and Tubney, which the A420 goes through, Fyfield on one side and Tubney on the other. In order to do anything other than simply stay in their houses all day every day, people need to be able to cross the road. The numbers may be small, but the problem affects 100% of the community. I hope that this brings home to the House how extraordinary the situation is with the road: because it is so difficult to cross—because of the amount of traffic, the speeding that goes on and the HGVs that go down it all day long, from morning till night—constituents are known to get a bus down the A420 to cross at one of the few crossings, and then get the bus back, because they cannot make a simple journey straight across the road.

None of our constituents should have to live like that, and we must again make the A420 a local road that is suitable for the people who live in that community. That means a number of things. It means a proper bus service with safe stops along the route, as well as safe pathways for those who are on foot or on their bike. We need traffic light crossings and pedestrian crossings along the route—it is really quite a long route. We need better signage that diverts HGVs, which should not really be on the road anyway, away from it and reduces the speed on it, and importantly, that will have to be enforced.

Of course, that should be the responsibility of Oxfordshire County Council, but the council says that it does not have the money to make the improvements, even though it recognises that they are needed. I would therefore like the Minister to respond to the question of how we might remedy that situation, because it has gone on for far too long and my constituents should not have to deal with it.

Let me turn to the A34 which, again, is in two sections. Again, I make no apologies for being most concerned about the section that goes through my constituency, which in this case starts in the south and goes past Chilton, Harwell, Didcot, Steventon, Milton and Drayton as it as it heads north. I know that many Members of this House have some experience of the A34. In the past six years we have had 50 fatal crashes on this road, and 2,593 crashes overall, which is more than one every single day. Again, those figures are only for crashes that involve people being injured; they are not the figures for just damage to cars. On Thursday, I was told that I had secured this Adjournment debate; there was a crash on the A34 on the Tuesday beforehand and on the Friday the day after—and I am just talking about the section that is in Oxfordshire.

When it comes to the A34, the problem is much better documented. Highways England has recommended a number of safety improvements. As some of those improvements have been made, I ask the Minister when we can expect the other improvements, because my constituents try to avoid this road because of the safety issues. I should say that that question is separate from that of improving connectivity across the region. The safety issues have been going on for some time, but there is a separate question about how to improve connections for people going across the region.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way on this important issue, which is of great seriousness to residents across the Thames valley—it is good to see that the hon. Member for Newbury (Laura Farris) is also in her place.

I fully support the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about safety on the road, which affects people living in the Reading area as well. Does he agree that another potential safety issue is that traffic can come off the A34 at Didcot, travel through Didcot and past Wallingford, and then take the A4074 into the northern part of Reading and use Reading as a shortcut to get on to the M4? We have serious concerns about traffic taking that shortcut route, which affects the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, the constituency of the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) and the Reading East constituency.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, for which I thank him. We have all sorts of issues in Didcot and Wallingford exactly as he describes regarding those roads being used in that way. I am talking about certain roads; were this a Westminster Hall debate, we could probably talk for an hour and a half about the issues of traffic and shortcuts and what people are trying to do to get around roads that do not work effectively.

We then come to litter. I have had reports and complaints about litter on both roads. I have had complaints about the A420, but it is fair to say that I get many more about the A34. The litter itself is a safety issue. People drop all sorts—cars, lorries and road workers are dropping plastic bags, plastic bottles, tyres and a whole range of other things, which are unsightly and unsafe for constituents, and not good for the environment either.

When it comes to litter, a couple of odd situations need to be remedied. One is that one company is responsible for mowing the verges along the A34 and another is responsible for picking up the litter. That strikes me as pretty inefficient. Understandably, Highways England will not allow the A34 to be closed during the day because of how much traffic goes along it, which means that the company has to try to pick the litter at night, which is, of course, much more difficult. The question on littering, which I pose to the Minister and which a number of constituents posed to me, is: why can Highways England not be responsible for clearing litter on the A34? It has a number of other responsibilities to do with highways, and it would make sense—given that this growing problem is a regular cause of complaint from my constituents—for it to be responsible for this, given that it makes it difficult to clear the litter another way.

In conclusion, these two roads present huge challenges for my constituents—noise problems, tremors from HGV lorries making their houses vibrate, the littering problems that I described and, more than anything, safety issues, with crash after crash and near miss after near miss. Everybody in the House should agree that it is one thing for someone to avoid a road because there might be traffic and they fear they will be delayed, but it is an entirely different thing to avoid a road because they think there will be accidents and they fear they might be injured. In the case of both roads, my constituents have dealt with that fear for far too long.

I am very grateful to my colleague and friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (David Johnston), for securing this debate. I will confine my remarks to the A34, which runs from north to south through the heart of my constituency. I must start by paying tribute to my predecessor, and indeed my hon. Friend’s predecessor—Richard Benyon in my case, Lord Vaizey in his—because they did a lot of work, together with the A34 action group, assiduously compiling data about accidents that occurred on the road and applying for funds.

In September 2017, the A34 action group invited Highways England to undertake an analysis of the A34. At its direction, I use data from the CrashMap website, which reports accidents. Between Newbury and East Ilsley, a distance of about nine miles, there were 70 crashes over a period of five years that resulted in injury, with 11 fatalities—most recently Oliver Williams, a 27-year-old Cambridge graduate who was killed last month. I was delighted to receive a letter from Highways England in October committing to upgrades of the road. Last week, I received a letter from the Secretary of State about those upgrades. However, I noticed that the focus of his correspondence was on improving congestion and commuter times along the route, and secondarily on improving air and noise pollution. I hope that the Minister will understand when I say that, while those improvements are welcome, the primary issue, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage said, remains safety.

I undertook a residents survey earlier this year and must relay the findings. The junctions at East Ilsley—north and southbound—where Oliver Williams lost his life are particularly precarious, as are the junctions at Beedon, Speen and Wash Common. All the residents who contributed said that much longer slip roads were required and asked for warning signs. In addition, there is a need to address a particular section of the road close to East Ilsley that is effectively a switchback with some blind corners. It is rare for a car accident to make it into the national news, but four years ago a lorry driver not only ploughed into the back of a car but went right over it at that point of the A34, killing Tracy Houghton, her sons Josh and Ethan and her stepdaughter Aimee. It was one of the worst car accidents that the UK saw that year. Most reporting of that case rightly focused on the fact that the lorry driver had been using his phone, and that his eyes had actually not been on the road for 45 seconds prior to the crash. However, less well known is that he had just completed the switchback section and was at a blind corner, and when he came around it, a line of stationary cars had built up that he did not see.

Everyone who responded to my survey, including several who cited that crash, asked for either speed limits on that section of the road or for a dedicated HGV lane to be created. Although Highways England’s plans for this stretch of road are welcome, I respectfully request that safety, rather than convenience, becomes the priority.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (David Johnston) on securing this important debate to raise the crucial issues of safety and litter on two of the key roads in his constituency, the A34 and the A420. Before I continue my remarks, I must touch on the point he raised about Grove station. I assure him that the Department has received his bid. We were delighted to receive it and we expect to announce the results soon.

My hon. Friend has done an excellent job of outlining to the House his constituents’ concern about the A420, which he notes is known locally as the “road to hell”. None of us would wish that situation upon our constituents, and I well understand the concerns he has described. He has described his mission and vision for the A420 as ensuring that it is once again a local road, and he has helpfully outlined a number of detailed improvements we can look to make. I urge him to work closely with Oxfordshire County Council, specifically on the funding issue, which I will address. He also talked about the A34, emphasising that the figures provided by the Department do not always tell the true story, because they do not always incorporate the damage to vehicles as well.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Laura Farris) highlighted the tragic death of her constituent, and I understand that there have been other deaths as well. Again, that is a matter of great concern. She highlights that she wishes us to look again at the issue of safety on this road, and I am happy to let her know that Baroness Vere will be delighted to meet her. The hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) has again added his voice as another constituency MP who has experienced concerns about this road, and he also highlighted the priority of safety for his constituents.

I need to remind the House that the A34 forms part of the strategic road network managed by Highways England, whereas the A420 is a local road managed by Oxfordshire County Council. Our strategic road network is among the safest road networks in the world. The Government’s second road investment strategy, published in March, set out how we will invest £27.4 billion in England’s strategic road network to ensure that it continues to provide the safe and reliable connectivity that the country needs. This includes funding proactive maintenance and ring-fenced funding for specific priority issues, such as addressing safety and congestion. However, we have heard the specific concerns raised by Members and we are investing in two specific projects for the A34, including safety improvements to which my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage refers.

The safety of the wider road network is of equal importance. For local roads such as the A420, safety is the responsibility of the relevant local authority. Let me highlight that the Government provide financial support to local authorities to meet that and other related responsibilities. For Oxfordshire, the highway maintenance funding allocation from the Department is more than £27 million for the financial year 2020-21, and additionally in the same year Oxfordshire has been allocated more than £3.6 million through the integrated transport block for capital investment in small transport improvement projects, which can be for road safety. My hon. Friend has highlighted some issues on the A420. I understand that this is the responsibility of Oxfordshire County Council and I encourage him to engage further with the council and with Baroness Vere on the specific issue if he is not satisfied.

I recognise fully the unpleasant impacts of roadside litter, and the Government are committed to continuing to target the issue of litter on our road network, combining prevention with cure, in order to make our roads clean and safe places to work and travel. Each local highway authority is responsible for clearing litter on the roads for which it is responsible. In the case of the A34 in my hon. Friend’s constituency, which is part of the strategic road network, the responsibility falls to the local district council. As elsewhere, however, Highways England recognises its responsibility and works in partnership with local authorities to reduce littering on the A34, for example, by giving them access during planned roadworks. In that way, nearly half a tonne of litter and other debris was collected on 21 September alone—an astonishing figure, as I am sure hon. Members agree.

I turn to the specific work under way intended to improve safety on the A34. My hon. Friend referred to the proposed safety improvements for it, and I can confirm that Highways England has been carrying out a £12.1 million programme of safety improvements on it, most of which, I am pleased to say, are now complete.

The Secretary of State has also asked Highways England to commence a new project focusing on the A34 between the M4 and the M40 that will consider options for interventions to alleviate congestion now and in the future, as well as to improve safety for road users. I understand that Highways England has already arranged a meeting with my hon. Friend to hear his views on the road as part of the project. If that is not the case, I would be delighted to work with him to facilitate that meeting. Of course, I encourage him to take the opportunity to work closely with Highways England on its development.

I conclude by thanking Members of the House, including the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts), who is sitting on the Front Bench with me and is also affected by that road in his west Oxfordshire constituency. It is a road that touches many hon. Members’ constituencies and gives rise to many concerns for Members of the House and local communities. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage for securing the debate and raising these important issues.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.