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Strategic Road Network: South West

Volume 627: debated on Wednesday 19 July 2017

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the strategic road network in the South West.

First, I welcome the welcome the Minister to his place. As you are aware, Mr Howarth, I worked with him on the nuclear issue and Hinkley Point. I also thank his Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (James Heappey), and my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr Fysh) for being here. I am glad that my hon. Friends the Members for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), for Gloucester (Richard Graham) and for Torbay (Kevin Foster) are here too. I am sorry about the pink specs, Mr Howarth—I managed to lose mine.

I am grateful to be able to raise issues about the road network in the south-west. They relate exclusively to that network, and they have to be cured. The strategy for the major roads can be a bit of a beggar’s muddle, which roughly translates as a complete and utter mess, liable to cause confusion and dismay. I represent Bridgwater and West Somerset, and the M5 is our only official strategic route. It covers the whole of our area. If someone needs to get strategically to Watchet, Williton or Minehead, they need the A39. That road is every bit as strategic for hundreds of thousands of holidaymakers and for anybody who happens to live there, yet the M5 and the A39 come under entirely different management.

Most A roads in this country are looked after by county councils. All motorways and a handful of A roads are the responsibility of Highways England Ltd. Two years ago, the Government quite rightly shook up the old Highways Agency, turned it into a flash new company and hoped it would learn to operate within budget and focus more attention on customers. There was frustration in Whitehall that new roads took far too long to complete—we have all suffered from that. It would be much better, it was thought, if one company was given a big budget and simply allowed to get on with it. The Government also wanted to speed up the whole planning process.

A chief executive with an impressive track record was hired. Jim O’Sullivan used to be the chief engineer at British Airways, and claims he can still change the brakes, wheels and engines on an aeroplane, but I would rather he concentrated on his day job. After all, Highways England spends £7 million of public money every single week. That is enormous bucks, given that the highway under its control adds up to just 2% of the total road network. The company got a rap over the knuckles from the rail and road regulator in its first appraisal last year. The regulator said that it was not transparent enough about plans or accurate enough about accounting. I can think of quite a few level-headed Somerset people who would agree and go further.

Highways England has sparked a monstrous planning row that shows what is wrong with the whole process of strategic road development. At the end of the week, I will get in my car and drive home to the west country. I usually travel on the M4, then on to the M5 and home. Occasionally, if I am in a hurry, I will risk the A303 and the A358 into Taunton—my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil knows how tricky that is—but from drivers’ point of view that is a gamble. They face swarms of druid-fanciers at Stonehenge, armies of articulated lorries struggling up hills and enough caravans to drive Jeremy Clarkson bonkers—all going at a snail’s pace throughout.

You are probably not aware, Mr Howarth, that parts of the A303 are still single-carriageway. Most of the A358 is a bottleneck, and Taunton has become a snarled-up no-go area. As a matter of fact, there is no good reason to go anywhere near Taunton since the useless council lost its famous cattle market to Bridgwater and is allowing the shopping centre to waste away and die. Councillor John Williams is now the sheriff of a wild west tumbleweed town. He struts about spending oodles of taxpayers’ money on gold taps and new showers for Deane House, and people say he is on the take—more of him later, I promise.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his rose-tinted spectacles. On the issue of strategic roads, does he agree that the other key road in the south-west that is worth a mention today is the A417—in particular the bottleneck at the Air Balloon roundabout, which prevents the link between the M4 and the M5?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and it is quite correct to highlight such situations. His constituents suffer in the same way as those of my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil on those inadequate roads. We need a policy that covers A roads and motorways. My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester has done a noble job for his constituents, and I am glad he has raised that point.

Highways England had a brief to create an alternative route to the far south-west using the A303 and the A358, even if it effectively bypassed Taunton. As my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil is aware, it would have made much more sense to upgrade the A303 and carry on over the Blackdown hills with improvements to the A30. Devon County Council wanted that option, and my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), who unfortunately cannot be in his place today, argued for it. It would be a much shorter route, and cheaper too.

The most cost-effective solution is just to improve the M5 and widen it. It would save a fortune—problem solved. That would be it sorted. The trouble is that Highways England did not get the choice. It was lumbered with the A303 and A358, and it came up with a series of wildly expensive plans. Surprise, surprise, it picked the cheapest option, although it makes no strategic sense whatever. The result has been a storm of protest. Highways England has totally cheesed off Somerset County Council, which thinks the plan nuts. Highways England stupidly cancelled the public consultation meetings during the May general election campaign. Why? It has made so many blunders that the Campaign to Protect Rural England is threatening to take it to court for a judicial review—ridiculous.

Worst of all, Highways England will be using something called a development consent order to secure the right to build the road. It does not matter how many people protest or what the local council says, because development consent orders were designed to put time limits on all objections. Basically, unless the Secretary of State intervenes, a development consent order can be a legal bulldozer. I should add that the long list of objectors to the proposal includes Taunton Deane Council, bizarrely, which desperately wants a new road but would much prefer a link with one of its plum building projects called Nexus 25.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the key issues with the A358 is that we must ensure that we have a north-south link between our parts of Somerset, which would enable the Somerset economy to grow to its full potential?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He has been a champion for the A303 and A358 since he stood as a candidate. He has done a remarkable job in ensuring that the Government are fully aware of the feelings of the people of Yeovil. Yeovil and Bridgwater are the only two industrial towns in Somerset. This issue matters enormously given that the railway station for Yeovil is outside the town, so we have double strategic problems.

Nexus is a rosy apple in the eye of Tumbleweed Town’s Wyatt Earp, Councillor John Williams. Quick on the draw as he is, Wyatt Twerp intends to make sure it happens. Anyone who objects could end up on Boot Hill with an overdose of lead poisoning. Nexus is a plan for a giant business park on green fields next to junction 25, off the M5. Wyatt Twerp’s builder pals from Summerfield bought the plot cheap a few years ago. Taunton Deane now intends to use a local development order to force it through. Local development orders were designed for one purpose: to enable the development of brownfield sites, but Nexus is greenfield, and Wyatt Twerp is on the fiddle again with legal trickery to stifle objections. Local development orders, like development consent orders, make a mockery of consultation, but in lawless Tumbleweed Town that’s the way they do things. Wyatt Twerp wants to win, which is why he complained so strongly about the plans of Sir Tim Smit, the architect of the world-famous Eden Project, which we have all been to and know so well. Sir Tim Smit wants to build an extensive complex at junction 27 on the M5. It is a well-engineered proposal from a team with excellent form. Sir Tim Smit understands consultation. He actually attends all public meetings in person, which is impressive.

Wyatt Twerp sees any rival development, even in neighbouring counties, as a dreadful threat. Right now, he is getting his posse together to ride out and lynch the man—bizarre, I know. Imagine: Sir Tim Smit’s plans might lure people away from the invisible attractions of Tumbleweed Town.

My hon. Friend the Minister will be aware of another crazy caper dreamed up by Wyatt Twerp to merge West Somerset Council, which is in my constituency, with Taunton Deane. That could result in a new authority, no doubt to be called Greater Tumbleweed. West Somerset would end up without a single local office, and with no staff and few elected councillors. Wyatt Twerp organised a consultation process, which, as hon. Members would expect, was shallow, shabby, inaccurate and so badly drafted that few people took part. It was not worth the paper it was written on.

Once again, Wyatt Twerp is on the fiddle. His bid to merge has been submitted to the Secretary of State using a piece of law that gets around the need to consult anybody. Needless to say, my constituents are crying foul play. When they finally rumble his bent regime and boot him out, he would be very well qualified—dare I say it to the Minister?—to join Highways England as a consultant.

That brings me back to the A358 and the road that Highways England wants to build with no links to Nexus 25. I have a suspicious mind. I have already discovered that Summerfield Developments has bought another large plot of agricultural land, which happens to be remarkably close to all of Highways England’s route options for the A358. At present, Summerfield would not get permission to erect a garden shed on it, but if the A358 becomes a dual carriageway, nearby land will become ripe for new homes and Summerfield will be quids in. I wonder how much more land it has an option on already. I wonder which well-known land agents are scouting on its behalf, and who else has invested in that beautiful green-belt corner of Somerset.

Perhaps Wyatt Twerp himself will come clean and tell us why he bought a 30-acre plot close to Stoke St Mary parish church all those years ago. He might claim that it was because of his love of rural scenery or his abiding affection for the great crested newt, which we have all come across. Perhaps it was because of his desire to safeguard a precious plot for posterity. Or was it an early bid for a garden town—“Williamsville”, for instance, which is a great name—which my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil has championed? We know that there are fairies at the bottom of his garden and pink pigs flying above them, but the leader of Taunton Deane Council is a greedy builder at heart, and he must have known that 300 houses would fit on 30 acres. Wyatt Twerp bagged a bargain when he bought that land.

The point is this: if the A358 is turned into a highway, there will be huge building opportunities. Highways England understands Wyatt Twerp’s ambitions. Taunton Deane Council has been involved in secret talks with Highways England for months, but it took a freedom of information request from a gentleman called Dave Orr, who is not one of my constituents, to prove it. Two weeks ago, he obtained a memo from Highways England’s global consultants. Those experts recognised Taunton Deane’s extraordinary plan to build 17,000 houses and advised that 3,460 could be built on the land near the motorway junction. As far as I can make out, Mr Orr is a fair man. He decided to alert officers of Taunton Deane Council and Somerset County Council in case they had not seen the document. Nobody reacted, so Mr Orr called the press. It was a story—it was all true—but Wyatt Twerp went bananas and ordered his deputies to threaten the local paper for publishing “fake news”. Wyatt had a nasty attack of the Trumps.

That is a revealing episode in a very sad saga. I believe that this is the wrong strategic route for the south-west. We now know for certain that any road developments around this green part of Taunton will bring extra houses by the thousand, which will affect my hon. Friends the Members for Wells and for Yeovil. No wonder so many people are angry. No wonder there is growing distrust of the system and growing contempt for the local politicians—my hon. Friends excluded—who have conspired to allow this to happen. On that point, I rest my case.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) on securing this debate, which has the very wide title “The strategic road network in the south-west”, and on his extremely pungent and colourful speech. I will start generally and then focus on the specific issues that he raised and the area itself.

As my hon. Friend knows, our road network is the backbone of Britain. Let me remind him and colleagues that the strategic road network, which comprises approximately 4,300 miles of motorways and all-purpose trunk roads valued at more than £100 billion, supports the safe and efficient movement of people and goods. Whatever the optics might be in terms of the percentage of road length the network represents, it is vital to the UK economy and to our current and future economic growth. Around 80% of all goods travel by road, with about two thirds of large goods vehicle traffic being transported on the network. Some 4 million vehicles use the network each day.

As my hon. Friend will be aware, this Government and the previous Government have made a strategic decision to continue to develop the strategic road network by providing extra lanes on our motorways and improving key routes, but also by investing in parts of the country that have suffered due to poor transport connections. That is why the Government are investing £23 billion in England’s roads, £15 billion of which will be spent on our motorways and major A roads.

That funding underpins what has become known as the road investment strategy, a five-year plan launched in December 2014 that sets out the schemes and funding levels from 2015 to 2020. In the five years from 2015, the Government will invest around double the capital in strategic roads that was invested in the five years from 2005. That is a record of which the Government and, in fact, all Government Members can be very proud.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) on securing the debate. The Minister highlights the investment that is being made. Will he confirm that that will include finally sorting out the issues at Stonehenge that mean that so much traffic from London to the south-west ends up going via Bristol?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. I will discuss the A303 and Stonehenge later in my speech.

The road investment strategy is the biggest upgrade to our strategic roads—our motorways and major A roads—in a generation. It will see the addition of more than 1,300 extra lane miles to our busiest roads. The schemes cover every region of England; in the two years since 2015, 12 major schemes have opened for traffic and 16 more have started construction.

Does the Minister agree with me and with Conservative-run Plymouth City Council that it is time that we continued that investment in our strategic road network by extending the M5 from Exeter to the Tamar bridge?

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that question. The answer is that we have a number of funds available and we look forward very much to the submission of bids, which will be given the full scrutiny that they deserve and merit.

Let me turn to the questions raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset. He started by referring to the A39, which I will touch on for a second. He will be aware that that is a local road, but as he also knows, the Government recently announced that from 2020, under the new roads fund that we have set up, which is entirely funded by vehicle excise duty—that is a tremendous innovation, or rather a move back to the future for our road network—we will segregate what we consider to be a major road network investment programme. I think that the A39 will be eligible to be funded under that programme. Once the consultation has been done and work is under way to programme that investment, my hon. Friend and local authorities will be absolutely welcome—indeed, they will be invited—to submit bids. I am aware of his strong feelings, rose-tinted spectacles or no, and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (James Heappey) about the importance of dualling that road in both directions.

Overall, the Government are investing heavily in the road network in the south-west and have committed some £2 billion to major schemes through the road investment strategy. Later this year, we will announce the preferred route for the A303 Stonehenge tunnel, which is a very significant project in its own right, and for the A358 Taunton to Southfields and A303 Sparkford to Ilchester schemes. I understand that my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset has particular concerns—concerns that he expressed with considerable pungency—about the route that the A358 should take into Taunton.

Will the Minister reassure us all that, regardless of which of those routes and attendant end points for the A303 are eventually chosen, utmost priority will be given to completing that work as fast as possible? My hon. Friend the Member for Wells (James Heappey) cannot contribute to this debate—he is the Minister’s Parliamentary Private Secretary—but I know that he and my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) feel strongly that taking the pressure of long-distance traffic off the M5-M4 triangle and allowing it to make progress down the A303 corridor is absolutely essential for everyone who lives on the M5, as well as for the long-distance traffic that uses it to get through Somerset.

I very much take my hon. Friend’s point. Of course, the point of the tunnel is not merely to safeguard the extraordinary and historic global asset we have at Stonehenge; it is also part of a much bigger programme of trying to improve the A303 for trunk purposes, in a way that is designed precisely to lift some of the pressure off other arterial routes. I take his point very well.

I should say that I do not recognise the description that has been given of Highways England. From my limited experience as a Minister, I know that it is not a perfect institution, but it has made significant progress since becoming Highways England. It is undoubtedly focused on the task of the effective delivery of schemes in order to get the best outcome for local people, which my hon. Friend mentioned.

May I reassure the Minister that there are those of us who do rather enjoy working with Highways England? It is certainly being helpful on the question of junction 21 of the M5 and junction 21A in my constituency. I can vouch for his point of view.

I am glad of that intervention, and if I may, I will proceed with my remarks.

To return to the A358, of course my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset made some quite colourful remarks about that. I am sure he will understand if I do not take a position on the issue, but he has made his concerns, and the public concerns of others, very well, and they sit in the record for further excavation and inquiry.

As my hon. Friend will know, Highways England recently held a public consultation on the routes that the A358 should take, and it will work closely with local partners to advise the Secretary of State and myself on the preferred route. Those schemes are just the first part of the £2 billion plan I mentioned to create a new dual carriageway route from the south-west to London.

If I may range slightly further outside the specific issue of the A358 and the A303, improvements to the A30 in Cornwall—both a planned improvement and one nearing completion—will extend dual carriageway standard road as far as Camborne. The Temple to Higher Carblake section opened last week and Highways England announced the preferred route for the Chiverton to Carland Cross scheme earlier this month.

Highways England is also creating a new junction on the M49 to support development at Avonmouth. The port of Avonmouth and the Avonmouth Severnside Enterprise Area to the west of Bristol currently have no direct access to the M49, which is hindering proposals to support economic growth in the area. A new junction on the M49 will improve access to those areas, ease congestion and contribute to the economic growth of the region.

If I may respond in anticipation of the much-welcome but inevitable intervention from my beloved colleague from Gloucester, a little further afield, to the north-east, Highways England is also developing the A417 Air Balloon roundabout improvement—I should say that it is not a small scheme. Potential route options are being identified for public consultation before the end of 2017. That scheme will tackle a missing link in the dual carriageway between Gloucester and Cirencester, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on his tireless championing of that important scheme, which will certainly have through benefits for trunk users of that road coming from Herefordshire to London.

I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset has a particular interest in the M5 junction 23 Bridgwater scheme and wrote to the Transport Secretary recently on that matter. Let me turn to that, if I may. The Government’s view is that it is vital that there be a good connection to Hinkley Point. The new power station—and one must not forget the existing power station there—is of strategic importance to the UK, and the Government will ensure that the road network around it gives all the necessary access to the plant and works. That will support local economic growth, housing and local jobs.

I thank my hon. Friend for bringing that up, partly because it affects the seat of my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (James Heappey) as much as mine, and also those of my hon. Friends the Members for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) and for Yeovil (Mr Fysh). We have heard about Weston, and I certainly know, as will my hon. Friend the Member for Wells, that Burnham is a very tight junction. The Secretary of State has been helpful to Somerset MPs in sorting this out, but will my hon. Friend the Minister allude to the need for more capacity at all the junctions from 27 to 21? We may need to revisit that, but I am grateful to him for what he is saying about junction 23.

I absolutely take the point. It would have been remiss of me as the Minister not to have addressed this important issue, on which my hon. Friend has been vociferous—and rightly so—along with other colleagues in the past. That is why I have raised it now.

Highways England has been assessing a larger-scale upgrade of the Bridgwater junction, as set out in the road investment strategy. When my predecessor wrote to my hon. Friend recently, he relayed the fact that Highways England was continuing to collect data to inform its assessment so that it could continue to ensure the right solution for the local area. I will make certain that Highways England presses on with that process. I have encouraged it to continue to improve its engagement with colleagues—this is a valuable case in point—so that all relevant views are properly taken into account.

In addition, in March 2017 the Government named 27 proposed small congestion relief schemes that can be delivered quickly. The south-west was allocated some £32 million for improvements, better driver information and queue protection on the M5. Of course, we welcome further inquiries as to how junctions elsewhere in the region and on that road can be improved.

In the time that remains, I will briefly turn to the question of the future. As I have said, the £15 billion currently being invested represents a substantial increase in the rate of investment in roads, but even so, the first road investment strategy—what we call RIS 1—remains only an initial step, albeit more strategic than hitherto. That is why we have already started work on developing the second road investment strategy, RIS 2, which will handle further investment in the network beyond 2020.

The Department is currently gathering and analysing evidence about the performance of the network and the future pressures it faces. Of course, that is a dynamic process as further changes are made and ways of using the road network themselves change. Central to that approach has been Highways England’s work to refresh its 18 route strategies, each focusing on different sections of the strategic road network, which were published in March. As part of that work, Highways England gathered information from MPs, road users, local authorities and other stakeholders through an online public consultation last summer and through face-to-face meetings.

My hon. Friend will be particularly interested in the Birmingham to Exeter route strategy, which identified areas along the M5 where there are current and anticipated future pressures on the network. I am sure that also goes for other Members of all parties present in the Chamber.

We will use that evidence, and the results of a public consultation planned for later this year, to develop an investment plan that is affordable and deliverable and that will meet our key aims for RIS 2, specifically to support economic growth; improve network capability; enhance integration with local roads and other transport modes; reduce the number and severity of accidents; and protect the environment. We remain on track to publish the second RIS before the start of the next road period on 1 April 2020. In that context, I will pick up a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose). That approach also needs to take into account some of the pressures that a route strategy has in relation to other arterial roads to ensure that the counterbalancing we have discussed is properly discharged.

While I am aware that the focus of this debate has been on the strategic road network in the south-west, I hope that I may acknowledge quickly the value of the local road network. Most journeys that use our motorways and major A roads start on the local road network. The Government continue to provide funding for local authorities and local enterprise partnerships in England to help fund large transport schemes that improve connectivity, ease local congestion and improve or update existing infrastructure, thereby helping to promote growth and deliver more housing. Most of the Department’s funding for large schemes now sits in the local growth fund, with some £6 billion provided to local enterprise partnerships through different growth deals.

Since 2011, the Department for Transport has invested over £360 million in major local schemes in the south-west. As well as the largest schemes, we continue to fund smaller schemes designed to open up developments and help maintain roads and bridges. The Government are also keen to invest in road maintenance to make roads better for users. That is why £12.5 million has been made available to fix potholes—a topic of great interest to every member of this House—in the south-west.

Shortly, I plan to announce the winners of the 2017 to 2018 highways maintenance challenge fund, whereby the Government will be investing £75 million to improve smaller local roads, including through resurfacing, pothole filling and other infrastructure projects. In summary, we are delivering on our plans for investment in the south-west’s road network, both strategic and local, to give the south-west the roads it needs for the future.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.