Skip to main content

Transport Infrastructure: Cullompton

Volume 742: debated on Tuesday 19 December 2023

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

It is a pleasure to have secured the final debate of 2023. I understand that I have until about half past seven, but given that I am the only thing standing between the Minister and sherry, mince pies and wrapping gifts by the fire, I probably will not take the full two hours and 20 minutes.

I have a request of the Minister this afternoon. I am asking this Government to deliver the people of Cullompton a gift that everyone there has been asking for for years: the Cullompton relief road and the railway station. Cullompton is a rural market town nestled in the Culm valley. There has been a town there since Roman times—if you go out and knock on doors in the area, people will tell you that they have been waiting that long for the relief road and the railway station. The layout of the town would be familiar to anyone who has visited a small west country town: it has one major road, straddled by shops and houses. The town centre is very much the beating heart of the community. It has a regular farmers market that takes place once a month, every second Saturday. The economy of the town is built on a past involving wool, cloth and leather working, but in recent years it is very much a commuter community, with people making journeys to Exeter in particular.

Earlier this year, I distributed a survey across Cullompton to ask residents about their transport priorities. The responses made it crystal clear that a railway station was much needed, alongside a relief road and M5 junction upgrades. Residents tell me on the doorstep that new housing must come with infrastructure first, and they are right. While in the Department for Transport, I worked with the community and Conservative county councillor John Berry to secure a new railway station, after meetings with the Chancellor, the Transport Secretary and the Rail Minister. Local residents in Cullompton have waited long enough. It is time for decisive action, not just warm words. Does the hon. Member need a hand to get a relief road, too?

My neighbour, the hon. Member for Exmouth, is quite right that people in Cullompton are calling for this, but they have had enough of surveys. They have been consulted until their pens have no ink left in them. In 2018, Devon County Council ran a survey on the Cullompton town centre relief road. Another survey, organised by Cullompton Community Association fields, revealed that people were torn but would give up their community fields for the sake of a relief road to stop the awful congestion in the centre of the town. Now there is to be a further consultation, on both the relief road and junction 28, on which progress also needs to be made; I will expand on that shortly. People in Cullompton are sick of being consulted. They want to see action, and in particular they do not want to see surveys that are simply a means of harvesting voter intention data.

Huge volumes of traffic pass through Cullompton every day. The town is home to roughly 9,000 people, but it is reckoned that 37,000 a day commute into and out of Exeter, and many of them are from Cullompton. Traffic often becomes backed up and gridlocked, especially at busy times—early in the morning, or when children are picked up from school. I experienced that at first hand recently when driving to one of my advice surgeries in Cullompton. So bad was the congestion that I had to turn the engine off to stop it idling and releasing pollution.

Planning permission for the relief road was granted by Mid Devon District Council in January 2021, not without cost to local amenities. I have played football with my children at the CCA fields, and I know that members of the cricket and bowling clubs would love to have better pitches or greens, but above all else they want certainty: they want to know what the future of the town will look like. What they do not want is an enormous amount of housing with no supporting infrastructure. The Minister and other Members will have heard about the appeals that have taken place, but I should point out that Cullompton is a special case. There are plans for a north-west urban extension, and also for a garden village.

As Members will know, garden villages were an initiative thought up in 2017, and the Culm garden village is set to add 5,000 new houses to the town. If that were accompanied by promises of a new GP centre, new community sports facilities, new schools, new bus links and new cricket pitches, those might offer some amelioration, but all that people in Cullompton are seeing is more houses. We cannot keep building houses without the appropriate infrastructure to support them. Our roads cannot cope with the volume of traffic that we are seeing.

Then there is question of the motorway. The M5 goes past Cullompton, and junction 28 is one of the more congested motorway junctions. In fact, it is dangerously congested. National Highways said recently that it was

“unable to support development which introduces an unacceptable risk to highway safety, which includes queuing extending onto the M5”.

“Development” is actually a euphemism for housing. What National Highways is really saying is that we cannot afford more housing in this town, because it will simply cause queues on the motorway—but the queues are not just on the motorway; they are also through the town itself. All the motorists who get snarled up in the town, idling in traffic, know that they should be looking to Westminster and Whitehall for the solutions. Cullompton Town Council itself has said that it will “actively oppose” any residential development at east Cullompton until the town centre relief road is delivered and the capacity of junction 28 is increased. That will need to include safe pedestrian crossings over the M5, the railway and the river.

It is about time that Westminster and Whitehall took a look at that, because it is something that MPs and candidates through the ages have called for. Certainly, in the Tiverton and Honiton by-election last year, the Conservative candidate and I both called for it. As Cullompton’s MP, I have raised the issue in Parliament on multiple occasions and urged Ministers to consider how the lack of a relief road is affecting people in Cullompton. In the local elections earlier this year, Cullompton went Liberal Democrat. I dare say that that was a sign of people’s protests, and an indication that they are not prepared to put up with being overlooked on this issue by the Conservative Government here in Westminster.

We saw the welcome Network North announcements this autumn, but the opportunity to fund the relief road was passed over in rounds 1 and 2 of the levelling-up fund and, although we did not know it at the time, in round 3 as well, when Devon did not get any levelling-up funding at all. With all the furore, anyone would think that the relief road was going to be enormously expensive, but in the context of the sorts of figures that the Department for Transport is dealing with, I suggest that £35 million is not enormous, particularly as £10 million of that has already been secured by Homes England. To get best value out of that, the Government will want to match-fund against that £10 million from the housing infrastructure fund, for which there is a deadline.

It is thought that the upgrade to junction 28 would cost a further £34 million. That is a much more expensive proposition, but a lot of work has gone into it, costing £800,000 so far. That has resulted in a robust and financially sound business case. The junction 28 proposal contained 25 options, such was the diligent work that went into it, and they have been whittled down to just three. The proposal has now gone out to public consultation, with a deadline of 5 February. Members will forgive the people of Cullompton for being tired of being consulted on these matters; they just want to see action.

The case for the relief road and junction 28 is also health-related, as it relates to traffic and congestion. This is why we also need a railway station at Cullompton. There was a recent announcement of funding to reopen Cullompton station. Again, Network North was something of a re-announcement, but we were certainly glad to be part of the restoring your railway announcement in 2020. A strategic outline business case was developed last year and it will go to a full business case in 2024, with the potential opening of Cullompton railway station in 2025. I work alongside my co-chair, the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), as part of the metro board looking at every stage of the development and at how Network Rail and Great Western Railway are doing, perhaps giving them a little bit of a nudge when necessary but absolutely supporting their excellent work.

A railway station at Cullompton, along with the improvements to junction 28 and a relief road, will help with air pollution. The air quality management area in Cullompton has good monitoring, but I am afraid it reveals very poor outcomes for people’s health. It is estimated that the building of the relief road and the improvements to junction 28 would result in a reduction in the levels of nitrogen dioxide in the air of between 69% and 79%. That would clearly improve people’s health locally.

There are also plans afoot for walking and cycling. I have had people working with me on cycle routes in the area. Sustrans is considering linking Tiverton and Exeter through Cullompton, and there is a local cycling and walking infrastructure plan for connecting Willand and Uffculme. Together, all these initiatives—the relief road, the railway station and the walking, cycling and wheeling routes—will make a very friendly part of Devon into an environmentally friendly one.

In closing, I give credit to Neil Parish, my predecessor, who worked on this during his time as an MP, and to local Liberal Democrat campaigners who have been working with me on the operational details. I hope that we can think of today’s debate in the context of Christmas present. The word “present” in that context is usually associated with a gift, but I would like the Government to think of it in the context of the present tense—that is to say, I hope that we might see some action on Cullompton railway station, the relief road and junction 28 in the present and not at some unspecified point in the future. Those would be gifts for which I know that people in mid-Devon would be very grateful.

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I seek an apology, as the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord) did not name my constituency correctly in response to my intervention. He referred to me as the MP for Exmouth, but my constituency also includes Sidmouth and I should be referred to as the MP for East Devon. He has done this politically in local newspapers and leaflets. I wish also to clarify that Devon was successful, to the tune of nearly £40 million, in the most recent round of levelling-up funding, just to correct the researcher or whoever wrote the hon. Gentleman’s speech. I seek an apology for my constituency being named incorrectly, and a promise from the hon. Gentleman that he will not do so again.

The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord) is not indicating that he wishes to say anything further to that point of order, in which case it stands on the record.

I thank both the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord) and my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Simon Jupp) for their contributions to this debate on transport infrastructure in Cullompton. It is an honour and a privilege to address this issue on behalf of the Department for Transport. I have a sense of déjà vu all over again, as I responded to yesterday’s Adjournment debate—and I will be responding to the first Adjournment debate in the new year on Monday 8 January.

As the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton eloquently said, it is important to stress that transport infrastructure matters to everybody. I assure the House that I will not be using my full two hours and three minutes either, but, much as you did, Mr Deputy Speaker, I start by wishing everybody in the Chamber, all parliamentary staff, the Department for Transport team, those working in transport over the holiday period and my private office team of Juliette, Tessa, Aleena, Beth, Laura, Jack and Tom a happy Christmas.

As the last Minister to address the House in 2023, I want to say that democracy requires work and sacrifice. Our thanks, in particular, go to His Majesty’s constabulary, who keep us safe. We wish them a happy Christmas. We remember, sadly, the loss of PC Keith Palmer, who was killed in March 2017, and we understand very clearly that these men and women keep us and democracy safe. That should not be forgotten in any way.

As a Transport Minister, it is not for me to comment on the quality of councils’ bids to the levelling-up fund and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, but I will attempt to address the points that relate to this debate. I will try my hardest to address the widespread gentle criticism that there has not been investment in the south-west, and in Devon in particular. I will address Cullompton, but it would be remiss of me not to highlight the important work the Government are doing to improve journeys right across the south-west, and particularly in Devon.

Clearly, we remain committed to a long-term, multi-road programme of investment to improve road links to the region. By 2025, we will have completed a 3-mile upgrade between Sparkford and Ilchester. A combination of Government and local funding has enabled the delivery of £5.7 million of support for the Tiverton eastern urban extension, providing access to a site of more than 1,500 dwellings and associated employment. Additional transport infrastructure has been delivered at junction 27 of the M5 and at the A30 Honiton junction. The A361 north Devon link road scheme, which passes through the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, will also provide benefits to the area by improving connectivity to northern Devon. The £60 million provided by the Government will see full delivery of the scheme in 2024. Obviously, those projects will deliver significant benefits for the travelling public, but they will also boost the wider economy and support wider plans for growth.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of rail. Clearly, we have unlocked further prosperity for the region. That includes more than £50 million for the Dartmoor line, which has provided hourly services between Okehampton and Exeter since reopening in 2021. It is the first restoring your railway scheme to be delivered, and local people have enjoyed rail access to employment, education and leisure opportunities for the first time in almost 50 years.

The Secretary of State opened the new accessible station at Marsh Barton in Devon earlier this year, which came about with the help of £3.5 million of new stations funding. That is another great example of a locally led but nationally supported rail project, and one that clearly gives an economic boost to not only Devon, but the wider region. The Government have also invested more than £150 million to make the vital coastal rail link through Dawlish more resilient, helping to deliver the reliable service that communities deserve.

As part of Network North, we have made funding available for the final phase of the south-west rail resilience programme. The hon. Gentleman mentioned Network North, and Devon will receive more than £208 million through the roads resurfacing fund over the next 11 years, including an additional £6.66 million for the next two years, to combat potholes, which cause misery for drivers. For context, in this year alone that equates to a 16.6% uplift to the county council’s 2023 pothole budget.

I could go on about that in more detail, but I will move on to buses. Clearly, the £2 bus fare that the Government have rolled out across the country is exceptionally popular, and the bus fare cap has been extended until the end of December 2024. The national bus strategy asked that all English local transport authorities outside London publish a bus service improvement plan, setting out local visions for the future of bus services, driven by what passengers and would-be passengers want. That is backed by more than £1 billion of funding and the investment can be used to support and protect existing bus services that would otherwise be at risk. To support Devon County Council, we have allocated £17.4 million to deliver its BSIP, which will support service improvements such as increased frequency between Cullompton and Tiverton Parkway, a new service from Cullompton to Honiton railway station, and improvements to services 4 and 380.

In addition, we have provided support for active travel, with investment for drivers and public transport users being assisted by local cycling and walking infrastructure plans—LCWIPs. They allow local authorities to take a long-term approach when developing cycling and walking networks, helping to identify improvements that can be made over a 10-year period. Devon County Council is developing its Cullompton and Tiverton LCWIP. Obviously, we await the plan for consideration. That joint project with Mid Devon District Council focuses on a core area of Cullompton and considers strategic links south to Killerton and north-west to Willand, Tiverton Parkway and Tiverton. As I understand it, a consultation will be held shortly to seek the community’s views on the proposed plans. Identifying improvements through an LCWIP will support Devon County Council to include Cullompton within its pipeline of schemes for future funding rounds and to build on the £7 million-worth of funding the council has been awarded in recent years to both develop active travel and promote its use.

On multi-modal projects, for transport infrastructure to make a real difference to people who choose to live, work and do business in the south-west, we cannot operate in silos. We therefore take a holistic approach to connectivity. Clearly, my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon will be aware of the £15.7 million Destination Exmouth levelling-up scheme that delivers benefits for drivers, cyclists, pedestrians and public transport users alike. The West Devon transport hub has also received funding from a levelling-up fund scheme.

The hon. Gentleman raised specific matters relating to Cullompton. I accept entirely that the town has grown. I know the area well, as I represented individuals in a case at Taunton Crown court back in the distant dark ages before the turn of the century and spent some time there. I accept entirely that it has grown considerably and that there are plans to grow it more. It has developed into a commuter town, particularly to Exeter, and with its close proximity to the M5, I accept that there is high dependency on travel by car. However, it is also connected to Exeter by a bus service every 20 minutes, the frequency of which, I understand, will be increased to every 15 minutes in 2024.

The Government have a history of investing in the area. When the hon. Gentleman’s predecessor, who he rightly lauded as a strong constituency MP, was championing Tiverton and Honiton, a £1.8 million funding package between 2013 and 2016 delivered improvements to junction 28 of the M5, which included widening and signal upgrading. I am also aware that a project is being undertaken by Devon County Council to enhance the look and feel of the heritage town centre, including some minor transport-related improvements, which is on track to be completed in 2024.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of the Cullompton relief road. With respect, it is not for the Government to do the job of the local council in the making of such an application. The Government are not the local planning authority in respect of any particular garden village. The council needs to make the case and plan the infrastructure. I cannot comment on the nature of the levelling-up bid or its ongoing progress, but clearly there is work being done on junction 28. Some £900,000 has been secured from Homes England to support the development of a strategic outline business case.

Although I am not the Rail Minister, I will address the issue of rail, which the hon. Gentleman raised. As I understand it, the railway station closed in 1964 and the town will be potentially seven times the size it was then in the next couple of decades. Through Network North—the Government’s decision to cancel parts of the HS2 project and redistribute funds across the country—I was delighted that £5 million was secured to reopen the station. Fast trains to London and Exeter will unlock great opportunities for the community, and I look forward to seeing the station in operation as early as 2025.

The hon. Gentleman made many other points. With respect, I cannot answer for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, but he seeks support for various other matters. I would only make the point that it is for him and his local council to make the case for the infrastructure that he seeks and to put that in an appropriate form, so that any funding can follow. I am not aware that he sought any specific meetings with my predecessor, but I am happy to take away the points he raised today.

It is right and proper that the hon. Gentleman raises issues that matter to his local community on its behalf. I reassure the House that the Government are continuing to provide record levels of investment for road, rail, buses and active travel projects. It is our mission to level up transport infrastructure and to unlock further growth for all corners of the UK, and I thank him for bringing this matter to the House.

House adjourned.