Neil Parish MP Secures Westminster Hall Debate on Routes into the South West

Neil Parish MP

That this House has considered the upgrading of road routes into the South West.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I am very grateful that this Transport Minister is here today. Looking round the Chamber, I can say with confidence that many hon. Members will agree with me when I say that I do not believe that the south-west has had the greatest bite of the cherry and the greatest funding in relation to roads and infrastructure. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister has travelled through the west country and shares our concerns. All I hope is that he has his chequebook with him this afternoon—we will see the colour of his money later, we hope.

The whole idea of this debate is to ensure that we deal with the roads going through the west country. There are particular roads that hon. Members will want to promote. I will be considering in particular the A303 from Ilminster through to Honiton. I very much welcome what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Government have put forward for dualling the A303 right the way past Stonehenge—indeed, under Stonehenge—and right the way through to Ilminster, and then dualling the A358 from Ilminster to the M5. My hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) is not here, but she would want me to say how much she welcomes what is happening with the A358. I am not here to complain about any of the roads that the Government have in place; I am here to say that we need a second arterial route into the west country. Just as we need a second railway line, we need a second road. Taking all the traffic on to the M5 at Taunton may not be the best idea if we have a problem on the M5, so having a second arterial route to Exeter, to the airport, is essential.

 

Anne Marie Morris: My hon. Friend makes the valid point that we need railways—we need two lines—and we certainly need a very strong route through. Does he agree that the Government should be in favour of that? We need economic growth in the south-west, and without that infrastructure we will not achieve it.

 

Neil Parish: I could not agree more. Doing the figures, we reckon that these infrastructure improvements could deliver about £40 billion to the west country, so we are talking about very big money. There are also a great number of visitors coming to see us, and we want to ensure that they can get there by rail, by road and even on their bicycles if they want to. We want them to come to the west country. There are many hon. Members present from Cornwall. To get to Cornwall, people need to travel through Devon, Somerset and Wiltshire, so that is key.

The west country is definitely a honeypot as far as tourism is concerned. If the A303/A30 through to Honiton and Exeter is dualled virtually all the way, most of the London traffic will come that way. Then there is the north and the northern powerhouse that the Chancellor is so keen to have and that I very much support. When people from the northern powerhouse and the midlands come down, they will naturally come down the M5 and into the west country from that direction. What I am talking about is a natural way of keeping that traffic going and keeping it separated. I go back to the point I made earlier. Let us say that we take all the traffic on to the M5 and there is a problem after Wellington. A caravan may tip over going down the hill, which is not an unforeseen happening. With what I am talking about, we will not only be able to get traffic on to the motorway. If there is a blockage on the motorway, then with the A358 dualled, we will get a lot more traffic back up the A358, going into Honiton. That is where I believe we need to do the second route in and have it dualled all the way through and upgraded through the Blackdown hills.

I know that my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones) will make a case for upgrading the north Devon link road, and I very much support that. I am not here to destroy other people’s ambitions; we want to ensure that we have as much investment for the west country as we possibly can.

I agree with the Chancellor—the architect of our long-term economic plan. As he rightly says, the south-west has not enjoyed as much attention as the north of England, but that does not excuse any neglect of the south-west. I agree that his long-term economic plan for the south-west is good, but we want to see the colour of his money. In particular, I believe that transforming connections between the south-west and the rest of the country is the right thing to do, as well as improving connections within the south-west. From Somerset to Devon to Dorset, these infrastructure upgrades are essential.

Kevin Foster: I am very much enjoying my hon. Friend’s comments. Does he agree that the Kingskerswell bypass, which has just opened and connects my constituency to the rest of the road network by dual carriageway for the first time, is a perfect example of the benefits that can be delivered by investment in our infrastructure, with thousands of jobs and new homes predicted to be generated just by that investment?

Neil Parish: I could not agree more. The Kingskerswell bypass brings people into Torbay. It brings them from the A380, and if they go back on that road, they have the A380, the A38 and the A30 when they get to Exeter, so they have a choice of roads. It is ideal to keep the A303 going from Ilminster through to Honiton to ensure that they can make that connection, so I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend.

 

Michael Tomlinson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. He mentioned Dorset, and Dorset in the south-west often feels unfairly left out. Does he agree that it is not just about individual counties such as Dorset and Wiltshire working together? We have to look across the whole of the south-west and then, as he says, into individual counties. For example, it is vital that we get north-south roads built out of the important port of Poole and put that infrastructure in place.

Neil Parish: I again agree, because in a previous life I had the terrible job of being one of the Members of the European Parliament for the whole of the south-west, which includes Wiltshire, Gloucestershire and Dorset, as well as all the other counties in the west country. If we take the A350 and other roads, getting north to south through Dorset, from Poole to Bristol, is an absolute nightmare. It is about ensuring that we have roads from those ports through to our major cities and our major road links, so I am very supportive of what my hon. Friend says.

In the course of this Parliament, we have a real opportunity in the south-west to consolidate and invest in our infrastructure. A number of roads need upgrading, and I know that my hon. Friends here today will be talking about the various projects—we have heard some comments already, but there will be more—all of which will play an important part in upgrading and improving our local economy in the south-west and our long-term economic plan. I think at least one of those investments should be upgrading the A303/A30/A358. The A303/A30 is a vital arterial route into the west from London, as I have mentioned. Those upgrades will also help as traffic calming measures. Currently, the A303/A30/A358 is one of the most congested roads in the south-west, and in the summer months road usage increases by up to 50%. If the Minister ran down through the A30/A303 today, he would probably find little problem with it, but that bears no resemblance at all to what it is like in the height of summer. Do not forget that we want people to come to the west country to spend their money and enjoy the great scenery.

The A358 runs through the constituency of my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane, and acts as a link between the A303, the A30 and the M5. She has campaigned long and hard for the upgrade of the A358, which runs just outside the Blackdown hills area of outstanding natural beauty—an area that I share with her. About 80% of local residents and businesses in the Blackdown hills AONB believe that road congestion is an issue and 97% of all residents support road improvements in the hills. The Blackdown hills AONB has made it clear that it supports an upgrade to the A303/A30, but that those upgrades should be carried out with sensitivity and in ways that are compatible with conserving and enhancing the natural beauty of the Blackdown hills.

John Glen: Does my hon. Friend agree that we need clarity about the timetable from the Minister, so that all our constituents across the south-west can be confident that the Government’s commitment will be delivered during the next few years before the next election?

Neil Parish: I could not agree with my hon. Friend more. We have talked about this for a great deal of time and we have put the money on the table, but people actually want the road built now.

Oliver Colvile: It is not just about the commitment to doing it; it is about physically seeing some of the work starting. We need some spades in the ground.

Neil Parish: We certainly do. Before I answer my hon. Friend, let me say to my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) that it is essential to get the tunnel built, but I want to ensure that we start building all parts of the A303/A30. We should not just hold up one part for another. We have to get on with it. To get down to Plymouth, we have to get through a number of counties. Plymouth is very much a driving force for the west country so it is essential that we get not only trains, but good roads to Plymouth.

Dr Andrew Murrison: I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. On the subject of getting the choreography right, it is great to do Stonehenge, which is what grabs the national news. However, would my hon. Friend observe that if we fix Stonehenge and merely shunt traffic a little bit further west, into the village of Chicklade, for example—a very real possibility, particularly if the economy takes a nose dive, which economies tend to do from time to time—my constituents will find a whopping great traffic jam landed on their doorstep, which would be an extremely bad thing and do nothing to sort out the problem with the superhighway to the south-west?

Neil Parish: I agree with my hon. Friend. Roads are a little bit like tributaries. If one area is cleared, the water is taken faster into the next area, and the same applies with traffic. Therefore, if we are doing the road, we have to ensure that we dual the road all the way through.

Although the tunnel under Stonehenge is necessary, it is expensive and will take some time. We have other schemes through Chicklade and other places that are not so expensive and can go on at the same time. The previous Government made a mistake: the problem at Stonehenge stopped any help to the rest of the roads. We have to do Stonehenge but we have to do the other parts of the road as well. Should the Minister travel on the A303/A30 now, he will have the good fortune of congested roads so that he can safely admire the natural beauty of the area, but I want him to be able to travel through a little faster so that he can get to his destination when he decides he is going to and is not stuck in hours of traffic jams in the summer.

In the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, we deal with air quality. There is no doubt that the more traffic is congested, the more vehicles stay ticking over, and as idling cars give out a lot of pollution, this a problem of pollution as well. If we get people through quicker, Roads Minister, we will improve the environment even more.

Unfortunately, many commuters are not that interested in the surrounding beauty and think that getting to work on time is important. Although a great many tourists come through the area in the summer, we must not forget that a lot of people are still working. They want to get to get to work and to get goods delivered in their vans and cars.

Simon Hoare: My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head of a historical problem, which is that the south-west—I include Dorset in that—has always been seen as a busy holiday destination that can just take the pressure for those months. It is often forgotten that we have a vital and viable series of businesses large and small, the agricultural sector and so on, which need high-quality roads so they can get their goods to and from market and their employees can get to and from work. If we are to see a real strengthening of our south-west economy, roads such as the A350 and the C13 in my constituency all need investment and attention.

Neil Parish: My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. When we improve the major roads, we must ensure that all the links work and get the heavy traffic through. We must ensure that we have good roads for tourists and for those who live in the west country all the time. Some 58% of people think that road safety is an issue and 53% believe that reliability is an issue, which demonstrates the need for an upgrade due to the public perception of the lack of reliability of the road. That goes back to what I said at the beginning: if people choose a route into the west country and they are absolutely certain they can get along the A303, they will use it; if not, they will go on to the motorway, which will probably be highly congested.

This is not just about public perception. The A303, A30 and A358 have among the highest number of fatalities and personal injury accidents, which underlines that road safety is a clear issue. Of course, road safety is not just an issue along the A303, A30 and A358. I have been working hard with Highways England to come up with a solution for Hunters Lodge junction on the A35, because that route is a real problem. There have been serious accident and fatalities there next to the turning into Uplyme and Lyme Regis.

Anne Marie Morris: Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a safety issue regarding the number of potholes? I remember that in a recent very bad winter, the potholes, even on the M5, were very significant. Given the number of roads we have in the west country—certainly in Devon—we need more money not just for new roads, but for ensuring that the existing roads are properly maintained.

Neil Parish: In fairness, I think that the Government gave a great deal of money for potholes, and the county councils, particularly Devon County Council, worked very hard on the problem. We have to deal with potholes because they cause accidents and damage cars. It is essential that we get that work done but, in fairness to the Government, they did give something like £8 million to Devon to solve the problem of potholes.

I am dealing with Highways England regarding the A35. We are looking for a solution to slow the traffic and make the Hunters Lodge junction safer—we must deal with that. Upgrading the whole corridor of the A303, A30 and A358 would create 21,400 jobs and boost the local economy by some £41.06 billion—a key delivery for the long-term economic plan for the south-west. Other benefits would include £1.9 billion of transport benefits due to reduced journey times and greater resilience.

James Heappey: My hon. Friend mentioned the long-term economic plan for the south-west, with which the Minister will be familiar. It was delivered 13 months ago, almost to the day, and he very clearly pledged £7.2 billion for wider transport improvements in the south-west, £3 billion of which was for roads. I hope my hon. Friend would agree that today would be a good time to hear an update on how the spending of that £3 billion is going.

Neil Parish: My hon. Friend raises a good point. We are keen to hear from the Minister exactly how the spending is going and when we are likely to see diggers arriving to construct the roads, as my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) said earlier. We look forward to that answer.

Additionally, as my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire) reminded me, the A30 is a stretch of road that runs past Exeter airport and that by no means constitutes low noise. He is particularly keen for the concrete motorway to be quietened—I suspect he tried that when the Minister came down the A30. It is definitely dualled, of which I am jealous, but there is an argument about the noise caused by the road. The village of Clyst in the East Devon constituency is hit by the double whammy of noise from the airport and from the roads.

Furthermore, the A30 is the main carriageway for motorists travelling westwards towards the Exeter and East Devon growth point, which is also in the East Devon constituency. The growth point, as my right hon. Friend pointed out to me, includes the brand-new and fast-growing town of Cranbrook, the science park, the business park, Skypark and, as mentioned previously, Exeter airport. The Minister was in Cranbrook just last week for the opening of a new train station, and he will have seen at first hand that improvements to the A30 would be a big boost to the growth point and therefore the wider economic area. The only way to achieve those figures is to upgrade the whole A303/A30—I may possibly have mentioned that before. That second arterial route into the west country would create a natural flow of traffic, as much of the London traffic would be dealt with, thereby creating the sensible and logical division of traffic that we need.

I ask the Minister for assurances that all those projects will be given the go-ahead. Please show the same confidence in the south-west that all of us here today share and recognise. We have been given a brilliant opportunity to develop as part of the long-term economic plan not just for the west country but for the whole country. Will he encourage Highways England to work with Devon County Council on the design of the roads through Honiton and Monkton, all the way through the Blackdown hills to Ilminster? Devon County Council has done a lot of work on that. Finally, we say to the Chancellor: please may we have these funds? They have been promised, and we look forward to seeing them.

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