Westminster Hall Debate on the future of the A303

Neil Parish MP spoke in a Westminster Hall debate on the future of the A303. Neil Parish has campaigned for an upgrade this road for many years.

Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): 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.

Alison Seabeck: 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.

Neil Parish: 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.

John Glen: 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.

Neil Parish: 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.

Mr Heath: 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.

Neil Parish: 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.

Sarah Newton: 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.

Neil Parish: 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.

Hansard source (Citation: HC Deb, 4 March 2014, c259WH)