HC Deb 06 March 2001 vol 364 cc268-74

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Sutcliffe.]

11.15 pm
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise an important issue for my constituency—road safety in the county of Somerset. I intend to refer to a few specific problems that have been experienced in my constituency. I accept straight away that many of the roads concerned will be in the direct control of Somerset county council rather than of the Minister, but I hope to persuade him that Somerset county council is taking a proper view of its responsibilities in terms of road safety and to encourage his support.

I should also mention one major road scheme which is the direct responsibility of Ministers via the Highways Agency—the A303, particularly the stretch between Sparkford and Ilchester. It is an especially dangerous stretch of road that has caused a number of accidents over recent years and desperately needs attention.

The county of Somerset has a great number of roads. Indeed, it has some 6,641 km of road—a long distance per head of population. It works out as 13.5 km per 1,000 people which is twice the national average and poses specific problems for the county council, which has to maintain a large number of principally minor, unclassified roads. When one adds to that the geography and topography of the county and the settlement pattern—it has a dispersed, relatively rural population scattered across the county with a lot of very small communities traversed by roads which are often inadequate for the vehicles that use them—it is clear that there is a serious problem.

Somerset also has a higher percentage of heavy goods vehicle traffic than the roads are capable of taking or we would like. That comprises partly vehicles associated with local industries such as the quarrying industry in my constituency, and partly vehicles seeking access to the further south-west peninsula, or following north-south routes. As a result, there are unfortunately 40 to 50 fatal accidents every year. That has been a fairly consistent figure over the past 10 to 15 years.

As I said earlier, the county council is adopting a responsible attitude to the problem. It is keen to secure a substantial reduction in the number of fatal accidents by means of the local transport programme. The principal feature of that programme is the need to tackle speed, which is very often the principal contributory factor in accidents. The council also wants to tackle road safety for all road users, not just for motorists. Road safety measures should apply to all pedestrians, cyclists and local residents, especially those who live in smaller communities and use country lanes without pavements. That is a priority. Finally, the council also wants to develop a hierarchy of routes appropriate to their uses. That is a significant factor.

The A303 is the county's major trunk route, bringing people from London to the south-west, and vice versa. It is an extremely busy road, used by a huge number of people each year, especially in the summer months. I raise this matter with some trepidation because when I put a question to the Minister's former departmental colleague, the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson), her reply was about Stonehenge. The monument is about 50 miles from my constituency, so I fear that she had been inadequately briefed. I am sure that that will not be the case with the Minister tonight.

The stretch of road between Sparkford and the Podimore roundabout at Ilchester is dangerous for several reasons. It is a single carriageway stretch between stretches of dual carriageways. That poses problems in terms of traffic movements. It carries a large volume of traffic, especially when there is summer holiday traffic. There is even more traffic when the Yeovilton air show is on, but that is not happening this year.

The distance of the single carriageway stretch from London is also a factor. People drive from central London, through the suburbs and along the M3 and the A303 corridor, and the section about which I am speaking is the point at which tiredness begins to take its toll. Lack of concentration in that area also plays a part.

For many years, demands have been made for safety improvements along a stretch of road that is about 3.5 miles long. The proposal is that the road should be turned into a dual carriageway in order to separate the traffic streams.

I am aware of the concerns about other parts of the A303. Improvements have been suggested for parts of the road that lie in constituencies other than mine. Proper environmental considerations for those proposals must be taken into account, but the scheme for the stretch that I am describing has not occasioned significant adverse comment. Over recent years, it has been supported consistently by the county council, by the south Somerset district council, by the parish councils that would be affected, by my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Paddy Ashdown), and by me. There is no obvious reason why the scheme should have to wait for the multimodal study which, we are told, is the reason for the current delay.

The future capacity of the road is not in question, and neither is its role in the overall transport arrangements for the south-west peninsula. The problem is simply that the piece of road about which I am speaking is very busy and dangerous, and it needs to be looked at. The previous Conservative Government agreed, and the public inquiry has been successfully completed. The Secretary of State has confirmed the orders, and the line orders and the orders for the side roads have been made. In short, nothing is stopping this scheme going ahead other than the ministerial say-so and its positioning in the capital programme. That is why, irrespective of the view that is eventually arrived at through the regional consultation study on the multimodal study for the rest of the A303, we believe that this stretch could be dealt with in isolation.

One consequence of taking this action would be to support and amplify the work that the county council has put into effect and that the Government have supported to remove heavy goods vehicles in particular from the A359 from Queen Camel in my constituency, and from Marston Magna, and Mudford in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil. We believe that this is so important because it would stop unnecessary movements, particularly of lorries, on roads which are less suitable.

There are concerns in my constituency that an unwanted effect of putting in place measures to deter vehicles on the A359 would be to divert lorries on to the A357 through Templecombe and Yenston. I hope that that will not happen—the temptation will certainly be reduced if the Minister could give a positive response with regard to the A303.

In the brief time that I have available, I should like to mention a few other schemes around the county. I do not believe that the Minister will suddenly wave a magic wand; I simply want to alert him to the many concerns of small communities that live by busy roads or roads incapable of taking the traffic that goes through them across the county. In Doulting, for instance, there has been a succession of accidents because a busy road bisects the village. People have been waiting for some time for relief of some kind. Podimore—not the roundabout, but the village—takes vehicles travelling far too fast that are trying to avoid queueing on the A303 at busy times. The Terry Hill crossroads on the A362 is another very dangerous junction that needs attention, and I would like the county council to address the problem. The very picturesque and important village of Barrington, which has many beautiful listed buildings, is spoilt by the vehicles using it.

There is a long list of small communities—Kingsdon, Charlton Mackrell, Charlton Adam, Berkley, Lamyatt, Long Sutton, Long Load—that are troubled by the effects of heavy goods vehicles and speeding cars. I believe that the county council is very much aware of its responsibilities to those communities and wants to do something to help them. However, it faces substantial problems, many of which are to do with funding. This is not yet another whinge on behalf of a county council that considers itself hard done by. Nevertheless, it is a fact that for as many years as I can remember, there has been a shift of resources within the county council from highways to education, simply to maintain the schools in the county as they should be maintained. That is a fundamental problem in terms of the standard spending assessment distribution for education.

Some of the problems are associated with the costs of many of the traffic-calming and improvement schemes that should be in place. I sometimes wonder whether they are over-engineered, and whether there is a need for the forest of signs in a rural area which often accompany sensible moves to reduce speed and improve road safety.

I want the Minister's support for the county council's plans and his recognition of the needs of rural counties. I suggest that there is a need for a national programme for rural communities to deal with the environmental effects of vehicles going through the smaller villages. We were able to able to undertake a national programme of bridge strengthening. Many of us thought that it was absurd to strengthen inadequate bridges so that ever-larger trucks could go through our villages, but that was Government policy. The point is that that highly expensive project always had assured funding. We seek the certainty and commitment that that programme produced, to underpin the efforts of local authorities to deal with traffic in our rural areas.

I shall finish with a letter from a 10year-old girl, which I received last May. Jennifer Collins, who lives at Glenville House, Long Load, near Langport, wrote: I am one of the chilclren from Long Load. Motorists just zoom through our village as if it was a motorway and I want to put a stop to it … I used to think of the country as a nice peaceful place to relax, with slow country lanes. Part of it may be that but our village isn't. Please do something. That is my plea to the Minister. I hope that he can give me a positive reply.

11.30 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill)

As usual, I congratulate the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) on obtaining this important debate, which gives me an opportunity to explain what national and local government have done, and are doing, to improve road safety in Somerset. The hon. Gentleman highlighted his concerns about the section of the A303 between Podimore and Sparkford. I shall therefore turn first to safety on the motorway and trunk roads in Somerset.

The motorway and trunk road network in Somerset comprises the M5 and the A303. The M5 is a rural section of road and, like all motorways, is statistically safer than all-purpose roads. The A303 trunk road between Podimore and Sparkford is an unimproved section of single carriageway road between the Ilchester and Sparkford bypasses, both of which are dual carriageways. In October 1999, the Highways Agency undertook a study along the unimproved length of road between the Sparkford and Podimore roundabout.

At that time, the personal injury accident severity rate was above the national norm. A small safety scheme was therefore carried out, which involved changes to white lines and road signs and the introduction of gateway treatment at either end. A 50 mph speed limit was also implemented, with a speed camera at West Camel crossroads. The House will be pleased to know that in the 12 months after implementation of those remedial measures, the accident severity rate on that section of road fell from 0.25 to 0.08 fatal and serious accidents per kilometre of trunk road. Although there has, sadly, been one serious accident during that 12-month period, that is a significant reduction on the 14 fatal and serious accidents in the previous five years.

A study of the remaining unimproved sections of the route has been completed. It includes a detailed analysis of all reported personal injury accidents between 1 January 1994 and 30 June 2000 and a review of the present double white line system. Another important aspect of the study has been the setting up of local working groups with representatives from the local parish councils and the use of their local knowledge fully to investigate local road safety issues.

The Highways Agency is currently considering the findings of that study with a view to carrying out further small local safety schemes in 2001–02. The agency is also undertaking a route management strategy at the M5, including the length through Somerset. That approach to road investment planning looks fully from the user's point of view at the service that a road delivers. It focuses on better use of existing roads rather than building new ones. The strategy will deliver a 10-year vision for the road and the improvements that the Highways Agency would like to make.

Following the trunk road review, a total of eight trunk road improvement schemes on the A303, A30 and A38 were placed on hold pending the outcome of the London to south-west and south Wales multimodal study. As I understand it, the Liberal Democrats support the multimodal study approach, which seeks to examine the potential of all transport modes to resolve transport problems in key corridors. The study's terms of reference specifically require the consultants to consider safety problems on sections of the A303. In Somerset, the A303 Ilminster bypass improvement, the A303 Ilminster to Marsh improvement and the A303 Sparkford to Ilchester improvement are all being considered under the study.

The Government office of the south-west leads the study; it is managed by a steering group, which meets regularly. The group includes representatives of the Government office of the south-east, the Welsh Assembly, the south-west and south-east regional assemblies, the south-west and south-east regional development agencies, the Highways Agency, the Strategic Rail Authority, the regional chamber of the CBI and Sustainability South West.

In March 2000, consultants were appointed to carry out the study. They have been identifying the problems and issues associated with those three schemes and others. The study will consider solutions, including safety and the scope for reducing congestion by better management and modal shift in the whole A30-A303 corridor, in a strategic manner. An over-arching strategy for the study is being developed; we expect that to emerge in the summer—around June. Following the establishment of the strategy, consultants will develop detailed local solutions to the problems identified. The study is due to report by about February 2002. Progress can be followed through a website established by the consultants—the address is www.swarmms.org.uk. For the less computer literate, newsletters will also be issued to keep people informed.

In addition, the south-west regional assembly has recently considered recommending road schemes to be added to the Government's targeted programme of improvements. No schemes on the A303 were recommended, as they are being considered under the multimodal study. No decisions on taking forward any of the A303 improvement schemes will be taken before the study reports.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that, in Somerset, there is an excellent story to tell about road safety in local transport plans. Road safety is a high priority locally, and local transport authorities, such as Somerset, have a vital part to play in helping us to achieve national casualty reduction targets. Somerset has continued to build well on the foundation of its 2000–01 provisional local transport plan—the LTP—in developing its five-year LTP to 2006.

I was delighted that after a generous LTP settlement last year—£6.6 million, the fourth highest in the south west; of which £2.3 million was for integrated transport and £4.3 million for maintenance—the Government were able substantially to increase transport resources for Somerset, in last December's LTP settlement. Somerset's overall LTP allocation for 2001–02 is more than £16.6 million, of which £11.5 million is for road maintenance, especially to tackle the backlog of repairs to non-principal roads; but, equally important, more than £5.1 million is for integrated transport—more than double the previous year's allocation. Those allocations recognise the quality of Somerset's LTP.

Local road safety and casualty reduction issues cannot be tackled in isolation. They are an integral part of local transport planning and it is absolutely vital that other transport strategies such as safe routes to schools, home zones and other measures to encourage more walking and cycling are well integrated with road safety in transport planning locally.

We were particularly impressed that Somerset has developed its local transport strategy in that way. The county has a very comprehensive strategy, which demonstrates well the linkages to a variety of other local transport themes and deals with highway safety on a number of fronts: education, training, publicity and engineering. Furthermore, it is important that Somerset has adopted a multi-agency approach to local safety issues, which is to be commended. I look forward to learning about its progress through the LTP annual reporting cycle.

Even with the previous valuable work undertaken by the county council, I know that it regards the rate of death, injury and suffering caused by traffic as unacceptable. The role of excess speed as a contributory factor in traffic accidents needs to be tackled, so that speeding is considered as anti-social as drinking and driving.

Somerset's safety strategy is concerned with tackling these issues to enable people to travel in safety by giving advice on education, training and publicity and by taking measures to minimise conflict and to make safe the sharing of space on the highway.

The consultation programme undertaken by the county in developing its LTP revealed that safety was the most important issue in most people's minds, especially for children travelling to and from school.

The LTP capital resources that we have provided have enabled Somerset county council to respond positively to those concerns. It has allocated its LTP funding to reflect the priority of safety-related initiatives. It has undertaken a review of speed management policy, by setting up an independent working party designed to encourage free-ranging debate from several outside perspectives.

The working party recommendations, many of which the council has adopted, include implementing a speed limit strategy—for example, 30 mph speed limits in all settlements and 20 mph speed limits outside all schools. The county council is also supporting positive enforcement by the police and is using improved technology and hypothecation of the revenue from speeding fines to fund speed management.

I have mentioned the concerns about safety on school journeys. A "safe routes to school" programme is another initiative that is benefiting from the LTP resources that we have given. Somerset county council is adopting a bottom-up approach, in which the schools themselves are closely involved in the production of their own school travel plans—a package of measures to facilitate safer and more sustainable travel to and from the school.

The plans can include physical works—for example, road crossings, footway improvements, school front safety measures, cycle parking, speed reduction features and school crossing patrols—as well as initiatives such as promoting safe and sustainable travel to new parents and pupils. Some 46 schools throughout the county are currently working on those plans and seven schemes are in the process of being constructed.

I hope that the number of schools participating will now increase as a result of Somerset's successful bid for a three-year grant from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions to fund a school travel co-ordinator, who will work closely with the schools to deliver those plans.

The use of local safety schemes—covering sites, routes and areas and combining engineering and education, training and publicity—is a key focus to ensure that the problem is tackled from all angles. Somerset county council has allocated approximately £1.2 million of its LTP integrated transport block allocation to delivering those local safety schemes.

The county is sensitive to the needs of rural communities and is committed to the concept of developing quiet roads. Work is currently being done on two pilot projects, aimed at benefiting the most vulnerable road users.

In conclusion, therefore, I hope that that provides the House with an adequate assurance of the importance that the Government and Somerset county council attach to local road safety issues.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eighteen minutes to Twelve midnight.