HC Deb 15 July 2003 vol 409 cc23-30WH

11 am

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset)

This debate is about the misery of the thousands of my poor blighted constituents who live along the A350 in Dorset. I wish to express my thanks to Dorset county council, the North Dorset Roads Action Group and various parish and town councils for helping me to prepare for this debate. I also wish to thank officials at the Government office for the south-west, who were always courteous but who were unable to give my constituents or me the answers that we sought. I congratulate the Secretary of State on his recent announcement to spend some £7 billion on new motorway projects. Unfortunately, once again, there are no funds for the south-west, but I welcome his realisation that the seven-year moratorium on road building has been short-sighted.

One of the reasons why motorways are so badly congested by short and medium-distance traffic is that far too many A-roads are inadequate. The problem must be tackled in parallel with improvements to motorways and public transport, but improvements to A-roads will benefit most people and will be infinitely more cost-effective than the other two aspirations.

An example of that is the A350 in Dorset, which runs through my constituency. It is an important route but a very bad road. It is of considerable local and strategic importance, but it is a terrible, inadequate, slow and dangerous road. The route provides the only northern link between the south-east Dorset conurbation around Bournemouth, which, with the port at Poole, is the second largest in the south-west, and the hinterland of market towns to the north and west. It connects the south coast and the continent, directly or via the A36 to the M4, the Bristol/Bath conurbation, south Wales, the west midlands, the north-west and even Ireland.

Every day, 10,000 vehicles use the road. Drivers tolerate insufferable road conditions, driving at an average of just 33 mph at best—half the speed that they should reasonably expect. They have no alternatives. There are no railways, and there is no way that traffic can be diverted—nor should it be, as a high proportion of it is local traffic, which includes the small-business economy of the south-west going about its everyday activities. Ordinary people use the only means of transport that is available to them—their motor cars—to go to work, to go shopping, to take their children to school and to conduct their lives.

The economy of the area is underachieving because of the run-down in agriculture and because companies are not investing there, largely because of inadequate infrastructure, including roads. Yet the Government are imposing an increasing housing commitment of some 5,000 houses on the north Dorset district. That is welcome, because lower-priced homes might offer the chance to local young people to slay and not have to emigrate from the area, but there is every prospect that already heavy traffic will increase dramatically and that the chaos of building will start years ahead of improved road infrastructure, for which there are no plans anyway.

Some of the major treasures in Dorset are its villages, which are set in spectacular scenery. They have the potential to attract tourism, but tourist visiting is low because of poor access. Villages and some small towns such as Shaftesbury and Blandford suffer blight from traffic because the A350 road is so bad. Its alignment is 18th century: narrow, rarely more than 4 m in width, whereas the minimum for a modern A road is 6 m; and there are steep hills and blind bends. The road fails even to come up to the standard of a basic service road to a new housing estate. The Department for Transport condemned it 10 years ago as not only inadequate but not fit for on-line improvement.

Between Shaftesbury and Sturminster Marshall, 11 villages in a distance of 20 miles are polluted and afflicted by thousands of vehicles a day, including 42-tonne trucks with six axles, passing at 30-40 mph only a couple of feet from people's homes. Cottages and heritage-listed buildings alike are being shaken to bits. The A350 is so bad in parts that more than half the drivers—about 5,000 a day—find it more convenient to use the "rat run" of the C13, a country lane that fortuitously runs parallel to the main road. It is, however, no safer, and as a country lane it is, of course, inadequate for the size and weight of modern traffic.

The existing A350 road severs villages and prevents people from being able to walk to their neighbours and children from walking to their friends. Overall, the A350 renders these villages "non-communities" with no personal contact, very few amenities, and no or scant public transport. They are cold, empty dormitories. The noise and smells in these villages and small-town environments are horrific. The risk of accidents and damage to homes, for which there is no public recompense, is high and occurs weekly.

Fortunately or, at risk of sounding perverse, unfortunately, there have been few fatalities. There are overpowering traffic, economic, social and environmental reasons to invest in a new and improved road rather than in the existing A350 road. Let us therefore consider the case for a solution and the current state of the proposals. The case is clear: the volume, weight and speed of motor vehicles in the villages in the A350-B3081-C13 corridor between Shaftesbury and Sturminster Marshall are dangerous and damaging hazards to people and the environment.

There is a need for traffic control measures in the villages in the short term, but however successful they might be, they do not obviate the need for a series of properly designed and constructed bypasses that are sensitive to local needs and the environment. The impact on through traffic on existing communities in the corridor is unacceptable. Current Government policies concentrate development pressure within the principal urban areas, so existing problems are likely only to be exacerbated. The case for a proper, purpose-built bypass was first proposed by Dorset county council in 1933, when the volume of traffic was one twentieth of the current level and the weights of heavy goods vehicles were one tenth of what they are today.

The Bournemouth, Dorset and Poole structure plan, which was published in February 2001, states that traffic in Dorset grew by 54 per cent. in the 15 years since 1983 and is forecast to grow by a further 29 per cent. by the year 2001". We have passed that date. Two major road schemes have been proposed for this corridor. The first is the Melbury Abbas bypass. Dorset county council applied for planning permission for the C13 improvement and the Melbury Abbas bypass in 1995. The main reasons given for the scheme were to promote regional economic development and to improve environmental conditions for people living alongside existing main roads.

The A350 is an important link in the primary road network between centres of economic activity in south Dorset and the national trunk network in the north. The A350 is narrow, tortuous and substandard for its purpose. A high percentage of heavy goods vehicles use the road, sections of which are too narrow for two-way traffic. In fact, two articulated lorries cannot pass at 35 points on that stretch of the road. Most of the length of the C13, which is the higher Shaftesbury road and the alternative route between Blandford and Shaftesbury, is of reasonably good standard, with the exception of the short section through Melbury Abbas village, which is narrow and has sharp bends and steep gradients. The combination of relatively high traffic flows and poor road alignments gives rise to accidents and environment nuisance to those living alongside the A350 and the C13-B3081.

Traffic levels have increased since 1995, and future planning policies are likely to focus more development in the south-east Dorset conurbation and exacerbate the existing problems. The National Trust and others objected to the application on the ground that the road scheme would be environmentally unacceptable. That was at a time when the structure plan was nearing adoption. The joint structure plan authorities decided to withdraw the proposed scheme for a Melbury Abbas bypass from the structure plan, as it was considered that, at the time, the scheme's environmental impact would outweigh its social and economic merits.

However, the authorities decided that for the structure plan period—up to 2011—it was appropriate to propose improvements on a smaller scale to those previously proposed, which could and should include a bypass. Importantly, however, longer-term options would depend on the outcome of the proposed multi-modal study on the routes between the south coast and the M4/M5, including the A350 corridor, which had been proposed at that time by the south-west regional planning conference.

South of Blandford is the equally important proposal for the Charlton Marshall, Spetisbury and Sturminster Marshall bypass. The issues concerning that bypass are similar to those concerning Melbury Abbas. This scheme, together with the northern section that I have described, is currently the county's second highest priority, and is contained in the structure plan, the north Dorset local plan and the east Dorset local plan. The environmental impact of this southern scheme is much less damaging than that of the schemes considered for Melbury Abbas, and although this scheme is in the approved plan, the current Bristol/Bath to south-coast study outcomes could prejudice its construction.

I am concerned that the Government office for the south-west believes that Dorset receives ample funding for highways and transport. The county has frequently argued with the office that it does not receive as much money as other authorities in the south-west. Although the office has increased the annual settlement for integrated transport in Dorset at a higher rate than for other authorities—for which we are grateful—Dorset remains the worst funded authority when comparing capital settlements on a per capita basis.

The current year's annual settlement for integrated transport in Dorset is £3.247 million. Funding comes in the form of credit approvals as part of a single capital pot. Unlike other authorities, however, the county can add money from its own resources, so the total capital budget is some £6.3 million. The county could raise its council tax to even higher levels than at present, but that would be politically unacceptable and perhaps would go wider than the debate. The county also has freedoms to transfer funds from other areas of its capital programme, but those are also in politically sensitive areas, such as education, which has its own history of underfunding.

It should be stressed that the integrated transport allocations made through the local transport plan are generally low or medium-cost schemes, identified in the plan for meeting Government-led targets on road safety, encouraging alternative forms of transport, and improving accessibility in rural areas. The funding is used to address the main issues raised through best value and local transport plan consultations.

Funding for major projects costing more than £5 million—such as the project in question—is different. Any improvement schemes in the A350 corridor would fit into that category. Conventionally, such schemes have been funded in the form of a 50 per cent. transport supplementary grant, and 50 per cent. basic credit approvals. Either way, the funding has to be bid for and allocated as part of the local transport plan process. In previous LTP rounds, local authorities were generally limited to one major scheme per authority, and Dorset already has the Weymouth relief road.

To achieve success in the bidding process, the project must meet Government criteria and have the support of the Government office for the south-west. That office has consistently failed to provide the policy context or support for schemes in that corridor. Will the Minister acknowledge the need for the scheme, abandon the arbitrary nonsense of allowing only one major scheme per county at any one time, and instruct the Government office for the south-west to move forward with Dorset county council to bring the scheme to fruition? That will give hope to the thousands of my constituents who live in daily misery along that road.

11.15 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Jamieson)

First, I congratulate the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) on securing this debate on a matter that is important to his constituents. I have some familiarity with the road concerned, having travelled down it a few weeks ago. Although it is an attractive route, going north, I agree with him that it is not an ideal route for the throughput of traffic.

In his introduction, the hon. Gentleman welcomed the £7 billion that was announced last week in relation to the multi-modal studies for roads. He then said that there was nothing for the south-west. I also saw a headline in the Western Morning News last week saying that nothing had been announced for the south-west. However, that is because the announcement on the south-west was made six months earlier—late last year. For the record, so that no one will leave the debate believing that nothing has been done for the south- west, I remind hon. Members of the substantial improvements to the A303 east of Ilminster, of the four local transport schemes around Bristol, and of the fact that Cornwall has benefited hugely from a couple of bypasses. There have been many other improvements. The south-west has not been ignored, but received its announcement earlier than other regions.

The hon. Gentleman said that there were no plans for better roads in his constituency. The majority of the roads in his constituency will be local, and Dorset county council has responsibility for those. Perhaps he should address some of the issues that he raised to his colleagues on the council. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the issue of bypasses along the route of the A350. Having travelled down the route, I can see that such bypasses would be attractive to a motorist. However, I am not sure that they would be cost-effective, and their environmental impact would be enormous. I did not study the road carefully as I travelled down it, but I would have thought that bypassing every village on the route would have an enormous impact on the environment. I believe that one of the reasons why the idea was dropped was the strong feelings locally about the environmental impact.

The Government are committed to sustained long-term investment to improve local transport as a key element of our 10-year plan for transport. As the hon. Gentleman knows, in December 2000 we announced that £8.4 billion would be available to implement local transport plans in England over the, next five years. The local transport settlement announced just before Christmas last year gave details of the third instalment of that funding, with £1.5 billion being made available in the current financial year. That funding will help to deliver the Government's vision of a high-quality transport network that meets people's needs and offers more choice to individuals, families, communities and businesses, such as those about which we have heard today.

We are investing £348 million in 2003–04 to enable local authorities to implement major transport projects across England. Those schemes will help to deliver the targets and outputs set out in our 10-year plan for transport by reducing the environmental impact of traffic, improving air quality by reducing emissions, reducing noise and reducing congestion in large urban areas.

We are providing the investment to enable authorities to deliver a huge range of small-scale transport projects, from safety schemes, bus priority measures and park-and-ride services through to schemes to encourage cycling and walking. I have seen at first hand the impact of many of those schemes on the communities that they affect.

I would like to turn now to the issue of today's debate—the A350 between Blandford and Shaftesbury. I will also say something about the investment that we have made in Dorset. In 2000–01, Dorset county council was allocated £0.9 million prior to the publication of our 10-year transport plan. That has risen in the current financial year to £3.247 million. I think that the hon. Gentleman alluded to that. It is a substantial rise—certainly a threefold rise. We have a: the same time given the authority increased flexibility to determine its own priorities within its local transport allocations. With that greater local discretion we not unreasonably look to authorities to reprioritise their allocations to meet changing demands, including increases in the costs of individual schemes.

In addition to other schemes that I announced earlier, we gave provisional approval in November 2000 to the Weymouth relief road, which would reduce congestion and improve access to Weymouth and Portland.

The A350, as the hon. Gentleman said, is part of the primary route network linking Blandford to Warminster in the north. In the wider picture, it links the Poole-Bournemouth conurbation with Bristol and Bath and the M4 to the north. As part of the primary route network that route should be maintained to allow all vehicles to use it, to serve this part of Dorset and parts of the county beyond. However, the road is a local road and it is for Dorset county council to manage it.

As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, the A350 passes through attractive countryside, including Cranborne Chase and the West Wiltshire Downs area of outstanding natural beauty. The A350 between Blandford and Shaftesbury carries about 3,100 vehicles a day, of which 22 per cent. are heavy goods vehicles. Blandford is bypassed, but the road northwards to Shaftesbury is largely unimproved and passes through several villages. At points the road is steep and passes through some tight, narrow bends.

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's concerns about safety and the practical difficulties experienced by his constituents, given the number of heavy vehicles using the route.

Mr. Walter

I was perturbed by the figure that the Minister gave for the number of vehicles using the road, because even the Government office for the south-west acknowledges that the figure is in excess of 9,000 vehicles a day. That was what its representatives said when I had a meeting with them two weeks ago. Perhaps the Minister has picked a particular stretch to mention, but there are two roads, the A350 and the C13, which run parallel.

Mr. Jamieson

I was talking about the A350. The figure that I have been given is about 3,100. As the hon. Gentleman has questioned that, I shall request that we confirm the figure, and jot him a line about that. The figure for cars using the C13 is of course something in excess of that—about 5,000 a day. That may be where the hon. Gentleman's figure of 8,000 or 9,000 comes from.

No doubt matters would be worse without the parallel route of the C13, which I think is called the high road, locally. It carries fewer heavy goods vehicles than the A350, but I am advised that it takes about 5,200 vehicles a day, 10 per cent. of which are heavy goods vehicles. Heavy goods vehicles are advised not to use that route, because of the steepness of Melbury Abbas. That alternative route runs along the top of a prominent ridge that is visible for many miles, where there are fewer junctions than on the A350 and only one settlement—the Melbury Abbas settlement. Melbury Abbas is located at the northern end of the C13, at the bottom of the steep Spread Eagle hill, after which the road joins theA30 just east of Shaftesbury.

In the past, Dorset county council promoted a bypass for Melbury Abbas. That would provide the potential to remove traffic from the existing A350. I understand that for many years it was Dorset's wish to change the classification of the two roads following the implementation of that improvement, so that the C13 would become the A-road. However, the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that there are difficult environmental constraints around Melbury Abbas, which would make the delivery of an off-line improvement very difficult and probably exceedingly costly.

Not only is the landscape in the area unspoilt and designated as an area of outstanding natural beauty. but there are important wildlife sites nearby, including the Fontwell and Melbury Downs SSSI. Finally, an off-line improvement would be very expensive and would involve serious engineering challenges as it would have to rise up very steep gradients. I understand that, for those reasons, the scheme was withdrawn by Dorset county council some years ago and no longer appears in its structure plan nor in its local transport plan.

The hon. Gentleman knows that we decided that the A36-A46 to the north of this area should be detrunked, following our review of the trunk road network published in 1998. Local authorities in this part of the region have been actively supporting a study looking at the future of the A36-A46, which in part aims to ensure that additional traffic would not use the A350 in this part of Dorset. Dorset county council has been an active participant in that study, contributing both money and expertise. We welcome the support given to this study by Dorset and other authorities.

Dorset had hoped that the study might recommend a solution to the difficult traffic problems experienced on this route. I understand that it is disappointed that the local steering group has not been able to recommend that the A350 in this area should be improved. The study concluded, based on detailed analysis of the traffic, that the majority of cars and light vehicles on the route are local in origin and therefore it is appropriate that Dorset should recommend local solutions to deal with that traffic. I know that some say that this traffic comes from the port of Poole to south Wales and beyond. Our evidence is that that is simply not true. The majority of the heavy goods vehicles come from a wide area across the Poole-Bournemouth conurbation.

The information provided by our study should allow both Dorset county council and the south-west regional assembly to develop appropriate solutions to the problems south of Warminster. In view of the recognised environmental constraints on the A350 and the C13 it is probably right that we do not identify this route for significant or regionally significant improvements. However, we recognise that measures should be put in place to ensure that traffic levels are not increased along this corridor. As a result there is a need for a rapid review of the policies and proposals contained in the current Dorset structure plan to address this point, particularly the distribution of new housing.

If Dorset wishes to promote a scheme to improve the route or to remove heavy goods vehicles, it can do so through its local transport plan. Any such scheme would have to be appraised in the light of our current guidance. We will, of course, look carefully and sympathetically at any such proposal. I hope that that answers some of the hon. Gentleman's points. I cannot give him any great comfort, except to say that as it is a local road, many of the solutions will have to come through his local county council and the local transport plan scheme, which I hope can bring some comfort to those people living along the route.

Sitting suspended until Two o'clock.

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