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Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 119(9) (European Standing Committees),


Question agreed to.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),


Question agreed to.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

Local Government Finance

Question agreed to.


Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [28 February],

Hon. Members: Object.

6 Mar 2001 : Column 267


Motion made,

Line 31, at end add--
'( ) The committee shall have power to appoint a sub-committee, which shall have power to send for persons, papers and records, to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House, and to report to the committee from time to time.
( ) The committee shall have power to report from time to time the minutes of evidence taken before the sub-committee.
( ) The quorum of the sub-committee shall be three.'.-- [Mr. Sutcliffe.]

Hon. Members: Object.


Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [31 January],

Hon. Members: Object.


Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [23 January],

Hon. Members: Object.


Motion made,

Line 40, before the word 'European' insert the words 'Environmental Audit Committee or with the'.
Line 50, before the word 'European' insert the words 'Environmental Audit Committee or with the'.
Line 52, at the end insert the words:--
'(4A) notwithstanding paragraphs (2) and (4) above, where more than two committees or sub-committees appointed under this order meet concurrently in accordance with paragraph (4)(e) above, the quorum of each such committee or sub-committee shall be two.'--[Mr. Sutcliffe.]

Hon. Members: Object.

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Road Safety (Somerset)

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

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(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

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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 10-year-old girl, which I received last May. Jennifer Collins, who lives at Glenville House, Long Load, near Langport, wrote:

That is my plea to the Minister. I hope that he can give me a positive reply.

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