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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

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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 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.

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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.

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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.

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