The A303: miles and miles of wasted reports
The most direct and lowest mileage inter-regional road artery, linking London, the South East, Wessex and the South West, is the 320-mile M3/A303/A30 trade and tourism trunk route to Penzance.
But this is a road that has remained incomplete for some 1,600 years, following the failure of the Romans to lay the final straight section between Ilminster and Honiton prior to their withdrawal from Britain in the fifth century.
Another 17 years have elapsed since the former Conservative transport secretary Sir George Young finally approved dualling of this notorious Weakest Link in that artery, on December 31, 1996. Years that initially witnessed New Labour's moratorium upon previously approved road improvements then saw the sluggish commissioning of consultancy studies, work by local authorities, public meetings, debates, examinations and re-examinations – all of which have cost the taxpayer millions.
During this wasted period, the flagging spirits of the South West's economic stakeholders were briefly raised upon the appointment of Alastair Darling as secretary of state for transport. On his first day in post (May 29, 2003), Mr Darling indicated his intention to inject fresh ministerial impetus to the delivery of the Government's transport policy, stating in an interview with Channel 4 News: "Let's have no further examinations and re-examinations and reviews – let's get on with it."
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Darling's apparently positive attitude generated further optimism when he pledged to Parliament in December 2003: "The whole of the A303 between the M3 and the M5 at Exeter should be upgraded to a dual carriageway, to form a second high-quality strategic road corridor into the peninsula."
If such joining up between transport and regional economic strategy were to be achieved, a fully dualled free-flowing A303/A30 from the M3 to Penzance, would at last offer a competitive fuel and time-efficient alternative trunk route (by some 23 miles) for hauliers, coaches and others, also relieving unnecessary congestion in the Bristol Box, as a bypass for the M4/M5 route. So it seemed the Government's moratorium would be lifted and work could start on completing dualling of the Weakest Link, as approved by the Tories in 1996. But no, we had only further delay, and more talking. And despite what appeared to be strong backing from ministers, the policy process still needed to reflect the Government's commitment to letting the regions have a say.
Public and private sector stakeholders were quick to re-affirm in partnership the conviction which they had held and advocated consistently for 50 years: namely that completion of the dualling of the A303/A30 East-West artery remained of vital strategic economic importance to the West. There was also solid support for the associated case in Somerset for dualling of the nine-mile North-South A358 link road spur between Ilminster and Taunton.
And still nothing was done. Now, as we report today, further delay confounds the great A303 enterprise. When will our political masters get on and get the job done?