George Osborne has promised “further improvements” to the South West’s much-maligned transport network in his update on the state’s finances later this year.
The Chancellor moved to “assure” MPs the Treasury is running the rule over a series of road and rail schemes ahead of making announcements in the autumn statement.
The most significant projects affecting the region being looked at are a massive upgrade of the A303 highway connecting the Westcountry to the South West, which could cost as much as £1.2 billion, and shoring up the main London-Cornwall railway line, destroyed at Dawlish in Devon during the winter storms, which could come with a £3 billion price-tag.
Mr Osborne, who will deliver his autumn statement on December 3, is likely to unveil many vote-wining “goodies” in the budget update since it takes place just five months before the general election.
But critics will be furious if the investment falls short of expectations given that coalition ministers have repeatedly stressed how they understand the transport woes the region faces.
A cross-party Westcountry group campaigning for better rail links urged the Chancellor to go beyond a “sticking plaster solution”.
During Treasury Questions in the House of Commons, Mr Osborne was pressed by Plymouth Sutton and Devonport Tory MP Oliver Colvile to “ensure that there will be investment in our roads and railways in the South West, so that we have trains that get into Plymouth before 9 o’clock in the morning, and more three-hour train journeys to and from London”.
In response, Mr Osborne said: “The autumn statement will be an opportunity to set out further improvements to infrastructure in the South West, and the services, roads and railways that support Plymouth.
“He has been a doughty champion for that city and delivered huge investment to it, which was never forthcoming before.
“I assure him that we are looking at specific transport improvements to connect better the whole of the South West with the rest of the United Kingdom.”
To underline the unity in the region for better transport connections to the peninsula to lift the economy and create jobs, a number of cross-party groups have been formed to campaign for investment.
Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour MPs and peers have come together under the All-Party Parliamentary Group for South West Rail banner to lobby to get the Government to invest heavily in the region’s creaking rail network.
Meanwhile, the so-called Peninsula Rail Task Force has developed a three-point plan for faster, more reliable and comfortable trains to the region.
Andrew Leadbetter, chairman of the task force, said: “We have been working as a partnership across five local authorities, business, two Local Enterprise Partnerships, universities and with our MPs to make the case for greater investment into the rail and road network across the South West, so the Chancellor’s response is encouraging.
“But we need to see real commitment, not just to a sticking plaster solution. We want, and merit a coherent long term strategy that will give business confidence, serve the needs of residents and visitors and enable our economy to thrive.
“Connectivity is essential to growth and as well as maintaining our assets, we need to see far greater financial support to redress the balance of years of under-investment.”
The coalition Government has already underwritten the new South Devon link road, dualling the A30 across Bodmin Moor in Cornwall and a £31 million flood rail resilience programme.
The Department for Transport is carrying out a feasibility study into which parts of the 110-mile A303, A30 and A358 corridor to upgrade, and will shortly announce how it wants ensure the Great Western is less vulnerable to disruption that led to the region being cut off by train this year.