Sir George speaks on Traffic Management Bill
5 Jan 2004
This is the text of Sir George’s speech on the Second Reading of the Traffic Management Bill. A separate item highlights Sir George's comments on the implications for rural broadband.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con):
It is a pleasure to follow the thoughtful and constructive speech of the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney). The House enjoyed being a passenger in his car as he took us on a 20-minute, action-packed drive around the Bill's various clauses.
I want to start by picking up a point that the hon. Gentleman made, which was also mentioned by the hon. Members for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) and for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso). The Leader of the House keeps reminding us that the Government are in favour, in principle, of pre-legislative scrutiny. They would have done well to test drive the Bill on a pre-legislative circuit in order to deal with the many leaks, rattles and sharp edges that the House has already discovered in just three hours of debate. The Bill's accelerated process through Standing Committee will not allow us to do justice to it.
The hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mrs. Lawrence) says she is pleased that the Bill applies to England and Wales. I ask rhetorically whether it is right that Scottish Members are entitled to vote on Second Reading for a Bill that applies only to England and Wales and deals with a subject that is a wholly devolved matter for the Scottish Parliament. That question is likely to be asked more frequently as the Bill passes through Parliament.

[Intervention by Mr. Key]: Would my right hon. Friend care to comment on the fact that not a single Scottish Member of Parliament has been present to speak in the debate so far?

Sir George Young:
I agree with my hon. Friend, but I am glad that the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross was not listening to his intervention. Having said that, no Back Bencher representing a Scottish constituency is attending the debate at present.
I welcome the concept of better management of our roads. The policy of predict and provide died a long time ago and was buried by a combination of financial pressure from the Treasury and environmental pressure from a broader base. As the Secretary of State said, we need a balanced, sustainable and affordable transport policy, which requires us to make the best possible use of the road space available.

The Government chose a bad day on which to introduce the Bill because today is the first time for some seven years when capped rail fares have gone up by more than the retail prices index minus one. That seriously injures the Secretary of State's advocacy of a balanced transport policy that encourages more use of public transport.

I do not claim to be the author of the policy in part 1 of allowing the Highways Agency to take from the police some responsibilities for traffic management, but the idea was certainly knocking around the Department some eight years ago and it seems to have had a long gestation period. I should like to make two points. First, on resources, the Highways Agency will spend £72 million initially and £57 million per annum once the traffic officers and the regional control centres are up and running. Has the Department been given the resources by the Treasury, or has it had to raid its road or rail budget to find the elbow room for that extra expenditure? Is any of the cash for those extra responsibilities being taken from the police, who will no longer have to perform those functions? The Bill implies that there is no transfer of resources, but it would be helpful to have the point confirmed by the Minister.

I hope that the Minister will also be able to deal with a number of important issues raised in the debate. Grey areas of demarcation have been raised between the police and the Highways Agency traffic officers. How will they inter-relate, and when will it be safe to allow the traffic to move on because no evidence is required for a criminal investigation? My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) mentioned the problem with the interest of the coroners: has that issue been satisfactorily resolved?

Clause 11 provides that traffic officers will wear a uniform. That is important, because motorists need to know whether someone is a traffic officer. Obviously, however, those officers must not be mistaken for police officers, which they are not. Is some ingenuity being applied to exactly what uniform will designate someone as of authority but not a police officer? Will the traffic officers who are to speed up motorway traffic after an accident operate on traffic going the other way? It is frequently the case that there is a corresponding traffic jam going the other way, and traffic officers will be needed to stop the rubber-necking that often takes place.

I am pleased to see that clause 9 enables the removal of certain vehicles by traffic officers. I hope that means that abandoned vehicles will be removed more quickly. It is not unusual for abandoned cars to remain on the verge of a road for some weeks, often with a sign on the windscreen saying that the police are aware of the vehicle. In those weeks, the windscreen is broken, the tyres are removed and the vehicle becomes even more of an eyesore and a hazard. I hope that clause 9 will enable that to be dealt with more quickly.

I will need some persuasion that the principle of part 2, providing reserve powers to intervene when local authorities fail in their duties, is absolutely necessary.
The Government have such powers in, for example, education, where they have been used not wholly successfully. I recall suspending, some 20 or 25 years ago, a housing authority that refused to implement the right to buy. However, the House can ask the Government what evidence there is that local authorities are so negligent in their network management responsibilities that primary legislation is justified in this field of local authority activity. How do we know whether a local authority is failing. We can refer to standards of measurement for schools to judge whether an education authority is failing, but so far as I am aware there are no agreed measurements for whether a local authority is failing in this area. This part of the Bill sits uneasily with the rhetoric from the Deputy Prime Minister about wanting to decentralise and intervene less. Nor is it absolutely clear that the Highways Agency, which presumably would intervene if a local authority failed, is always on top of the job on its own roads.

Clause 16, on which there have been some exchanges, places a duty to manage the network to secure "the expeditious movement of traffic on the authority's road network." Does that mean that the clause has priority over other objectives? It is well known to every motorist or cyclist in London over the past 18 months that the phasing of traffic lights has been changed so that they are red for longer. On my journey here from Dolphin square, at Vauxhall Bridge road I now—unlike, I must say, a lot of other cyclists—spend more time waiting for the lights to turn green. I ask myself whether the Mayor is in breach of clause 16. If he is, what is the Minister going to do about it? Will the guidance referred to in clauses 18 and 19 cover some of the issues raised in this debate about road safety and the needs of pedestrians and cyclists in order to qualify the rather stark obligation in clause 16(1)?

Part 3 is wonderful in theory, but I doubt whether it will work in practice. I fear that it will be very bureaucratic. Why do we need the bit in clause 33 that says that once a council has prepared a permit scheme in accordance with the legislation, it must submit it to the Secretary of State? Why cannot councils just get on with it? I am intrigued by the exemption in clause 37, which I assume applies only to public highways. What public highways is Her Majesty going to dig up in her private capacity"? One has a vivid image of the regal piledriver being set to work on some aspect of the road network and then exemption being pleaded under clause 37.

There has been a bit of special pleading from the utilities. I have seen it argued that since the principal cause of traffic congestion is volume, the Bill is built on a false premise. I do not accept that; if one wants to make the most of the existing resource, one must clearly minimise the down time. Where I do have a lot of sympathy with the utilities is when they say that 50 per cent. of highway works are carried out not by them but by the Highways Agency, who appear to be exempt from the Bill. I do not see how there will be a level playing field between the authority and the utility companies. The agency digs up the streets a lot and appears to be judge and jury in parts 3 and 4 of the Bill. Even if it did fine itself, the net effect would be neutral. The notes tell us that the works covered in part 3 could include Highways Agency works. That is rather important. Are they covered, or are they totally exempt?

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) mentioned the roll out of broadband. I have campaigned in the House with colleagues on both sides to have broadband extended to rural areas. The economics of roll out are fairly marginal, and some telephone exchanges may never be enabled. I hope that the Minister has been in touch with his colleagues at the Department of Trade and Industry and has been able to reassure them that no measure in the Bill will either delay the delivery of broadband or so drive up the costs that it becomes uneconomic. Joined-up government is trying to pool demand for broadband among health and education providers, and that process would be stopped in its tracks if measures in the Bill made the roll out of broadband more difficult. A lot of the work that is covered is demand led. For example, when a customer wants broadband, someone may have to dig up the street to connect him. I do not see how that can be phased into the obligations in clause 49 and 50 that stop anyone digging up a road if the local authority has resurfaced it during the previous 12 months.

Clause 41 places a duty on the street authority to co-ordinate its own road works and those of statutory undertakers. That is a perfectly sensible concept. The difficulty is that it is the street authority that will do the co-ordinating, and I fear that it may give preference to its own requirements over those of everybody else.

This is more a matter for Committee, but clauses 56 and 57 seem to sit rather uneasily together. Clause 56 enables the Secretary of State to designate additional roads as strategic roads in London. Clause 57 enables the Greater London Authority to direct that a road may cease to be a strategic road. One can visualise an endless series of orders as particular roads are designated by the Secretary of State and then undesignated by the Mayor. It is not clear from a first reading of the Bill how that might be resolved.

I am not going to enter the debate on speed cameras: there are no fixed speed cameras in North-West Hampshire, so I see no need to involve myself in that debate.

On part 6, I support taking enforcement from the police and giving it to civil authorities as a principle. I am spending part of this year taking part in the police parliamentary scheme and that proposal will allow the police to focus on the real priorities for law and order. If it also takes pressure off the courts, that is an additional bonus.

Clause 89 deserves a final passing comment. According to the title of the clause, it would give local authorities the power to use the surplus income from parking places more flexibly. However, according to the notes, that power will also extend to penalty charges. If the clause is to apply to all the income from all the new offences in the Bill, local authorities will have a considerable incentive to maximise income from that source. We all know the pressure that local authorities are under from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. If they cannot quite afford to pay for a new leisure centre out of the council tax, clause 89 would offer a convenient escape route. Councils could hit the penalty charges hard, hope that the victims do not live in the borough and, hey presto, they would have a new and buoyant source of income.

I suspect that the Bill is not quite as good as the Secretary of State told us, nor quite as bad as my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) suggested. My interest in the Second Reading should not be construed as an enthusiasm for the Committee stage, but I am sure that the Bill can be knocked into shape and all the questions answered. I believe that it will play a useful if unglamorous part in future transport policy.

ends
 
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