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10.11 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Steve Norris): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson) on securing the debate and I am grateful to him for his kind remarks. I remember his valiant canvassing efforts on my behalf during my by-election in 1988. If I recall, a large Rottweiler took a significant piece out of his trousers during his canvassing efforts--an event about which he has never ceased to remind me on every occasion that I have met him since. As that is now seven years, I feel as if I have somehow paid for that suit several times over, but I yield to no one in my appreciation of his efforts and I shall be eternally grateful to him. In all seriousness, I have known him for many years and one thing is certain-- his tremendous assiduity on behalf of his constituents, as he has demonstrated at this late hour by bringing to the attention of the House a matter that is so important to his constituents.

My hon. Friend has outlined the dispute between Mrs. Duffield and Mrs. Langham and the local highway authority, Norfolk county council, as a result of the junction alteration and subsequent works for traffic management. He acknowledged that, in practice, the county council was justified in undertaking the works on the junction where Mrs. Duffield and Mrs. Langham live, and it is important that we should place that on the record, but he raises the problems that his constituents have experienced from both the junction alteration and later works for traffic management in the neighbouring road.

The roads in the case that my hon. Friend mentioned are of course local roads, and that means that their management and development are the responsibility of the local highway authority, which, in this case, is Norfolk county council. I should say for the record, because it bears on his remarks, that, although the Secretary of State for Transport is also a highway authority, that responsibility is limited to the motorway and trunk road network, which, although it carries large volumes of longer-distance traffic, constitutes only 4 per cent. of the road network; the rest is the responsibility of the local highway authority. Decisions are primarily for them. As the House will understand, that is right and proper because they are democratically accountable bodies which exercise their responsibilities in the interests of their local communities.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will recognise that, in general, the local highway authorities bring a high level of competence to their work. I am sure that he will agree that decisions with essentially local impact are, rightly, matters for local government rather than for central Government. My hon. Friend was kind enough to suggest that I might not be as familiar with Cromer road as he is. That illustrates the point. The man from Whitehall cannot be expected to devote the same attention with the same degree of knowledge to such localised schemes as a local authority.

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Having established that it is quite proper that a highway authority should be a local authority, I shall turn to the two problems raised by my hon. Friend. The first problem relates to compensation for the effect of the original junction improvement scheme. It might be helpful to the House if I give a brief explanation of the powers that can apply in land compensation cases. A range of powers, some discretionary, are available to a highway authority to acquire land or compensate those owners who are adversely affected by highway schemes.

Sections 149 to 171 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 require a highway authority to acquire land blighted by road proposals as defined in schedule 13 to the Act. Blighted land is, in general, the land required or land that is likely to be subject to compulsory purchase for highway purposes. That is a requirement on the highway authority to buy land needed for the scheme in advance.

Section 246(2A) of the Highways Act 1980 enables a highway authority to acquire, by agreement and in advance, land that is not required for a road scheme but that will, in the opinion of the highway authority, be severely affected by it. That is a new discretionary power, which was not available to Norfolk county council at the time of the alterations to Cromer road. It was introduced by section 62 of the Planning and Compensation Act 1991, which followed a full review of highway land compensation arrangements.

Section 246(2)(a) of the Highways Act 1980 enables a highway authority to acquire, by agreement, land adversely affected by the construction or improvement of the highway. That is a discretionary power which can be exercised only at the time the work is being carried out.

Section 246(2)(b) of the Highways Act 1980 enables a highway authority to acquire by agreement, land adversely affected by the use of the highway. That is a discretionary power, which can be exercised only once the highway is open to traffic.

Finally, part I of the Land Compensation Act 1973, which is the major legislation, requires a highway authority to compensate landowners for depreciation in the value of their property caused by physical factors such as noise and dust.

As my hon. Friend has suggested, I understand that Mrs. Duffield and Mrs. Langham both received offers of compensation to which they were entitled under part I of the Land Compensation Act 1973 for the loss in value of their home a result of the junction alteration measures taken in 1987 and 1988. Mrs. Duffield and Mrs. Langham were advised by independent professional valuation agents in their negotiations with the council and accepted offers of compensation in 1990. The council also reimbursed them for the fees charged by the agents.

It seems that the owners were not advised by either their independent professional valuation agents or the council of the discretionary powers in section 246(2)(b) of the Highways Act 1980, which I have just outlined. As I have explained, those powers allow a highway authority the discretion to acquire property, that, in the opinion of the authority, is seriously affected by the use of a new or altered highway. The discretionary power to acquire property in this way can be exercised up to one year after a road has opened or been altered; it then lapses.

The failure to communicate the full legal options available to the council is disappointing. It does not, however, follow that, had the owners applied for

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discretionary purchase, the highway authority would have exercised its discretion to offer to buy their properties. In this case, sadly, those powers are now lapsed.

As my hon. Friend said, compensation has already been paid under part I of the Land Compensation Act 1973. His constituents were compensated for the loss in value arising from the junction alteration and I understand that, whatever their feeling about the conduct of the negotiations, they accepted the compensation offered as a full and final settlement of their claim for the depreciation in value caused by those works. My hon. Friend will understand that I have no locus to intervene in such negotiations.

I shall deal now with the second part of the problem-- the effects on Cromer road of the later proposal to close Eversley road to through traffic. Mrs. Duffield and Mrs. Langham clearly feel that they were not adequately consulted by the council about that proposal. The House will appreciate that it is difficult for me to comment on that as a matter of fact. It is clear that the local highway authority was aware of the likely impact of the measures on properties in Cromer road when it decided in May 1992 that the further measure was necessary. It is less clear whether it did all that it could have done to ensure that those affected were properly informed of what was proposed.

Although the works in Eversley road have an effect on residents of Cromer road, no further claim for compensation arises as there is no physical alteration to the carriageway. That is based on the well-established and, in my view, entirely correct, principle that existing unaltered roads may be expected to be used to their full capacity. After all, the proposition is that a frontager should be compensated for an increase in traffic levels brought about not by any physical alteration but merely by some other factor outside the direct relevance of the road and the frontager. I wonder what my hon. Friend's reaction might be to the proposition that would, I assume, naturally flow from that, which is that, were traffic volumes to be reduced by, for example, the opening of an adjacent bypass, frontagers should be charged a substantial sum of money to cover the additional value that presumably attaches to their property. In essence, and in the public interest, the general policy--which states that when there is no physical alteration, no claim for compensation arises--is, I believe, a sound one.

Local authorities have wide powers under the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 to make traffic regulation orders to regulate traffic on local roads. Those powers are very flexible. Restrictions can be imposed on single streets, or parts of them, or they can apply to all roads within a particular area. Orders may, for example, prohibit, restrict or regulate the use of a road or any part of the width of a road by vehicular traffic of any class. They may have effect at all times or at specified periods or they can be applied to different classes of traffic. For example, exemptions might apply to heavy goods vehicles alone, and exemptions from the terms of an order can be made for vehicles used for particular purposes, such as taxis or delivery vehicles or those belonging to residents or businesses located in the area. If necessary, exempt vehicles may even be identified by permits.

Such an order is not subject to reference to the Secretary of State. The decision whether to make a traffic regulation order rests solely with the local traffic authority but, in exercising its powers under the 1984 Act, it must

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have regard to the desirability of securing and maintaining reasonable access to premises. It may, however, be open to the residents who are affected to seek further revisions to existing traffic management arrangements.

My hon. Friend raises an important point about informing citizens of their rights and possible remedies for nuisance caused by public development. The Government are firmly committed to that principle and to making information available in accordance with citizens charter principles. We have produced a booklet entitled "Land Compensation--Your rights explained". I have given my hon. Friend a number of copies which I hope that he will distribute to his constituents.

The Highways Agency, which has operational responsibility for trunk roads and motorway schemes, sends such booklets, together with its own charter statement, to people whose property may be affected by scheme proposals. It does that to advise them precisely of the remedies that might be available to them. Local highway authorities, including Norfolk, may well also consider issuing the advice in those booklets to inform owners who may be affected by local road schemes.

It is one thing for a local authority to point to the fact that it has no strict statutory obligation to inform every person affected of their potential right to compensation-- that, after all, Mr. Deputy Speaker, is a long-established principle that you and I understand in relation to planning law, and it is based on the sensible proposition that a planning consent or, indeed, a road order, cannot be entirely set aside merely because of a failure to inform every single person who might be affected--but it is not satisfactory to suggest that that gives local authorities a right simply not to bother to let people know what their rights are.

Good practice, and, as I have suggested, practice which is followed by the Highways Agency--certainly in relation to its schemes, for which my Department is more directly responsible--is informing owners of their rights in precisely the form that I have outlined. That does not in any sense prejudge any success or otherwise of any claim that owners may subsequently make. Indeed, one of the advantages of information in such circumstances is that it allows local people to understand that there is a comprehensive system of compensation available; that it will not apply in every case; that it may very well be that, on occasions, a claim will not be successful, which will save potential correspondents considerable time and ultimately wasted effort. I suspect, however, that in a number of cases the information will also suggest to people that the framework for compensation is in fact relatively straightforward and indeed logical in the massive majority of cases. I commend that better practice.

Of course local authority discretion--dealing with the issue of discretion--is important, and so is the right of individual citizens to be informed about proposals that may affect their property. As I say, I am not in a position to judge whether Norfolk provided all the information that it should have done in this case. All I can say is that Mrs. Duffield and Mrs. Langham clearly do not think that they received all the information that they should have done. I invite the county council to reflect on whether there is a way in which it can improve its procedures to prevent such a problem arising again.

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I commend the principles of openness and consultation to all local authorities. In the event, that process is likely to avoid very considerable unnecessary acrimony, recrimination and, indeed, genuine hardship and distress to people who certainly do not deserve it.

Mrs. Langham and Mrs. Duffield may--I hope--take some pleasure from knowing that in this debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North has enabled me to

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put across what I believe is an extraordinarily important point in this regard and one of which many local authorities would do well to take account.

Question put and agreed to.

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