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7.38 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Glenda Jackson): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Mr. Cohen) on securing this debate which, as he pointed out, is of particular importance to himself and his constituents. Grateful though I am for the compliment paid to my constituency by one of his constituents, and as is the lot for most hon. Members, it is highly unlikely that any constituent would regard the Hampstead and Highgate environment as perfect.

"The Design of Highway Bridge Parapets"--departmental standard BD52/93, to which my hon.Friend referred--replaced and updated standards that were first issued in January 1967. That standard sets out how a bridge parapet should be built, not only to provide security for pedestrians, but to contain and redirect safely vehicles that have gone out of control. Parapets are generally designed to provide what is known as normal containment, which means that they are required to have the capability to contain and safely redirect a 1.5 tonne car if it should hit a parapet at an angle of 20 degrees, when travelling at 70 mph.

This level of containment has been the design requirement since standards were first developed. It was not until August 1972 that test procedures were sufficiently advanced to be included in the standard. Since then, full-scale vehicle impact testing has been a mandatory requirement.

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In 1982 a parapet was introduced to provide a higher standard of containment. It is designed to contain and safely redirect a 30 tonne vehicle travelling at 40 mph if it should hit the parapet at an angle of 20 degrees. That was developed in response to a requirement to provide increased strength against impact by heavier vehicles at high risk locations, where vehicles going through a parapet could have a disastrous effect on life and property. Although its principal use has been where roads cross high-speed railways, there have been instances where it has been provided to give protection, for instance, to factories using potentially dangerous materials in their manufacturing processes.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, the minimum parapet height--3 ft 3 in--has remained constant since 1967, although the dimensions have been metricated and rounded to the nearest sensible measurement. My hon. Friend also referred to the difference in bridges that cross railways. Railway authorities have always required the provision of higher parapets where roads cross the railway. These are set at heights of 4 ft on bridges from which the public are excluded, and 5 ft elsewhere. These dimensions also have been metricated and rounded to the nearest sensible measurement.

There are no records held centrally in the Highways Agency to suggest that those dimensions are inadequate to restrain pedestrians safely. Put simply--I trust that my hon. Friend will not regard this as my simply peddling the usual line--there is no evidence of pedestrians accidentally falling over parapets, although records do exist detailing cases where the judgment was that the deceased most probably committed suicide.

My hon. Friend mentioned a particularly tragic incident in Scotland where, in two separate incidents, two brothers died through falling from a similar bridge on the M8. I understand that the evidence is that the first death resulted from the young man climbing along the outside of the bridge. In the second incident, the young man overbalanced while walking on the handrail. The strong suspicion, I understand, is that that was suicide brought about by the remorse over the loss of his younger brother. Regrettably, despite the arguments that my hon. Friend advanced for the restraining element of height, there is no adequate way of preventing a person from taking his own life if that is the intention.

However, in particular high-risk locations, such as sites adjacent to psychiatric hospitals, higher parapets have been provided in an attempt to provide increased security. It must be emphasised that this is only a partial solution; it is almost impossible to prevent such incidents.

My hon. Friend referred to differential heights where horses are ridden across bridges. On bridges where cyclists and horse riders are required to ride immediately adjacent to bridge parapets, higher parapets are provided. As I am sure my hon. Friend will understand, in both of these instances the rider is at a higher level than a pedestrian would be.

On footbridges and road bridges where there is provision for people to walk, parapets are provided with close mesh sheeting on the traffic, or inner, face. The purpose of this is to increase the difficulty and so reduce the temptation, particularly to children, to climb onto the parapet. My hon. Friend spoke of his particular concerns for children's safety. In addition, railway bridges have the first 2 m of the outer face sheeted. The intention is again

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to remove foot-holds and to prevent people from gaining access along the outer face of the parapet, where they would become a danger to themselves and a hazard to those using the tracks below.

There is a continuing problem of missiles being aimed at traffic from bridges. My hon. Friend referred to incidents in his constituency. However, that remains at a low level and, fortunately, does not seem to be increasing. The seemingly obvious solution to this problem is to increase the height of parapets, and provide full height panelling to obscure the view of approaching traffic, but that does little for a visually pleasing environment and high solid parapets are perceived as ugly and threatening by pedestrians. That solution is, therefore, considered only at sites where there is a history of such problems. I am pleased to say that repeat offences of this nature are rare, but that of itself makes it difficult to target resources.

Increasing the heights of parapets within usually acceptable limits has also failed to provide a complete solution, and we have reports from Railtrack which suggest that problems still exist with parapets 1.8 m high.

On trunk roads the strategy is, therefore, to deter incidents of vandalism by increased police patrols and the use of closed circuit television cameras. For instance, following a number of incidents of vandalism on the M60, we have been co-operating with the Greater Manchester police to review security, including the height of the parapets, on footbridges over the motorway. There is limited use of cameras at the moment, but the situation is kept under continuous review, and there may be potential to increase the application in the future if it proves to be effective. The use of CCTV on local roads is a matter for the local highway authority.

The parapets on the majority of footbridges across the A12 Hackney Wick to M11 link road are similar to the many thousands on bridges across trunk roads in this country. The exceptions are where the bridges cross both the link road and the London Underground Central line. The design of those footbridges was a requirement of the London Underground authority, and there was consultation with the local authority. Those bridges are of high quality and provide a balance between aesthetics and fitness for purpose. They have clear plastic sides to prevent objects being thrown or dropped on to the Central line and to act as a deterrent to muggers. The drawback to that is that, while people on the bridges are visible to the outside world, people using the bridges may at present be able to look into adjacent properties. To overcome that,

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and to increase privacy, opaque panels are being provided at the ends of the bridges with screen planting adjacent to the properties.

In the context of personal safety the Highways Agency is also considering the visual aspects of bridge parapets, including the problem of how to deal with historic bridges, and a report is expected in the autumn of 2000. That will take on board the interests of road users and other organisations in the general appearance of bridges, and will examine the potential conflict that can arise when measures are introduced to deal with aspects of vandalism.

Mr. Cohen: I am interested in what my hon. Friend says, which is important. But she said that the parapet size in my constituency is the same as that of thousands of bridges throughout Britain. Does the national standard take no account of well-populated urban areas?

Ms Glenda Jackson: I am sure that my hon. Friend is not claiming that his is the only constituency in a well-populated urban area. Well-populated urban areas occur throughout the country.

The Highways Agency has been active, along with other interested parties, in the production of British Standard 6779--"Highway Parapets for Bridges and Other Structures". The contents of that are essentially a restatement of the requirements currently contained in departmental standards, with additions and amendments to reflect the latest research findings. The Highways Agency will be adopting all the parts of this document. The Highways Agency has also contributed to the production of the harmonised European Standard EN 1317, and it is pleasing to note that the document reflects the United Kingdom's requirements.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing the issue to the attention of the House. He has raised the matter through correspondence and the media, and I know that he is motivated by a desire to protect the safety of his constituents. I hope that, given the reasons that I have outlined, he is content that the pedestrians of Leyton and Wanstead are as safe as the thousands of other people in this country who use bridges every day. However, if he has not been satisfied by what I have said this evening, I have little doubt that he will contact me again, and I shall, of course, always listen to what he has to say.

Question put and agreed to.

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