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7.31 pm

Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), although he has obviously read my speech as it covers some of the same territory as his. I welcome the Government's aim of reducing delays on the roads and ensuring that the Highways Agency and local authorities tackle congestion better. The Bill contains several welcome common-sense proposals, including the transfer of powers from the police to traffic officers. That will free up police time, and I welcome it.

Forty years ago today, London Underground introduced the first automatic ticket barrier, which was regarded as innovative new technology, although nobody would think it odd today. One of my concerns about the Bill is whether it will be flexible enough to accommodate new technology. If not, it could go out of date very quickly.

Regional control offices will provide a useful forum, and it makes sense that traffic should be managed at a local level. There are different problems in different areas and the Bill will grant local authorities more effective powers to make improvements on the roads. It is important to note the criteria on which the Department will judge success and how much it will take local factors into account. We must also see the Bill in the context of other initiatives from the Government, including their plans to increase road capacity in the medium to long term. That is not necessarily a good idea in all circumstances. I fundamentally disagree with the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) about the widening of the M1 between Luton and Milton Keynes. It is a waste of money and will not solve the problem. It will mean years of uncertainty, more road works and misery, and after six months—if that—of easier driving conditions, we will be back where we started. The money would be better spent on redesigning road junctions, especially motorway junctions, dualling the A41 between Bedford and Milton Keynes, and other environmental improvements.

My constituents in Worcester close, Newport Pagnell, have had their Christmas break ruined by lorries parked at the Newport Pagnell service station leaving their engines running overnight to fuel their refrigerated units. Despite complaints to the service station and the Highways Agency, nothing has been done. That is the result of ineffective enforcement and is the sort of issue that the Bill should tackle, through sound barriers, redesign of parking areas and other initiatives that the Highways Agency should progress. The Bill could thus have a real impact on the lives of our constituents. As the agency moves from being primarily a road-building body to managing the road network, it should manage traffic flows on trunk roads and motorways and alleviate some of the worst consequences of the way in which we run our road network.

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For once in my life, I agree with the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood). He was right to say that the design of new roads can alleviate many of the problems. I also agree that one of the best ways to tackle traffic flow problems is to separate cycle ways from roads. As a former environment Minister, he will appreciate the problem with red ways—or cycle ways—that we have in Milton Keynes. They are separate from main roads but they do not fit into the square boxes of the Department's funding formula, so the Government provide no money for their maintenance. We have hundreds of kilometres of red ways in Milton Keynes, but the Government give us no money for them. Why should other areas introduce separate cycle ways when they know that they will receive no extra money for them? It is important that any new proposals are taken into account in the funding formula for local authorities.

The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire and the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) mentioned broadband. The Bill will undoubtedly help British industry by alleviating congestion, but it must not have adverse effects on the longer term aims of the UK economy and other parts of industry. The need for IT companies to take up streets has been mentioned. I wrote to my hon. Friend the Minister before Christmas to highlight the issue and I am pleased to say that I received a response this morning. It says that the Department has set up a working group with the DTI to consider the issues to ensure that any adverse effects on the industry are minimised. It also states that

That is the fundamental issue. We must get the details right and, if I am lucky enough to serve on the Standing Committee, I will come back to that issue.

Street works can cause a nuisance. Existing legislation applies to utility companies, and the Transport Committee found it to be effective but badly implemented. I want some assurances from the Minister that the Bill will not repeat the history of the Department over the past 30 years, of proposing legislation but not knowing how to implement it. In 1991, those of us in local government warned the Conservative Government that the New Roads and Street Works Act 1991 would not deliver what it promised. We were assured that there would be no problem, so I am concerned to ensure that the Bill, which attempts to tackle some of the defects of that Act, will not repeat some of its mistakes. I urge the Government to consider fully the contribution that telecoms companies make to the UK economy and ensure that the legislation does not adversely affect them. If we impose embargoes we simply protect the incumbent companies and do not allow new companies to start up. Such details must be taken on board.

The regulatory impact assessment takes little account of the cost to businesses and consumers of being denied access to new services. It is important for the Department to look into the commercial pressures that provide real incentives for such companies. If we get the legislation right and have the right type of

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communication between the Department for Transport and other Departments, that will be a boon to British industry. If we get things wrong, there will be barriers and the normally hollow charges made about bureaucracy and red tape that we hear from the Opposition could turn out for once to be valid. The Minister should take that point on board.

I had intended to raise the importance of the concerns of disabled road users, but my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) beat me to it by talking about the blue badge scheme. The Government have consulted widely about a number of changes. Those of us who regularly attend business questions are told that there is a premium on time for dealing with primary legislation. The Bill offers us an opportunity to make proposals and I hope that the Government will listen to the concerns that have been expressed about the desirability of tackling the problems of the blue badge scheme, and deal with them in Committee.

Permit schemes work in many parts of the world and we should support them. However, the RIA states that in theory permits could be required by all and that it would be open to the Highways Agency to exempt itself, which would seem to dilute the scheme. I was always strongly opposed to third-party right of appeal in the planning system, but there was one exception to my opposition: where a council gave itself planning permission. Similar situations could arise under the Bill, so I welcome the Government's commitment that a further RIA will be made whenever regulations are introduced. The Government should ensure that all parties are involved in consultation on such regulations, but there could be real problems so I urge them in Committee to look again at the appeals mechanism for the permit scheme, to avoid repeating the problems that have arisen in the planning system.

Under the current street works regulations, companies have to agree with the local authority a time for carrying out works on roads. The Halcrow group report shows how things have changed; companies dig smaller trenches rather than one large one so that they can backfill quickly if time is running out. The report highlighted the fact that most local authorities are unable to monitor, challenge or co-ordinate schemes owing to limited resources, low priorities and bad management. Whatever the increase in fines under clause 39, it will not achieve our objectives unless we put resources into enforcement, and the monitoring and control of the way in which local authorities work. The report of the Select Committee on Transport provides useful evidence on that point.

The key to the success of the Bill is good communication within Departments, between Departments and between the various agencies, the police, the highways authorities and so on. The right hon. Member for Wokingham made several interesting suggestions.

The local authority has just refurbished the bus stops in the road outside my office. A team went along putting in new bus shelters and resurfacing the road. However, the traffic management people, at the next desk at the local authority, had been planning to remove the traffic congestion barriers—the pinch points—for about a year. Despite sitting at adjoining desks, neither of those teams actually talked to the other, so the bus lane

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scheme has compromised the removal of traffic congestion. That is an example of bad communication and we must ensure that lines of communication are recognised as a key part of the Bill.

Despite my concerns, I fully support the Government in introducing the measure. There are difficult issues to tackle. The Bill would have benefited from pre-legislative scrutiny, but it will set up useful powers to help to ameliorate traffic management and tackle congestion. It is easy for Opposition Members to huff and puff, to throw together a few "anti" statements, with something about stealth tax, to criticise speed cameras and to try to get some cheap publicity. However, I did not actually hear many concrete suggestions to replace the Government's proposals.

The Bill is a useful step forward. It can be improved in Committee, but if we are to tackle our congestion problems and the wider issues relating to the management of our road network, it offers a good starting point.

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