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Orders of the Day

Traffic Management Bill

Lords amendments considered.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): I inform the House that privilege is involved in Lords amendments Nos. 28, 29 and 56. If the House agrees to the amendments, I shall arrange for the necessary entries to be made in the Journal.

Lords amendment: No. 4.

3.32 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tony McNulty): I beg to move, That this House disagrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Madam Deputy Speaker: With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following: Lords amendments Nos. 5 to 10; Lords amendment No. 11 and Government amendments (a) and (b) thereto; Lords amendments Nos. 12 to 15.

Mr. McNulty: When the House debated part 2, which is covered by the amendments, I explained the importance of the intervention powers and offered a number of assurances relating to the way in which they would be exercised. On Report in another place, my noble Friend Lord Davies made a robust defence, answering the concerns expressed there.

We have said repeatedly—this goes to the core of the Bill—that local authorities are in the best position to deliver improvements in their area and to ensure that optimum use is made of their existing road network, but if they fail in that, it would be wrong for the Government to do nothing. That is why the new statutory network management duty is in place and why the intervention powers, which are the subject of the amendments and central to the Bill, are needed to ensure that that new duty is carried out.

Intervention is not new or novel. Local and central Government have accepted the principle and have even gone as far as to agree a protocol governing how intervention should operate in practice. I assured the Standing Committee that subsequent regulations and guidance on intervention powers would fall within that protocol established between local and central Government.

The process that we outlined in part 2 of the Bill is fully consistent with the protocol that is in place.

In another place, it was said that it would be wrong to grant these powers without knowing the criteria that would be used to trigger them. Throwing out all the powers on that basis seems rather extreme, however. I note that when the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee looked at part 2 of the Bill, its only recommendation was that the guidance on the criteria for intervention should be subject to parliamentary procedure. That is an eminently sensible and reasonable approach, and the Government therefore accepted that recommendation and tabled their own amendments in that regard. These would give Parliament the opportunity to consider the relevant document through the negative resolution procedure, and we would wish to
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see them restored. As we have said, this guidance is being developed with the assistance of all the interested parties, including the Local Government Association.

It was suggested in another place that the comprehensive performance assessment should be the means by which a council's performance of this duty should be measured. Clearly, consideration of transport as part of the environment block in the CPA could offer some useful evidence. However, I find it difficult to see how a process designed to assess a council's performance overall could be used as the sole trigger for intervention in relation to the network management duty.

It was also said that the intervention provisions marked a fundamentally different approach to dealing with local government, but that ignores evidence to the contrary. One has only to look at the provisions in the Local Government Act 1999, which allow intervention in a council as a whole, to see how wrong that assertion is. There is no significant difference between the way in which those powers are exercised and the provisions that we placed in the Bill. As my noble Friend Lord Davies so forcefully put it, none of this is groundbreaking; it just follows a well-trodden path of prudent provision.

As I said in Committee, I regard the use of intervention as an absolute last resort. As a consequence of much of the regulatory framework and other inspection frameworks that are now, by mutual agreement, imposed on local government, a whole range of local public service agreements and protocols is now in place, which means that local and central Government can work together to ensure that such intervention need not take place. It is important that people understand that that is the context in which this kind of intervention would take place. I do not want to do anything other than work with local government in this regard, but it is vital and central to the Bill that the network management duty should be given teeth. It can only have those teeth if that last resort of intervention exists.

One group of amendments tabled in Committee sought to make the traffic manager responsible to central Government, which was not appropriate, although the sentiment behind them was that a traffic manager should be put in place to work with a potentially failing local authority before intervention became necessary, or instead of intervention. In the core of the Bill, we state that each local authority must have a designated officer, a traffic manager, who will be responsible for ensuring that the network management duty is carried out in full by a local authority. A traffic director would be put in place only subsequent to intervention, to rescue a failing local authority.

After talking to the Local Government Association and others, we have decided that what is now considered good practice in many aspects of local government can prevail, so that there would be support, mentoring and help for local authorities that were in difficulty, long before intervention was needed. If central Government are imposing an additional statutory duty on local authorities, however, it is incumbent on us to put in place all the necessary mechanisms to secure the fulfilment of that statutory duty. Part of that process involves setting out what to do with a failing local authority, which is what the network management duty and the intervention measures are all about. In that
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regard, I strongly urge the House to support our motion to disagree with the Lords amendments, because we see the intervention powers as central to ensuring that the network management duty is achieved.

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford) (Con): As the Minister said, this is clearly the key group of amendments. The debates in the other place did many good things for the Bill and resulted in a number of improvements, and I am glad that the Minister, from a sedentary position, agrees. This set of changes is one of the best things that their lordships did to the Bill.

Mr. McNulty: You've lost me.

Mr. Green: That was a short-lived consensus. The Minister is alone, because not only Conservative Members but Liberal Democrat Members oppose the Government's position—the Liberal Democrats spoke out in the House of Lords. The Minister is also opposed by the Local Government Association, which he quoted in his introduction as though it supports him. He said that it is co-operating in the preparation of guidance, but one would expect it to do so, because that is prudent and responsible.

The LGA is currently being particularly prudent and responsible because it is under Conservative control again, with the extremely welcome election as its leader of Sir Sandy Bruce-Lockhart, which is extremely good news for it and for local government generally. I expect it to act responsibly, but, as the Minister is fully aware, it is flatly against the Government's position on this set of amendments, about which it has made many cogent arguments.

The Government's position genuinely puzzles me, since one of the new intellectual strands that thoughtful people around the Government promote is new localism—I am not sure whether the Minister avidly attends Institute for Public Policy Research seminars, where the bright young things of new Labour still gather. The attempt to reverse the Lords amendments, which are designed to protect the interests of local government in this country, shows that the new localism in new Labour simply equalises the old centralism. When push comes to shove, the Government want to control all details and all aspects of every policy.

In another place, both Government and Opposition Members forcefully made the point that when they tried to find ways to amend the Bill, they found that the issue is a straightforward matter of principle about whether one believes in and supports local democracy. Both sides agree that there is no way to amend what the Government seek to do, so either one favours the Government's centralising control tendency or one is against it.

The LGA puts it very well: the Government's attempt to reinstate the original clause

I agree with its assessment, and it would be better for the Government if they did too, rather than attempting to reinstate the original clauses.
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The Government's position is objectionable for a number of reasons. First, their decision to overrule the local authority traffic director and simply impose one of their own is arbitrary, and arbitrary government is almost always bad government.

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