Traffic Management Bill

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Mr. Knight: My right hon. Friend is making a very powerful case, but does he think that there ought also to be some sort of authority to enforce the timing for the provision of other services? For example, last year I happened to be coming into London from Heathrow at the busiest time, the evening rush hour, and one entire carriageway of what is one of the busiest routes into London was blocked by a refuse lorry, which was emptying dustbins at the height of the rush hour.

Mr. Redwood: My right hon. Friend makes a very powerful point. I would go wider. There should be much more attempt to co-ordinate the activities of the highways authority with the statutory undertakers more generally. For example, if the highways authority decided that a particular road or street should be scheduled for substantial maintenance or resurfacing, it would be extremely sensible and prudent to contact all the statutory undertakers and tell them that they were about to dig up the street and ask whether works were planned over the next year or two. If so, then for goodness' sake, they could be done while the authority was opening up the street, and before it put down a wonderful surface.

All too often one sees the opposite happening: the highways authority goes through its process of structural maintenance or resurfacing; there is a wonderful new road or street for a week or two, then the next thing that happens is someone turns up with a pneumatic drill and opens up the street to do some maintenance on a gas pipe or put in a new electricity cable. That is madness, and it annoys not just the motorist but the taxpayer who sees a very nice

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resurfaced highway being damaged. However much one persuades or requires the statutory undertaker to put the road back in a reasonable condition, it will never be the same again. A road that has been patched is never going to be the same as a road that has just had good structural maintenance or resurfacing and that has a very good, smooth, sensible surface as a result.

Many works that a local highways authority wishes to undertake can indeed be carried out day by day or evening by evening, and the road can be restored for the times when the men are not working. There has been a lot of edge strengthening in parts of the country that I drive through, and the road is often left partially closed overnight, when no works are being undertaken. It would be very easy for a contractor doing edge strengthening to decide how far he was going to get in his allotted hours that day, then to tidy up and to leave his stocks and supplies by the roadside or in a lay-by and not have to keep the highway closed for the 10, 15 or 16 hours when he is not working on that highway, before the next day when his workmen return.

Resurfacing can be done in sections, so the road can be restored to use very quickly. This happens in best practice local authorities, and it obviously happens where busy tasks are being undertaken, such as, for example, the resurfacing of the main runway at Heathrow. Nobody would expect a contractor resurfacing the main runway at Heathrow to pack up at 5 o'clock in the evening, leaving the runway closed overnight and through the early next morning until he came back. There is a method of resurfacing quickly, so that people are not too inconvenienced, and not many planes run out of fuel over Heathrow waiting for contractors.

If that can be done for the main runway at Heathrow, why cannot it be done for our main roads, local and national? They are equally important to many people and I would like us to apply the same management techniques, so that our infrastructure—I prefer to call it roads—can be used for as much of the time as possible.

10.45 am

The Minister will be interested to know what powers I have in mind, and how they will fit in with his legislation. Helpfully aided by those who decided to group the new clause with the stand part debate, I suggest that local authorities should be under the same restrictions and duties as statutory undertakers, as conferred by this and subsequent clauses. The traffic manager in the highways authority would have a responsibility to include good plans and best practice for the highways authority as well as for others who might enter the road to undertake roadworks. I should like him to have the strong powers that would become inherent were my new clause to be included in the Bill. Then, as the Bill makes clear, if the traffic manager failed to discipline his local authority and that authority was the main cause of congestion in the area because it was restricting the use of the road, the Government would have the power to intervene.

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There would be a sanction that, even under my unadorned new clause, meant that the traffic manager had to take his duties seriously and provide restriction on the local authority in respect of damaging the highway. The new clause would also mean that the local authority could be governed by a permit system. Subsequent proposals set out many checks and balances on the permit system, and we might debate them.

I am open to persuasion from the Minister, if he would rather use some other method. I am sure that he and his team could come up with all sorts of technical and consequential amendments that would beautify and improve the simple structure that I propose. Suffice it to say for this debate that it is crucial that the Government, if they are serious about reducing congestion caused by those who enter the highway for the purposes of carrying out works, accept that some of the biggest offenders are local authorities.

Many authorities—I am not making a party political point—do not manage their roadworks well. They manage them for their own convenience, and for cost and budgetary cycle reasons, rather than with a view to the convenience of the road user—the taxpayer, who pays their wages and the bills for the works. We need to legislate to make such authorities aware that we, the users and taxpayers, are heartily sick of the fact that they do not allow us sufficiently to use the assets that we have bought and paid for, because they are often the culprits on temporary restrictions, lane closures and road closures.

I urge the Minister either to accept my new clause or to come up with an even better-drafted proposition that would fit neatly into the structure of the Bill and make sense for statutory undertakers.

Mr. McNulty: I shall, of course, Mr. Beard, take on board your exhortation to dwell on the clause itself rather than new clause 1. I know that you will admonish me should I stray from such a venture.

The right hon. Member for Wokingham and I are in agreement. I am sorry to say that I am broadly in sympathy with what he said; if I say that much more during the next couple of weeks, I shall leave here scarred in some way. That troubles me, so I shall have to dwell on it during the lunch break.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne) (Con): You will be a much better politician if you do.

Mr. McNulty: Me or the right hon. Member for Wokingham?

New clause 1 would place on local highway authorities the additional duty to consider the effects of their roadworks with a view to minimising congestion. It also aims, as the right hon. Member for Wokingham said, to place on highway authorities the same requirement to minimise the disruption caused by their works that applies to the utilities. The right hon. Gentleman has asked me to try to persuade him out of his course. That is what I shall do, given that I have some sympathy for his comments.

The Bill already covers highway authority works where appropriate, which reflects the fact that utilities and highway authorities both carry out works on the

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highway. Overall responsibility for managing the road network also falls to highway authorities, which necessitates a different approach in some areas of the Bill. Read together, clauses 16(2)(b) and 17(4) cover

    ''the avoidance, elimination or reduction of road congestion or other disruption''

and the requirements that authorities must identify ''things''—a legal word, apparently—

    ''(including future occurrences) which are causing, or which have the potential to cause, road congestion or other disruption''

and must

    ''consider any possible action that could be taken in response''.

Both provisions apply to authorities carrying out their own works, which relates to the purpose of the first part of new clause 1.

Authorities are required under clause 17(5)(b) and (c) to monitor their own performance. They will have to have regard to guidance issued by the appropriate national authority under clause 18, which will cover the management of their own works. They may also be subject to intervention if they fail to fulfil properly their network management duty, so duties and sanctions will affect the way that the authorities manage their own works.

The right hon. Member for Wokingham alluded to the fact that the provisions on permits in part 3 allow for schemes to cover authorities' works. The existing duty under the New Roads and Street Works Act 1991 already places a requirement on authorities to co-ordinate their works with utilities' works. Highway authorities also have a duty to keep a register of works, which the relevant regulations have provided must include utility works on their streets as well as their own works.

Clause 44 will allow the duties to be widened to cover other activities in the street that can cause disruption, such as the placing of skips and scaffolding. Clause 61 allows for information to be kept on the location of apparatus buried by the authority in the street. That shows that existing powers and those in the Bill mean that authorities will be subject to similar duties as utilities. That covers key areas of co-ordination, keeping records of equipment and registers of work.

There is also the basic duty to exercise power in carrying out work to expedite the movement of traffic. Given the broad sweep of existing legislation, married to the new statutory network management duty, a far better system will prevail for utility and highway authority street works.

That said, I am aware of the concern expressed by some utilities that although their activities are policed, no one polices local traffic authority works. However, the fundamental differences between authorities and utilities mean that different levers yield the same result. In the example of a local authority, none of us would want to underestimate democratic accountability and the power of the local electorate. Furthermore, the Bill's network management duty and the threat of

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intervention in poorly performing authorities should allay any fears about an uneven playing field.

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Wokingham for allowing me to state for the record the fact that the guidance on exercising the network management duty will cover local traffic authorities' works in addition to the wider elements of the duty. I hope that, considering those reassurances, the right hon. Gentleman will not press new clause 1 and that we can continue to work in harmony and agreement.

 
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