Traffic Management Bill

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Mr. Chope: The Minister is good at exhorting local authorities to engage in good behaviour, but, like me, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham is concerned about the quality of sanctions. There is no point in having duties unless they are accompanied by sanctions. Local highway authorities have powers, and will get more under the Bill, to order utilities to do something, and if those utilities do not act as ordered, they may be liable to criminal sanctions. However, local highway authorities do not apply the same principles to their activities and are not subject to any sanction whatever, let alone any criminal sanctions. That causes enormous resentment.

Even the sanction that a local authority that breaches statutory duties to keep the highway properly maintained may engender claims against it for damages does not work. Many local authorities pay out millions of pounds each year through their insurance companies, settling claims for breach of statutory duty to maintain the highway in the way that they should. We are concerned that there should be not just an equality of rhetoric, but substantively the same duties with comparable sanctions.

The Minister said in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham that there will be an ultimate sanction of intervention, but the part 2 guidance notes, which the Minister supplied to us today, say:

    ''The intervention powers are only expected to be used in extreme cases''.

That does not surprise me, because they are extremely complicated and bureaucratic. We will discuss them in more detail later. It is not surprising that the Minister says they will be used only in extreme cases, but I do not think that my right hon. Friend has only extreme cases in mind. We have in mind the run of the mill situation whereby a highway authority is not performing to the standard required for it to comply with its basic statutory duties and responsibilities. There is obviously a role for local people through the ballot box with elected local authorities, but some equality of sanction should also be applied to local authorities.

However much the Minister may exhort local authorities to behave responsibly in relation to the highways, he has not yet been able to satisfy me on the point. I take for an example Northampton—I will not go further into detail—which he admits is a failing authority. What can he do to persuade it to perform to a higher standard without going down the road of intervening, which he says would be appropriate only in an extreme case? I do not know whether that particular case is extreme, but perhaps he thinks it is

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and he is prepared to intervene. If there is to be an effective duty, surely it should be matched by a sanction that will work. I hope that the Minister addresses those concerns.

Mr. Redwood: I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and to the Minister. I reassure the Minister that he and I will still find plenty of things to disagree about on the wider sweep of public policy and political philosophy. I would like him to rest assured that we will find plenty to disagree about on higher education, for example, or the conduct of government, but on this occasion I feel it right, within the spirit of the Committee, to be positive and constructive.

I am glad that the Minister understands the different tone that I have been adopting for those purposes: the Bill's intentions are wholly admirable and it is the purpose of consideration in Committee to get them across to those who must obey the law and to ensure that the right people have to do the right things to achieve the objective.

I am pleased that the Minister went so far as to say that he thinks there is a problem with local authority street works and that he wishes to tackle it in guidance. I am pleased that in some respects, as I have seen in the Bill, local authorities will be encouraged to use better practice. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch said, we are not fully persuaded that there are enough teeth in the legislation, given the other requirements on local authorities and the bad or sloppy practice that we see in highways authorities up and down the country.

I was not moved to table the new clause following a conversation with utilities. My motivation was not that because they are subject to these powers so local authorities should be—that is a rather jealous approach, which is not in my character—but the fact that there is a serious problem with local highway authorities cluttering up the streets without realising what an important asset those are and their not making those streets available regularly enough to the taxpayers who provided them.

I shall not press the new clause at this stage, because having the Minister and his often loyal Back Benchers vote it down will not help my cause. However, the issue needs proper examination, and we might have to return to it when we see the overall balance of the Government's response. So far, Ministers have talked very gently, but they have not given ground, which is beginning to spoil the spirit of the proceedings just a little.

11 am

Mr. McNulty: I do not have much to add, and I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for not pressing new clause 1.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 16 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 17

Arrangements for network management

Mr. Chope: I beg to move amendment No. 170, in

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    page 7, line 28, after 'manager)', insert

    'for a period not exceeding 5 years'.

The amendment need not be debated at tremendous length. It is designed to find out what the Government think about the proposition that a traffic manager's appointment should not exceed five years. Such an arrangement would prevent complacency and long outsourcing contracts, which would be to the detriment of future generations of local taxpayers.

Mr. McNulty: I think that I can be helpful. We do not intend, in any way, shape or form, to tell local authorities how to arrive at local solutions to the question of appointing designated officers called traffic managers. The reasons behind the notion that there should be a temporal dimension to the management of the network duty escape me. In the broad spirit of resisting the temptation to meddle in local matters, the Government are simply saying that there should be a network management duty for ever after Royal Assent. That duty, and our reasons for imposing it, will not go away in three or five years, and I do not understand the issue in that temporal sense.

To be frank, some people in local government feared that the Government would seek to impose such and such a person at M3 level in each engineering department and that the job description would be laid out centrally, along with everything else. We do not intend to do that. We are not imposing, in any way, shape or form, the how and where of the placement of network managers; we are simply saying that there should be a network management duty and a designated officer called the traffic manager.

The virtues of imposing a time limit therefore escape me. It would be like saying that every local authority must, under law, have a designated finance officer. Why should such an officer be there for only five years when local authorities face internal and ongoing external financial considerations for ever? The statutory duty and the designated officer who carries it out should be permanent features of local government. The reasons for a five-year limit therefore escape me, and I ask the hon. Member for Christchurch to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Wilshire: Having had something of a hand in drafting the amendment, I am happy to contribute to the debate. The amendment is born of my 11 years as a councillor, for six of which I was the leader of a local authority. It occurred to me then—nothing that has happened since has dissuaded me of this—that giving key senior officials contracts is far better than employing someone in their 40s until they are 60 or 65. In my experience, it is much easier to negotiate another five-year contract with someone than to consider bringing in someone new if the incumbent is not up to the job.

I am in no way suggesting that the problem that we are addressing will go away in five years. If there is a need for a traffic manager, there is a need for a traffic manager. Such key officials are usefully put on five-year contracts, which focuses their minds wonderfully to do exactly whatever the job is. The Minister talked about finance directors. If I recall my days in local government rightly, our chief executives and finance

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officers were on five-year contracts, which worked wonderfully. Our local authority set the pace in achieving change and delivering better value for money to our ratepayers, as they were in those days. The Minister misunderstands if he thinks that someone would be in the post for only five years. [Interruption.] The authority that the Minister is looking for is Wansdyke, which has since been abolished, although that was nothing much to do with my tenure.

There is a matter of principle behind the amendment, about whether we should dictate to local authorities how they go about their duties. I have always believed that fixed-term contracts, which are renewable until the age of 65, are a good tool for getting better performance out of people.

Mr. McNulty: I thought that I said clearly that I had tried to read the runes to see what was behind the amendment, which I supposed was either the temporal consideration or an attempt to meddle in the internal affairs of local authorities. The hon. Gentleman has kindly told me that the answer is the latter, in which case I am even more against the amendment than if it had been the former. We have said in the strongest terms that although we are setting the framework and the statutory duty, it is not our business to dictate centrally, in some neo-Stalinist fashion, where in the authority, at what pay rate and for what term of contract the traffic manager should be appointed. Those are matters for the local authority. Our only concern is that authorities ensure that traffic managers fulfil their duties.

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