Traffic Management Bill

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Mr. McNulty: I am struck by a sense of déjà vu. I have not committed the entire Hansard account of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill to memory, but I think that we had many debates about effectiveness and efficiency meaning something different as a set phrase than when one or other is used on its own. The arguments were as obtuse then as they are now.

Mr. Wilshire: At least I am consistent.

Mr. McNulty: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on that if nothing else.

The phrase ''obligations, policies and objectives'' is deliberately all embracing: it refers to the obligations, policies and objectives of the entire council, rather than just its highways authority. It does not mean only value for money or the well-worn assessment and appraisal methodologies for particular transport projects that will aid network management. It also means efficiency in terms of best value regime. The concept of efficiency is well rooted in that and in the subsequent best value performance indicators. I am not trying to be deliberately obstructive, but the hon. Gentleman will find that his concerns, which I share, are covered by the phrase, ''obligations, policies and objectives'' in the third line of clause 16, rather than by the word ''efficient'' later in the clause.

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Amendment No. 99 is otiose, not least because the broad principles on the network management duty have already been outlined in the guidance. The first line refers to consideration of broad principles and therefore the issues that local authorities need to work through for their network, such as links to local transport and other plans. The local highway authority will not supersede local transport or community plans. The way in which the authority determines how best to achieve its statutory network management duty will be rooted in the local transport plan and other plans, not least the regional transport plan. The achievement of the network management duty must occur in the natural context set at a local level by the Government. It is not useful to suggest that work done in pursuance of the duty by local traffic authorities will take precedence. That will not help to improve the Bill.

I have been in charge of local transport plans for the past six months and have found that some larger maintenance projects take three or four years to come to fruition. There may be more pressing work in an area, but to achieve the network management duty a local authority may have to do work that appears to be contradictory to the long-term objectives of the plan. Ultimately, however, by remedying something in one part of its area, the authority will fulfil the local transport plan overall. Fulfilment of the network duty must be rooted in the local transport plan and other plans. It is not a case of one taking precedence over the other. However, the duty must be flexible enough to supersede the local transport plan if necessary .

On my giving my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East an arcane answer, amendment No. 154 would replace the word ''may'' with ''will'' in clause 18 . That may sound reasonable to those of us versed in English, but that is not the case according to the lawyers. I am told that ''shall'' or ''will'' can be interpreted as meaning that we must ensure that guidance is absolutely comprehensive in all respects of clauses 16 and 17. The guidance would have to encompass everything that anyone could want to know about the achievability of a network management duty.

The word ''may'' gives scope for omission. It would not require the advisory guidance to take account of every local circumstance for all 142 or so highway authorities. If we insert the word ''will'', an aspect that might be unique to Cumbria and have no relevance to the rest of the country would have to be included. That could be omitted and still provide cogent and prudent national advice. Scope for omission gives us flexibility in the tortured language that we legislate in, rather than the tortured use of the language that we talk in. In that context, I ask hon. Members to withdraw the amendment. All the serious points that have been raised are adequately covered elsewhere.

Brian White: On the basis of that obscure explanation of the English language, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 17 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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Clause 18

Guidance to local traffic authorities

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Knight: I seek some information from the Minister. He referred to the language used by lawyers, and in this clause, the first sentence states that the

    ''appropriate national authority may publish guidance to local traffic authorities''.

What does he mean by the word ''publish''? Legally, something is published if it is given to a person other than the author. Does he envisage that the guidance will be published only for local traffic authorities, or will it reach a wider audience? I sincerely hope that it is intended for ''publish'' to be interpreted in the widest sense. Every local library and local newspaper should have a copy of the guidance. I should like to see to a copy when it is published, so I hope the Minister will agree to put one in the Library.

I say that because subsection (2) says:

    ''In performing those duties a local traffic authority shall''—

now we have the word ''shall''—

    ''have regard to any such guidance.''

In other words, if the local traffic authority does not follow the guidance, it is in breach of a duty. If the guidance is not widely published, how will the public know whether their traffic authority is in breach of the duty under which they are supposed to operate? I hope that the Minister will reassure the Committee that a copy of the guidance will be available to any member of the public on request. It would be unfair to expect the Minister to tell us everything that he thinks will be in the guidance today.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): Why?

Mr. Knight: I think it is fair that the Minister listens to arguments that are adduced as the Bill progresses through Parliament. That may cause him to put more into the guidance than he would do otherwise. I do not criticise him for not producing a copy of the guidance today. However, I hope that when he and his officials consider the framework of the guidance, he will be willing to take on board my suggestion that whenever roadworks involve the closure or narrowing of a carriageway, a complaints telephone number should be affixed to a temporary sign so that aggrieved motorists have a point of contact through which they can express their concerns.

Reference was made this morning to local authorities sometimes not being on the ball and causing more disruption than when the utilities companies dig up a road. It would be worth while for the motorist to know who to call with a valid complaint about what is happening. I hope that the guidance will require those who undertake work on the highway to display such a number.

Mr. McNulty: I may have some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's last point and it can be thrown in the pot for discussion. I make no apology for having no guidance here now, not least for the reasons that he suggested. It would have been presumptuous of me—nay, arrogant—to produce such guidance before the

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Committee had even started. The last Government governed by diktat every now and then, but we seek to be as expansive, involving and inclusive as possible. We want the guidance to emerge with the Committee's collective wisdom. In addition, as I think I said before, we seek to hold the widest possible consultation with interested parties, such as utilities, local authorities and local government associations. We shall undertake to conduct that process as quickly as we can.

I have laid a paper before the Committee that describes roughly what will be in the guidance, but that by no means includes an exclusive list. We certainly intend to publish that information in the widest sense of the word, not the narrow sense. I am sure that it was a great honour for my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) to receive a copy. The information is due to be published. We seek a far wider dissemination of it in the consultative stage and, ultimately, in the final stage. Quite what the form will be beyond the normal practice of ensuring that highway authorities have the information, putting it on the website and whatever else, I do not know. However, I undertake to ensure that the information will be published in the widest sense. The document will be a public document.

The right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) is right that the ''shall'' in subsection (2) is supposed to apply with force rather than be optional. Regardless of whether obtuse things prevail in Cumbria and not in Cornwall, all the relevant parties under the Bill will be obliged to satisfy us with their network management duty. They have no choice or flexibility other than in how they do that, but the fact that they must do it is provided for in the Bill. With those assurances, I recommend that the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Knight: I am grateful to the Minister. He has provided me with the assurances that I sought.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 18 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 19

Power to require information relating to network management

Mr. Wilshire: I beg to move amendment No. 174, in

    page 8, line 16, after 'period', insert 'not exceeding 3 months'.

I hope that the Committee will not end up watching dawn rise over the Thames before we reach the point the Minister wants us to get to.

Amendment No. 177 makes the same point as amendment No. 174, only it is expressed differently. I will speak to amendment No. 174, but I hope the Minister accepts that my comments also relate to amendment No. 177, because that will save me from repeating myself.

Both amendments seek to impose time limits. A report must be produced within a specified period not exceeding three months. I accept that I have plucked three months out of the air for the sake of debate, but it is a reasonable period and the principle is more

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important than the figure. I do not care whether the Minister would prefer two or four months. Like the Minister, I have been in local government and suspect that he, too, may have found that work can take some time to be completed if there is no means of persuading people to pull their finger out. A three-month period would do just that.

Amendment No. 177 says the same thing about giving an authority time to make representations. If we say, ''You must have time to make representations,'' it could mean any length of time. I have had cases in which someone said that we could not proceed until someone else had commented, which meant that those cases lasted for ever and a day. There should be a cut-off point wherever the Bill says that something must happen. I may table amendments to that effect to other provisions. However, for the purposes of this debate, the cut-off point should be three months.

 
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